Oak Bluffs is a town located on the island of Martha's Vineyard in Dukes County, Massachusetts, United States. The population was 3,713 at the 2000 census and was estimated at 3,735 as of 2008. It is one of the island's principal points of arrival for summer tourists, and is noted for its "gingerbread cottages" and other well-preserved mid to late-nineteenth-century buildings.
The first inhabitants of Oak Bluffs were the Wampanoag people, who have lived on Martha's Vineyard (Wampanoag name: Noepe) for approximately 10,000 years. The area that is now Oak Bluffs was called "Ogkeshkuppe," which means "damp/wet thicket or woods."
The area was later settled by Europeans in 1642 and was part of Edgartown until 1880, when it was officially incorporated as Cottage City. The town re-incorporated in 1907 as Oak Bluffs, named because the town was the site of an oak grove along the bluffs overlooking Nantucket Sound. Oak Bluffs was the only one of the six towns on the island to be consciously planned, and the only one developed specifically with tourism in mind.
In 1866 Robert Morris Copeland was hired by a group of New England developers to design a planned residential community in Martha's Vineyard. The site, a large, rolling, treeless pasture overlooking Vineyard Sound, was adjacent to the immensely popular Methodist camp meeting, Wesleyan Grove, a curving network of narrow streets lined with quaint "Carpenter's Gothic" cottages, picket fences, and pocket parks. Seeking to take advantage of the camp’s seasonal popularity (and overflowing population), the developers established Oak Bluffs Land and Wharf Company, gaining immediate success: Five hundred lots were sold between 1868 and 1871. Copeland would end up creating three plans for the community to accommodate its constant expansion. Oak Bluffs is the one of the earliest planned residential communities and largely informed later suburban development in the United States.
Some of the earliest visitors to the area that became Cottage City and later Oak Bluffs were Methodists, who gathered in the oak grove each summer for multi-day religious "camp meetings" held under large tents and in the open air. As families returned to the grove year after year, tents pitched on the ground gave way to tents pitched on wooden platforms and eventually to small wooden cottages. Small in scale and closely packed, the cottages grew more elaborate over time. Porches, balconies, elaborate door and window frames became common, as did complex wooden scrollwork affixed to the roof edges as decorative trim. The unique "Carpenter's Gothic" architectural style of the cottages was often accented by the owner's use of bright, multi-hue paint schemes, and gave the summer cottages a quaint, almost storybook look. Dubbed "gingerbread cottages," they became a tourist attraction in their own right in the late nineteenth century. So, too, did the Tabernacle: a circular, open-sided pavilion covered by a metal roof supported by tall wrought iron columns, erected in the late 1880s, which became a venue for services and community events. The campground's gingerbread cottages are cherished historic landmarks as well as very expensive real estate. Many are still family owned and passed on generation to generation. On April 5, 2005, the grounds and buildings in the Campground were designated a National Historic Landmark by the Secretary of the Interior.
Nineteenth-century tourists, arriving by steamer from the mainland, could also choose from a wide range of secular attractions: shops, restaurants, ice cream parlors, dance halls, band concerts, walks along seaside promenades, or swims in the waters of Nantucket Sound. Resort hotels, of which the Wesley House is the sole surviving example, lined the waterfront and the bluffs. For a time, a narrow-gauge railway carried curious travelers from the steamship wharf in Oak Bluffs to Edgartown, running along tracks laid on what is now Joseph Sylvia State Beach. In 1884, the Flying Horses Carousel was brought to Oak Bluffs from Coney Island and installed a few blocks inland from the ocean, where it remains in operation today. Built in 1876, it is the oldest platform carousel still in operation. Like the grounds and buildings of the Campground (so designated in April 2005), the Flying Horses were designated a National Historic Landmark by the Secretary of the Interior.
In 1873 the neighboring community of Harthaven was established by William H. Hart when he purchased a lot from the Oak Bluffs Land and Wharf Company. The community later moved in 1911 to its present location between Oak Bluffs town and Edgartown.
The "Grand Illumination" is a yearly event, usually held in August, the date of which is not always publicly disclosed. For the 2012 summer events, there was an open Cottage Tour, of the National Historical Registered homes, on Wednesday, August 8, and Grand Illumination Night on Wednesday, August 15. Martha's Vineyard, Oak Bluffs and the Campground events attract many tourists. For one special night, residents of the Campground place ornate Chinese lanterns (some electric, some still lit with just a candle), around each Gingerbread Cottage. The lanterns remain dark until after dusk. At an appointed hour, people gather in the Tabernacle for a sing-along and community gathering. At the end all the lights go out and thousands of Chinese lanterns spring to life in a brilliant cascade of light throughout the campground. The celebration ends after visitors walk through the Campground enjoying the sights and sounds of an event taken straight from the start of the 20th century.