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Post office at the Point

This story originally appeared in the Spring 2012 issue of Cape May Magazine.

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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.

Postmaster Melissa Lomax

Postmaster Melissa Lomax

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.

Springer General Store

Springer General Store opened in 1897

“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.

The interior of Springer General Store

The interior of Springer General Store

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

The Cape May Point post office today

The Cape May Point post office today

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. historic-endmark


The Grey Ghost

Text by Karen Fox. Photographs by Macy Zhelyazkova.

It is a summer place. But as the days shorten, the shadows lengthen and waters turn steely, the Grey Ghost in all of her high Victorian Gothic elegance takes hold of the landscape and reigns over land’s end where the ocean and bay meet.

Lofty dunes thrown up by winds and storms protect the Grey Ghost’s first floor backside. Spectacular views open wide from second and third floor windows, decks, verandas and screen porches. Each vista offers a special look. Many views framed in bedroom windows and porch pillars are as well composed as the watercolors that hang about the house. There are scenes of the Cape May Point Lighthouse, the Cape May-Lewes ferries, fishing and sailing boats, oil freighters, beachgoers, dolphins playing in the surf, native vines and bushes lacing the dunes, and the manicured gardens below. The place is magical.

Beloved by artists and photographers for its romantic porches, finial-topped dormers, peaked roof lines and the special light that plays off the waters, the Grey Ghost’s image is among the most popular at Cape May Point. There it shares history with other architectural treasures – the lighthouse, St. Mary-by-the-Sea, St. Peter’s-by-the-Sea and the John Wanamaker Cottage.

The Grey Ghost began its historical journey as a cottage in the Sea Grove development. More than 130 years later, it is one of the best preserved early Victorian buildings at the Point.

Owner Anne “Mimi” Thorington says the house is believed to have been built in 1879 as one of the cottages erected as part of the Sea Grove community. “According to old maps,” she says, “this house originally stood on Beach Avenue, then on Diamond Avenue, and finally here at Cape and Pearl avenues. The house was moved twice to prevent destruction by the sea. The original locations are in Delaware Bay.”

In the beginning, the house stood next to the American-bracketed, villa style Wanamaker Cottage. It, too, has been moved and, ironically, is still a neighbor, now situated diagonally across the street from the Grey Ghost.

Anne Thorington purchased the Grey Ghost in 1987. She had been fascinated with the house for years, as had been her mother. She bought it as soon as it was for sale, before it went on the open market. The house at the time had just undergone a major renovation and she added some finishing touches, including the lovely garden that provides colors and textures from spring to late autumn.

“When Fred Ohliger purchased the house before me, in 1985, it was virtually unsafe,” says Mrs. Thorington. “For the next year the house underwent extensive rehabilitation under the supervision of Mr. Ohliger’s associate Ruth Frost and performed by contractor Shramm and Hallman. Sections of the house had to be jacked up to make it level. The second floor porch was about to fall off. Existing porches on the first and second floor were rebuilt and third floor porches were added. Back stairs were revamped and a bathroom added.”

The cramped Victorian kitchen was transformed into a utility room featuring the home’s original sink. A large handsome kitchen was installed in a “catch-all” area. The big white globe light fixtures in the kitchen and utility room are antiques from a post office. And the old tins atop the cupboards were found in the house.

An unusual feature is an antique elevator from the first to the second floor, installed for a previous owner who was handicapped. The mechanisms are in place, but not functional. The Thoringtons use the elevator shaft areas as closets.

The interior of the cottage, like the sea and sky on a perfect summer’s day, is bright and airy, with sheer and lace curtains. Wallpapers and fabrics cool in soft pastels and the furniture is a happy combination of white whicker and white metal/brass beds. The floors and staircase are pine restored to a silky gloss.

The Grey Ghost is a demanding property, says daughter Debbie Thorington. “The blowing sand acts like sandpaper on the home’s paint, and winds from the nearby ocean can make dampness a real problem. The house with its two tones of grey and maroon trim frequently takes on the spirit of the weather around it and on a foggy rainy night seems almost spooky.”

“No one is sure how the Grey Ghost came by its nickname,” says Mrs. Thorington, “but before its renovation, it did look ghostly.” She is too practical to believe in ghost stories. However, there was a painter who refused to work on the house because he apparently heard about ghosts there.

Anne Thorington loves houses – and horses.

Horses are part of her local history, past and present. When she was a girl her mother packed up the family in Philadelphia, including Anne’s pony named Betty, to spend the summer in Cape May. More recently Mrs. Thorington acquired a Cape May Carriage horse that eventually led her to competitive driving.

