Illumination Night shines on Martha’s Vineyard

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I disembarked from the Martha’s Vineyard ferry in mid-afternoon amid suffocating humidity. Swept ashore by the sweaty tide of my fellow passengers, I felt like an extra in the opening shot from Jaws, filmed here in 1975. My friend Martha and I opted to trudge the few blocks to our digs at the Pequot Hotel, and, lugging suitcases behind us, I enviously eyed the beachgoers below splashing in the waves. Cutting through the green swath of Ocean Park with its charming white gazebo, and past lawns graced with well-choreographed wildflower gardens, we found the three-story inn, not an empty seat among the rocking chairs on its shady veranda.

After freshening up, we took in honky-tonk Circuit Avenue, Oak Bluff’s main drag. Lined with shops, restaurants and galleries, we discovered little alleys shooting off Circuit that led us to a secret world. In the magical light of late afternoon, we ventured down one of these lanes and into the Martha’s Vineyard’s Camp Meeting Association, a kaleidoscope of vibrant color combinations, contrasting angles and geometric patterns. I was looking forward to discovering the Association’s celebrated Illumination Night event.

The camp, a collection of concentric circles of teeny Victorian gingerbread houses in a rainbow palette, is a National Historic Landmark. Still, one can forgive a visitor’s perception of the campground as a movie set, or open-air museum, or a delicate, seasonal dollhouse display.

The campground’s 315 miniature “painted ladies” feature Gothic archways, pointy steeples, tiny turrets, and cut-out designs in the shape of everything from tulips to geese. The closely-spaced cottages are painted in sherbet shades of lemon, pistachio, tangerine, and raspberry, with festively-painted lanterns strung from the near-touching rooflines, resembling delicious, dripping icing.

My interest in visiting the Campground had been sparked by the community’s tradition of adorning their pastel-painted cottages with Chinese and Japanese lanterns, many of them family heirlooms. The residents here have themselves long basked in the glow of these bright lights. In fact, since 1869, for at least one night a year, these campers take center stage. The Association first celebrated Illumination Night almost 150 years ago to welcome the then-governor of Massachusetts.

As Martha and I made the rounds, it was hard to tell who enjoyed the people-watching more, the residents or the visitors strolling through the grounds at this hour. We met homeowners who were perched on their porches, proud to tell visitors the history of their houses and the lanterns bejeweling them.

Ernie Mallory enjoyed a rum and coke on his front porch. Floating from the rafters was a platoon of miniature hot air balloons, each one a memento of balloon festivals around the world in which Ernie has participated. He saw his first hot air balloon on Martha’s Vineyard 25 years ago. His next birthday gift was a balloon ride, launching a hobby he retired from at age 76. Ernie was celebrating Illumination Night with four generations of family and a mac-n-cheese dinner.

Danielle Kish has lived out one of her dreams here over the past 45 years. On her porch, with daughter Robin, and grandsons Will and John, she reminisced that she first came to the Camp in 1965 with her husband, a Methodist minister, as guests of another minister. She was so taken with the community, the next day, she marched over to the campground office and made a ‘low-ball offer,’ to which the official responded “you couldn’t build a garage for that.” Danielle said she could increase her offer only by $500 and left thinking that was the end of it. Days later, she came home and was told by her husband “Well, you got yourself a house–now we have to come up with the money.”

Daughter Robin said she arrived at the cottage for the first time when she was 11 years old, playing with a doll in the car as the family pulled up. Suddenly, three boys from next-door leapt over their porch railing to help the Kish’s unload the car. “I put that doll away in a hurry!” laughed Robin. Those Harris “boys” are still her neighbors today.

The wife and daughter of Harris “boy” Jim–Cheryl and Heather–were hard at work next door hanging lanterns on the tiny upstairs porch of the family cottage. Jim’s mother, of West Hartford, Connecticut, came to the campground for the first time at the invitation of her best friend in 1962, right after her husband died. She bought the cottage completely furnished for $3,600 with the insurance money. Cheryl said, “Jim’s mother knew the boys had just lost their father, and she wanted them to have a special place to go every summer.”

