Summer Among the Trees

Overnighting at the Martha’s Vineyard Family Campground has become a tradition for many, and newcomers continue to be lured by its many charms.

The blue and yellow sign marks a quiet, tree-shaded driveway that leads away from the Vineyard’s bustling peak-season roads and bike paths, quaint inns, and eclectic boutiques. Instead of “Martha’s Vineyard Family Campground,” the sign might read more aptly, “Return to Yesteryear” or “Leaving 2011, Entering 1968.”

When Chuck and Jeanne Feeney of Sharon purchased just under twenty acres of raw land on Edgartown Road in Vineyard Haven in the late 1960s, they didn’t envision creating what would become, in four years, the third privately owned campground on Martha’s Vineyard. And they certainly didn’t envision that forty-three years later, theirs would be the last campground standing. Cranberry Acres on Lambert’s Cove Road in Vineyard Haven folded up its last tent in the late 1970s; Webb’s Camping Area on Barnes Road in Oak Bluffs closed down two decades later. But today, the second generation of Feeneys – son Dan Feeney and daughter Sue O’Rourke – has successfully ushered this family business into the twenty-first century. And while they have implemented significant changes since taking over the helm from their parents more than twenty years ago, Martha’s Vineyard Family Campground, now in its fortieth season, remains a paean to the American tradition of roughing it, albeit Vineyard style.

The campground currently offers 180 total campsites including fifty RV spots, twenty-six cabins, and 104 tent sites. Open from late May through mid-October, the wooded enclave serves as home away from home to more than ten thousand visitors each summer. While some campers stay for as little as one night, others arrive eagerly on opening day and leave reluctantly at last call, just about when the foliage peaks on the Island. According to Dan, the campground sets aside twenty-five to thirty sites for seasonal campers, hardy folk who have formed their own community, returning year after year to claim their chosen trailer spots among the tall oak trees.

Creating a tradition

The campground was created, Dan and Sue concur, through the blood, sweat, and tears of the entire family. “We cleared the land in 1970,” Dan says. “We were all in high school or off to college. My dad bought a bulldozer so we could do the work ourselves.” Vintage family photos show the five fair-haired Feeney teens and their parents hard at work, digging out the septic system and preparing the site for the foundation of the prefab main building that remains today. Chuck, an aerospace engineer who passed away in March, had opted for early retirement in lieu of relocating the family to California or Texas. He tackled the construction with enthusiasm.

“When we first started, we lived in a converted bus that used to transport the Army band,” Sue recalls. “Dad [was] very smart, a people person. He was visionary and entrepreneurial. Mom is the sweetest person in the world. She’d give you the shirt off her back.”

While the Feeneys tackled the tough tasks required to carve a campground out of an undeveloped forest, Vineyard residents became alarmed that the newcomers might create a mobile-home park instead. “The Gazette published suspicions that soon the land would become a year-round trailer park,” Dan says. “Our license allowed either use for the property.” But by the summer of 1972 the Martha’s Vineyard Family Campground, dedicated to seasonal vacationers, opened for business.

Sue and Dan proffer a vintage campground brochure, circa 1975, featuring Jeanne and daughter Judy (both clad in modest swimsuits) frolicking in the water at the beach with the headline “Enchanted Vacation Isle” printed just above their windblown hair. The same brochure urges readers to “Make Your Dreams Come True!” – a readily achievable goal since the cost of a campsite was only $6 per day per family, including electric and water hookups. Trailer sites went for $1.50 more.

The campground’s current brochure, clearly reminiscent of its predecessor, still promises a memorable Island camping vacation, but does so at a rate of $50 per day for a family of two, with trailer sites priced at $6 more per day. Just a mile away, nightly lodging at a bed and breakfast or hotel starts at $205 and tops out at $569. Granted, there’s a significant difference between a suite, with soaking tub, flat-screen TV, fireplace, air conditioning, and balcony view of Vineyard Sound, and a wooded campsite that offers a picnic table, utility hookups, and a short walk down the path to a communal restroom. But there is simply no other option on the Island that comes close to offering such a great family value.

