Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Obama' s Vacation in Oak Bluffs: Foxboro Man Creates Presidential Getaway

August 2016 President Obama and his family will once again vacation in Chilmark on Martha’s Vineyard. In response, the news media will focus a great deal of attention on aspects of the island’s rich and relevant African-American history. But there is another historical tidbit worth noting about the island’s storied history. Settled in 1671, Chilmark was incorporated on September 14, 1694. Chilmark was the first town to separate from the two original towns of Tisbury and Edgartown and it was named for the ancestral home of the family of Governor Thomas Mayhew. One hundred and eighty-six years later in 1880, Oak Bluffs, a part of Edgartown was incorporated as Cottage City. This town was not named after an ancestral home in England but rather the economic and social development, and vision of an off-islander, Erastus Payson Carpenter.

E.P. Carpenter was born in Foxboro, Massachusetts on November 23, 1822, the son of Captain Daniel Carpenter and Abigail Payson. By the time Carpenter attended a Methodist Camp Meeting on Martha’s Vineyard in 1864, which was to become an initial step towards the founding of Oak Bluffs, his hometown accomplishments were impressive. They included establishing the largest manufacturer of straw hats in the world, The Union Straw Works, which employed over 3,000 workers at its height. Carpenter was also responsible for building the Foxboro Town Hall, serving as president of the town’s first bank, establishing a public cemetery and constructing Memorial Hall, a monument to Civil War veterans.
Carpenter Cottage 1869

During the summers of 1864 and 1865 Carpenter occupied a cottage within the Camp Meeting grounds on Martha’s Vineyard, and was desirous of purchasing a site for permanent occupancy. But as this was against the rules of the Camp Meeting Association, the following year, in 1866, he organized a joint stock association and purchased seventy-five acres of wood and cleared land southeast of the property of the Camp Meeting grounds. The association was soon incorporated as the “Oak Bluffs Land and Wharf Company,” and an architect was retained to design the cottage lots, avenues and parks. The first advertisement for the newly named resort of “Oak Bluffs” appeared in the July 5, 1867, edition of the Vineyard Gazette and by 1872 over eight hundred lots were sold, with the ‘choicest’ lots sold personally by Carpenter.

 Carpenter’s influence on Oak Bluffs may be forgotten, but it is still apparent today. He hosted the first “Illumination Night” on August 20, 1869, a celebration of glowing oriental lanterns, fireworks, parades and music provided by the Foxboro Brass Band. As president of the Oak Bluffs Land and Wharf Company, he supervised the construction of the Waban, Naushon, Niantic and Ocean Parks, and witnessed the building of the Arcade, the Pagoda, and Union Chapel. Carpenter built the Sea View House, which opened on July 23, 1872. The hotel stood five stories high on the waterside and four on the inland elevation, measured two hundred and twenty-five feet in length and forty feet in depth. It contained one hundred and twenty-five rooms, including an office, parlor, spacious dining salons, and reception suites. Speaking tubes were connected from every room to the office and the building was illuminated by gas.

Sea View Hotel

Dining Room Sea View Hotel
Carpenter was elected to the State Senate in 1872 and served as the chairman on the Committee for Railroads. In February 1874 a call was issued to the Edgartown residents in the interest of a new railroad. The first signatory was E. P. Carpenter. At the Edgartown public meeting held a month later, residents voted to subscribe to the capital stock of the Martha’s Vineyard Rail Road Company for the sum of fifteen thousand dollars. Carpenter was elected president and that summer he supervised the construction of the narrow-gauge steam propelled railroad, which connected Oak Bluffs to Edgartown and Katama, where he also built the Matakesett Lodge. Later that summer, on August 27, 1874, Carpenter hosted a procession led by the Foxboro Brass Band, and a reception at the Sea View House for the first president to visit Martha’s Vineyard, President Ulysses S. Grant.
Martha’s Vineyard Rail Road (Small Gauge)

But the era’s economic prosperity and popularity of Oak Bluffs, poetically referred to at the time as the “Cottage City of America” also resulted in an ever-widening disagreement between the residents of Edgartown and the non-resident taxpayers of Oak Bluffs. The first noteworthy mention of secession was revealed in an August 15, 1872, letter to the Vineyard Gazette, “You have heard, probably, of the secession movement in this vicinity. Well, Mr. Editor, more fuss than feathers are the result thus far, and the advocates of the movement are as scarce as Greeley Republicans.” The writer provides evidence that the secession sentiment was taken lightly at first. But over the next several years sentiment continued to gain support to the level where the Boston Globe would report, “But when two sections of a town hate each other as badly as these do, it seems as if it would be better to separate them.”

During these same years Carpenter’s political connections and business astuteness in support of secession was potent but remained behind the scenes. The secessionists claimed that they were not deservedly recognized in Edgartown affairs; that the two settlements were entirely separate, and should be allowed to pursue their policy in town expenditures. Opponents to the division were concerned about the loss of taxable property to Edgartown. The matter finally resulted in two unsuccessful petitions to the Massachusetts Legislature in March 1878 and February 1879. A third petition in 1880 was successful and on February 17th the town of Cottage City (renamed Oak Bluffs in 1907) was incorporated from parts of Edgartown. Many members of the state legislature who were also supporters of succession went to Cottage City to celebrate, but noticeably missing from among the celebrants was E. P. Carpenter.

Carpenter’s Oak Bluffs legacy may be a side bar in history today, but his public absence at the Cottage City celebration caused one reporter to write, “Not present was Erastus P. Carpenter, the man most responsible for the celebration. He and his associates had opened up acres of pasture land, created a lively village that now had 1106 taxable buildings valued at $1,212,527, among them eighteen hotels and forty-four stores, shops and restaurants. The village had been paying sixty percent of all tax money collected by the old town of Edgartown. Now a separate town, Cottage City was ranked in the top half of the three-hundred and six towns in Massachusetts in real-estate valuation – that’s how much it had grown in a dozen years.”

Now, nearly one-hundred and thirty-four years later, Oak Bluffs and Martha’s Vineyard has flourished into a nationally renowned retreat and resort area. The visit of President Obama this summer, like those of other U.S Presidents and dignitaries before him, is a tribute to E. P. Carpenter’s vision and its realization.


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