Cheryl said the tradition for most campers is to hang the lanterns during the day of Illumination Night, have friends for drinks and appetizers during the “stroll” hours, and then take the decorations down around 11 p.m. She explained that because many of the lanterns are handmade and irreplaceable, she stores them away once the admiring crowds have thinned out.

Further down the street, Anne and Chris Hurd’s porch sported a hand-made lantern proudly proclaiming “Bunker House, established 1875.” The three-bedroom cottage has been in Anne’s family for more than a century. Her grandfather was born here, along with ten siblings. The Hurds come every year from California, where Anne was born.

She said, “I love it here. It’s like a fairy tale–the quaintness, the ‘magic’ that surrounds it, the unique situation of so many different people and their backgrounds.”

Chris Hurd asked me: “Has anyone told you about the religious aspect of the camp?’

I soon learned that despite its lighthearted looks, the community’s beginnings were serious business.

The first camp meeting at the MVCMA site dates back more than 180 years, organized in 1835 by Jeremiah Pease, who had converted to Methodism after hearing the fiery preacher “Reformation John” Adams. Long-time resident Peter Jones said that in the 1830s, people would come for a week-long revival meeting from Methodist congregations in southeastern Massachusetts and Rhode Island. They stayed in huge canvas “society” tents, each of which housed members of a particular congregation.

According to camp historian Sally Dagnall, attendees were awakened by a ringing bell at sunrise for the first in a day-long series of prayer meetings. These meetings were very emotional gatherings, with exhortations, confessed sins, conversions, healings, and what were called “love feasts,” in which participants passionately shared their stories and experiences. In fact, the bell didn’t toll again until 10 p.m., signaling it was time to retire.

Campgrounders began to build platform flooring, outfitted with straw, to avoid sleeping on the damp ground. These platforms soon began sprouting walls and the first house, consisting of just one room, was built in 1851.

“The front doors of the cottages are reminiscent of both the opening of the campground tent and a church entry. Two different kinds of period church architecture–Gothic, with a pointed arch, and Romanesque, with a rounded arch–were the most common used,” said Jones. “The early houses didn’t have porches, or the gingerbread filigree, and were really just boxes. They were actually the first modular homes, and could be slapped together in two or three days.”

Close quarters have been a consistent community feature since the initial huddled tents; the cottages snuggle together, most only inches apart. The result is an atmosphere of trust and consideration.

“The proximity fostered a civility, a Golden Rule, good neighbor policy that exists today,” observed Marion Burke, a resident since 1972. “In its early days, the tent flaps were left open so the air could circulate, and there wasn’t a lot of privacy. In the ‘40s and ‘50s, ‘Barney the Shusher’ made the rounds each night at 10 p.m. to enforce a ‘lights out’ policy. Today, one of the houses features a sign proclaiming ‘Take it to the Beach,’ stern instructions for any resident inclined to have an argument.”

While the structures are widely regarded as unique to MVCMA’s Christian camp culture, gingerbread is nonetheless a main ingredient, one that came with the advent of new technology of the times.

The vibrant colors as a means of self-expression didn’t occur until relatively recently. Historically, paint was used only as a preservative, and the houses were mostly white, grey, brown or olive drab. Then, in 1944, an artist painted her home pink, and the community became a canvas.

Now ecumenical, the campground hosts a summer concert series in its 19th century wrought iron tabernacle, another period piece of architecture.

After a delicious seafood dinner on Circuit Avenue, we headed back to the campground to catch the end of the concert and see the lights go on. The wisdom of our decision to conduct most of our sight-seeing during daylight hours was affirmed immediately. What had been a peaceful scene was now a throng of thousands—although the crowd was certainly of the Norman Rockwell variety. The park surrounding the tabernacle was packed with families pulsing to a soundtrack of rousing American standards. Grandmothers holding babies to their chests swayed to the music, young couples held hands, children up past their bedtime waved glow-in-the-dark wands.

Then, the band leader gave the signal. Lights began to flicker and a golden glow started to spread from porch to porch, across the ringed neighborhoods of the campground. The crowd was still for just an instant, drawing in its collective breath. Then the masses surged forward, squawking and gawking, posing for pictures snapped with cell phones. Tonight, in this fantastical theatre in the round where dreams can come true, everyone is a star.

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All photos by Meg Pier

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