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Gingerbread Cottages at Oak Bluffs Campground

Is there a more charming neighborhood in all of New England? Exploring the 19th-century gingerbread cottages at the Martha's Vineyard Oak Bluffs Campground.

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As I approached the gingerbread cottages at the Oak Bluffs campground on Martha’s Vineyard, fat drops of rain began to plink down from the darkening sky. The bright, painted colors of the tiny houses, reminiscent of the vivid hues of a candy aisle, popped against the gloomy backdrop, punctuating the stormy weather.

Entering the campground, I felt as if I’d stepped back into another time, another place. The bustling activity of Oak Bluff’s town center left far behind, I found myself in a quiet world of whimsy. One where nineteenth-century homes outlined in perfectly painted filigree trim are set within a few feet from one another, looking for all the world like an immaculate dollhouse village conjured from a childhood fantasy.

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Now a popular draw for summer visitors, the charming cottages and immaculate gardens were not always part of the campground’s landscape. In 1835, Methodist summer retreats were first organized here. Tents were raised to accommodate the groups of New England Methodists who gathered for a week to ten days to immerse themselves in religious preaching. By 1859, the tents began to give way to the first wooden cottages, whose look, design, and size were inspired by the temporary structures they replaced.

A Tabernacle, constructed of wrought iron, and Grace Chapel were erected in 1879 and 1885 respectively, establishing a permanent religious community. Over the years, however, the Martha’s Vineyard Camp Meeting Association, known as MVCMA, has become progressively interdenominational, rather than strictly Methodist.

Most of the cottages are shuttered during the dormant months of winter, but as summer approaches, this enchanting community springs to life in a flurry of activity. The Association hosts many events which are open to the public: weekly community sings in the Tabernacle, campground walking tours, and family movie nights. For a nominal fee, visitors can even tour one of the gingerbread cottages that’s been converted into a museum to satisfy those curiosity seekers who just have to peek inside.

The crowning event of the season is the Grand Illumination, traditionally held on the third Wednesday of August. Ornate paper Chinese and Japanese lanterns adorn the cottages, strung from the porches like glittering jewelry. More lanterns are suspended from tree branches and staked into the ground. Once dusk settles, residents and visitors gather at the Tabernacle for a community sing and band concert.

As the music comes to a close, the lights are extinguished and the lanterns are lit, bathing the campground in a soft yet festive glow. Further paying homage to the Grand Illumination’s long history, which got its start in 1869, some attendees arrive dressed in Victorian and turn-of-the-century garb.

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Walking the paths that snake through the campground, I was scarcely aware that the looming clouds were threatening to send down a torrent of rain. I was too caught up in inspecting the scrolled patterns of woodwork and in peeking into each carefully staged porch. The temptation to sink into one of the rocking chairs, painted to match its home perfectly, was almost more than I could resist. This was a world I didn’t want to leave—a world of summer, a world of relaxation and unique beauty. It’s the kind of place where stress is blown away by the sea breezes and vibrant community atmosphere. I reluctantly left the campground, promising myself I would return again soon, knowing I am not the only one to have been completely captured by the magic of the gingerbread cottages at Oak Bluffs over the years.

Martha’s Vineyard Camp Meeting Association. mvcma.org/

Have you ever strolled the Martha’s Vineyard Oak Bluffs Campground to see the gingerbread cottages?

This post was first published in 2014 and has been updated. 

Comments
  • Laurene

    I grew up in Oak Bluffs leaving the island in 1958. I walked through the Campgrounds daily to go from School to get my lunch at Mary’s Diner where my mother, Nat Little, worked. I taught Sunday school in the building that houses the MVCMA. Many wonderful memories of this beautiful and unique part of the world!

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  • The Methodists also built a cottage village around the same time in Round Lake, upstate NY which survives to this day. In the center of the village is a beautiful auditorium containing the country’s largest Tracker organ!

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  • I first saw these cottages over 30 years ago and have dreamed of owning a gingerbread cottage of my own ever since. My family and I have been renting one for the past 9 years. This year my dream came true!!! Though not in the campground it is still my very own gingerbread cottage built in 1867 and filled with fascinating history!!!

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  • We heard there was a beautiful Campground on Martha’s Vineyard. My family has visited The Island for day trips almost every summer for years. We would walk around, or rent bikes, one year when the weather wasn’t so good we rented a car. We were so excited to think that we could bring our camping trailer over and stay for a week on a beautiful campground. That was until we were told how much it would cost to get our trailer over there on the ferry. The cost of bringing our camping trailer over on the ferry was going to be more than the cost of camping there for the week. So we will continue to visit the amazing place for the day and drive back to NH that evening.

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  • Michelle suggests that the insides of the cottages deserve consideration too. Each year (usually in August) there is a cottage tour where six or so cottages are open for exploration. Dates can be found at mvcma.org.

    Reply
  • Michelle

    Great article. The outsides if these cottages look amazing and inviting. It would be great to see photos of the insides and a description of what they are like

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  • We discovered the Vineyard about 10 years ago, and we have been renting one of the gingerbread houses for as many years. Our entire family looks forward to our 2 weeks on the Vineyard all year ,There is no other place we would rather be, good friends, good people, good times.

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  • I was born and raised on the vineyard and have spent many hours roaming the campground checking out the structure and colors of the different cottages. I’ve had 4 children graduate from both the Oak Bluffs Elementary School and The Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School in the Tabernacle! It is truly a special place full of history and traditions for Islanders.

    Reply

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