Quintessential Events of Island Summer: It's Time for Illumination Night

By C.K. WOLFSON

Even things that first dazzle the imagination with their shine and sparkle need substance to endure - like 135 years of tradition, fellowship and community.

Illumination Night on the Camp Ground in Oak Bluffs, heralded in sing-a-long lyrics and ornamented with close to a thousand glowing paper lanterns that rim the Tabernacle and swing from the roofs and porch fronts, is a demonstration of the contagious spirit of the Camp Ground community.

A summer milestone, it is built on a collective agreement to make the whole greater than the sum of its parts. The celebration, "a quintessential Camp Ground event," began in 1869 as the grand climax of Governor's Day. For families like the Rutherfords, Husses, Longs, Merrills, Shabicas, Lawrences, Halls, Freys, Harts, McKechnies, to name but a few - it has become part of their histories, a tradition passed from one generation to the next and the next after that.

There are 315 cottages, frosted in gingerbread, front porches dripping with flowers, painted and trimmed in pinks, blues and marshmallow pastels, packed closely amid the parks, groves and circles that surround the Tabernacle. Even on an overcast day, it is a walk through a children's book to another time.

"Heaven on earth," Aloha Long calls living in the Camp Ground. "People are marvelous. You can't live this closely without being considerate."

A longtime cottager whose traditional Illumination Night family dinners can include from 20 to 60 relatives and friends, Mrs. Long creates and maintains the many flower gardens that mark common corners and lampposts around the grounds. She strides briskly along, nodding to people without breaking pace, talking as she walks. "Watching the people go by is almost as much fun as watching the lanterns," she says of Wednesday's event.

Cottagers stroll through the park, pausing every few feet to extend cordial greetings, inquire about this one's husband and that one's wife, about visiting children, trips being planned or recently taken. Someone looking for a resident is advised along by one person after another who have just seen him pass.

Everyone seems involved in some common enterprise or activity: the children's festival, the guided walking tours, art shows, book sales, committee meetings, discussion groups. Everyone has someone else they want to commend. And everyone seems to be smiling.

It is a summer camp in which occupants exude a priority interest and subscribe to a common protocol: quiet after 11 p.m.; no dogs, leashed or not, in Trinity Park; no yard sales, no open fires or motorcycles; and an agreement "to observe the good neighbor policy and recognize a mutual dependence of each neighbor upon the others."

Although not required by the general rules and regulations, Trinity Park cottagers are expected to participate in Illumination Night. Even residents who are away make arrangements to have their lanterns hung according to design. (When a cottage changes hands, its lanterns are usually included in the sale.)

Sally Wortman Dagnall and her husband, Russell Dagnall, the Camp Meeting Association president, now own the double cottage that Mr. Dagnall's parents, who first came to the Island in the early 1900s, bought in 1958. With its cozy tangle of nooks, crannies and a labyrinth of amply-sized rooms, it can hold a dozen visiting children and grandchildren.

"A humongous fairy land," says Mrs. Dagnall, author of Martha's Vineyard Camp Meeting Association, 1835-1985, and the unofficial Camp Ground historian. "Everyone bands together." She says it often takes an hour to go on an errand five minutes away, because of all the "great neighbors," and "friends for years."

Looking through their albums of past Grand Illuminations, Mrs. Dagnall describes the early years when lanterns with candles were strung between all the walkways in the park. Curtains enclosed the Tabernacle while the candles were being lit, with buckets of sand and water kept nearby. Visitors were invited to join cottagers on their porches for punch and cookies, but that was before as many as 10,000 attended.

"It's not easy. It's a lot of hard work in one night," Mr. Dagnall says. It takes a full day of preparation, and including the Vineyard Haven Band and about 40 volunteer ushers, hundreds of people to produce the event.

Former association president Peter Dawley, a fifth-generation cottager, has been grounds supervisor for 11 years - following, he notes, Wentworth Trip, who followed Jimmy Ferria. (He will relinquish the post in the spring.) A calm, unassuming man, he says the event "has remained essentially unchanged."

On Wednesday he will check the light bulbs, stand on a slow-moving dump truck to string the wire around the Tabernacle roof, then circle again to hang the lanterns. Working with Earl Jecoy, he will install the No Parking signs (taking the bus is recommended), the porch shop lights, the lemonade tables and the sawhorses that block cars from the entrances.

Weather is everybody's biggest concern. A decision has to be made by noon should they need to go to Plan B, which is to postpone until the next day (it happened once in the past 14 years), or Plan C, to postpone until the following week, which has never happened.

Camp Ground Museum gift shop manager Bob Falkenburg, a cottager for 43 years, presides over the evening's porch shop in front of the Camp Meeting Association office. Assisted by volunteers and Jack Rogers, his 15-year-old grandson, the shop will sell some 3,000 glow sticks in under three hours, as well as hundreds of paper lanterns both large and small. By the time he deposits the money from the collection plate, the glow sticks and the one-night porch store sales, it will be almost midnight. "All the lights are gone, there's nothing left," he says.

Looking up over a thick file that holds the notes and details for the evening, program director Bob Cleasby smiles and says, "It always strikes me how fast it's over. It's hard to describe. You just have to soak it in so you have a memory."