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Month: March 2002

Cape May Point: Naturally for the Birds

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If you asked ten people “What and where is Cape May Point?” you’d probably hear ten completely different answers. For instance:

“It’s a little piece of heaven.”

“The lighthouse is there.”

“That’s where the birds migrate.”

“They have a big lake there, don’t they?”

“We have a very special place. People who live here and people who visit can feel it.”

The last answer, from Cape May Point resident Sally Sachs, perhaps says it best.

Geographically, Cape May Point is the southern-most tip of land on the Jersey Cape, the spot where the Atlantic Ocean mingles with Delaware Bay. This sometimes violent mingling has washed portions of the area, including streets and houses, completely away.

Politically, Cape May Point is a municipality with its own mayor, post office, fire department, one general store and just over two-hundred registered voters in less than one square mile. The summer population swells to four and five thousand. What this town lacks in size it makes up in heart and spirit.

“For our size, we’re a very concentrated bit of energy,” said Sachs, who has served on the Cape May Point Environmental Commission for fifteen years, the last five as chairperson. “We’re all naturally inclined here.”

This natural inclination has resulted in a town that now serves as a model for other communities not only in Cape May County and New Jersey, but throughout the country, especially along the coasts. Zoologist Eric Stiles, who works for the New Jersey Endangered Species Program calls it “a model community in the use of planning to sustain a high quality of life. People lament something once it is gone; Cape May Point is a strong example of what a community can accomplish.”

What has been accomplished seems nothing short of amazing in light of the current real estate frenzy. In spite of skyrocketing land values and booming growth all around it, Cape May Point has managed to hold on to its small town “feel.”

While neighboring Cape May revels in her history and celebrated Victorian architecture, Cape May Point residents quietly cherish their natural wonders. Sachs listed them, “Two kinds of beaches, ocean and bay, a lake, a circle park lovingly landscaped to attract birds and butterflies and the Cape May Bird Observatory, all within a ten minute walk of each other.”
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But what makes those features so unique and gives the whole place an extra special feeling is what was done well over a decade ago to protect habitat for migrating birds. Sachs and her husband Walter (who served on the borough council until his untimely death) realized in the mid-1980s that there was very little in the way of planning ordinances on the town’s books. Walter, who had taught city planning at the University of Pennsylvania “had the tools to explain planning and educate the community,” explained Sachs. “He felt he was saving the town. Some people thought he was meddling, but he helped keep it the way it is.”

There were some feelings against the new ordinances, but most of the residents supported them. “The landscaping ordinance came from the people, not the government,” asserted Keith Rice, president of the Cape May Point Taxpayers Association. “We are a very environmentally-conscious community, because we’re a stopover for migratory birds and butterflies. We’re different from most shore towns; we have no stone lawns, no houses five-feet from each other, we wanted to maintain the green look.”

Perhaps the most important ordinance is the dealing with landscaping and vegetation, or naturally growing plants, trees and vines.

“What precipitated it was seeing lots indiscriminately cleared,” Sachs went on. “We said, ‘We’ve got to do something to preserve this.’”

Pat Sutton, Program Director at the Cape May Bird Observatory remembered 1987 when three lots next to the Bird Observatory were “bulldozed flat. It was appalling. The community was appalled. Pebble lawns were going in. The Environmental Commission under Sally and Walter got active. They had a lot of work cut out for themselves.”

Sixty-seven ordinances were passed. One of the new laws set limits on how much floor space a home could contain relative to the size of the lot it sat on. “Walter knew the importance of town planning,” related Malcolm Fraser, mayor of Cape May Point for the past eight years. “Seashore communities were growing topsy-turvy in the 1980s. He was trying to keep Cape May Point from suffering the wall-to-wall building that is in many communities.”

The Bird Observatory was trying to help Cape May understand what they were sitting on, or under, or both. “Cape May is a crossroads of migration,” explained Sutton. “Millions of songbirds, shorebirds, hawks, owls, bats, butterflies, and dragonflies migrate through this area every year.”

