Oh, those pesky Cape May beach tags! Everyone complains about them. Some try to wrangle their way out of buying them. Still others go out of their way to buy them early. And then there are those who collect them. Beach tagcollectors can be easily spotted. Some, like octogenarian Karl Suelke, wear their collections. These are conspicuous by their attachment to baseball caps and sweatshirts loaded with as many past beach tags as space will allow. And some, like former city manager and ex-council member Fred Coldren, tuck them neatly away in one 1½-inch notebook, carefully preserved and organized according to year and type of tag and including artwork, posters and design options which were rejected at the time. He has even named his collection – How many do YOU have?, a reference to other collectors.
Beach tags, you say? What are they? For 30 years, Cape May has charged beach goers a fee for using the beaches. You can buy a seasonal tag. Many locals and cottagers make sure they buy them as soon as they go on sale in December for stocking stuffers and to save money. If purchased before March 31, they cost $15 each. After March 31, the price goes up to $25. Short term visitors can either buy a weekly or three day pass. And if you’re a day tripper, you can purchase a daily tag.
Every year, my boss walks down to city hall and buys his four beach tags. Every year I balk at the thought. I’m not going to buy a beach tag, I say. We don’t go often enough to justify the expense. Besides, I say, why should I pay to go on the beach? Wildwood is free. However, midway through the summer I find myself with four kids in town, ages ranging from 6 to 16 and I realize how perfectly ridiculous I look asking kids, chomping at the bit to hit the waves since about 7:30 a.m., to wait until 4 in the afternoon to go to the beach because that’s when the beach taggers go off duty. It takes just one instance of my lurking along the promenade scoping the sand looking for beach taggers, then looking over at angry, curious eyes of anxious kids, towels and boogie boards in hand, for me to see the error of my ways and end up buying the two seasonal beach tags anyway. I only need two because the under 12 kids go free, which yes, makes me look even more ridiculous.
The truth of the matter is Cape May has some really great beaches and an excellent beach patrol, and that costs money. But I was still curious about how all this came about and Fred Coldren was nice enough to tell me the story of beach tags.
In 1977, the City of Cape May was second in the state to adopt a beach fee ordinance. “I was a member of City Council at the time,” he said, adding that he, along with council member Arthur “Mickey” Blomkvest and Deputy Mayor Adrian S. Capehart voted for the ordinance (two council members voted against it) to establish beach fees in the city.
“Our three goals,” he said were to (1) raise revenues from beach users to help defray the costs of beach protection and maintenance; (2) ensure public access to oceanfront bathing beaches in Cape May; and (3) begin the process to restore sand to the badly eroded Cape May beachfront. Our first goal was reached successfully in the early years of the beach fee program; the second was accomplished within 10 years by 1986; and the final goal that turned into a $50 million beachfront restoration was accomplished in 15 years in 1991, with ongoing maintenance authorized through 2040.”
But why does he collect beach tags? “Well, I designed most of them up until the summer of 1989,” when he stepped down from his position as city manager. “And I helped pass the ordinance which I think did the city a lot of good. Revenue from the sale of beach tags was a major contribution to the financial stability of the city.”
Sitting in Fred Coldren’s living room, looking over his collection, I am fascinated with the assortment of plastic tags in front of me and it dawns on me that the history of the city can be benchmarked according to some of the seasonal designs.
The first design was a tiny sailboat which Fred said he came up with very quickly to get the program started. The next year, 1978, depicts a gaslight. “This,” said Fred, “was the first of two-color tags, designed to support a Cape May priority of keeping our 120 or so historic gaslights burning despite a natural gas shortage and a state order to turn them off. The entire Cape May community mobilized to fight the ban and eventually won the right to keep them operating to the present.”
The 1980 whale logo gave the nod to whale watchers and an acknowledgement of Cape May’s original settlement by whalers from New England. The next year’s yellow ribbon celebrated the 10th anniversary of the Washington Street Mall. Tulips the following year helped to support Cape May’s fledgling spring Tulip Festival which paid homage to Dutch Sea Captain Cornelius Jacobsen Mey, whose explorations of the Delaware River in 1620 led to the peninsula on the northeast side of the bay being named Cape Mey, later changed to Cape May.
Speaking of explorers, it was English Sea Captain Henry Hudson who in 1609 originally made note of the peninsula while sailing his small yacht the Half Moon between the Atlantic Ocean and the Delaware River. To that end, Cape May’s 1984 beach tag celebrated the 375th anniversary of the discovery of Cape May. Does this mean we can look forward to another nod to Captain Hudson in 2009 when the 400th anniversary rolls around?
National events have also inspired beach tag designs. Grief over the January, 1986 destruction of the space shuttle Challenger and the death of all seven crew members reflected, according to Fred, “the hopes of the community and nation that the U.S. would continue to Explore Sea & Space Safely.” More recently, the tragic events of September 11th were remembered during the summer of 2002. The patriotic beach tag read simply: “Cape May Season 2002 Remembers Sept. 11th 2001.”
One of the most interesting beach tags, said Fred, was the 1987 limited edition Century Tag which sold for $100 apiece. The Century Tag was used to raise funds, according to city records, for the support of the Building Fund for the Cape May Beach Patrol headquarters. Fred recalls that about 600 Century beach tags were sold that summer raising nearly $60,000 to “help finance the construction, reduce the burden on the taxpayers, and give tag owners access to Cape May beaches for the entire 20th century…through the summer of the year 2000 A.D.”
“It was a bargain,” said Fred, “You got 12 years of beach access for $100, instead of paying the $10 original price (not to mention regular increase…$12, $14, etc. every year), but it also involved many residents and visitors in a worthy cause. Everybody who purchased a Century Tag got a special Certificate of Appreciation with a gold embossed city seal and an invitation to the dedication, as well as recognition.”
To celebrate the restoration of Cape May’s beachfront following completion of the Army Corps of Engineers’ beach replenishment project, the city issued a special souvenir beach tag in 1991. And, in acknowledgement of the Army Corps’ continued efforts to restore the beaches the regular seasonal pass depicted a beach scene with a sign next to the dunes which read Save Our Beach.
Fred is particularly fond of a third special beach tag issued the summer of 1986 in recognition of the Visit of Halley’s Comet, ironically the same year as the Challenger disaster. The tag reads Cape May, NJ, USA, Earth and was distributed as a souvenir to school children. “I designed,” said Fred, “distributed and personally paid for this special tag production for fun.”
So, now my question is – if I wanted to start collecting beach tags today, where would I look? Fred said he and other collectors find them at yard sales, flea markets and sometimes on eBay. Of course, I could look in the bottom of my desk drawer. I tried eBay but all I found were 11 beach tags from Cape May Point and that’ll never do because I don’t beach at Cape May Point. “I recall,” said Fred, “seeing one rare tag sell for $35.” Whew! That’s a lot of money to pay and still not be able to get on the beach. Speaking of which, I have seen the light and vow, beginning summer of 2007, to always buy a beach tag and whine about it no more. They do seem to have done more good than not.
A passionate collector and true believer, Fred Coldren sums it up like this. “Beach tags have played a very important role in Cape May’s history as a source of revenue, a fair allocation of costs of maintaining the beaches to those [who] use them instead of just the local property taxpayers, and to make possible the highly successful beach restoration project.”
And that’s the end of the story of beach tags. Make sure to buy yours either at City Hall or down on the beach. And tell me – How many do YOU have?