Winter in the Camp Ground

The hearty souls who embrace the quiet of this place during the off-season find the strength of community lasts all year.

In the heart of Oak Bluffs is a National Historic Landmark, a fairyland of tightly clustered Victorian cottages set like multicolored jewels around tiny parks and winding lanes. This gingerbread fantasia, in the summer so alive with chatter, laughter, sprinklers swishing, and tricycles tinkling, in the off-season empties so drastically, one can almost feel the rush of ghosts moving in to fill the void.

Only about 10 percent of the 312 (and in many cases, 125-year-old) cottages are winterized. This means that owners of the other 90 percent of the cottages who wish to spend a December weekend in the Camp Ground will need to fire up the wood stove, set all their space heaters to high, and don duffle coats indoors. Needless to say, the majority of cottagers stay well away until the following April or May, at the earliest.

But a handful of owners of the insulated doll houses have chosen to reside in the otherwise deserted Camp Ground all the live-long year. They love it.

Could they be at the cutting edge of a new Island trend?

The earliest habitation of the Martha’s Vineyard Camp Meeting Association involved no more than a short month, when in August of 1835 a band of Methodists chose to pitch tents around an open preacher’s stand. This tranquil wilderness camp was set in a grove of ancient oak trees near the shores of what was then called Squash Meadow Pond (now the bustling harbor of Oak Bluffs).

The success of nineteenth-century camp meetings was measured by the number of souls saved. In that original August, at least a dozen new Methodists stepped forward to be redeemed and reborn. In that blaze of glory, an annual pilgrimage began. By the late 1850s, trustees for the tent people purchased the twenty acres of land, and the tents were transformed into wooden cottages. The new fashion in architecture was all about steeples, stained glass, Gothic and Romanesque windows, and jigsaw scrollwork: More is more, and more is better. Tiny but intricate flower gardens added to the color and the very nearly outlandish charm. If at any point in time you came upon the Camp Ground and failed to realize ordinary-sized humans could fit under the lintels and beams, you might suppose the cottages were inhabited by hobbits and sugar-plum fairies.

In 2003, Bob and Jodie Falkenburg left their spacious dream house in Lempster, New Hampshire, to live full time in their cottage on Clinton Avenue. On a chilly March morning, seated in his cozy living room that could have fit into his Lempster foyer, Bob says, “I was ready to move here back in ’87, when I retired.” He’d served as an executive at New York Telephone, and he and Jodie had raised their family in northern New Jersey.

“I wasn’t ready,” Jodie says. “I thought there wouldn’t be enough to do here in the wintertime, so we moved to the boonies of New Hampshire. Needless to say, there wasn’t much to do there either.”

Their Camp Ground cottage had been in the family since 1962, drawing the Falkenburgs to Oak Bluffs every summer. And then the inevitable happened, something many of us have experienced: The Vineyard virus burrowed deeper into their systems until they found it harder and harder to leave the Island. The only cure, as we well know, is to stop leaving. Part of the lure was the realization that all their close friendships had been forged in the Camp Ground. They sold their commodious Lempster home and squeezed into their Goldilocks-sized Camp Ground cottage.

They declare themselves ecstatic to be here. “We’re never bored,” exclaims Jodie, who on winter evenings loves to read and make the gorgeous Claire Murray–style hook rugs that are scattered about the hardwood floors. Bob is also a mean hand at crafting: For years he has labored away at counted cross-stitch patterns, and his framed designs grace the walls of every room (a nice homespun touch for a veteran of World War II and Korea).

Jodie says, “One of our greatest pleasures is walking in and out of town all day to shop and pick up the mail. On Tuesdays we have breakfast at the senior center.” This couple on the youthful side of the Great Generation finds these rambles around town keep them fit.

A recurring theme in the winter Camp Ground is neighbors’ desires to keep tabs on one another. Ninety-nine-year-old Albion Hart, with his house on Trinity Circle, credits his next-door neighbors George and Betty Ranslow, as well as Camp Ground superintendents Bill O’Connell (who’s retiring this winter) and Bo Fehl, for looking in on him several times a day. The almost-centenarian has lived year-round in his much-photographed cottage since 1992. In a reversal of the usual north-to-south migration, Albion and his late wife Cora gave up their Florida digs to reside in the Camp Ground.

