Gunpowder was invented by the Chinese in the eighth century during the Tang dynasty and was used in fireworks in the year 1040. While it isn’t clear when fireworks wound up on American shores it’s not a leap of faith that the early whalers may have brought some back. Joseph Chase’s 40-ton sloop Diamond, for example, was one of the first whaleships leaving from Martha’s Vineyard in 1738 and there are plenty of artifacts whalers brought back from the Far East all over the Island.

The early settlers were enthusiastic about fireworks before the Revolutionary War. Soon after our new Congress voted to separate from England, John Adams sent a letter to his wife Abigail suggesting the occasion “ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations” — that final word meaning fireworks. Ironically, here in Oak Bluffs, illumination stands for the event that precedes our annual fireworks display, the most famous of which was held on Friday, August 28, 1874 due to the visit of President Ulysses S. Grant.

The second most famous was of course the first event held on Saturday, August 14, 1869 when Oak Bluffs Land and Wharf executive Erasmus Carpenter developed Illumination Night as a sales aid to show off the new town on Governor’s Day. Governor William Claflin was the honoree and wound up buying one of the Pratt cottages in 1871. Mr. Claflin was an ardent Methodist and a liberal who was for abolition and Indian and female enfranchisement.

The Vineyard Gazette reported: “The illumination and fireworks at ‘Oak Bluffs,’ on Saturday evening last, was a very fine affair. Chinese and Japanese lanterns were displayed in abundance, suspended from cottages and trees. There was a good variety in the pieces at the fireworks.”

Illumination Night was held each year on Governor’s Day and finally moved to the Campgrounds, some say officially on August 17, 1903 when Island-born Governor John L. Bates returned for a visit. The Governor’s Day aspect only lasted 30 years, and while Illumination Night endures there is little information on when the fireworks part of it ended or was restarted in its present form today.

We do know that 2016 will be the 41st year our volunteer Oak Bluffs Fire Department will host it. For countless families like mine the remarkable tradition is like Christmas, absent the materialism, but replete with deep memories of the fragrance of Crossland Landscaping’s freshly cut grass, the daytime decorations of beach blankets and spreads of all colors, the nighttime excitement of barely restrained children—and if you’re lucky my wife Karen’s fried chicken and macaroni salad and perhaps a slice or two of Giordano’s Pizza. Add a few generations of family and friends and the fireworks themselves are the punctuation of another great summer, the dessert of an enchanted evening.

But the event needs more community support. Black Entertainment Television contributed a substantial amount of money for several years and the Oak Bluffs Fire Department needs at least another corporate supporter.

The thing about our fireworks is that volunteer firefighters volunteer their off duty time to plan and execute the event, see to our safety while it occurs and make preparations that include making, placing and removing the no-parking signs. If you’d like to help with a donation, please call Jimmy Maceda at 774-521-4390 or send an email to

By the way, Jimmy’s father and son are both volunteer fire fighters. Thank you to them and everyone involved with our 41st annual Oak Bluffs Fireworks, which will be Friday, August 19 this year.

The Martha’s Vineyard Museum is honoring Women’s History Month with a display of photographs of Island women. In addition you will be able to hear excerpts from interviews done by oral historian Linsey Lee.

Linsey is also hosting an oral history workshop for young women on March 19. And to celebrate the exhibit’s closing, there are plans for a talk on March 31. For more information, contact Linsey at or 508-627-4441.

A new Island organization called LoveMV is tackling the insidious issue of littering in all of its many manifestations here on the Island even as social media has picked up (pun intended) on the accursed nip bottle epidemic. Hallelujah.

Interestingly, in last week’s elections, Cape and Islands State Representative candidate Ewell Hopkins, Jr. received more votes for town committee than Sanders’ presidential primary did (695 – 639). That bodes well for Mr. Hopkins who has a now uncontested route to the State House. Proud to be from OB!

Keep your foot on a rock.

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