This article first appeared in the Spring 2009 issue of Cape May Magazine.
David Rutherford is a farmer, rare for having grazed his Guernsey and Holstein cows in meadows alongside the Atlantic Ocean. Rutherford, his father and grandfather were born on farmsteads along pastoral Sea Grove Avenue at Cape May Point. The family arrived in 1815, and David has spent his entire life farming and gardening on the mile stretch of Sea Grove that was home to his Ocean View Dairy.
He and his wife Margaret chose the most pristine site for a home they built in 1972. It sits down a long gravel lane with an alee of crape myrtle and native cedars. Brick gateposts, reminiscent of English estates, mark the entry. It is here, on about 12 acres, that David and Margaret spend their days, guardians of all things beautiful.
Their Arabian chestnut horse gazes freely on the manicured lawn bordered by colorful perennial gardens. “He is a very spoiled horse,” says Margaret of Roby. “He threw me so many times I gave up riding,” she says. “Now he is David’s pet. He eats all the figs from our trees despite carrot treats.” He is 24 years old, but appears a colt ready to win a race at Pimlico. “He’s never worked a day in his life,” says Margaret.
David is hand-sowing grass seed on a large plot he has just disked and raked. In a few months it will be a lush green “salad” for Roby’s pleasure. The peace of the place is shattered by the lusty cockle-doodle-do of a rooster, one of the 100 or so Rhode Island Reds picking at their grain outside the red barn. “Oh, he makes a fuss when he senses a threat to his flock,” says Margaret, her Westie, Pearly, in tow. She retrieves a basket of eggs just collected by David. They sell their organic eggs at Westside Market under the name Rutherford Farm.
Margaret shares her favorite spot on the rear porch with her 35-year-old orange tree, showing off several small fruits. The view is a dramatic long vista of the gardens Margaret has designed since moving here from their renovated milk house, a charming stone dwelling with a tin roof further down Sea Grove. From the porch, the swimming pool sparkles on the left and David’s seven-acre forest lies dense on the right, but accessible via his hand-hewn pathways. Straight ahead is a large lily pond, centered with a fountain spurting a high water spout, surrounded by colorful plantings. Perched as the focal point is a statue of Venus, said to be born of the sea. Beyond lies dune grass, the dunes and the ocean.
Over the seasons, the sea winds have sculpted Margaret’s bird friendly bayberries, hollies, nandinas, native cedars, magnolias, winterberries and vibernums . Under her garden hat, with pruning shears in hand, she works the beds, and plots new ones. She is an admitted plant addict. She loves finding unusual specimens that will flourish in her ocean spray environment.
David is a self-proclaimed bush-whacker, and proud of it. He forged his own tool for pruning his forest of black walnut, wild cherry, sassafras, red cedar and white pine. Though 82, he never gives up tackling the stubborn invasive under-story of poison ivy, porcelain berry, honeysuckle and wild rose that choke out his annual planting of seedlings. His woods are part of a state forest stewardship program, a partnership with land owners, to protect and preserve fragile ecosystems and native vegetation so important to wildlife. David is a man of few words, yet he yields to stories about growing up a farmer along the ocean dunes.
“My grandfather hired out his team,” he says. “After the tourist season, his horses pulled in the docks for winter keeping at the steamboat landing at the Point. His horses dredged and shaped Lake Lily.
“My father and I operated the dairy farm. We were looking to expand our farm in the 1950s. The township had some non-tax producing land [for sale] that went bankrupt in the Depression. It was called the Cape May Beach Land Company, headquartered in Philadelphia, and would have extended Cape May Point to the east. Lots were advertised for $150 each! We did buy the land, and all that remains of that failed development is a piece of sidewalk in the field.”
Margaret and David Rutherford have been part of this landscape during 48 years of marriage. Margaret’s family summered at Cape May Point. Her brother was a friend of David’s, and so they knew each other. But they were smitten one summer’s evening when, by happenstance, they met on the rocks at Alexander Avenue to watch the sunset.
Soon after Margaret realized the sad end to summers were part of her past. Marriage meant staying on forever, farming, gardening and watching sunsets with David and all things leafy, furry and feathered.