Newport it was not; but to judge by its summertime throngs, its religious fervor, and the exuberance of its architecture, there was nothing to match the likes of the “Cottage City of America.”
Ulysses S. Grunt never said much during his brief stay at Oak Bluffs. He rode about in a carriage with Mrs. Grant, waving to the crowds; he watched the fireworks from a balcony at Dr. Tucker’s cottage, and he attended Sunday services at the Methodist tabernacle. According to one of his pastors, he found his peace with God at that meeting, but Grant himself never said whether that was so, and nobody seemed disappointed. Nobody expected him to say much of anything. What really counted was that he, the President of the United States, was there, at Oak Bluffs, Massachusetts, on the island of Martha’s Vineyard. And for anyone who likes to see the people of history make a highly appropriate entrance, even if only on a very small stage, it is a fine thing that he cruised over that August afternoon aboard Lincoln’s old steamer, River Queen.
In the years just preceding Grant’s visit, the carpenters of Martha’s Vineyard had put aside all their no-nonsense, salt-box architectural heritage and, working with scroll saws and fresh pine shipped in from Maine, had built an entire town in that particular style later to be known as General Grant Gothic. There was, to be sure, plenty of gingerbread glory to be seen in other places—in Cape May, New Jersey, and in Sea Cliff and Chautauqua, New York—but Oak Bluffs was something else again. It was quite possibly the most joyous-looking little town in the land, all new and freshly painted, a fair-weather place of countless turrets and towers, fancy trimmed gables, stained glass, porches, balconies, and endless plank walks. It was, just as its publicity so proudly proclaimed, the Cottage City of America.
Twenty years earlier, before the war, Oak Bluffs had been only the site of a Methodist camp meeting. The brethren had been gathering there summers since 1835, pitching their tents in a grove of scrub oaks just back from some meager clay bluffs on the island’s landward shore. But after the war more and more tents had been replaced by tiny cottages built almost exactly along the lines of the tents. (Often a cottage took several years to evolve from the tent, with board walls replacing canvas this summer, a porch being added the next, and so forth.) At the end of the eighteen sixties the real boom began. A great many other people besides the Methodists had by then discovered the island’s charm, and the islanders recognized that the summer trade might well supplant their all but vanished whaling industry.
Within three or four years, hundreds of summer houses were built at Oak Bluffs, and unlike those across the way at Newport, these were truly “cottages.” For all their elegant style—their grandeur, really—they were with few exceptions quite small in scale, modestly furnished, and remarkably inexpensive. The place was, as one man put it, “the delight of the middle classes.” Through July and August, excursion steamers plowed back and forth from Boston, Providence, Hartford, Bridgeport, and New Bedford. Some days as many as twenty boats docked at the Oak Bluffs pier, sending upwards of five thousand people ashore. On weekends the town’s population would swell to thirty thousand or more. By 1874, the year Grant stopped over, the Methodist campground with its monstrous new tent was the biggest camp meeting in the country and was still the heart of the town. But the rest of Oak Bluffs was a full-blown summer resort with its own less pious attractions: bathing, band concerts, boating, croquet, ice cream, and “promenading,” which generally appeared first on lists of “things to do at Oak Bluffs.” A roller-skating rink had been built, and a vast frame hotel, the Sea View, which looked like a fantasy palace and which offered accommodations (American plan) for $4.00 a day. Moreover, it was now possible to obtain a drink of whiskey, and slipping over the seven-foot fence that enclosed the campground had become a favorite after-curfew (10:00 P.M. sharp!) sport for some of the younger brethren.
But perhaps the greatest attraction of all was Oak Bluffs itself. Hundreds and hundreds of people came just to see the houses. Journalists came to look too. “A pretty style on the whole, and admirably adapted to its transitory uses,” one of them said later. Another wrote: “The stranger when he first goes there is struck by its foreign and bizarre appearance, and yet it is not like any foreign place he has seen. … It is a sort of Mayfair of pleasure, a city of the night, which is unreal and insubstantial in its beauty and apparently as likely to pass away from sight any moment as the ships on the water horizon.”
The houses were praised for their “diversity of style,” for their gay colors, and for the way light played on their varied shapes and surfaces. Nearly everyone seemed to like them, and especially the way their design afforded the passer-by an easy view of domestic life inside. (“And still the view is more curious in the evening,” wrote one visitor, “when every cottage is lighted, and the wide front doors, which open directly into the principal room, are thrown wide open, and the cottagers are sitting around inside or on the broad piazzas or balconies, and on gala evenings, when the fancy-colored Chinese lanterns are hung around on trees and cottages, the scene is really enchanting. …”) There were some, of course, who had no such reaction. “The only substantial and satisfactory thing here is the sea that seems the greater for the weak things on its shore,” wrote a Kentucky man. And within another generation, as tastes changed, the houses would be considered minor monstrosities.