This story originally appeared in the Spring 2012 issue of Cape May Magazine.
Cape May Point rejoices in being quirky, quaint – but authentic– and off the beaten path.
No commercial enterprises are permitted at the Point. It’s the law. Only residential dwellings are allowed as decreed in the most recent municipal master plan. It’s a way of keeping the Point the way it is – a small seaside village of simple tastes where nature rules.
The only store is the General Store which was grandfathered in as a place of business because it’s been around since the 1930s. It’s a seasonal store and restaurant, and opened just last year after being closed four summers for renovations. The only other place to shop is the rather secluded Cape May Bird Observatory, where you can buy gifts and supplies for bird watching and study.
There are no schools at the Point, and there is no residential mail delivery. This means the most popular place, year-round, is the Post Office. I don’t know why it is, but I love little old post offices that speak of their unique communities and assume the personalities of the people who live there. Small post offices are fading pictures of American life – like the crab shack, the custard stand, the red barn, the farm silo, the country school house and gas station. They are an endangered species, these folksy hubs of life; many now threatened with closure by the U.S. Postal Service.
If you want to know what’s going on at the Point, the Post Office is the place. As spring begins to bloom, Postmaster Melissa Lomax is watching for her “snow birds” coming home from the south and the city folks heading down to open for the season. Sometimes, even before they unlatch their doors, the locals make a hasty run to the Post Office to see who’s back in town, check on the winter’s news, gossip and weather.
If you’ve been going to the Point Post Office for any period of time, you know the weatherman extraordinaire is longtime former Postmaster Wes Wright who still works the window and p.o.boxes part time.
When Hurricane Irene was whipping up the coast last summer, he said he wasn’t worried much. “Look,” he said, “I gauge the severity of the storm on where the Weather Channel’s ace Jim Cantore is stationed. “If he’s at the Cape May Pavilion, at the Cove, I am outta here. But he’s not here, he’s up in New York. Irene’s gonna blow right by.”
Wright operates with a police and fire scanner in the background. He always seems first to know the news. When everyone was worried about three Philadelphia TV helicopters hovering over Higbee Beach, Wright reported, “Awe, it’s rescuers pulling out a horse stuck in the mud at Pleasant Valley.”
He’s an avid sports fan, a holder of one share of Green Bay Packers’ stock. After the Giants whipped the Packers in the play-offs, Wright was telling customer Mike Neary, “I’m going to call up a couple of those players and ask how come is it, that in Green Bay, an icebox, they’re not used to the cold yet, dropping footballs like snowballs.
“Oh, and by the way, Mike, your six-year-old granddaughter, Ella’s, picture is in the Borough Newsletter for designing the sea turtle, the 2012 Point beach tag. You must be proud.”
“We are family here,” says Postmaster Lomax. “We care about each other. Many of our folks still write letters and checks by hand, and send greeting cards. Eighty-eight-year-old Elizabeth Theobald walks to the Post Office every day to get her mail, and her exercise. We also have a thriving retired population who are busy with second and third careers. Their communications and shipping help keep us very busy here.”
Former Mayor Malcolm Fraser is a walk-in regular. “We are just one square mile at the very southern tip of New Jersey. Because of our remoteness, our off-season population is about 300, but in summer, that number explodes about 10 times to 3,000 people.
“Our year-round population,” he says, “has professional interests in many surrounding states. The Marianist Retreat Center [John Wanamaker House, Cape May Magazine, July 2011] has a year-round program. And the Convent [St. Mary-by-the-Sea: Nature Meets Nurture, Cape May Magazine, Fall 2006], with its summer vacation program, draws people from all over the country. Our Post Office is a vital link to all our commercial and communication services. To funnel our mail to Cape May or Lower Township would be a disaster for all of us.”
The old grey building at 408 Yale Avenue resembles something from a John Wayne movie set. There are still rings attached to pillars where horses were tied. Owner Rick Benoit, a third generation Pointer, rents the space to the Postal Service. He has renovated the remainder of the building into two comfortable apartments, one of which he and his family use as their vacation get-away.
The building was once the Springer General Store. It opened in 1897 following several stores around town, selling fish, meat, cigars, dry goods and millinery. The Springer store was the most successful and outlasted the others. Alexander Springer was postmaster and mayor. His store served as both the post office and town hall.
Sally Sachs loves the lore of the old general store.” There was a small coal stove to warm hands and hearts. Boxes were pulled from high shelves with a grasping tool while gossip gushed from lips. We have replaced that dear country store with our Post Office. Walking, biking or driving to that daily destination affords us not only our mail, but a chance to catch up on household news, be it happy or sad. The Post Office and its friendly, helpful postmasters connect us all as the large, caring family that we are here, extending to our guests and renters. It is a feel-good center for our tiny town.”
The tiny town was first called Sea Grove, established in 1875 by wealthy devout Presbyterians John Wanamaker and Alexander Whilldin, as a private religious enclave where sin was not welcome. The U.S. government decided that Sea Grove itself was a sin against federal regulations. It was not a legal municipality; it was concluded, but operated by a band of private entrepreneurs for religious purposes. What’s more, the Postal Service did not like the name Sea Grove because it sounded too much like Ocean Grove. It took a few years and a couple voter referendums before Sea Grove became legally and officially Cape May Point.
Though Wanamaker’s Sea Grove was a failure, the Philadelphia department store founder continued to spend vacations at his villa at the Point. He was an ardent Republican and during the 1888 presidential campaign, raised a record amount of money for the national Republican party and the election of Benjamin Harrison as president. Harrison lost no time rewarding Wanamaker. He appointed him Postmaster General March 5th, 1889. During that summer, the Wanamakers entertained the First Family at their beach house. By the next summer, the President and his wife had their own, even finer, house on waterfront, financed by Wanamaker and his rich Philadelphia friends.
Wanamaker was Postmaster General for four years. He handled the job the way he managed his department store – with innovative procedures and imaginative marketing. Under his watch, the Post Office Department issued its first commemorative stamps, a 15-cent series celebrating Columbus’ voyage. The first issue sold an astounding $40 million worth. The commemorative stamp program is still going strong today.
Wanamaker was sympathetic to people in the hinterlands who complained they were forced to travel by foot and horse over long distances and muddy roads to pick up their mail. He proposed RFD – Rural Federal Delivery – but the idea was c
ontroversial. There were fears such a large government program would bankrupt the country. RFD did not become reality until after Wanamaker left office.
So it is that Postal Service financial problems are nothing new. Today the USPS says it’s broke and has to take some dramatic steps about saving money. Some small New Jersey post offices will be closed. But the little vibrant, vital centerpiece of Cape May Point is not on the list.
And that’s good news for everybody – and a few good canine, too, like Bailey and Magellan, who wait patiently for their owner, Aileen White, to come out with her mail – and doggie biscuits, courtesy of the Postmaster.