MEETING GROUND AT ASBURY GROVE, THERE IS ARCHITECTURAL HISTORY AND A SLICE OF AMERICAN LIFE - Boston Globe
Author: Christine Beard
Date: March 1, 1998
Section: Special Section
HAMILTON is a bucolic town north of Boston with a rich history and a wealth of historic properties, including 34 listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Tucked back from the main street, however, sits one of the town's most intriguing and, arguably, most significant architectural treasures.
It's not on the National Register, nor is it recognized by any official historic or architectural listing or organization. Many locals aren't even aware of its existence, let alone its possible importance. The site is known as Asbury Grove, a modest collection of summer cottages, significant not only for its rare, charming -- and quickly disappearing -- architectural style, but for its status as the oldest operating Methodist camp meeting ground in New England.
While the meeting grounds in Oak Bluffs may be the most well-preserved and best-known of the Methodist summer camps, there were hundreds of such religious retreats established in this country in the 19th century. Beginning in 1800, when the first camp meeting was held in Kentucky, worshipers flocked to these camp grounds each summer for a week of intensive religious contemplation that included fervent prayer meetings, lectures by evangelists, singing, and Bible studies. By the mid-19th century, as many as 400 such meeting grounds had been established along the Western frontier and many others were being established in the Eastern states.
It was the start of an annual tradition for Methodist families, a tradition that reached its height around the turn of the century and continues today, although with far fewer participants.
Prior to 1859, when Asbury Grove first opened, people in the Boston district and northern New England had to travel to Eastham to attend camp meetings. To accommodate these congregations, the Asbury Camp Meeting Corporation was formed and the old Dodge farm in Hamilton was acquired for a new campground. The Hamilton property included a large grove of pines where a pulpit was erected and wooden benches built to provide seating for 15,000 worshipers.
An estimated 12,000 people turned out for the first camp meeting. As was typical of camp meeting grounds throughout the country, wooden platforms were constructed on which members of the congregation erected tents. The tents varied from small single-family shelters to large dormitories that housed as many as 100 people, with curtains dividing the large tents into separate quarters for men and women.
Eventually, these rough shelters evolved into more substantial structures. Wall and roof frames were built of wood and canvas was stretched across them. The canvas was often cut with decoration to imitate gingerbread detailing along the roof gables, a reflection of the Victorian Gothic style of architecture popular at the time.
The first full wooden cottage was erected in 1868. This single-room dwelling was typical of those being built at meeting camps throughout the country, having only the most utilitarian interior finishes. By contrast, the cottage exteriors were ornately decorated with Victorian Gothic features such as brackets, cut bargeboards, and small verandahs. Through the 1870s and 1880s, construction at Asbury Grove continued and by the turn of the century, it is estimated that 300 cottages were built.eventually
In addition, a number of support structures were erected to serve the summer community, creating a complete village in the woods. There was a chapel, library, dining hall, hotel, bakery, post office, two-cell jail, and railroad depot. At the height of the season, 11 trains a day arrived at Asbury Grove from Boston. Two hundred kerosene lamps lit the streets and the grove boasted its own electrical system. For recreation, there were croquet greens and tennis courts.
Although Asbury Grove has changed considerably over time, at its core, it retains its architectural integrity and 19th-century character. This is somewhat remarkable given the hardships endured by the community over time.
In 1927, Asbury Grove was devastated by fire when an oil stove ignited one of the cottages. It was a dry, windy day and flames spread through the community destroying 125 cottages and much of the pine grove. In the 1930s and '40s, activity at Asbury Grove began to decline as the Methodist church struggled with identity issues and our society began changing its vacationing habits. In 1938 and 1954 hurricanes whipped through the area, blowing down the remaining pine trees (which averaged 115 feet in height), and damaging many of the cottages. In 1968, seven additional cottages were destroyed by fire.
Over the last 30 years, the historic character of Asbury Grove has been further compromised by physical changes made to accommodate a modern lifestyle. Paved streets, winterization of, and additions to the cottages, and modern plumbing are among the most noticeable. In addition, a number of modern homes have been built on lots left empty by the 1927 fire.
Despite all this, the core of the historic community remains intact and the character-defining architectural features remain predominant. Today, five dormitories and more than 100 historic cottages still stand, as do the chapel, library, dining hall, bakery, and pulpit stand. Together, they represent a unique architectural and historical resource.
Like so many nonprofit organizations that are responsible for maintaining historic structures, the Asbury Camp Meeting Corporation is grappling with difficult preservation issues. Lack of funds and a waning interest in summer rentals make it difficult for the corporation to maintain its buildings.
The privately owned cottages are generally well maintained, but in many cases have been altered and have lost their historic integrity. Residents no longer come for just a week in the summer. Many make extended stays so the cottages need to accommodate the desire for greater comfort.
Fortunately, the importance of this architectural grouping and the need for preservation has not gone entirely unnoticed. Some of the most pressing issues have been addressed by a unique grass-roots preservation organization comprising Asbury Grove residents. In 1983, in anticipation of the 125th anniversary of the camp, 12 women organized a committee as an offshoot of the Asbury Grove Ladies Aid Society, which was founded in 1880. Their aim was to help refurbish the ailing historic buildings. The average age of these volunteers was about 70, and they quickly became known as the "A Team." Their first project was the restoration of the Wesley House, one of the five remaining dormitories.
Karen Zagorski, a founding member of the A Team, recalls they had no working capital, "just my Sears credit card." At the start, she says, "we just stood inside the dormitory not knowing what to do until Hazel Day tossed a mattress down from the second-story floor and shouted, `Come on, are we gonna get started?' "
After completion of the Wesley House, they went on to restore several more dormitories and some of the cottages. The A Team repaired screens, rebuilt porches, sewed mattress covers, replaced window panes and cords, laid linoleum, caulked joints, and sanded floors (often needing two of them to control the machines). Lack of funds and physical limitations resulted in some rather innovative ways of carrying out their work.
When the Wakefield House was in need of new concrete footings, A Team members solicited the help of younger people in the community. Each member had a younger partner who dug a four-foot hole, then A Team volunteers crawled under the house with pails of concrete and filled them.
Encouraged by the success of their initial projects, the A Team began more active fund-raising campaigns. It held yard sales, and earned money wallpapering homes and catering local functions. It published a cook book, sponsored auctions, and opened a thrift shop. In 1991, it expanded fund-raising efforts by converting the former bakery into a coffee shop. Volunteers cook, wait tables, and wash dishes all in the name of preservation.
Through these efforts, more than $100,000 has been raised. Zagorski credits much of the team's success to the strong support of the 60 year-round residents who helped with the cause. Those that weren't able to do physical work donated money. Those who didn't have money to donate made cookies to feed the workers.
Once the dormitories were completed, the A Team turned its attention to restoring the cottages that had fallen into disrepair. Unfortunately, it has proven to be a slow process.
The cottages are deteriorating faster than the team can put them back together. Both the team and the corporation are finding it increasingly difficult to keep preservation efforts going. In the past few years, A Team membership has dwindled, as most of the original members have died or become infirmed and the younger generations has not shown the same enthusiasm as the originals.
But despite the setbacks the A Team continues to be hopeful that no more structures will be lost and Asbury Grove will one day be restored. Longtime A Team member Dot MacMillan sums up the feelings of most teammates when she says, "We love the Grove for what it was and what it could be.
Author: Christine Beard
Section: Special Section
Copyright 1998 Globe Newspaper Company