Imagining a Thanksgiving dinner with a few of Cape May’s finest

I’ve been thinking about Thanksgiving since it is- well November – and trying to figure out who I’ll be inviting to dinner this year. Then I got to thinking, if I suddenly found myself in the Cape May version of Valhalla (the hall for slain heroes), who would I invite to share Thanksgiving dinner with me?

 First off, where would we host the event? I think it would most definitely have to be held at Congress Hall because it was built in 1816 and the heroes/heroines would know where to come. Besides, it has that nice ballroom which would be perfect for seating such a distinguished gathering. Which brings us to the next question, (which, if you’ll remember, was actually the first question) who to invite?

Then I thought, who cares what I think, why not ask someone who knows a little something about the history of Cape May? I immediately thought of Robert E. Heinly, aka Dr. Emlen Physick and the Museum Education Coordinator for the Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts (MAC). He very promptly sent me his guest list. I, in turn, issued the invitations. So, please come along with me while we time-travel to an imaginary Thanksgiving with some folks from the past who had a vision of a future which forever changed Cape Island.

 The guests start entering the Ballroom at Congress Hall around 7. I’m a bit nervous but everything is in order. The table is set. All the servers are at their stations. The drinks are simple – Mulled Cider, Eggnog, and a Holiday Punch – I think that’ll cover most time zones.

The dinner menu will consist of five courses:

Pumpkin Bisque served with Sweet Potato Biscuits
Kentucky Cornbread Salad
Traditional Stuffed Turkey with Southern Cornbread Dressing
Sweet Potatoes, Mashed Potatoes, Cranberry Relish, Creamed Corn
Pumpkin Pie, Apple Pie served with coffee or tea.
A snifter of brandy. Cigars optional.

Once we are all seated, I tap my glass. “Lady, (I nod to our only female guest Dr. Anna Hand) and Gentlemen? Before we start serving dinner, I want to thank you for accepting’s invitation to come back to Cape May and share Thanksgiving with us. You probably all know each other, but I thought we might go around the table and introduce ourselves. If you don’t mind Mr. President, I’d like to start with Dr. Hand.”

“Ladies first of course,” said President Benjamin Harrison.

The diminutive lady’s skirts rustled as she moved forward. She clasped her hands on the table and looked at everyone around her before speaking. Then, she smiled and shrugged her shoulders.

“There’s not much to tell really. My name is Anna Hand. I began my practice here in Cape May in 1892 following completion of my studies at the Women’s Medical College in Philadelphia. Afterwards, I took post-graduate courses in the Philadelphia Polyclinic. Then, two years more of practical experience (residency) in the Maternity Hospital and Nurse School of Philadelphia. I was very happy to come to Cape May, having been born in Cape May Court House. I enjoyed a long and fruitful practice. I was a proud member of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) but sadly had to leave the group. I’m a suffragette you know. How we did celebrate that August in 1920 when the states ratified the 19th amendment and women won at last the right to vote. Oh, excuse me. I didn’t mean to talk so long.”

“Thank you Dr. Hand. Mr. President? Would you like to go next?”

“Women won the right to vote? Preposterous,” said President Harrison and there was a general murmur of disapproval around the table.

“Oh, I didn’t mean to stir the pot,” said Dr. Hand.

“Not to worry,” I said but let us continue our introductions. They’re about to start serving the Pumpkin Bisque. Mr. President?”

“President Benjamin Harrison here. 23rd president of these United States. No need to say any more than that. Women voting. My word.”

“And don’t forget Civil War hero and summer resident of Cape May Point, Mr. President,” said John Wanamaker. He then leaned into the table, looked at everyone, leaned back and said, “My name is John Wanamaker. I am a summer resident and founding member of Sea Grove later renamed Cape May Point. I opened the first department store in the United States on Market and Chestnut streets in Philadelphia. I had the great honor of serving as postmaster general under President Harrison’s excellent stewardship.”

The president smiled and modestly waved aside the compliment.

“Why, sir,” said President Harrison, “My contributions are small, indeed compared with those of the distinguished hero to your right. How are you Colonel Sawyer?”

“Just fine Mr. President,” Colonel Sawyer also looked about the table. “My name is Henry W. Sawyer. Thank you Mr. President, I did have the honor of serving the union during the Civil War.”

