An Island Confection

Victorian-style gingerbread houses grace Martha's Vineyard community

TAKE a stroll through this summertime community of colorful, fairyland cottages.

These special ``gingerbread'' houses, adorned with intricate lacelike trim in gorgeous rainbow hues, make up an enchanting sanctuary on a well-traveled island resort.

``This is a quiet place. And when you leave here and go down that street, you're in another world altogether,'' says summer resident Henry Scarborough, pointing toward the busy traffic in the distance.

Every year, thousands from around the country visit or stay at the Martha's Vineyard Camp Meeting Association. Originally founded and used by Methodists for summer religious meetings in the 19th century, the association and its tabernacle are now interdenominational. In 1979, the 315 cottages and surrounding area were included on the National Register of Historic Places. Last summer, President Clinton worshiped at the tabernacle on his vacation.

Residents like the peaceful atmosphere. Mr. Scarborough, enjoying the afternoon sun on his porch, says he and his wife, Helen, first visited here back in 1958. They fell in love with this island off the southern coast of Massachusetts; in 1967, they bought their campground cottage and started fixing it up.

Besides basic renovations like improving the cottage's ancient plumbing and redesigning its roof, Scarborough added his own personal touches.

For the balcony trim, he designed cutouts of women, children, and carousel horses as reminders of the famous Oak Bluffs Flying Horses carousel in town, considered the oldest operating merry-go-round in the United States. Above that, he added a row of cutouts of Martha's Vineyard, Chappaquiddick, and bunches of native island grapes.

``I just kept fussing with it. It's a lot of fun,'' he says proudly, showing old photographs of how plain his cottage once looked.

Walking through the campground is as much a treat as chatting with its residents. Each cottage is distinctly painted and designed. Intricate porches with hanging pots of pink geraniums and colorful rustic rocking chairs beckon outsiders to come take a closer look.

The cottages are fragile, have no basements, and require careful upkeep, says Bob Cleasby, program director of the Martha's Vineyard Camp Meeting Association.

``There is a constant need for maintenance,'' Mr. Cleasby says. ``It's a big challenge because you have to put time and money in your property every year.''

The campground has been used for religious meetings or services since 1835. Originally, campground residents lived in tents and attended religious services all day. In the association's very first year in 1835, nine tents were used for the camp meeting.

By 1855, the meetings drew crowds of 5,000 to 6,000 people with 200 tents. Some were used for entire church delegations, while others were used by families.

Soon, the tents gave way to small cottages - built by sailors from whaling ships - and the community was known as Cottage City until 1908, when Oak Bluffs was incorporated as a town. After the whaling industry bottomed out in the late 1800s, the sailors used their woodworking skills and foot-driven jigsaws to craft the intricate trim on the porches, roofs, and balconies of the cottages.

Of the 315 cottages now standing, about 40 are insulated and heated for year-round use, says Albion Hart, who serves on the association's board of directors. Those wishing to buy a cottage can only do so with the approval of the association's leasing committee. Land surrounding the cottages is owned by the association and must be leased by cottage owners.

During the summer, the association sponsors weekly community sings, dances, flea markets, concerts, and festivals, besides its religious services. Visitors especially enjoy touring the area during the third week of August, when the campground celebrates Illumination Night. During this evening spectacle, all the campground cottages and the tabernacle are lit up with shimmering strings of Japanese lanterns.

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