Here at our Martha’s Vineyard boutique inn we love to help guests with planning their vacation on Martha’s Vineyard. One of the questions we’re routinely asked is “Where are the gingerbread houses?” They’re located a short drive or bike ride from the inn in neighboring Oak Bluffs. They are set back one block behind the houses that line the main through road opposite Oak Bluffs’ marina. Here’s a quick history of the Gingerbread Houses and Oak Bluffs.
The original Wampanoag Indian name for what is today the tourist resort of “Oak Bluffs” was “Ogkeshkuppe”, which loosely translated meant “damp thicket”. No doubt an apt description at one time it is hard however to imagine a less inviting name for a vacation spot. “So where are you spending the holiday this year Albert? Very glad you asked Reg, I’m going to be soaking up the sun in Damp Thicket!”
Well the destiny, and marketing potential, for “Damp Thicket” changed when the area was chosen by the Methodist Church as a summer retreat and camp location for its members in 1835. Originally consisting of tents around a central meeting house, the camp evolved over the years with all the tents being eventually replaced by 500 small cottages. These cottages were built very close together and were positioned in a circle around a large open-sided Tabernacle that had been built in 1879. The area was renamed and rebranded “Cottage City”, with all the damp thickets having been disposed of. Pathways just wide enough for horses and carts radiate like spokes from the Tabernacle between the houses, large enough for pedestrians but not for cars. There are still 318 of these original Victorian cottages standing and lived in today. Known as “Gingerbread Houses” due to their intricate, “carpenter’s gothic” architecture, they have become one of the biggest draws for tourists to Oak Bluffs. The “gingerbread” details of the woodwork is masterful and the cottages are painted in vivid colors that are spectacular on a sunny summer’s day. The largest of the cottages is only 1000 sq. ft. and most are only 700 sq. ft. They can cost $400k to purchase and owners are obligated to occupy the property for part of the year.
“Cottage City” broke off from Edgartown in 1907 and formerly became “Oak Bluffs”. Oak Bluffs is the only US town to have been designed and laid out specifically for tourism. It is still very much a summer only resort with most businesses and houses closing for the off-season.
In August the “Gingerbread Houses” are host to the famous “Illumination Night”. For one night every year there is a service and community sing-a-long at the Tabernacle that finishes at dusk. At 9pm the street lights go off and ornate Chinese paper lanterns are lit all around the Tabernacle and outside every gingerbread house. They are kept lit until around 11pm when they are all extinguished until the following year. The tradition can be traced all the way back to 1868 when the lighting of the lanterns was used as a promotional gimmick to promote the development of “Cottage City” by Erastus Carpenter (clearly no damp thicket himself).
The “Gingerbread Houses” are a “must-see” on any vacation trip to Martha’s Vineyard to wander the tiny lanes between the cottages, visit the Tabernacle, Grace Methodist church and the “Cottage City” museum and to delight at the beautiful hydrangeas and gardens.