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Onset’s wigwam a mystery to many

Landmark, designed to look like a tepee, is rooted in 19th-century Spiritualism

By Emily Sweeney
Globe Staff / September 22, 2011

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WAREHAM - The village of Onset is famously home to a picturesque bay and gingerbread cottages dating back to the Victorian era. But one very distinctive landmark stands out in this quaint seaside community: the On-I-Set Wigwam. A bright red wooden structure, designed to look like a tepee, it was built in 1894 by a group of Spiritualists who felt a special connection with Native Americans, as noted on the sign above the front door, which states: “Erected to the memory of the Redmen. Liberty throughout the world, and freedom to all races.’’

The wigwam is more than just an example of quirky architecture; It is a relic of Onset’s early days in the 1870s, when the seaside community was established as a summer resort for followers of Spiritualism, a religion and philosophy that believes that life continues after death and that mediums can communicate with those who have left behind this mortal coil.

The modern Spiritualism movement emerged in upstate New York in 1848, and quickly attracted millions of believers. Séances led by mediums became increasingly popular in the Civil War’s wake, as families tried to contact those missing or killed in action, and by 1893 there were enough Spiritualists in the United States to create a national organization, which still exists. (Now known as the National Spiritualist Association of Churches, it claims about 2,500 members.)

The wigwam houses plenty of local and Spiritualist history - including old photographs, portraits, paintings, Native American artifacts, and records of Spiritualist gatherings - and, more than a century later, it continues to serve as a meeting place for Spiritualists.

“The building is the only one of its kind in the world,’’ said Geraldine Pearle, a local historian who oversaw its restoration in 1994.

But despite its long history and deep roots in Onset, the wigwam remains a mystery to many.

“There’s a lot of people in Wareham who don’t have a clue what it is, or where it is,’’ said Kathy Tomkiewicz, 55, who serves on the wigwam’s board of trustees.

Tomkiewicz lives in Wareham and visited the wigwam for the first time four years ago. She was struck by its interesting shape; its architecture is like nothing she’d ever seen before. When she went inside, she felt surrounded by good energy.

“I was in awe,’’ she said.

Patti Craig is currently the president of the On-I-Set Wigwam Co-Workers Spiritualist Camp, the organization that maintains the wigwam and oversees events that are held there. Craig, a 62-year-old Brockton resident, said she loves the wigwam. Her husband, Bob, also 62, helps maintain the grounds around it and tends the grill at monthly cookouts.

“He takes care of all the yard work, mowing, cleaning, cookouts, gardening,’’ she said. “I couldn’t do it without Bob.’’

Since Craig became president two years ago, she has been trying to make more people aware of the wigwam and the activities that take place there.

“There’s so much history here,’’ said Craig.

The origin of the wigwam dates back to the 1890s, when a group of Spiritualists from Onset formed a group called “the On-I-Set Wigwam Co-Workers,’’ with On-I-Set chosen to honor a local Indian chief. At its peak, membership included laborers, millionaires, lawyers, and fishermen. They held special events, including harvest moon festivals, to raise money for their cause, and eventually purchased land by the East River where they could build the wigwam. Construction of the wigwam began in 1894, and it was dedicated that July 30.

The wigwam has eight walls, measures 96 feet in circumference, and is topped by a dark green cone-shaped roof that reaches 26 feet high at its peak. There are two entrances on opposite sides and windows all around: Sunlight pours in, brightening the space and giving it an airy, open feel. The roomy interior can hold crowds of 100 or more.

Not much has changed inside it since it was built a century ago. The wigwam houses a host of artifacts, including beaded Indian moccasins from the 1800s; a portrait of Mary Weston, one of the first leaders of the On-I-Set Wigwam Camp; and a calumet (peace pipe) that she received as a gift from an Indian chief.

A steel engraving of Pocahontas hangs over the front door. Faded sepia-colored photographs of Native Americans are displayed in wooden frames on the wall. Underneath each portrait, handwritten in black ink, are their names: Big Road. High Hawk. Fire Lightning. Little Hawk. Spotted Elk. Two Strike.

There’s a large charcoal portrait of J.H. Young, a Civil War veteran and one of the charter members of the organization.

A large fabric banner that was painted by Mary Weston hangs in an oak-framed case. It shows a young Native American named White Wolf, along with the inscription “Victory for the Red Man at last.’’ It also features the image of an Indian and a white man holding hands, and an image of scales. “Freedom and Union.’’ “Justice and Equal Rights.’’

A glass display case contains a silver trumpet that was once used during séances, along with a stack of chalkboard slates emblazoned with drawings and messages said to have been delivered by the dead. Craig explained that mediums would sandwich a piece of chalk in between two slates, enter a trance-like state, and then the messages would appear.

In the center of the room stands a “sensitized’’ pole. It stands 26 feet tall from floor to ceiling. Beads, feathers, dolls, and knickknacks adorn the circular shelf around it. Chairs are arranged around the pole and the shelf. This is where healing circles are held, just as they were more than a century ago.

Services are held at the wigwam on Sundays, and workshops and classes are held on weekday evenings. Summer is a particularly busy time; from June through September, the On-I-Set Wigwam Co-Workers Spiritualist Camp hosts a variety of events, including Native American drum-making classes, lectures, healing sessions, fire circles, picnics, spiritual readings, and gatherings at which mediums are thought to communicate with spirits.

To offset the costs, often there is a suggested donation of $10 or $15.

“We have mediums come in from all over the world,’’ said Craig.

Ron “Searching Hawk’’ O’Berry is a medium and healer from New Bedford who has been hosting events at the wigwam for decades. He’s 79 years old and is a member of the Sault Sainte Marie Chippewa Indians of Michigan. When he hosts fire circles at the wigwam, he tells stories, and there is drumming, singing, and dancing.

“I get the people all worked up and they feel great,’’ said O’Berry.

He also leads people in meditation sessions using a variety of scenarios; participants may imagine themselves swimming with fish or, say, visiting an eagle’s nest.

“I use drums to get people to leave their body and travel outward,’’ said O’Berry.

On Thursday evenings, O’Berry hosts gallery readings in which he says he communicates with spirits and gives personalized readings to those who attend. His events may draw from a dozen to 60 people.

“There’s a lot of good things’’ happening at the wigwam, said O’Berry. “Not many people know about it.’’

Craig hopes more people will make the discovery. “There’s so much love for this building,’’ said Craig. “It’s awesome.’’

All the events are open to the public. “Everybody is welcome,’’ said Craig.

The On-I-Set Wigwam Co-Workers Spiritualist Camp is located at 9 Crescent Place in Wareham. For more information about the wigwam and to view the calendar of upcoming events, visit www.onisetwigwam.com. Emily Sweeney can be reached at esweeney@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @emilysweeney.

Related

Photos

Height: 26 ft.

Circumference: 96 ft.

Onset Bay Grove Association is incorporated March 31, 1877. The group establishes a campground in Onset dedicated to the principles of Spiritualism and sells building lots for summer homes.

Wigwam construction: Begins summer 1894

Dedicated: July 30, 1894

Rededicated: July 30, 1994

Sources: "The Story of a Wigwam," by Russ H. Gilbert; Private and Special Satutes of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, 1876-1881; "History of Plympouth County," by Duane Hamilton Hurd.