Camping is undergoing a national resurgence, according to recent studies conducted by the Outdoor Foundation and the Outdoor Industry Association. Experts have long maintained that when the economy takes a nosedive, Americans take to camping. It’s become one of the most popular outdoor activities in the country as participation has increased during the past three years, attracting 44 million campers in 2009 alone, up 7.4 percent in just one year. There are about 8,000 privately owned campgrounds in the country, dominated by small- and family-business owners, many of whom are multi-generational like the Feeneys. The increase in camping’s popularity is attributed not only to cost savings when compared to a vacation that involves airline and hotel expenses, but also to the nostalgia factor: Many campers report that they enjoy escaping from their normal environments and introducing their children to simpler pleasures.

While Sue and Dan are familiar with industry trends, they say that Martha’s Vineyard Family Campground is an anomaly. Although it affords the only camping opportunity on the Island, business is down. “Our business has slowed significantly during the recession,” Dan says. “In fact, occupancy is down one-third over the last fifteen years. The Vineyard has become so expensive and the cost of the ferry alone (round-trip for a camper, car, kids, and bikes) is about $400. In the old days, when the economy went down, camping went up, but it’s different today.”

Sue adds: “Camping is just not as popular as it used to be years ago. It’s a learned art. If your parents didn’t camp, you don’t camp. When we were kids, everyone had a buck knife and tent.”

Even with a campground that’s not operating at peak seasonal capacity, Sue recommends making early reservations. “Campers start contacting us in January when the Steamship Authority opens up summer bookings,” she explains. “If you want a weekend reservation here during the season, you’d better make it early.”

A new generation

While their siblings opted out of the family business for other careers off-Island, Sue and Dan were lured back. Dan had made a life for himself in Alaska after studying wildlife biology at the state university there; Sue, with a degree in home economics, had been a teacher in western Massachusetts but returned each summer to help her parents. She came back to the Vineyard in 1981 to help her father run the business year-round when Jeanne wanted to retire; Dan joined her in 1988 when Chuck was ready to enjoy retirement with his wife at their home in Sharon.

“Dad went through all the kids,” Sue says. “It came down to Dan and me.” While the two are only one year apart in age, brother and sister grew up differently. “I was very girlie,” Sue explains. “Dan was a hunter. We had different friends.”

Now twenty-three years after joining forces, they appear relaxed and amicable. “It’s like a covenant marriage,” Sue jokes. “We can’t get a divorce. Dan makes the rules and I try to make people happy. The important stuff we agree on.”

The division of labor is fairly clear: Sue handles reservations all winter and Dan manages the maintenance of both the buildings and the grounds. During the summer, they split the management duties. Sue has made her home outside the campground, while Dan lives in an apartment on-site. He is on call every night during the season and serves as security guard until one o’clock in the morning. (Dan has also served as a lieutenant in the Tisbury Fire Department for more than twenty years.) They are both divorced and agree that running the business is an exhausting but satisfying enterprise.

“It’s seven days a week, six months of the year,” Sue explains. “I live life off- season but haven’t had a weekend off during the season since I came back. One of us is always on-site. We went to a funeral together once, but we came back after a couple of hours.”

To Dan, the toughest part of the job is keeping the peace. “I have to try to balance the young people, the partiers, with families who want to sleep,” he says. “I tell people to have a great time but they can’t disturb others. There are challenges every day.”

Each year Dan and Sue strive to enhance the campground. They’ve added Ping-Pong, pool, video games, and karaoke to the recreation hall, as well as Wi-Fi access around the main building. They’ve updated the restrooms, laundromat, and convenience store. They’ve paved the parking area, added a garage building with heated outdoor showers, and made upgrades to the playground. While they have resisted television (the seasonal campers didn’t want it, they explain), this season they’ve added a large-screen TV. Every other year, they add three new cabins – rustic, compact, wooden buildings with front porches, water, electric lights and outlets, a picnic table, fire ring, cooking facilities, and mattresses.

The campground is staffed seasonally by college students, many of whom are foreign and come to the Island through the Work America program sponsored by BUNAC, a nonprofit UK-based travel club that offers work and volunteer opportunities worldwide. Others are former campers who return as employees. Loyalty is prized at the campground: “We operate more as a family than as a business,” Sue says. Campers feel the love too. According to Sue, 75 to 80 percent return after their first visit.