She has owned several Victorian homes in Cape May. The first, at 210 Congress Place, required extensive work. The next, the rosy-pink house with the blue shutters and white gingerbread trim, located on the corner of Hughes and Franklin streets. “I put a picket fence around it,” she says, “because when I came out the door, there would be strangers on my porch. Hughes was too far away from the ocean for me.” She moved closer to the water, purchasing 23 Ocean Street. “The house needed a lot of help,” she says. “I completely renovated it, including restoring the exterior Victorian detail. I named it Beaver Cottage after its first owner. It is now Beauclaire’s B&B.”

And then, the Grey Ghost at the Point. Because the house was moved, Mrs. Thorington says its early history has been difficult to trace through the normal channels of deeds and mortgages at the courthouse. A previous owner had commissioned a gentleman by the name of Gil Gilbert to put together a nomination for Historic Landmark status. The nomination was never submitted, but the information helps tell the early story of what is now the Grey Ghost.

The porches, tall façade, hard-angled dormers and gables lead to a description of the Grey Ghost as “the largest and the ‘purist’ in style of a number of Gothic cottages,” designed by Philadelphia architect James Charles Sidney in the Sea Grove development.

Sidney, born in England, was a leading surveyor in the United State and had experience in civil engineering, cartography (map making) and landscape design. He is credited with designing a large portion of Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park and homes for the affluent in Chestnut Hill and Germantown.

He was a logical choice when wealthy wool merchant Alexander Whilldin and retail merchant John Wanamaker decided to carve a religious community from the wilderness and call it Sea Grove. The two merchants, devout Presbyterians, were dismayed by the sinning – the gambling, prostitution and drinking – at resorts, including the city of Cape May. Sidney’s assignment was to design a community that would become “a moral and religious seaside home.” It was to be a place where the devil was not welcome.

The 260 acres of tangled forest were owned by Alexander and Jane Whilldin, who transferred the property to Sea Grove for $42,000. There were 980 building lots. When Sea Grove opened in the summer of 1875, more than 200 lots had been sold and 27 cottages were ready for occupancy. As fast as the community developed, it failed financially.

By 1878 Sea Grove’s name was changed to Cape May Point, and only a few more cottages were being built. One was the original of the Grey Ghost. Albert G. Croll, a Philadelphia dry goods merchant, bought a plot of land on the beach in 1878 with the provision he build a house in 14 months and the construction apparently was completed within a year.

According to Mrs. Thorington, “We do know that in 1917 John Sharp Blackburne, Jr. and his sister, Agnes Croll Blackburne, moved the house to its current site, which had been the location of the Centennial Hotel. Built in 1876, the hotel was destroyed by fire in the early 20th century. The Blackburnes were from Philadelphia and, in fact, Mr. Blackburne owned and leased the land on which the John Wanamaker store stood, an obviously enviable financial situation.”

The two Blackburnes summered at the house from 1917 until Mr. Blackburne’s death in 1969. It was known as the Croll-Blackburne House or Blackburne Cottage. Mrs. Thorington says that in 1970 the property was sold to George and Sarah Qualls, (later to become Sarah H. Thompson). The couple subsequently was divorced and the property divided, with the wife getting the house and the husband the vacant land. The land was sold and a new house was to be built on it. But Anne Thorington, a couple of years after she bought the house, purchased the vacant land to once again make the property whole. It is used as a natural area for birds and butterflies.

That’s the story of the Grey Ghost. But are there ghost stories? Certainly the house has been home to many personalities. And the building itself has a strong personality, an etheric, the ability to provoke awe and spiritual connections with the sea, sunrises, sunsets, through all kinds of weather, especially when the fog rolls in. Then she rises out of the haze in all her high Victorian, Gothic elegance. It’s part of her mystique, and perhaps one can imagine ghosts – or angels – there.


The Gingerbread Church

This article originally appeared in Cape May Magazine‘s Winter 2009 issue.

In this season of holiday gingerbread houses, let us open the pages of a storybook about a gingerbread church.

Spirit Catcher Photography

St. Peter’s-by-the-Sea Episcopal Church sits pretty as a picture on a small triangle of land at Cape May Point. As autumn fades into winter there are many days when its blue-gray color matches the sea, which is obscured by a high dune thick with pine and bayberry, stretching around the point where the Atlantic Ocean meets Delaware Bay.

The prim building, enclosed in a white picket fence, is affectionately called “The Gingerbread Church.” That is because of fancy in the wood trimming and stick ornamentation overlaid on its vertical tongue-and-groove siding. The church is described as a very fine example of stick architecture popular in the Victorian era from about 1870 to 1910. The wood accents, painted white, appear like frosting on freshly made holiday gingerbread.

St. Peter’s is one of the smallest buildings anywhere to have the honor of a National Historic Landmark listing. Its history is complex, and its architect and builder are still a mystery despite years of research by church members and historians. The diminutive building merits the unusual distinction of having been moved six times since its arrival at the Point! Most of the moves were to save it from washing out to sea.

