ONSET -- One of the best-preserved Victorian beach resorts in the country, Onset long has been known as "The Gateway to Cape Cod." Word is getting around, however, that the village, which has a unique history and one of the state's finest ocean beaches, is also a great destination in its own right.
"It's a beautiful, walkable village with a wonderful beach and warm water," says Geraldine Pearle, a longtime resident and local historian. "More and more people are deciding that instead of fighting traffic and crossing over the bridges to Cape Cod, they'll come to Onset instead."
Part of the town of Wareham, Onset (named for a local Indian chief) sits beside a beach-rimmed bay at the head of Buzzards Bay. It has a year-round population of about 5,000 and more than double that in the summer.
Most villages claim to have spirit, but in Onset's case, spiritualists also helped make it what it is today. The core of the village is a 150-acre tract acquired in 1877 by the Onset Bay Grove Association, a group of Boston businessmen who wanted to create a spiritualist summer resort. In the years after the Civil War, when millions of Americans were still mourning fallen soldiers, interest in spiritualism -- the belief that it is possible to communicate with the dead -- was widespread.
The association laid out a well-planned community along
the bay. A large amount of open space was set aside for parks and picnic groves, and 700 house lots were available. At first, people camped on their lots, but soon mansard-roofed hotels and turreted mansions were built looking out on the bay, and gingerbread cottages replaced canvas tents. Most are still standing. Visitors arrived by railroad and pad-
dle-wheel steamer, and spiritualist camp meetings attracted crowds in the thousands to the village's waterside parks. By the late 1890s, interest in spiritualism had waned. Looking for a new source of revenue, the association began to subdivide and fence off previously public parks and sections of beach. This was vigorously opposed by the Onset Protective League, which is still an active property owners' association.
In 1915, after a long legal battle, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled in favor of the league and decreed that "use and enjoyment" of Onset's beaches and parks belonged to the public and ordered the association to remove any structures it had erected.
"Our beach is open to the world and that's a wonderful thing," says John Salerno, who, with his brother, operates Marc Anthony's Pizzeria in the village.
There is no charge to use Onset Beach, and parking in the village is also free. Aside from a public bathhouse, the only building right on the beach is Kenny's Saltwater Taffy by Steamboat Wharf, which has been selling taffy and hot dogs to beachgoers since 1895.
In summer, band concerts are held and movies screened under the stars in the bayside parks, still protected by the 1915 decree. A beloved Onset summer custom, dating from its 19th-century heyday, is Illumination Night, when more than 1,200 flares are placed at intervals on the beach all around the harbor and are lit simultaneously. This year, it is Aug. 21.
By the 1930s, most vacationers were traveling by car, and with the construction of the Bourne Bridge over the Cape Cod Canal, tourist traffic began bypassing Onset and heading straight to the Cape. As years went by, the village's image gradually faded until it was commonly regarded as a rather down-at-the-heels blue-collar resort. Still, Onset never lost its Victorian appearance and escaped much of the tackiness that afflicted other out-of-fashion beach resorts.
"We're not Nantucket, but we were never Nantasket," says Pearle.
Things change. Today, the roads and bridges to Cape Cod can be a motorist's nightmare in summer, and Onset -- not much more than an hour's drive from Boston -- is increasingly seen as an attractive, less stressful option. There's also an element of nostalgia.
"Onset has kept the character of the old Cape Cod," declares Meg Kistin, owner of Harbor Watch Inn on Onset Avenue, overlooking the bay. A psychologist from Arlington, Kistin moved to Onset last year to buy and renovate the 14-room inn, built in the 1880s as a summer hotel.
Under Kistin's management the inn is open year-round and has a popular restaurant, Blue Oyster Grille, a poolside cafe, and a small nightclub.
"In the last two years, four inns or hotels have been refurbished," Kistin notes. "We're undergoing a renaissance."
Michael and Jackie Kennedy agree.
"This is going to be the next Chatham," Michael says. On Memorial Day weekend, the Kennedys opened Point Independence Inn, a newly restored Mediterranean style mansion on a tip of land with a sweeping sunrise-to-sunset view of the bay.
The inn has six rooms in the main house and three in an adjoining beach house. Amenities include a new day spa offering facials and massages.
The Kennedys have lived in Onset for 10 years and say they've seen local property values soar as older houses have been purchased, usually by out-of-towners, and restored.
"Something is definitely going on," Michael says.
Not everyone in Onset is as enthusiastic about such gentrification.
"I hope that we can maintain a socioeconomic balance," says village-born Richard Knowlton. "I want this to continue to be a place where working people can come on vacation."
Despite all the new things happening, Onset hasn't entirely forgotten its origins. There is still a spiritualist church here, and the distinctive octagonal wooden chapel of the On-I-Set Wigwam Spiritualist Camp, built in 1894, is a village landmark. Twice-weekly services are held at the camp June to September. A series of evening Native American campfire ceremonies starts on the grounds Friday. Meant to suggest an Indian tepee, the bright red wigwam contains photos and mementos of past spiritualist gatherings, including "spirit drawings" done by mediums who were supposedly in trances.
Some things in Onset will never change. "A nice day at the beach is still what Onset is about," says Anne Campbell, president of the Onset Protective League. "That's what it's always been about."
For information about activities and events in Onset, visit the Onset Bay Association at www.onsetvillage.com.
William A. Davis is a freelance writer in Cambridge and can be reached at email@example.com.