The day before the centennial celebration of Shearer Cottage in Oak Bluffs, Gretchen Tucker Underwood noticed that the landscaping around the 100-year-old red inn on Rose avenue was not quite ready for the impending party.
“She worked yesterday and today to prep the grounds,” innkeeper Lee Jackson Van Allen, the fourth generation of Shearer told a crowd of more than 100 people in the Shearer Cottage side yard, which looked impeccable, on Saturday evening. “That’s the kind of thing that happens with friends and family on Martha’s Vineyard.” That’s why Shearer Cottage has endured over the years, Mrs. Van Allen continued: “Support like that.”
“Indeed,” author Shelley Christensen wrote in a Martha’s Vineyard Magazine profile of the inn. “Its legacy has far less to do with bricks and mortar — make that shingles and porch posts — than it does with people: the dynasty that keeps the inn going, the guests who’ve basked in its hospitality; and a singular segment of the Vineyard summer community that Shearer Cottage helped spawn.”
Built by Charles F. Shearer, a former slave and his wife Henrietta in 1912 (the date of last weekend’s celebration coincided with the 128th anniversary of the Shearer’s marriage) on a narrow road overlooking the Baptist Temple in Oak Bluffs, Shearer Cottage quickly established itself as a place where African American families could come to enjoy a vacation, particularly in an era when such accomodations were hard to come by. At the time, Ms. Christensen noted, Oak Bluffs (Cottage City) was the only town on the Vineyard in which African Americans could own property.
Posters on the broad wooden porch of Shearer Cottage documented the inn’s growth over the years. A short film produced by the Martha’s Vineyard Museum played on a nearby table, providing an introduction to Shearer Summer Theatre, an endeavor of then-innkeeper Doris Pope Jackon’s sister, Liz White, where professionals and newcomers alike took part in stage productions.
“Oak Bluffs has a special place in the hearts of the Shearer family,” Mrs. Van Allen said during her remarks.
Oak Bluffs selectman Kathleen Burton presented Mrs. Van Allen with a certificate of recognition for “100 years of extraordinary hospitality and community service.”
“May it hang for another 100 years in Shearer Cottage,” Ms. Burton said.
Camille Van Allen, 17, of Milton, Ms. Van Allen’s granddauther, concluded the ceremony by reading a portion of her college essay, which she dedicated to her great-grandmother, Doris Jackson. Miss Van Allen plans to be a physician in the near future, but, as she noted “I am honored to say I am the sixth generation [at Shearer Cottage] . . . when years pass and I grow older, I will become the innkeeper.” The courage of her great-great-great grandparents, she said, “shines through me every day,” .
“This is a really huge part of my life, “ Miss Van Allen said afterwards. Her first draft of the essay, she said, was more of a “Come to Shearer” entreaty, but after some revising the words seemed to flow out of her — ”really from the heart.”
“I don’t know what it’s not like to be part of it,” she said.