Sutton began Operation Flight Path and the Backyard Habitat Program in 1987. “The Atlantic City casinos were going full steam, and a lot of growth was being funneled into Cape May County,” remembered Sutton. Acres of bird habitat were being transformed into manicured lawns. “Rather than be depressed, I thought I’d see what I could do with what I had to work with.”

She put together a handbook describing which trees, shrubs, vines, and perennials are most important to birds for food and cover. All are native species, plants that grow here naturally, rather than Asian ornamentals, and those birds look for to find food and shelter when they arrive here on their long journeys. They include trees like the Red Cedar, American Holly, Crab Apple, and Wild Black Cherry. All are uniquely adapted to weather and soil conditions found in this area.

Her work wasn’t lost on the residents of Cape May Point. “We shared a way of thinking and made information available. They were made aware that this is a really special thing they own. They embraced the idea; it makes sense.”

“Everyone here realizes how important Cape May Point is internationally. We are the last gas station for birds and butterflies,” said Sachs. “If we took it away, where would they be?”

RedWingBBRD430The New Jersey Audubon Society awarded Cape May Point’s Environmental Commission its Conservation Award in 1990 “for leadership in protecting New Jersey habitat for migratory birds.”

Eight years later, the state required each community that draws water from Cape May’s wells to pass a landscape ordinance similar to the one Cape May Point had worked out.

Both Cape May and West Cape May looked to Cape May Point and patterned their ordinances after the Point’s. “Indeed we were ahead of our time,” reflected Sachs. “This community is a very thinking, caring group of people.”

What surrounds Cape May Point besides the ocean and bay contributes to its natural ambiance as well. Its neighbor to the northeast is Cape May Point State Park, which in addition to the famous lighthouse, contains miles of trails through a gorgeous maritime forest and several fresh water ponds. The park, until it was turned over to the state in 1962, was a World War II U.S. Navy coastal artillery unit.

Beyond the park, lie the South Cape May Meadows. Donated to the Nature Conservancy, these acres of open space provide habitat and feeding grounds for the huge numbers of birds that migrate through Cape May each year.

On the other side of the Point is Sunset Beach, a popular spot for visitors to search for Cape May diamonds, bits of quartz which have been polished smooth by the surf. Just past the waves, rest the remains of the Atlantus, a two hundred fifty-foot “concrete” freighter built during World War I.

Intended to serve as a dock for the Cape May -Lewes Ferry, this mass of steel and concrete broke free from its mooring during a storm and became stuck bow first in the sand where it sits today, lapped by gentle waves.

Heading north again is the site of what was once the Northwest Magnesite Plant.

PointpathWb.jpgClosed decades ago, the land has recently been purchased by the state to remain as open space. Ornithologist Witmer Stone studied birds there in the early 1900s, publishing the findings in his Bird Studies of Old Cape May. After his death in 1939, the land became the Witmer Stone Wildlife Refuge, until 1942 when the magnasite plant was built to supply special bricks used in manufacturing steel. One can’t help but imagine that Stone would be pleased to see this land once again dedicated to wildlife. Next to it is Higbee Beach, a State Wildlife Management Area running all the way to the Cape May canal.

Cape May Point and its surroundings have become a popular destination for visitors and locals alike. Many consider a bicycle ride to the Point to enjoy the circle or walk around Lily Lake – an essential part of the Cape May experience. Birding has grown in popularity so much that the state last year quadrupled the size of the hawk watch platform in Cape May Point State Park.

The area continues to attract bird lovers, some eventually buying homes here. Judy Lukens and her husband Karl bought a second home at the Point four years ago made it their permanent home this year after retiring. They now work for the Bird Observatory as volunteer associate naturalists, chosen for their birding skills, and lead five or six birding expeditions every week.

Judy tried, too, to put Cape May Point into words. “I love it here,” she said. “I love the quiet, I love being out seeing migrations in progress everyday. I feel like I’ve been here forever.”


