The hundred years of the Martha’s Vineyard Camp Meeting are filled with countless episodes which link the Island with the great figures or great events of other periods; or reflect in some colorful way the atmosphere and manners of the times; or supply in their own right some flavorsome item of history. These episodes are traced in many ways - through old records, through the memories of the few persons who themselves present at the meetings of the seventies and later decades, and through the family tradition of some lines who have been identified with the meetings through several generations. Most prominent among these last are the Uphams, who cover the whole century.
Following are printed, some of them for the first time, various morsels from the annals of the camp meetings.
On Grant’s visit to the camp meeting in 1874, he boarded the steamer River Queen, and remarked to Rev. Samuel F. Upham, father of Rev. Francis B. Upham, “I remember that this is the boat we had when the commissioners of the Confederacy met Lincoln and myself to try to effect peace.” There is no exact record of this anecdote, as Grant proceeded to tell it; but the circumstances are too apt and characteristic to be far from historical fact. Alexander H. Stephens, Grant went on to say, was one of the leaders of the Confederacy, and he was a diminutive man. As the discussion in the small cabin of the old River Queen waxed hot, Stephens peeled off one coat, then another, and then another. Lincoln looked at him, Grant said, and remarked, “That’s the smallest ear for the biggest shuck I ever saw.”
The first building on the camp ground was a small structure which is now part of the kitchen at 12 Cottage Park. It was erected by Rev. Frederick Upham for a dwelling; but it was no more than a wooden tent. It is told that when the rains fell and the winds blew, as they sometimes did, flooding the encampment and causing no little discomfort to the campers, Mr. Upham would emerge from his impregnable shelter with a certain justifiable satisfaction.
“Thank God for shingles,” he is said to have remarked on the morning after a torrent.
The first cottage built on the camp ground still stands at 7- Trinity Park. It was built in 1859 by William B. Lawton, and it has always remained in the Lawton family, of which five generations have now been associated with the camp meeting and with Oak Bluffs. Frank C. Lawton is the present treasurer of the association. His mother, Mrs. Frank B. Lawton, occupies the original cottage. This structure was brought down in sections on a sailboat, from Warren, R. I.
The high picket fence was built to surround the camp ground in 1869 - for the purpose of shutting out the new development of Oak Bluffs by promoters - was rebuilt in 1886. The records of the camp meeting association contain this passage: “The fence which enclosed our grounds, badly dilapidated, has been rebuilt. The height of this fence (seven feet) has always had an air of exclusiveness which has been an offense for many years. It was thought for several reasons best to maintain our boundary line and protect our grounds...It was decided to rebuild by cutting down the fence one half, using the same posts and pickets by sawing them in two. We now have a good substantial fence which will last many years.” A few remnants of the reconstructed fence still stand.
Pease avenue on the camp ground was the place where five Peases pitched their tents in the early days of the meeting. There were Isaiah, Chase, Jeremiah, Sylvanus and wither Sproul or John Adams Pease. Both Jeremiah and Chase Pease were of the group which first leased the grounds; and Isaiah D. Pease was long identified with the camp meeting.
The benches in the tabernacle today have come down from the early years of the camp meeting. They are not the original benches, however. These, used in 1835, were improvised affairs built of driftwood and other odds and ends. When the meeting went to West Point grove, the possessions, including lumber, were sold; but the next year, 1846, saw the camp back at Wesleyan grove, and new benches were built. These had no backs. They served until 1861, when new seating was planned by Perez Mason, of Providence. The new benches of that year, with backs, are undoubtedly the old benches of today.
It may be seen where the trunks of the great oaks grew up between the benches, for many of the seats are slotted out to accommodate as much as half the circumference of a tree trunk. Many who sit on the benches at community sings notice these marks, but do not realize that they are symbols of older days in Wesleyan Grove.
The Bishop Haven cottage, in which President Grant was entertained in 1874, must share honors with the Tiffany-Johnston cottage on Clinton avenue. Built about 1865 by the Rev. O. H. Tiffany, it was occupied by that renowned minister and his family for some years, and then became the summer home of Dr. J. Wesley Johnston, who married one of the daughters of the Washington pastor. Dr. Johnston remembers that it was at Dr. Tiffany’s invitation that President Grant, who worshipped at Dr. Tiffany’s church, the Metropolitan in Washington, famous in its day, first came to the Vineyard, accompanied by his family and unheralded as in his visit in 1874.
Memories are treacherous things. To prove it, one observer, who was a little girl in President Grant’s time, remembers not at all the procession in his honor at Cottage City, his prancing horses, the crowd, the band, the grownups, not even the other children - save one. Dressed herself in a plain white dress with a dark plaid sash - a hand-me-down - and having a passion for light blue, her attention was focussed on a beautiful blonde haired child in a dainty white dress with a broad pale blue sash. A mere president was nothing to remember compared to that vision of delight. A sedate matron, asked to please remember her youth, could only bring forth the recollection that it was a childish game among her contemporaries to go from tent to tent, pull up the flap, and watch people disrobing.