“Tsk, tsk man,” said Joseph Leach. “Some men serve, you sir, nearly lost your life in the service of the Union. Imagine those Confederate blackguards putting up a Lottery of Death. Why if it wasn’t for President Lincoln’s intervention, you’d have been hanged and we would never have had the pleasure of seeing that Southern Belle – The Chalfonte Hotel added to our fine roster of hotels. What’s that? Oh yes. Joseph Leach, editor and publisher of The Cape May Ocean Wave, the city’s first newspaper.”

“And let us not forget a leader in the community. Without your excellent editorials urging Cape Island to bring the railroads to town, this fine city of ours may have languished in obscurity. My name is John C. Bullitt. My partner, Frederick Fairthorne and I built several hotels in town. Among them, Columbia House and the Stockton Hotel. Although I do not see my partner here, I would like to acknowledge that none of our projects would have been possible without the creative talents of the distinguished architect sitting across from me – one -Stephen Decatur Button. At the age of 71, Mr. Button designed the Lafayette Hotel for that chap – what was his name Button?”

“Victor Denizot,” said the quietly spoken Mr. Button. “Ah, Stephen Decatur Button” he nodded to the group and to me, “I wonder? Are any of my buildings still standing?”

“Many of them are still standing sir,” I said. “Columbia House, as you know, burnt down in the great fire of 1878.”

“Yes, thanks to you, you arsonist,” charged John C. Bullitt pointing his finger across the table to Samuel Ludlam.

Ludlam simply stared back at Bullitt with stony indifference.

“I’m sure I do not know that to which you are referring.”

“You were seen leaving the Ocean House. You were seen boarding the train that fateful morning and the conflagration started not long after the train left the station. And you were seen cashing the insurance cheque some weeks later.”

“None of those charges held. I was and, am still, exonerated. If you have any further proof, my dear sir, hold forth, by all means.”

“Proof? Here’s the proof – 11 acres of prime property from Perry Street to Gurney Street. From Washington Street to Beach Avenue destroyed. You did it and we all know you did it.”

“Well then my good man, prove it.” And he sipped his cider, snapping his fingers for the server to fill up his glass.

“Why you scoundrel, I ought to give you a thrashing.”

“Settle down Bullitt,” said Colonel Sawyer. “Don’t be so disagreeable. After all, there are ladies present.” He then, nodded toward Dr. hand and me.

“Out of respect to you Colonel and of course to the ladies.” And he sat down.

“I wonder if you could tell me a little something more about my buildings,” said the Button in a voice so soft, everyone grew very quiet.

 “The Stockton Hotel,” I said, “was demolished in 1911. A movie theater, a bistro, an ice cream parlor, and several retail stores facing Beach Avenue are at the site now. As to the Lafayette Hotel, the pillars and overhanging roof were demolished in the 1920s, although that change actually highlighted your design. However, the hotel was demolished in 1970 to make room for a new hotel which they called the Marquis de Lafayette Hotel.”

The architect looked rather sad and began to sup his soup.

The others all started talking at once. ‘What does the town look like now? Is the hunting still good?”

“Fair questions,” I answered “and ones which I’ll be happy to answer, but please, first, let us finish our introductions. Some of you may not be acquainted with Mr. Ford.”

 Henry Ford looked a bit puzzled but I stayed quiet. I didn’t think it polite to remind him that many of the guests had already died by the time he brought his great invention to Cape May for speed trials.

“Henry Ford. Not from Cape May but owned about 1200 acres of land on the other side of the bridge  (where the Garden State Parkway now begins) along with my friend Dr. Physick. I invented the Model A horseless carriage in 1903 and brought the Model A to race and conduct speed trials on the expansive beaches of Cape May that same summer.”

“What in tarnation, sir, are you talking about?” asked Peter Paul Boynton, aka The Pearl Diver.

“Watch your language you scallywag you,” shouted John Bullitt. Looking at me, he continued in a very accusatory tone.  “What are these arsonists doing at a table filled with such distinguished personages?”

“I will call you out for that man,” said Boynton. “I was not to blame for that 1869 fire. No charges were ever laid upon me.”

“Oh yes. And I suppose you never fired your pistol at that poor unfortunate woman’s head a month later down at the train station?”

“That was an accident. I lost everything in that conflagration. I was distraught. The Oriental Shop was a credit to the community.”

“Distraught from guilt. Credit to the gambling community. The United States Hotel was one of the grandest dames of our city. An entire city block from Ocean Street along Beach Avenue up Jackson Street gone. Some of our oldest and most distinguished residences and properties burnt down in a matter of minutes. The United States Hotel, the New Atlantic and the American hotels gone. All because of you. Everyone here knows you had gambling markers all over town. You skedaddled pretty quickly once you collected that insurance money. The Pearl Diver indeed.”