In the beginning, St. Peter’s was erected at the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park. Early accounts indicate it was either the Swiss or Swedish exhibit, but a search by St. Peter’s historians found that the Swiss exhibit, purchased by the United Methodist Church, was occupied as a residence north of Williamsport, Pennsylvania. The Swedish schoolhouse ended up in New York’s Central Park. And, so it is that the building’s original use also remains a mystery.

It was at Machinery Hall on the Fairmount Park grounds, as the Centennial celebration was closing down, that four Episcopal clergymen paid $100 for the frame. St. Peter’s Senior Warden John Mather says the clergymen had been “wanting to build a church at Cape May Point where a number of church family members had purchased or built summer cottages.”

The frame was modular, easily dismantled and shipped to Cape May Point by railroad. On a lot at Harvard Avenue and Lake Drive, it was reassembled and opened to a small congregation in July 1880 despite stormy weather. Services have been held summer Sundays ever since.

St. Peter’s is sweet as gingerbread in appearance and personality. Its spice is the life that emanates from the humble structure. The church has represented a coming home for generations of Cape May Point summer people and visitors. “Welcome home,” says John Mather, over and over again, as he personally greets the Sunday worshipers. Many he knows. After all, this was his 84th season at the Point. If he’s not acquainted, he introduces himself and extends a personal welcome.

[The Gingerbread Church] is a crossroads of Cape May Point life, and those connections spread out and intertwine.” – Bishop Gallagher

Bishop Carol Joy Gallagher

For Bishop Carol Joy Gallagher, who presides at services once or twice a summer, St. Peter’s is home. Her parents, the Reverend Donald and Betty Theobald, owned a summer place at the Point before she was born. She grew up at their cottage on Cape Avenue. Her favorite event was and still is the bicycle parade which still ends at her family’s front yard. Bishop Gallagher, now 53, rode in the parade as a child and was on hand this year for the annual event. Her family’s tradition is serving the bicyclists Kool-Aid and cookies, water ice and Krimpets. “The parade keeps growing,” she said. “This year there were 500 youngsters.”

As a musician, Bishop Gallagher sometimes sings part of her sermons. She has written two songs that are printed in the Women’s Hymnal. She plays the piano and a Celtic harp. In 2001 she became the first American Indian woman to become a bishop in a major Christian church. She is a member of the Cherokee nation through her mother whose maiden name was Elizabeth WalkingStick. Her maternal great-great-great-grandmother walked the Trail of Tears from North Carolina to Oklahoma, in a forced exodus of Native Americans from the southeast in the 1830s. “My mother still has my grandmother’s hymnal in Cherokee,” says Bishop Gallagher. “It’s the heirloom that gives an identity of who we were as Cherokee people.”

It is the connectedness that makes St. Peter’s so special. The Gingerbread Church “is a crossroads of Cape May Point life, and those connections spread out and intertwine,” says Bishop Gallagher. Though Cape May Point is but a village, the connections seem to multiply like the biblical story of the loaves and fishes.

For instance Fred West was an acolyte at St. Peter’s, sang in the choir and ran errands for church bazaars. His brother Robert and sister Jane, twins, were confirmed there. His grandmother was a Richmond, Virginia belle who first discovered Cape May in 1917 and later on enjoyed a lifetime of vacations at the Point with her daughter, Roberta, and five grandchildren. Fred met his high school sweetheart, Hillary Davis, on St. Peter’s beach and married her at the church in 1976. Now 32 years later, Hillary is an Episcopal minister who returns every summer to say services at the little church that has been a hub of the family’s life.

August 1955. The 75th anniversary of St. Peter’s-by-the-Sea was celebrated with a number of distinguished ministers present. At this time, the new Hammond organ was dedicated with Mrs. Sidney Mather performing at the keyboard. Photograph courtesy John Mather.

Fred’s mother, Roberta, passed away in late 2008, and though she lived in Richmond, he focused a large part of her eulogy and his memories on Cape May Point connections.

“We spent full summers at the Point,” he said. “As soon as school let out we piled in the old Plymouth station wagon and stayed until the day before school started. That day we shopped for shoes because none fit. Summers were barefoot.

“In the early ’50s,” he said, “Daddy bought a whole block in Cape May Point, right on the ocean with three big derelict houses, for a small amount of money [$7,500]. He hired the Navy engineers, the Seabees, stationed at the Point lighthouse station, to renovate the houses. He sold two and kept one for us.

“Summer vacations at the cottage represented the very best of times for the young West family,” he recalled. “The cottage slept 19 people. We had guests all the time with only one bath and an outside shower. Brother Robert, very young at the time, remembers the Victorian tub being large as the ocean. The local year-round kids told us our cottage was haunted. Mother was deathly afraid of crickets. She would scream when confronted.

“The children would put on plays,” he said, “using the large library table in the living room as a stage. We would fish off the beach, go bike riding for hours, play Monopoly on rainy days and just hang out on the front porch rocking chairs looking at the ocean. We saved our money to rent horses for two dollars an hour at Dickinson’s farm and rode on the beach. We played baseball in our big backyard with only three houses on the entire block.