The camping life

Among the most faithful are the seasonal residents, people like Jane Street of Hingham and her longtime campground neighbors Jan and Ed Lepore of Vernon, Connecticut. Jane, eighty-one, has spent summers camping on the Vineyard since 1972. She and her late husband, Larry, made their warm-weather home in a tent on the Island until 1998 when they moved up to the comforts of an RV. When Webb’s Camping Area closed, they joined the seasonal crowd at Martha’s Vineyard Family Campground. A former teacher, Jane began coming to the Island to relax during her summer vacation.

“I’d come down here to recharge my battery,” she explains. “There are more trees and more nature here than in Hingham. Driving up the road into the campground, I picture Yosemite, the big old oak trees here and no developments in sight. And this is what I call affordable living.”

Jane enjoys reading, socializing, going to church, sunning at the beach, and attending events at the Tabernacle in Oak Bluffs. “This is my second family,” she says, nodding across to the Lepores’ metal house, a hybrid of sorts that Ed, in RV-speak, calls a “park-model trailer.” Because it can’t be trailered, the two-bedroom, one-bath home sits in the campground year-round, surrounded by a flourishing summer garden, lovingly tended by Jan. Ed, better known as “Bonito Ed” on the Island, and Jan upgraded years ago from a seventeen-foot trailer to the relative comfort of their current cozy home in the RV section of the campground.

“It gets kind of cramped in here,” Jan says, although her air of contentment belies the half-hearted complaint. “But Ed loves it. Fishermen are crazy people.” Bonito Ed, one of the Island’s legendary fly fishermen and expert fly tiers, admits that he is fanatical about his pastime. He’s busy brining his catch of the day, bluefish, preparing it for tomorrow’s smoking.

Ed, a retired designer from aircraft- engine manufacturer Pratt & Whitney, and Jan, a retired nurse, have been married for more than half a century. “We’ve had a couple of good years,” Jan quips. Living in close quarters requires patience and tolerance, they agree. “We both do our own thing and support each other,” Ed says. A typical day for him entails fishing for a few hours, followed by a nap and a walk around the campground with Vinny, the couple’s gregarious cat. Jan enjoys painting seascapes, quahaugging (the venerable New England tradition of hard-shell clam digging), and taking classes at the Tisbury Senior Center. After the annual fall fishing derby, it’s time to hose down the outside of the “fishing shack,” as Ed fondly refers to it, give the interior a final tidying up and scrub, and head back to the mainland, another season coming to a chilly close.

A few acres away, a kaleidoscope of colorful tents, tarps, hammocks, clotheslines, and tablecloths create a different ambiance for the more transient campers like Susanne Bromfield’s dual-family group from Franklin Lakes, New Jersey, consisting of five adults and five children under the age of six. They’re busy cooking up dinner and recounting the merits of camping with family and friends.

“It’s our first trip to the Vineyard,” Susanne says in 2010. “We like camping and thought it would be a nice way to experience the Island. It’s so secure here that the kids can bike on their own to the playground and buy ice cream at the store. Martha’s Vineyard can get quite expensive, so this is a good way to do a five-day getaway.” With plans in place to return this year, the campground is adding the Bromfields to its long list of repeat guests.

Just a short walk down the sandy lane, the Anderson family is relaxing outside their cabin after a full day of biking and beaching. John, a family practice physician from Gilbertsville, Pennsylvania, his wife, LeAnne, and college-age daughters Marga and Sonja, are enjoying five active days on the Island. “Staying in a cabin is very comfortable,” John says. “It’s cozy and very clean and it’s great to have the grill right outside.”

While the family has typically spent a week or two at the Jersey shore, John says that the area’s mandated beach tags and metered parking have become a turn-off. Instead, the Andersons are taking in the West Tisbury Farmer’s Market, Chappaquiddick on bikes, the Gay Head Cliffs, and sunset at Menemsha. “I thought I was dropped in a travel brochure,” LeAnne concludes.

For five months each year, this twenty-acre tract in a prime Vineyard Haven location becomes home to thousands of campers, from novice to expert, newborn to aged, who without it might never have the opportunity to experience the unique charms of Martha’s Vineyard. Chuck and Jeanne Feeney’s initial investment of $20,000 is now luring back its third generation of visitors.

As for the future, both Sue and Dan say they’d like to keep the campground going. “I envision it as a state or federal park down the road,” Sue says. “Or some type of low-impact environment.” But until then, the Feeneys will continue to offer Vineyard visitors an affordable, family-friendly place to stay under the stars, with the sounds of hooting owls and the lingering scent of the campfire to take away as mementos.