Antiques and Masterpieces Sold Here

This archived article was prepared and written in 2002. While several of the shops have closed and others have opened, the essential experience described by the author remains relevant.

finishingsignfinishing_lampIt’s no surprise that many shoppers in the market for antiques gravitate to Cape May, a city which is itself  a Victorian masterpiece. A walk through some of the city’s antiques shops brings shoppers in close touch with the spirits of other ages, including but by no means limited to Victorian times.

Some 18 antiques shops — most of them within walking distance of one another–are scattered throughout Cape May. At almost any one of them, visitors can pick up a concise visual guide — an easy-to read map, complete with the location and phone number of each antiques shop.

The gentleman who prints this handy map is Bob Anderson, owner of Finishing Touches on Washington Avenue. Anderson is one of those antiques dealers who specializes in one type of merchandise. His expertise is decorating services — antique lighting, wall coverings, window shades — and his shop is filled with antique lamps–many of them a century old — including etched-glass chandeliers, lamps made of satin-cased amber glass, and patterned glass oil lamps. He sees the atmosphere of Cape May as a definite benefit to antiques sales.

finishing_lamps2“I think it’s very nice that [we] are in an area where people come because it’s an old town. You have that audience drawn here,” he says.

finishing_clockAnderson knows a lot about how lighting worked in the Victorian age, and his merchandise and decorating services come with stories of the past. He knows, for example, how to convert an old gas light into a modern electrical appliance, and what kinds of patterns were popular on Victorian walls.

Such tales add life to material things. Suddenly, Victorians are all around, carrying gas lamps down dark hallways. Much of the charm lies in the history.

Some of the charm, of course, also has to do with quality and attention to detail. “Old wood is different than new wood,” Anderson notes. Likewise, old glass has a clarity not found in newer versions. And if trends matter, Anderson sees a heartening one: “Quality is selling like crazy. People are buying the real good stuff.”

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roseisaroseoutside22rose_lace2Just a few steps down the street from Anderson, Dottie Mitro has more stories to tell at A Rose is a Rose Antiques. Mitro also specializes in Cape May’s favorite old folk, those flashy Victorians, and she knows what she’s talking about. Point to any item in her store, and she’ll relate a bit of cultural history to back it up.

A simple napkin ring, for example, reminds her that such a small item was an individual possession for Victorian diners. Each person had his or her own napkin ring. That’s why, Mitro notes, you won’t find matching sets of them.

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Glassware is a particularly bright addition to her shop. “During Victorian times, they had a piece of glass for everything,” she explains, pointing to a lovely glass celery-stick holder. “When they set a table, it was completely full. More was better.”

And more is what antique-seekers find in her shop.

The goods here are high-quality, from intricate French lace to an Eastlake mahogany butler’s desk to the lovely,  odd hair wreaths and jewelry that were a distinct Victorian art form.

Pictures cannot capture the beauty of the Victorian hair pieces. These piece are exquisite and must be seen in person to fully appreciate the craftsman ship of each one. A Rose is A Rose Antiques carries one of the largest collection of Victorian hair jewelry in the area.

A Rose is a Rose also features, within its cozy quarters, a male-themed section. This corner of the shop, the work of Dottie’s husband, George, is neatly outfitted with antique bamboo fishing poles, old fishing lures, and other decidedly “male” items. Certain repeat customers, George notes, return just to see what kinds of fishing poles he has in stock.

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outofthepastfrontIn a charming building that resembles a dollhouse itself, Jeannie Herman, owner of Out of the Past, follows an eclectic theme, with a decidedly strong emphasis on domestic and literary wares. Here you’ll find kitchen appliances from the early to mid-1900s, vintage clothing reminiscent of “I Love Lucy,” and old photos in elaborate frames. Herman’s eye for interesting detail is sharp, and curious bibliophiles will delight in such bits of nostalgia as a Royal Cookbook from 1940 or an 1873 English and German Bible.

“People just tend to buy things that evoke memories,” she says. And here, memories abound.