“Our property had been the former [William A.] Braun estate, the main house, a guesthouse and servants’ quarters,” he explained. “We lived in the guesthouse. Daddy got on the roof one day, wrapped a chain around the big old dome on the main house, attached the chain to our station wagon, and pulled off the dome just like that.

“The water that came out of our spigot was just awful. We had a big glass jar we filled with the only fresh water at the Point from a pump at Lake Lily. We had lobster for dinner many nights. Life was magical until tragedy struck….”

Joe West, the father, died suddenly of a heart attack at Cape May Point in July 1960. And, in March 1962 the notorious Ash Wednesday Nor’easter barreled in and devastated the family’s oceanfront cottage. Fred West says that his Cape May Point lifeguard boss, Major Frank Rutherford, told him that while he was rescuing an elderly lady, he watched the six-story Chelsea Hotel, across the street from the West house, slip into the ocean like a sand castle.

Rev. Hillary West taking a moment between services at St. Peter’s in summer 2009.

Roberta West, never daunted, sold her damaged house to owners of a rigging company who were able to lift it up, and restore the foundations. She used the $5,000 sale proceeds to buy a lot five blocks inland and designed and built a new cottage, out of storms’ way. St. Peter’s continued to be the family hub.

Robert West starred in church theater productions at the Fire House and his mother arranged for a first time folk mass with tambourines, guitars and other string instruments.

Usually in attendance at these events was the family’s original Cape May connection, grandmother Catharine Pleasants Butterworth. She was a friend of the Satterfield family, owners of the Chalfonte Hotel. In 1917, she and a young lady friend boarded a train from Richmond for Philadelphia with a connection for Cape May and an extended holiday at the Chalfonte. There she met a young Philadelphia attorney, fell in love, married and felt lucky to return to participate in her grandchildren’s summer joy at the Point.

A highlight of the St. Peter’s social season back then was the big beach cookout. A station wagon was dispatched to the country to pick up the best corn. A large hole was dug in the sand, lined with bricks, and a roaring fire set. On the glowing embers chaperones placed the corn, packed in a large burlap bag, dampened with sea water. While the corn steamed, the young people prepared “angels on horseback,” frankfurters in buns, wrapped with strips of bacon and toasted over the fire. Homemade lemonade, iced watermelon and toasted marshmallows rounded out the menu. As the stars came out over the sea, the St. Peter’s troop sang into the night.

John Mather has been involved in all these and many other aspects of St. Peter’s.

His great-grandparents summered at the Point as did his grandparents who in 1910 began a series of seasons at Arch Cottage on Sunset Boulevard. The cottage was named for the arch across the street at the entrance of Sea Grove, the Presbyterian enclave that ultimately was unsuccessful and gave way to the name Cape May Point.

“I’ve been here every summer since I was one year old,” says Mather. “My home here [on Coral Avenue] was built in 1928 and located across the street from St. Peter’s on Ocean Avenue. But the storm of 1962 took out so much frontage, my family was forced to move it back four blocks from the sea to the edge of Lake Lily. Some families back then understanding storms’ fury had lots further inland.”

His mother, Edith, who authored an updated version of the church history in 1985, wrote the following on the back of a storm photograph of St. Peter’s: “The church was surrounded by sand high as the porch. And debris: twisted tin roofs, refrigerators, pilings, telephone poles. In the church, not one grain of sand, not one drop of water. It was an emotional experience amid the wreckage everywhere to find the church safe and unharmed. Surely it was a miracle.”

St. Peter’s after the March 1962 storm. Courtesy John Mather.

St. Peter’s-by-the-Sea has had a run of good luck. In the mid-1990s, when the trustees decided to try to earn a National Historic Landmark designation, they faced one mean tide after another. They were about to give up when their network produced architect Michael Calafati. He fell in love with the little Gingerbread Church and did all of the research and presentations gratis. And bravo, in 1994 the designation was awarded. The plaque proving it is now on the front of the church.

The building is early prefab, its main pieces bolted together. An important feature are the shutters hinged so they can be propped open in Caribbean style allowing shade and cooling breezes at the same time. The belfry was added to the church in 1882, rising to support a bell that was donated.

Since the church is situated just a short walk from the sea, it is appropriate that the interior appears ship-shape. The church is completely lined with yellow pine boards that were installed during the winter of 1885. They are stained a rich brown and maintain a soft luster despite the ravages of salty moist air.

Blue as the sky and sea stained glass windows highlight the altar wall to the front and the entrance to the rear. The window above the altar, triangular shaped, was installed in 1935 and is dedicated to Nathaniel J. Dunn “and all workers in this chapel.” The window over the entrance shows Christ looking upon the congregation and reads: “I will make you fishers of men.” It was dedicated in 1985 to J. Sidney Mather who devoted 50 years to St. Peter’s.