“I was eighty-five and decided to stop driving back and forth to Florida, what with our cats and having to change billing addresses each season.” He adds with a smile, “This feels more like home.”

His surviving cat, a Maine Coon named Pinkletink, wakes him at six in the morning. Then the oldest Camp Meeter is up, holding forth from his porch in good weather, regaling all and sundry about Camp Ground history, much of it witnessed himself. Come evening, the former English teacher loves to read – the Camp Ground harbors a hoard of passionate readers. Albion will also spend evenings watching Red Sox or Bruins games, depending on the season. Then, Pinkletink permitting, it’s early to bed to start the cycle all over again.

In his first months on the job, Bo Fehl, who started his caretaking duties at the Camp Ground in 2005, would get lost without a map in the maze of houses. Yet he understood from the start that everyone cares for everyone else. “It seems to be a prerequisite of living here, having a giving personality,” he says.
The Reverend Dr. Mary Jane O’Connor-Ropp, who presided year-round over Trinity United Methodist Church (at the center of the Camp Ground) for the past couple of years, retired to New Mexico at the end of this past summer. During her tenure, she observed a deeper sense of neighborliness in the Camp Ground than anywhere else in her travels. She anticipates more people moving to the Victorian village year-round. “People are finding out that with telecommunications they can live and work anywhere,” she says. “People are asking themselves what they really want out of life, and the answer is community.”

Helena Kirschenbaum says she’s always been a people person. “My mom told me that when I was four years old I saw another girl collapsed on the ground, sobbing. I sank down on my haunches, got right up into her face, and said, ‘It helps if you suck your thumb.’”

This spring chicken of the winter Camp Ground set (she’s in her forties) loves being useful, not only to those nestled nearby in the off-season, but to all the absentee summer folk who phone to check on their domiciles. “After a storm, I hear from everyone who lives within a two-block radius of me: ‘How’s my cottage?’ they ask. ‘Still standing,’ I tell them.”

Not only are an increasing number of folks attracted to the charm, beauty, and cohesion of a place like the old Methodist Camp Ground (where one no longer need be Methodist to purchase a cottage: “There are Jewish families, Catholic families; everyone is welcome,” says the Reverend O’Connor-Ropp), but an increasing number of them are on the younger end of the age spectrum – such as Helena, who bought her cottage on Rock Avenue eight years ago. Although her background is cosmopolitan – she spent much of her childhood in Rome, and in the 1980s attended college at the Rhode Island School of Design – her first and last stop after graduating was to move to Martha’s Vineyard to fish, clam, and dwell close to the land.

“I’d been living in Aquinnah, and when it came time to buy property, the Camp Ground was the last place I thought I’d find myself,” she says. The cottage on Rock Avenue tugged at her heartstrings, however. “It was painted a sad, dark red. It was an underloved, orphan cottage, and I fell in love with it instantly.”

With a fashion-model figure, enormous azure eyes, and a yard-long mass of dark hair, Helena Kirschenbaum looks nothing like what we imagine to be a typical Camp Meeting associate, especially one hunkered down for the winter. “I’m a very homey type,” she says. “Plus I love to grab my fishing rod and walk right across the road to the harbor.”

Alan Schweikert of Ocean Park Realty, whose two-story building on Circuit Avenue was originally a Camp Ground cottage, predicts that in a few years the village will have a whole new contingent of singles. “The cottages have always been, in relation to other Island property, somewhat affordable. As long as the newcomers are not loud, late-night party-givers, they’ll fit in just fine,” he says.

Like others who live here in the meat-locker cold of winter, Helena appreciates the ease of strolling in and out of town. “It’s the same lifestyle you’d find in a small European village,” she says. At night, after putting in a full day at Re/Max Realty in Vineyard Haven, she comes home to light candles in her large, eat-in kitchen, put on the kettle, and have a friend or two over for tea. She then heads upstairs for a soak in her empress-sized bathtub.
Helena Kirschenbaum is another happy – pun intended – camper.