Sometime by the early 1900s, Islanders learned that they could rent the most primitive of dwellings to city folk for summer vacations. Camps, the common name given to these rustic houses, were first constructed for hunting and fishing and were often built near the best hunting and fishing locations. Soon summer camps became popular for vacations and they dotted the landscape all over the Island.

My aunt Ella inherited the family home on State Road in Chilmark, and when her husband died in 1911 she bought an adjacent field of low rolling hills and put up five camps. They came from different places. One was a fisherman’s house brought back from Noman’s Land. When cod fishing was in decline the fishermen’s houses were returned to Chilmark and offered for sale. Another was actually an early kit house that was assembled for her. The others were local finds that she had placed around her field. All were within walking distance of a freshwater spring. The tenants could also walk to the Chilmark store and post office, the ocean beach and Aunt Ella’s home that eventually had a telephone.

When my mother, brother and I moved to Chilmark in 1936, Aunt Ella had died and my grandparents had taken over the home and the rental of the camps. Those rentals, with little change, continued to contribute to the family fortunes in many ways well into the 1950s.

There were five camps. Each had the rudimentary necessities: a pitcher pump and rain water cistern, a zinc sink, an outhouse, an icebox and a two-burner kerosene stove. A short walk to the spring gave potable water. All of were furnished with basic furniture and bedding. Each camp was supplied with a good number of kerosene lamps.

Aunt Ella sold one camp to Tom and Rita Benton in 1921. She met Tom when he was looking for a room to rent when he first came to town. She rented him her late husband’s barn and he converted it into living space for himself and his companion, Tom Craven. It wasn’t suitable for a married couple, so she sold him her largest camp when he and Rita married a year or two later. Its roots remained as it grew over the years to become a comfortable and cheerful home that often welcomed many of us to happy dinner parties. It is still owned and lived in by the contemporary Benton family.

The opening of the camps every spring and closeups in the fall were a family effort. My grandfather’s chore was to prime the pumps in spring and drain them in the fall. My brother and I shared many chores, but looked forward to the excitement of searching the iceboxes and the closets for left-behind treasures in the fall. We all helped in lifting the mattresses to the rafters to avoid the ever-present mice all winter.

The tenants themselves provided many life lessons. The largest camp had two outbuildings, the outhouse and an extra sleeping shed, suitable for one guest. One year we rented that camp to a woman with an internationally known name. We were aware that she was bringing a guest and would be using the shed. It soon became known around town that her guest was a black man. This was uncommon in rural Chilmark in those days. A summer landowner who also rented out his property began to stir up trouble by publicly speaking against such rentals expressing fear that the property values would suffer. He contacted my mother with the hope that she would interrupt the rental but she refused and our other tenants supported her. The unhappy gentleman called a meeting at town hall one summer evening. The hall filled with locals and renters. He sat alone on the small stage and ranted his prejudice. He called upon my mother to explain the sleeping arrangements in the camp. At that point and before she had to reply, everyone began to stand and silently walk out of the hall. He was left alone with his unhappy thoughts. It was a defining moment for Chilmark.

The four camps have since been sold and renovated in many ways, but are still standing in the same spots and still providing Chilmark summer vacations to all.

Jane Slater lives in Chilmark.