The soaring ceiling, the clerestory, features nine windows with amber glass. The morning summer sun creates a soft glow through the windows and onto the wood paneling evoking a welcoming spiritual place enhanced with the sound of the surf. Frequently the organist and choir brave competition from the bicyclists, skateboarders and strollers on the way to the beach, but the music never falters.

Stained glass window. Courtesy Dottie Rogers.

This southern-most tip of the New Jersey cape was first established as Sea Grove in 1875. Presbyterians designed it to “furnish a moral and religious seaside home for the glory of God and the welfare of man, where he may be refreshed and invigorated body and soul and better fitted for the highest and noblest duties of life.” Drinking and card playing were prohibited. The intent was to provide a refuge from the “sinning” at gambling houses and watering holes in Cape May and Long Branch.

Architects laid out the development with a central circle occupied by a large fancy Victorian pavilion with streets running like wheel spokes from the centerpiece. The pavilion allowed for gatherings of more than 2,000 people for religious services and symphony orchestra performances. The developers launched an ambitious advertising campaign hoping to compel the wealthy pious to build extravagant cottages at ocean side and use a new railroad for transportation.

Led by John Wanamaker, the Philadelphia department store mogul, a fancy cottage was built for then-President Benjamin Harrison and his First Lady Caroline. That effort ended in scandal with claims that a Philadelphia-based “syndicate” was trying to buy political favor. [Cape May Magazine Spring 2008, “The Halls Presidents Walked”] The Sea Grove dream was short-lived. The post office name changed in 1878, three years later, from Sea Grove to Cape May Point.

During this time a small band of Episcopal families held summer services in their homes and at hotels. They purchased a lot from the Sea Grove Association in the winter of 1879. Even before finishing the church on this lot, the little building was moved because it was too far away from hotels and cut off from ocean breezes. St. Peter’s opened for services in 1880 on a Cape Avenue lot. The very next season it was moved again because a proposed large building would block its views. Then, lo and behold, the church was placed too close to Beach Avenue (now two blocks out to sea) and once again, the horses and rollers were called in for a move, but this time the distance was only a few feet.

Beach erosion advanced and in late 1896 St. Peter’s was hauled inland one block from Beach Avenue to Cape Avenue. Five years later the Atlantic breached the seawall and the little church was in danger of being washed out to sea. It was then, in 1903, that the trustees chose the small triangular lot, and made the move to where St. Peter’s still stands today at Lake Drive and Ocean Avenue. Not to be outwitted by the sea, church elders purchased a lot five blocks inland at the circle where the Sea Grove pavilion once stood. “We pray we won’t be forced to make that move,” says John Mather, “but let me say, we have a lot of experience at picking up and moving.”

St. Peter’s-by-the-Sea, small as it is, has an enduring legacy as home to generations of Episcopal families who feel blessed by its connectedness. It is large in hospitality too, welcoming strangers of any denomination for worship, or to sing in the choir, if you can make it to weekly practice. By arrangement, it is a lovely setting for an intimate summer wedding and is becoming more popular each year as a matrimonial destination.

At this season of the year, when thoughts of gingerbread are associated with winter holiday goodness, The Gingerbread Church survives as one of the sweetest places in any of the seasons for a lot of reasons.


Working at the Top: Cape May’s Lighthouse Keepers

This article originally appeared in Cape May Magazine‘s Fall 2007 edition.

Mayhugh Palmer Tees inside the lighthouse.

Mayhugh Palmer Tees inside the lighthouse.

She prefers working at the top.

Saturday mornings at 8:15 a.m., this slender dark haired woman, moving with a dancer’s grace, ascends the 199 steps to the look-out at the Cape May Lighthouse. This is her ritual, no matter the sea-swept winds, rain and fog that sometimes shroud the red cap atop the cream tower that is Cape Island’s most visible landmark. On a clear day she can see 20 miles in all directions. This July morning the sun splashes millions of diamonds on the sapphire sea. The light salty breezes rustle her log book as she writes.

She pauses, touches the rail, and circles the observation deck, absorbing the 360-degree view from 136 feet high. She scans the horizon for oil tankers, fishing boats, sloops, schooners and ferries. “Flounder must be running,” she says to herself, observing a village of vessels.

Who is this solitary figure? An apparition, the lost spirit of Florence Arabelle “Belle” Palmer who assumed keeper duties when her husband Harry suffered a serious heart attack in 1933?

Photograph by Thomas Michael Mann

Photograph by Thomas Michael Mann

A surreal phantom she certainly is not. She has a striking resemblance to Cape May’s last lighthouse keeper, Harry Hall Palmer. She is his descendant, his granddaughter– Mayhugh Palmer Tees, who inherited his proclivity for life at the top. Like her grandfather, she is a lighthouse keeper, and has been for 11 years. She is one of several contemporary keepers of the Cape May Lighthouse, a museum since 1988, telling its 148-year history and lore to the 100,000 visitors each year.