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capeislandfront2cape_ivorycases3On nearby Jefferson Street, owners Roger and Heidi Crawford  and manager Judy  Penza have filled the spacious Cape Island Antiques  with the accoutrements of 19th and 20th century American life. Here the emphasis is on Victorian and Rococo Revival furniture, along with antique and collectible accessories. A stroll through their shop awakens an imaginative curiosity.

Whose treasure was that carved ivory needle case? … at what sort of gathering was coffee poured from this silver pot? … whose house was lit by that 120 year-old porcelain and glass lamp?

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Antique dolls, hand-painted dessert plates, celluloid dresser sets and a wealth of other items are arranged on intricately carved furniture throughout the shop, all evoking nostalgic questions and memories.

“You have so many people trying to buy back their childhood,” says Penza, noting that even items from the not-so-distant past, like Barbie dolls from the 50s, have acquired a monetary as well as nostalgic value. And the Cape May location, she notes, serves double duty. “People come down here looking not only for the shore, but for everything else Cape May has to offer. It’s like getting a glimpse of a more relaxed and Victorian way of life.”

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Cape May’s Victorian theme does not, of course, limit its antiques sellers to that time period. Many purveyors of the past dwell in other eras.

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tabbyoutsidetabbyinsidecupboardAt the Tabby House in West Cape May, Cindy and Ken Sweitzer take us through 18th and 19th century America, with a store filled with American primitives and high country furnishings of that era.  Their spacious shop is reminiscent of households of old, furnished with period mantles, benches, grandfather clocks, and accessories like brass chambersticks, pepper jars, bakery cupboards, and spinning wheels. The antiques here are unfinished and authentic, and include lovely examples of furniture decorated with grain painting, a popular style of the early to mid-1800s.

And for some shop owners, “eclectic” is the watchword.

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hobbiehorsefront3hobbiegraniteA little to the west, on Broadway, Tracey Oliver and Pam Cohen run Hobbie Horse Antiques, another warm shop overflowing with diverse items, both antique and collectible. Amid arrangements of Depression glass, Limoges, and vintage jewelry, shoppers will find curious surprises like a pair of vintage satin nightgown slippers. The shop also boasts a nice collection of well-kept graniteware from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. A couple of porcelain top tables remain but Tracey warns they are in demand these days. The shop is currently building a new used book section with lots of  old hard and soft bound titles.

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antiquedknoboutside2So how big can a place called the Antique Doorknob be?  One would think small, right?  But one would be mistaken.  Yes, there’s a massive showcase of polished brass hardware — doorknobs and keys and more — some dating back more than a century.  But the most obvious items at the Doorknob are the mantels, scores of them along the walls, some mirrored, some ornate, almost all made of carved hardwood.

antiquedknob_mantlesIf you want one, proprietor Bill Causey will be happy to deliver it and have it installed for you. The cost?  Mantels themselves range between $350 and $15,000. Installation prices vary.

antiquedknob_caseAnd there’s more “big stuff” in the shop on the corner of Park Boulevard and Myrtle Street in West Cape May. How about stained glass windows?  There’s one  hanging by the front door that might need a room built around it to accommodate its size and curvature.  And if the light from that window isn’t enough, pick from a vast array of glass and brass antique lighting fixtures.

Each piece in the shop is an original. No elegant copies here, and no stories left untold. In fact, before you let the door close on your view of this shop, ask Bill about the piano — the Spencer piano with the connection to Lady Diana. That in itself is worth a visit..

Other Cape May shops specialize in distinctive goods — from antique millinery (Ellen Christine) to marine-themed treasures (Bogwater Jim). Such shops are all brimming, not just with memories made visible, but with evidence that as we push forward into the unforeseeable future, the past is always with us.

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Giving the Past a Future: Naval Air Wildwood

kittyinhanger2A step through the doors of Hangar #1 is a step back in time. Music from the 1940s drifts in the background, and the smell of engine grease fills the air. Aircraft mechanics banter with each other as they tend to a flock of planes and helicopters left behind by generations of innovation. A resident cat, Kittyhawk, laps cream as she waits to fulfill her duty of chasing birds.

