The unmentionable odor that wafts from Ocean Park from time to time is being confronted by the town of Oak Bluffs. Whatever it is that is seeping to the surface, the state Department of Environmental Protection is not amused. Recently, wastewater commission chairman Hans von Steiger was quoted in the Gazette as saying, “Remember we are dealing with below-ground here. We can guess, but we don’t know what’s down there.”
That this area should come under scrutiny is no surprise to students of Vineyard history, who know how the town sprouted from the Methodist camp meetings. The popularity of the summer resort holds the key to the problem.
According to Arthur R. Railton in his book The History of Martha’s Vineyard (Commonwealth Editions, 2006), Erastus Carpenter, a wealthy manufacturer of straw hats from Foxboro, attended his first Methodist camp meeting in 1865 but found it wanting in creature comforts. Seeing an opportunity, he began acquiring acres of pastureland adjacent to the Camp Ground for development.
Mr. Carpenter preserved some of the space as open parkland and chose Ocean Park as the place to build his own home; he may best be remembered today as the man who in 1868 organized the first fireworks and Illumination Night and staged it in the park to promote his real estate enterprise.
His first known effluent-related act occurred in 1870 when he proposed to his estate agent for Waban and Ocean parks, “Why not clear out all the privies and cesspools and make a compost heap on [the] Parks with what stable and hog manure you may find on the premises and have it in readiness to spread in the spring.” Hmmm, no NIMBY he.
But, wait, don’t be smug if you don’t live on one of these parks; the overcrowded Camp Ground had its share of trouble. Without enough room for each tent or cottage to have its own privy, folks had to rely on communal toilets. When land along the edge of Sunset Lake became available, it was spotted with pots, but, as Mr. Railton notes, the land there had been “used for years as a dump for swill and human waste.”
The time is ripe for Oak Bluffs to face its underground history and get to the bottom of the effluent issue. Eschew obfuscation, Mr. von Steiger. We know what’s down there.
Susan Catling is a freelance writer and Gazette contributor who lives in Edgartown.