“I come early for my watch at the top,” she says, “a half hour or so to meditate and enjoy the beauty, solitude and quiet my grandfather must have experienced at this high level. It is my peace to absorb the power of nature and stay connected to the Palmer family. They lived in that white house down there.”

This only surviving keeper’s house was built in 1860. (It is now the private home of the Cape May Point State Park superintendent.) Originally there were two identical white clapboard cottages, one and one-half stories, with red trim and green shutters. The grounds that ran toward the sea were surrounded with white-washed fences. The basement and walkways were red brick. The first floor featured three rooms, front and back porches, and a stairway to four second floor bedrooms. (One of the houses was later expanded to accommodate two keeper families. It was burned by vandals in 1968.)

LIghthouse Keeper Harry Palmer. Photograph courtesy of MAC.

LIghthouse Keeper Harry Palmer. Photograph courtesy of MAC.

Mayhugh’s grandfather and family—wife, three daughters and son– arrived at their new home at the Cape May Light – the official name- in 1924. Nature forced them to depart the 1767 Cape Henlopen Lighthouse, which was teetering and tottering seaward. They were sad to leave their beloved Delaware, but on crossing the hazardous shoals in Delaware Bay, a bad storm brewed with gale force winds. Daughter Ada later told her son Charles Givens, “We were so seasick and scared that we were all happy to land safely, and start our new life at Cape May Light.” (Two years later in 1926, stormy waters undermined Cape Henlopen Lighthouse and the 45-foot
tower collapsed into the sea.)

His first year at Cape May Light, Harry Palmer earned $960. Stamps were two cents. Calvin Coolidge occupied the White House, Paul Whiteman’s Orchestra introduced George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue and daughter Ada was pulling grass from lighthouse brick walkways, dreaming of a flapper’s dress and hairdo.

Harry Palmer (center) and family

Harry Palmer (center) and family

The post of lighthouse keeper entailed a unique lifestyle for the keeper and his family. The duties were often lonely and tedious and could be downright dangerous when storms buffeted the lantern. It was especially perilous if weather forced the keeper to climb from the watch room to the lantern landing and remove snow and ice from the 16 windows 12 stories up. Harry Palmer, like the long line of keepers before him, night after night, climbed the 217 steps from the Oil House with two and one-half gallons of fuel to fire the light just before dusk and make sure it was extinguished just after dawn. The four-hour vigil, or watch, was alternated with an assistant keeper or two. A watch included assisting with sea disasters, if necessary, and keeping a log of fuel, weather and passing ships. Lenses that reflected the light had to be kept sparkling, brass shined, windows cleaned, the tower and top ball painted. They were the air traffic controllers of their day, writes John Bailey, in his book Sentinel of the Jersey Cape.

Harry Palmer was made of the right stuff for the job. When it came time to paint the lantern roof, and the ventilator ball on top, his daughter Ada told her children, “Father put a ladder on the watch look-out, threw a rope around the ball, and pulled himself up to the roof, waved and painted. All the while, Mother below was protesting loudly.”

Inspection reports indicate Harry Palmer was a meticulous lighthouse keeper. He nurtured his gardens with the same precise energy. He won awards for his hydrangeas. His vegetable garden covered half an acre. Ada’s daughter Harriet says her grandfather was “a very caring caretaker.” He loved peaches, fresh and preserved. He took great pride in his pole beans, tomatoes and corn. His wife stored the canned summer vegetables and prepared pickles in the bottom of what had been the 1847 lighthouse.

Photograph by Thomas Michael Mann

Photograph by Thomas Michael Mann

“They were a close family,” says grandson Charles Givens, a commercial crab fisherman. At night, the Cape May Light falls on his house on nearby New England Road. It gives him a sense of comfort and family connection. “They had a good life at the Lighthouse. When we get together, all the conversations point eventually to life at the light. Grandfather was highly respected in the U.S. Lighthouse Service and at Cape May Point. The locals would come to the Lighthouse for water. It was a gathering place to exchange news, and trade the day’s catch for Grandfather’s produce.”

Though keeper Palmer and his wife never drove an automobile, and were quite isolated, they enjoyed a social life. “They entertained famous ornithologists for dinners from their garden,” says Charles. “Both Witmer Stone, author of the Bird Studies of Old Cape May, and [noted ornithologist] Charles Urner were guests. Grandfather described birds and migration activity he observed from the tower.”

There have been more than 30 personalities involved in three lighthouses at Cape May Point. The first, built in 1823, was 68- feet tall, and is now lost to the sea, the casualty of erosion. The second, built in 1847, had a 78-foot tower and was replaced because it was poorly constructed. This third existing structure was first lighted on Halloween, 1859.

