Inevitably, that question is the one most people ask when they visit us for the first time. And in honor of Hooked on Houses’ Hooked on House Tours day, I’m taking you on a tour of the tents.
Ocean Grove was settled in the late 1800s by the Methodist Church as a “camp meeting ground”:
At a large camp meeting, many came from over a large area, some out of sincere religious devotion or interest, others out of curiosity and a desire for a break from the arduous frontier routine, although many in this latter group often became sincere converts as well. (Wikipedia entry.)
I don’t mean to be cynical, but the close proximity to the ocean and the lack of air conditioning at the time may have helped, too. :-)
The Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association was officially formed on March 3, 1870, and the first tents were erected. Today, 114 families are still braving the elements and spending their summers in tents. The Ocean Grove Historical Society offers this on the “tenters”:
At one time, 660 tents were leased or owned on individual lots throughout Ocean Grove. Now only 114 tents remain, in a semi circle around the Great Auditorium. Each spring, by May 15th, the canvas tents are brought from their back room shed to be erected over the front wooden platform transforming it into a living room, to be furnished with couches, chairs, rugs, lamps and pictures. Meanwhile, outside along the walks, flowers are planted by the tenters, many of whom are proud to be fourth and fifth generation summer Ocean Grovers. The summer camp meeting then continues as it has over 130 years until the fall, when the tent canvases are taken down and stored until the next season. (Introduction to the History of Ocean Grove, New Jersey – Wayne "Ted" Bell)
OK, enough with the impromptu history lesson…on to the tents!
In the winter months, our neighborhood takes on a rather eerie, surreal feel with its landscape dotted with seemingly abandoned wooden frames:
But in the early spring, they slowly come to life, one by one rising up:
That “shed” you see in the back is the structure where the plumbing (praise be, indeed!) is housed, and is what the “tenters” use to store their furniture and knick-knacks in the off season:
The fully modernized tents today have a wooden back room, with modern facilities including bathrooms, kitchens and sleeping space. The structure provides a place to store the canvass tents in the winter as well as providing the tenters a place to store their personal belongings. Then in the spring the tents are taken out and placed over their wood frames on the front of the platform. When the summer residents return to their tents they bring out their rugs, furniture and personal items and begin the process of decorating their canvas parlors. Many of the tenters plant gardens and individualize and personalize their tents by painting the porch rails, adding furniture and also decorative elements. Although living in a canvas tent for three months of the year provides little privacy from their neighbors at times, the tenters relish their unique community and return year after year. (Ocean Grove Historical Society)
You lease the tent from the Association, and while they take care of construction (and leaks, apparently!) the resident is responsible for purchasing front doors. The first person to get their doors in place is rewarded handsomely:
A couple of the tents were on the Ocean Grove House Tour this year, and I am thrilled to be able to give you a peek inside. ‘Cause this ain’t no standard issue pup tent, my friends. Take a look at what I found when I walked inside the first one:
Notice the wall behind the beds is the outside of the shed you see in the off season. Behind the beds is a room that is used for eating, watching TV, and typically another bed, usually in the form of a futon or something convertible:
The next tent I went in had a similar layout but the residents decided to upgrade their tent last year (since many folks return over generations’ worth of summers, it’s not unusual to see upgrades) and it was fun to see a brand new bathroom lurking behind the canvas walls:
And a kitchen that’s frankly bigger (and nicer) than most New York City ones!
I asked the amazingly friendly docents who were standing guard during the house tour about the sizes of the tents. I had noticed the sizes seemed quite different (I’ve seen one with a deluxe shed, which means deluxe plumbing. Sign me up for that size!), and was told they are different sizes –three basic sizes with some deviation in the floor plan -- and pricing is determined by the square foot. And cost is never discussed among neighbors, “because, you know,” offered one of my octogenarian hostesses. Which I interpreted as meaning that her years of tent squatting meant she lived in rent stabilized paradise. Good for her! (I loved her, and wanted to take her home with me.)
By this time of year, gardens have grown in and the community starts to look almost like any other. Neatly trimmed hedges and flowers line the tentscapes:
And here’s a nighttime view of the tent tops from our widow’s walk. That’s the Great Auditorium in the background, the original Camp Meeting church that nowadays can best be described as a “mixed use” facility. See the glow of pink lights inside? That’s Abba. For reals!
Even though the roots of Ocean Grove are obviously deeply steeped in the principals of the Methodist Church, the town has blossomed into a melting pot of ethnic, religious and cultural diversity. Think of it as a coastal Woodstock, or a P-Town South. That’s what attracted us.
But before you get any ideas about spending next summer in a tent, get this: There’s a 10 year waiting list, “at least.”
I hope you enjoyed the tour, and thanks for bearing with the history lesson (I can’t help myself!). Hop back over to Hooked on Houses for more house tour fabulousness.