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A few miles up the road from Cape May, Hangar #1 is  home to a different sort of history than the rambunctious Victorian period so fabulously celebrated in this beloved National Historic Landmark city.

Different, yet important enough that Hangar #1 has made its way to both the New Jersey and National Registers of Historic Places.

All but forgotten and crumbling until a few years ago, the hangar is now being transformed into the Naval Air Station Wildwood Aviation Museum. Today (even in the middle of winter) it bustles with the efforts of a foundation committed to preserving the memories and  machines of  World War II.

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Naval Air Wildwood circa 1943

In 1942 the Naval Air Station in Cape May was badly overcrowded, so the government built Naval Air Station Rio Grande. Hangar #1 stood in the midst of barracks and three five thousand foot runways. By 1943 it was renamed Naval Air Station Wildwood due to  confusion over the name — many people thought it was in Texas. Throughout the war it served as a training base for the pilots and gunners who went on to form squadrons of aircraft carrier dive bombers headed for the Pacific Ocean.

Retired orthopedic surgeon Dr. Joseph Salvatore remembers the planes zipping overhead on training flights when he was growing up in Wildwood. “I knew this airport and hangar as a boy,” he recounted. I’ve always liked this building. It’s a real treasure.” When he heard the county might tear it down, Salvatore got together a group of people interested in saving the place. In May of 1997, after two years of negotiating, the Naval Air Station Wildwood Foundation, with Salvatore as its chairman, bought the hangar from the county for one dollar. Salvatore credits his 25 years of involvement with Historic Cold Spring Village as paving the way for this project. “The Air Station is independent of Cold Spring,” he explained. “We share some of the same board members, and we’ve learned a lot about organizations.”

Memorial plaque for the 38 airmen who lost their lives training at USNASW

Memorial plaque for the 38 airmen who lost their lives training at USNASW

The first job the foundation faced was stabilizing the building. The 92,000 square foot wooden hangar was literally falling down; there was a twelve thousand square foot hole in the roof. The foundation soon received a grant of $402,000.00 from the New  Jersey Department of Transportation’s ISTEA program to repair it. Another grant of $535,000.00 from the New Jersey Historic Commission is being used to restore the rest of the building. The restoration is transforming the hangar into an aviation museum, dedicated to the memory of the thirty-eight men who died while training there.

Museum Director Anne Glowacz oversees this exciting time of growth for the project.  “I’m pleased that we’re bringing history to life. Between the visitors, the aircraft, and the building restoration, there’s never a dull moment around here!” she said. The museum is opened to the public; a $2 donation is requested. In 2001, over ten thousand people came through the doors and there has been increased interest since the attacks of 9-11.

airbaseplanesleavingA growing collection of aircraft in various states of restoration is housed in the hangar.

They include two Lockheed T33s and a Soviet MiG-15 donated by James Beasley, an AH-1 Cobra helicopter that served in Vietnam and Somalia on loan from the U.S. Army, and  an HH-52A Seaguard  Helicopter that served on the Coast Guard icebreaker “Polar Star.”  New exhibits are being assembled, a library is almost completed, and a distance learning program for school children is in place.

All of the aircraft needed major restoration when they arrived, some were actually in pieces.  Museum staff member Tom Collins, a retired Philadelphia police officer and Vietnam veteran who served as a door gunner on a similar helicopter, worked on both helicopters and installed a small video theater in one, where visitors can learn more about the craft. He works closely with volunteer Dave Shuhart, a fellow veteran, and says of his work, “I love it. I can’t wait to come back everyday.”

seaguardThe latest plane to arrive at the museum is a TBM Grumman Avenger. It came by way of Canada, where it was adapted to drop water on forest fires. Since landing in the hangar (via flatbed trailer) in July of 2001, volunteers have been busy stripping the plane of its firefighting gear, and are preparing to return it to the condition it was in when it came off the assembly line at the General Motors plant in Trenton. The largest single engine planes flown during World War II, ten thousand were manufactured and less than fifty are flying today. The plane is also of interest because former President George Bush, Sr. flew and was shot down in one when he served. Volunteer Dick Ryan, who served in the Air Force for thirty years, predicted that the plane would take three years to restore. “We’re in the very beginning stages of restoration,” he commented. “It’s a labor of love.”