Keeper Caleb Woolson and family. Click for full image.

Keeper Caleb Woolson and family. Click for full image.

The second to last keeper of the Cape May Light was Caleb Swain Woolson, who, like keeper Palmer, has many descendants living within a few miles of the still flashing beacon.

Woolson tended the light for 41 years, from assistant in 1883 to retirement in 1924. He fell off a ladder and broke his wrist and hurt his hip as an assistant, but the next year -1903-was promoted to keeper at a salary of $760 a year. Theodore Roosevelt occupied the White House. Ford Motors incorporated and sold its first Model A. Gas was a nickel a gallon.

The Woolson family. Click for full image.

The Woolson family. Click for full image.

A Woolson descendant, Furman Lee, of nearby Erma, says his great-grandfather stabled cows in the cut-off base of the 1847 lighthouse. “They were self sufficient,” he says. “They produced their own milk and grew vegetables in two big fields.  His daughter, my grandmother, Bertha, bought a house at 402 Holly Avenue, at Cape May Point, for $7.47 at a tax sale in 1901. I was born in that house, just a few steps from Lake Lily, in 1932. The house is still there. My mother sold it for $6,300 in 1963. We were always Pointers. We swam Lake Lily in the summer, ice skated in winter. We walked dirt paths to the beach and school. It was very rural, very quiet. At night, the only light, the beacon and its consistent flash.”

The beacon has been the rhythm to lighthouse life, through historic times and weather, good and bad.

Now, in high season, almost 1,000 visitors a day are drawn to the lighthouse to experience history, the daily steps of the keepers, the weather and the most spectacular views at the tip of New Jersey. Keeper David Yeager, whose granddaughter Jennifer Keeler recently became engaged to Keith Snyder at the top, has been telling visitors stories and answering questions since 1989.

Caleb Swain Woolson. Click for full image

Caleb Swain Woolson. Click for full image

The Cape May Light would not be preserved as it is today if it were not for one of its angels, Tom Carroll, a retired Coast Guard captain. He stayed on in Cape May with his wife Sue in the 1980s to throw all their energies into restoring the old Mainstay Inn on Columbia Avenue into one of the best B&Bs in America. Tom says today he would not have wanted to be a lighthouse keeper. “Too boring and lonely for me,” he says.

But a keeper he is. It was Tom who approached the Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts (MAC) and with persistence and patience cajoled the non-profit organization into a complicated lease agreement that in 1986 saw the deteriorating lighthouse open to the public, but just the bottom. The top was in a sad state of decline. It was rusted, leaking and unsafe, even though it just had been named a National Historic Landmark.

The present lighthouse appears from behind the remains of the 1847 lighthouse. Photograph taken during the mid-70s by Vincent T. Marchese. Click for full image.

The present lighthouse appears from behind the remains of the 1847 lighthouse. Photograph taken during the mid-70s by Vincent T. Marchese. Click for full image.

The rallying cry was “Save the Lighthouse.” Thousands of lighthouse fans bought T-shirts, bricks for $2 each, steps for $100, windows for $500. In just two years the hard work of MAC officers and volunteers climaxed with a ribbon cutting on May 18, 1988. The tower was open to the public for tours, MAC charging admission and hosting a gift shop in the Oil Room to raise more money for continued restoration.

The miracle of the Cape May Lighthouse restoration is that other communities followed the formula so painstakingly worked out here, and have saved many other sentinels of the shore as public places to learn of a beacon’s safety and assurance.

Perhaps the best time to visit the Cape May Lighthouse is at night when precisely one-half hour before sunset, the light is lit. Standing beneath, head craned upward, the cream tower glowing at the red top, that steady beacon against the star-studded sky is comforting as a heartbeat. “The lights are the heart and soul of maritime history and the shore,” says Tom Carroll. “They are steady, friendly, welcoming open arms of light.”

Mayhew Palmer Tees, in navy blue uniform, much simpler than the dress blues with shiny brass buttons that her grandfather keeper Harry Palmer wore, once again climbs the 199 steps to the top. She opens the doors where her grandfather stood watch for nine years, and as he did more than 70 years ago, she lifts the cover of the log book.

She faithfully writes in the book every watch.

5/15/04 “A wedding at the Pavilion. The bride, groom and photographer made the climb to the top. She climbed in sleeveless white gown with a flowered headband, and a single white rose.  A beautiful bride.”

9/11/04 “Three years ago today I will never forget. New York was in chaos. By the time I arrived at the Lighthouse a plane had hit the Pentagon and then Flight 93 destined for its day in history. We must always remember and never forget 9/11/01. I still turn my eyes north and look to the air.”

9/10/05 “The Hill family from Michigan climbed up, walked outside, and got a cell phone call from their Army Sgt. son stationed in Baghdad. The parents described the view.  How extraordinary.”

