Faith CoLab: Tapestry of Faith: Faith Like a River: A Program on Unitarian Universalist History for Adults

Unitarian Summer The Isles of Shoals

Excerpted and adapted from Frederick T. McGill, Jr. and Virginia F. McGill, Something Like a Star (Boston: Star Island Corporation, 1989). Used with permission.

In July of 1896, Thomas H. Elliot of Lowell, Massachusetts, brought his wife to the Oceanic Hotel, on Star Island, one island in the Isles of Shoals located off the coast of New Hampshire. The Oceanic was a grand wooden summer resort hotel operated by Cedric and Oscar Laighton, but its operation was suffering from the changing recreational habits of their New England clientele who were increasingly opting for mainland resorts with more amenities and better access. This was the Elliots' first stay at the Shoals. They typically attended the North Middlesex Unitarian Conference meetings at the Weirs in New Hampshire. But Mrs. Elliot had been unwell, and hoped that the sea air would revitalize her. Many years after that first visit, Mr. Elliot recalled a conversation he had the day after arriving at Star Island with the hotel manager, Harry Marvin:

Mr. Marvin: How are you enjoying yourself, Mr. Elliot?

Mr. Elliot: Fine. This place suits me. It is after my own heart. There is only one thing that would improve it for me.

Mr. Marvin: What is that?

Mr. Elliot: There are some meetings going on at The Weirs that I value very much. If only we had them here, I should be as near heaven as possible.

Mr. Marvin: Meetings? What kind of meetings?

Mr. Elliot: Religious meetings.

Mr. Marvin: Well, why can't we have those meetings down here?

Mr. Elliot: (You see, he was looking for business, and was very hungry for it. We were paying 3-dollar a day apiece — a pretty good rate for those days.) In the first place, we could hardly pay your rates.

Mr. Marvin: What do you pay at The Weirs?

Mr. Elliot: We get a pretty comfortable fare for 10 dollars a week.

Mr. Marvin: I couldn't make any such rate as that. (After thinking a bit). Mr. Elliot, suppose we could make you a 10-dollar rate. Do you think you could bring those meetings down here?

Mr. Elliot: (I looked around and took in the beauty of the situation. It was marvelous.) Mr. Marvin, if you will make me a 10-dollar rate here for next year, at both the Oceanic and the Appledore, I will fill them to the ridgepoles. (And then, with more courage than was wise, as I think of it now, I added) I'll go further. I will come under bonds to fill both your hotels to the ridgepoles, if you will make me a rate of 10 dollars a week.

Mr. Marvin: I'll talk it over with the Laightons and see what I can do. I'll do the best I can, for I want you to come.

Another source records Harry Marvin's conversation with Oscar Laighton, co-owner of the hotels. Laighton is reported to have said, "I told him we must act with caution. What is a Unitarian? Are they good people? It won't do to introduce any rough element." Marvin apparently replied that he did not know just exactly what a Unitarian was, but, judging from the Elliots, he would say that they were very nice, harmless people.

Marvin and Elliot prevailed, and, perhaps because of the financial incentive, perhaps because of the Elliots' enthusiasm, or perhaps it was just the right time, 610 people registered for, as it was advertised, "Unitarian Summer Meetings at the Isles of Shoals, ten miles at sea—10 dollars per week," six times the usual attendance at the Weirs. In fact, "one or two late applicants had to be turned away because a couple of Appledore employees had already given up their rooms to guests and were sleeping on cots in bathrooms."

Reminiscing about that first conference thirty-five years later, Thomas Elliot said, "The enthusiasm of that first year has never, I think, been quite equaled... Given 610 people of one mind and one purpose, and something was bound to happen, and did happen. I cannot but think that life that season on that sublime island was more like heaven than any other similar experience on this broad earth."