mig15Fellow volunteers Al Bennett and Jim McGill share that love and are spending lots of time at the hangar these days working on the old plane. Bennett served in the Marines for three years as an airplane mechanic, then studied aeronautics in college. McGill was a crew chief in the Air Force, then worked at the hangar after the war when it was the home of United States Overseas Airlines.  Their skills are proving invaluable as parts are ordered to replace the planes bomb bay doors and machine gun turret. Its wings lay avengernearby on the floor; they won’t be reinstalled until work on the fuselage is further along. Bennett explained, “This plane could get off a carrier really fast due to the shape of its wings.”

The Foundation also hosts a variety of special events at the hangar.

An  annual Fly Fest has grown into a popular favorite with aviation enthusiasts, a September swing dance with a live band is headed into its third year, and speakers from as far away as Bremen, Germany and as close as Wildwood have given lectures about World War II experiences.

cobraGlowacz noted, “It’s truly a joy to meet the veterans who visit and are so animated when they relate their experiences.”  Salvatore agreed, “They come here to reminisce, and find they’re on the same wavelength. I can listen to them for hours.”

The Naval Air Station Wildwood Aviation Museum is open year-round. Please visit www.usnasw.org for more information on the hangar and how you can help “Give the Past a Future.”

Naval Air Station Wildwood Aviation Museum
500 Forrestal Rd. Cape May Airport
Rio Grande, NJ 08242
609-886-8787
www.usnasw.org

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Black and white photographs provided by the Naval Air Station Wildwood Aviation Museum. HH-52A Seaguard  Helicopter and artist rendering of future NAS Aviation Museum were taken from The Compass of Naval Air Station Wildwood Aviation Museum. Color photographs by Lisa Bernstein.

Naval Air Station Wildwood: A Veteran Remembers…

curtisnapier1Longtime North Wildwood resident Curtis Napier arrived at the Air Station one week before Christmas of 1943. A farm boy from Harlan County, Kentucky, Napier worked for the Army Signal Corps building radios while attending college in Lexington. As the war continued, he felt pressured to join the Army. Instead, he chose to enlist in the Navy, and requested a job in the fleet. “So they put me in aviation,” Napier recalled with a laugh. “That’s how they got us crazy guys to climb in the back seat.”

He went to Norfolk for ten weeks of aviation radio school and four weeks of gunnery school. “Then they sent us up to Wildwood to train and form a squadron of dive bombers.” There, Napier said, “We learned maneuvers flying together to do what we would do in combat.”

airbase2Napier described his job as a radio/gunner on the SB-2C Helldiver he trained for that winter. “There were two of us on the dive bombers, a pilot and a gunner. I worked the radio and let the bombs go.” The training runs took them north along the Delaware Bay.

They practiced going up to an altitude of 20,000 feet and released fourteen-inch smoke bombs onto the marshes below.

Soon Napier’s squadron was sent to the Pacific on the USS Hancock, at the time, the largest aircraft carrier in the Navy.  Napier flew thirty-five missions, looking for Japanese boats and dropping two thousand pound bombs on them. “Flying off the carrier wasn’t bad,” Napier recounted. His plane went up to an altitude of thirteen thousand feet, then dove and dropped its bombs. “You hung on and tried not to black out. You were trained for it.  You have to get that in your mind. It’s a war, and you do it.”

curtisnapier2Napier survived getting shot down in his plane and having his carrier bombed twice by Kamikaze pilots. He returned to New Jersey and married the sweetheart he met while training at the Air Station. They settled in Wildwood and raised their family.

Recently, Curtis Napier returned to the hangar to give a talk about his experiences during the war. He keeps his feet planted firmly on the ground these days, but the preservation of the hangar will surely remind him … and all of us of America’s greatest triumphs.