Summer is here and I am missing my favorite place to explore, Oak Bluffs on Martha’s Vineyard. The town is sleepy most of the year, but in the Summer, the place explodes with summer residents and tourists, providing such a lively and diverse atmosphere. One of the most beautiful of the cottages in the Wesleyan Grove campground is the Kickemuit Cottage, built in 1869 for a family from Rhode Island. They so-named the cottage after the Kickemuit River which runs from Massachusetts through Warren, RI and spills out into the Mt. Hope Bay. The story goes that this double cottage was actually just a single peaked home until it was combined with another giving it the double-peaked appearance we see today. The cottage retains the turned posts, delicate gingerbread detailing, and the lancet windows and doors. Swoon!
Side note: If anyone has a cottage in Oak Bluffs that they’ll let me rent, I would love to be in touch!
Constructed by the Martha’s Vineyard Agricultural Society at the crossroads of the island, this Grange Hall in West Tisbury on Martha’s Vineyard, is the center of agriculture and commerce for the Vineyard. Grange Halls are traditionally where farmers have gathered to learn new agricultural practices, develop strategic business partnerships, and barter for goods and services. The building was the hub of weekly farmers markets for decades and eventually owned by the Vineyard Trust in 1997, being restored soon after. The building is a vernacular Gothic Revival building with decorative bargeboard (gingerbread trim) and full-length porch.
The Captain Benjamin Smith House at 34 South Summer Street in Edgartown was constructed around 1790. The building sits on land that was once owned by the Coffin family who owned a broad sweep of land from Edgartown Harbor back to Pease’s Point Way. Many of the oldest houses in town were constructed by members of this family who had first settled in Newbury. Smith, a military captain who commanded a company of militia on Martha’s Vineyard during the Revolutionary War, was married to a member of the Coffin family and the family owned the home for over one hundred years. After successive ownership, in 1939, the Vineyard Gazette took over the building. The Gazette was the first newspaper to be published in Dukes County, and remains in the building to this day.
Maybe the most grand Greek Revival home in Edgartown, the Fisher-Bliss House has stood proud overlooking the harbor as ships come and go for nearly 200 years. Thomas M. Coffin, who built many whaling captains homes in town, constructed this iconic residence in 1832 for Captain George Lawrence, who had returned to town with over $90,000 worth of whale oil from a three year trip to New Zealand. Before the house was built for him, the home was sold to Captain Jared Fisher. The home was apparently to be a two-story gable roof home, but Fisher decided to square off the roof and have a widow’s walk added. Captain Fisher’s granddaughter owned the house and lived there with her husband Mr. Leonard Bliss, a merchant.
Edgartown in the early 19th century was booming as one of the major whaling towns in America. As goods were imported and exported in and out of the burgeoning town, a Customs House was required to essentially tax the goods. Until around 1825, the Customs House in Edgartown was located in private homes until the demand grew for a stand-alone structure on Main Street. This Federal style building was constructed to house a Customs office upstairs with two commercial spaces on the ground floor.
This stunning Gothic Revival house in Edgartown was built around 1848 for Captain Joseph Holley and his wife Lucy. Captain Holley was a whaler who embarked on at least four long excursions of multiple years at a time, with a break between 1847-1852, at that time, he likely had this home built. Gothic Revival homes are rare in New England, especially in Edgartown where there is a matching house across the street. The home features a large dormer with a steep pitch with lancet window and appropriate shutters.
