It was hard to believe on a casual drive through the Camp Ground down Jordan Crossing and around Trinity Park encircling the Methodist Tabernacle on Tuesday afternoon, the day before Illumination Night, that some 24 hours later cottages on these same streets would be dressed in their finest lanterns and lit to the highest heavens in what has arguably become the most enchanting night on the Island — Grand Illumination Night. Though it was quiet Tuesday, that would all change as those precious lanterns, some old, some new would be unwrapped, mended and made ready for Wednesday evening. Most lanterns will be electrified, others will hold on to tradition and use candlelight.
By 8 a.m., Wednesday morning, lanterns were being hung in the eves of the historical Tabernacle by Russ Steele and Ashley DePriest from a pickup truck driven by Ray Farland. Russ said many of the colorful lanterns were 30 years old. Inside the Tabernacle, Bob Cleasby, program director of the Martha’s Vineyard Camp Meeting Association, was on hand to field early visitor’s questions.
Beyond the Tabernacle around Trinity Park Circle, the Frey Cottage, Small Frey, was a beehive of activity as children, grandchildren, cousins and friends put up the family’s historical Illumination Lemonade Stand of nearly 20 years. The stand was first begun by Kyla Frey when he was five and his sister Kaitlyn Frey when she was only one and a half. It was a card table with ten-cent lemonade and cookies and a sign that said Closed for a Nap. With the help of family members, they made and sold lemonade and goodies for 19 years running, earning more than $3,000 which has gone to the Tabernacle Restoration Fund.
Now that Kyla has graduated from the University of Chicago and is teaching at a charter school in New York city, and Kaitlyn has graduated from M.I.T. with a degree in Ocean Engineering, they only supervise and the new trustees of the stand are younger cousins, nine-year-old Aigenis Frey and seven-year-old Augustine Frey. Walter and Beryl Frey, owners of the cottage, and Uncle Karl Frey said as soon as the lemonade was made they would be going to the attic to bring down and hang the lanterns. “Many are 40 years old,” Walter said. “And we use real candles.” Yes, that has been the tradition since the first Illumination Night in 1835 and one would not have to observe this family long to know that traditions are important. They have summered in the Camp Ground for 40 years.
By 9 a.m. 100-year-old Albion Hart, owner of Hart’ease was out on his porch deftly stringing up the electric lights that would illuminate his vintage lanterns. When his neighbor Karl Frey offered to help, he said Albion held up his hands and gave him the “I have it under control” sign. And indeed he did.
Then there was the De’Isle’s Cottage at 59 Trinity Park Circle being decorated by family members Beverly and Barbara Braem because owners Peter and Jan Delisle had returned to their teaching responsibilities. As the two women pulled some very old lanterns from a tall container, they concluded some were too worn to use. A moment of pride crossed their faces when they proudly pulled out lanterns made by granddaughters Amy and Meg Delisle when they were children, now in their 20s. Barbara declared in a winsome tone: “It’s like Xanadu. The lights go out, the candles come on, and it’s all over!” Of course there are those who would like to see it last forever.
At 60 Trinity Park Circle there was a frog in the front yard of Uncle Bill Lane’s place who greeted those who passed. A fence was built to keep him inside. Melissa Thomas was happily hanging lanterns for her uncle.
One rarely encounters a new face in the Camp Ground, but there was one — Dick Cohen who purchased his cottage at 61 Trinity Park Circle only a month ago. This was his first Illumination Night. He first came to Martha’s Vineyard in the 1950s and his dream was to own a cottage in the Camp Ground. He said he didn’t have a clue as to how to hang a lantern, but his wife did. “Alison was in charge of that,” he said.
Every year Grand Illumination is magical — and this year was no exception. The sun began to set gracefully in evening summer sky, when throngs of wide-eyed children in tow and thousands of excited visitors inched toward the Tabernacle as others picnicked on the grounds waiting for the rousing community sing and eventual lantern lighting.
When Julie Schilling, conductor of the Vineyard Haven Band, raised her baton to the high-spirited Barnum and Bailey’s Favorite March the night was on steroids as voices were raised to the steel rafters in exuberant singing of patriotic and old-time favorites led by Robert Cleasby. Then house lights were dimmed and the lamplighter, the Rev. George Mosley, a past president of the association whose identity has been kept secret all summer, was revealed. Reverend Mosley and his wife Stella were honored for their years of service to the Tabernacle. He said his parents brought him to the Island 50 years ago and it became their summer home. He lit the first candle, placed a lantern over the light and carried it to the back of the Tabernacle and outside. Porches and surrounding Trinity Park came alive as lanterns were lit in hundreds of cottages encircling the Camp Ground carrying out the timeless tradition begun some 150 years ago by Jeremiah Pease, the Methodist preacher who founded the Wesleyan Grove camp meeting, and lit the first lantern in 1835, to provide light for the evening meetings. Pease could never imagine that this practical act would evolve into a celebration where there was standing room only inside the Tabernacle, signaling the end of summer. In 1979 the Tabernacle was listed on the National Historical Register.
The band’s first selection was apropos, reminiscent of the circus as Reverend Mosley told of a humorous event 35 years ago when animals were brought to Illumination Night. The back leg of a young elephant’s foot went through the stage — perhaps that’s what ended the practice.
The evening ended with that magical walk around the park as starry-eyed children and adults gazed in awe at Victorian life recreated from a period that has become the foundation of Oak Bluffs historical legacy. To see those tiny gingerbread cottages reminiscent of childhood fairy tales display lanterns from places as far away as China, Japan, Honolulu and as close as New York and San Francisco is always a charming experience. One never tires of seeing the multi-colored paper jewels bounce gently in the wind as children and adults take that summer enchanting walk around the park. Nor will anyone who saw it forget the two couples, the Hearthingtons, dressed in period costume and the women carrying refined parasols from a period that has become a favorite tradition in this extraordinary community.