“I risked my life to save unfortunate bathers who could not swim well against the currents. How do you think I arrived at the nickname The Pearl Diver? Who else here can say they saved as many lives as I?”

“You saved them for a price. Sea bathers paid you to watch them. The hoteliers paid you. I paid you. Do not paint yourself a hero here at this table.”

“Why I will not break bread with a man who so sullies my name.”

“Gentlemen,” I said, fearing things had gotten a bit out of control. A little too much mulled cider I suspect, “Please stay seated,” I urged all the guests and most particularly messieurs Bullitt and Boynton. “Look. The Kentucky Cornbread Salad is about to be served and we still haven’t heard from Dr. Physick.

“Oh I guess I could describe myself as a gentleman farmer,” said Dr. Physick. “I had the good fortune to buy Eliza Stites Cresse’s plantation on the bay side of Town Bank a ways back. 1868 I think it was. Then, of course, mother and auntie lived with me on the plantation here in Cape May. You know, when I died, I was negotiating with the city. They wanted to buy that beachfront property tract to build a convention hall. What ever happened to that?”

“Your heirs completed the sale. A convention hall was built and still stands there today. As to your Town Bank property. That is now known as North Cape May and Town Bank. It was subdivided in the 1930s. That venture failed but a revival one after World War II was quite successful.”

“You mean there were ‘World Wars?’” asked Henry Ford.

“World war? The whole world at war?”” asked the Colonel.

“Yes. We’ll save that story for another time shall we? Maybe during dessert.”

“Tell me,” asked Mr. Wanamaker, “Is my cottage still standing? And my lovely Sea Grove, still as lovely as ever?”

 “Oh yes Mr. Wanamaker, Cape May Point is still alive and well. The Wanamaker cottage, previously the Harrison Cottage is still standing but was moved in 1916 to the corners of Yale and Cape Avenues.”

“Yes. I was still living at the time when we moved it,” said Wanamaker. “We had quite the publicity about that cottage didn’t we Mr. President? Imagine anyone thinking our gift of a summer cottage to the president and his fair wife would in any way constitute a means to encourage investors to buy land. Preposterous! Well, of course we were land speculators. Why wouldn’t we be? We would be remiss in our fiduciary responsibilities to the community if we had not taken care to see to it that Sea Grove, excuse me, Cape May Point, continues as a productive community and a religious retreat.”

“Here, here,” several of the men, Leach, Bullitt and President Harrison said.

“Well, well,” I said, “Look they’re bringing the Tom Turkey out. I wonder, Mr. President, would you be so kind as to carve?”

“I would obliged if you would carve the turkey Colonel Sawyer” Harrison replied. “You didn’t bring your sword with you, did you?” he asked with a wry smile.

“As a matter of fact I did. I didn’t know quite what to expect when I got here. I always like to be prepared. I’d be honored sir. Bring ol’ Tom on over here. And Madame, the Kentucky Cornbread Salad was a marvel. May I ask? Thanksgiving? So the holiday stuck?” inquired Colonel Sawyer looking up from the turkey as he cleanly and very scarily sliced the leg off that turkey like a man who knows his sword or his turkey.

“Oh yes. The last Thursday in November.”

“That Lincoln,” said President Harrison, “he sure knew how to play the crowd, didn’t he John?”

“Yes, sir, he did.” Looking at me and seeing my quizzical expression, Mr. Wanamaker explained, “You see George Washington actually proposed we have a Thanksgiving in honor of the pilgrim’s landing but his Thanksgiving came at harvest time in October. President Lincoln made his Thanksgiving proclamation right after his speech Nov. 19th in honor of the dedication of the Gettysburg Cemetery.”

“Now some say,” added Colonel Sawyer who was nicely slicing the breast of the bird, “that he made the proclamation to divert attention from the war. Some say that he shrewdly changed the date knowing his reelection was in peril. And some say that woman Jessica Hale, editor of Godey’s Lady Book, pressured him into it.”

“I heard,” said President Harrison laughing, “That she had been trying to pressure presidents to make the day a national holiday for some 20 years. I guess Abe finally bowed to pressure.”

“Well, Dr. Hand and gentlemen, whatever the reason, I am thankful he did it and am thankful to share this day with you. A toast to all of you. Know that your contributions continue to be felt here where the citizens of Cape Island are forever in your gratitude. Cheers!”