With Edgartown being synonymous with the whaling and the ocean, its obvious the town has long had a lighthouse to guide weary travellers. In 1828, Congress approved $5,500 for “building a pier and light-house on the Point of Flats, at the entrance to Edgartown Harbor.” That first lighthouse was a two-story dwelling with a side-gabled roof atop which was centered the lantern room. The structure was erected on wooden pilings out in the water, requiring its first keeper to row a short distance to get to the tower. In 1830, a 1,500-foot-long wooden walkway was built at a cost of $2,500 to connect the lighthouse to the shore. In 1840, the rotten wooden pilings supporting the lighthouse were replaced by a stone pier. The keeper’s house was drafty and leaky, and vulnerable to the sea and weather due to its exposed location. This resulted in a greater than average turnover of keepers, and some keepers refused to live in the official quarters preferring to seek lodging on the nearby shore. The lighthouse was restored numerous times through the early 20th century until The Great Hurricane of 1938 inflicted significant damage to the lighthouse. Upon taking control of the nation’s lighthouses in 1939, the U.S. Coast Guard quickly tore down the building.
The original plan was to replace the lighthouse with a steel skeleton tower, but instead a disused 1881 lighthouse that served as a rear range light on Crane’s Beach in Ipswich, Massachusetts was dismantled and barged, minus its brick lining, to Edgartown. The relocated forty-five-foot cast-iron tower was soon in service at Edgartown and remains an active aid to navigation today, showing an automated flashing red light every six seconds. The lighthouse remains a must-see spot when visiting Edgartown.
By the 1830s, Edgartown had become the most affluent town in Martha’s Vineyard thanks to the rise of the local whaling industry. Whaling in particular fueled much of coastal New England’s nascent economy in the early 19th century, as small, private schooners frequently ventured out into the Atlantic on a regular basis. Yet, the trade as both an economic and cultural force had largely died out around the time of the American Civil War. Fishing communities like Edgartown began to suffer, as countless sea captains found themselves out of a job. Despite the hardships, some on Martha’s Vineyard began to identify new ways to generate business. Tourism happened to be one of them.
North of town, a group of investors bought a waterfront site to develop the town’s first true resort, the Harbor View Hotel. It originally opened 1891 and was extremely successful for two years until the Panic of 1893, which severely harmed local tourism on Martha’s Vineyard. The hotel went bankrupt that year and sat empty for three years after. It was purchased by the original manager of the hotel and opened back up in 1896, with rooms costing roughly $3 a night. The owner in 1910, doubled the hotel in size to give it the look it has today. The resort was rented out by Steven Spielberg in 1975 for the cast and crew of the iconic film Jaws which was filmed on the island.
John Osborn Morse was born in 1803 in Edgartown. He was the second of eight children born to Uriah Morse and Prudence Fisher Morse. His father ran the small ferry from the foot of Morse Street to Chappaquiddick Island. As John Morse grew older, he began working as a whaler on various ships, sometimes gone for years at a time. After his first trip, he was hired as Captain of the Hector, a whaling ship which sailed out of New Bedford. Captain Morse took a break from whaling to establish a wharf on land he purchased and construct a massive Greek Revival home to overlook it. When news hit Edgartown of the gold found in California, it stirred the islanders’ imagination. In 1849, several ships sailed from Martha’s Vineyard to California, one commissioned by Captain Morse. The Vineyard Mining Company, led by Morse, brought roughly 50 passionate and hopeful Americans across the country by boat to California with some onboard writing journals of the trip. The boat arrived in San Francisco and discharged its crew in April of 1850 after a harrowing passage around Cape Horn and visits to several South American ports. After being in California for less than a year, Captain Morse decided to take go for a short whaling cruise. He died on this trip, reportedly getting “dropsy” off the coast of Colombia before succumbing in Peru in 1851.
This historic Georgian mansion was built in 1703 for John Coffin (1647-1711) who moved to Edgartown by the way of Nantucket and Haverhill, Massachusetts looking for new work. John Coffin opened a blacksmithy on the waterfront in Edgartown and immediately prospered, building this home after his success. Legend says the home was actually right on the street before the street was widened and after, the front steps and home’s location obscured the view of other buildings on the street. The home was moved back on the lot in its bucolic setting now amongst the hustle and bustle of downtown Edgartown. The home was threatened with demolition almost all of the 20th century due to the commercial nature of its location. Thankfully, it was acquired by the Vineyard Trust in 1946, who preserve it to this day with small businesses located inside.