And so do other descendants:

7/07/04 “We are related to Caleb Woolson who worked at the Lighthouse 1918 to 1924. My family came to this area in 1678, and worked as whalers in the bay and ocean.” Donald F. Woolson, Chicago.

8/15/04 “Family was one of the original Cape May families, came over on The Mayflower. Family ran the stage coach between Philadelphia and Cape May. After many years, we have all finally left Cape May, unfortunately.” Geoffrey S. Hughes.

8/16/04 “It is a shame I missed Mr. Hughes when he was here. I have Hughes in my family tree which also includes the names of Corson (of Hereford Light, in North Wildwood), Hand, Pierce, Swain, Schellenger and Leaming.” Mayhugh Palmer Tees.

The Cape May beacon, that steady, friendly, welcoming arm of light still shines bright.


Hot Dogs & Soda for Cape May Point

Hot dogs, sodas and bicycles are coming to Cape May Point State Park this summer. For the first time in itscmp-hotdogs 38 year history, Cape May Point State Park is advertising for vendors – one for a mobile food concession and another for bicycle rental.

Communications coordinator for the NJ Division of Parks and Forestry, Dana Loschiavo, confirmed that a notice was placed on the New Jersey Parks’ newly launched website, www.njparksandforests.org Wednesday, March 25 seeking “new business opportunities” for two venues – a mobile food cart and bicycle rental – for Cape May Point State Park.

Although other state parks do have concessionaires, up until now Cape May Point State Park has been vendor free. Loschiavo conceded that economics was part of the decision, but the move was also motivated “basically, by word-of-mouth” from visitors and reports from park superintendents who are frequently asked where they can buy a drink or a snack. “It’s not that the park is remote,” said Loschiavo, “but there is not a lot of food or restaurants unless go you into the towns of Cape May cmp-deckor West Cape May and many also said, ‘I don’t feel like walking or riding a bike all the way to the Point from Cape May.’ ”

A press release issued from the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) states that the DEP is offering opportunities for businesses to operate concessions in many of New Jersey’s state parks, forests and recreation areas. Acting Commissioner Mark N. Mauriello is quoted as saying, “There’s no better time than right now to embrace these opportunities to become a concessionaire. Not only is it a chance to launch a rewarding and lucrative business, concessions add something extra special to the experiences millions enjoy in New Jersey’s parks and other recreation areas,” Commissioner Mauriello said. “What’s more, we’re always cmp-beachinterested in exploring new ideas for business opportunities and partnerships.”

According to the press release, the DEP’s State Park Service is seeking proposals from private and nonprofit sectors to operate 23 concessions throughout the state parks, forests, recreation areas and marinas, beginning Memorial Day weekend. Business opportunities range from food services to boat and bicycle rentals.

Concession opportunities are available through a public bidding process. Bids will be accepted until April 29 at 10 a.m. Businesses or individuals interested in submitting bids must first pre-qualify. Prequalification applications must be received by April 17 at 11 a.m.

The State Park Service currently manages some 40 seasonal concessions that generate $1.3 million annually. Cape May Point State Park encompasses 190 acres of the state’s most renowned migration habitats.

cmp-governor

Governor Jon Corzine

In an exclusive Cape May Magazine interview, Governor Jon Corzine was asked about the effect the new concessionaire policy would have on the environment  at the migratory park. “It depends,” said the governor, “on the specifics of the concession that they’re doing. I don’t want to speak to it until I know the facts. If you’re going to be putting neon signs outside next to a trailer selling hot dogs, [that’s a problem]. I think there is a way of having concessions that are very unobtrusive that are really supportive of a visit to one of our open spaces and beaches.”

When asked if this new policy is a reflection of proposed budget cuts, Governor Corzine said, “We’re trying to do everything we can to maintain our parks. It’s tight budgets. We’re not putting any more money in and there are been some increases in fees to allow us to have resources. By the way, that seems reasonable since they have not stayed up with inflation over the years. On the other hand, we’re trying to make them affordable so that people can use our parks and beaches. As you know we have this beach badge controversy up and down the Jersey shore which is really a local issue [Cape May charges for in-season beach access. Wildwood, for example, does not.] as opposed to a state issue. cmp-telescopeEveryone is pressed for resources. You can’t fill a $7 billion hole without making some tough choices.”

Loschiavo said the continuation of the vendors or the addition of more “novelty” vendors will be reevaluated on a yearly basis.

Asked to comment on the new additions, Don Feriday, director of birding programs for the New Jersey Audubon Society, said “We really have no comment. It is something that is done in other state parks and as long as the additions have no negative ecological impact, and I don’t see that happening with what they propose to do with Cape May Point State Park, we really don’t have any reason to comment on it.”

He added that, from a birder’s perspective, “biking is a great way to go birding and has far less carbon imprint than driving around Cape May Point in a car.”