Five Generations Have Stakes in the Island
I don’t know which was more challenging: the homemade tent on the beach in Holgate, first used by my grandparents in the 1920s, or the middle cabin on the Beach Haven dock. The tent promised a week of wet sand and unyielding canvas cots. The cabin was dark, gloomy and stuffy, especially with an extra relative invited by my father at the last minute.
Fishing was clearly a priority for the man of the “house” at both locations. The tent was steps away from abundant surf fishing, and the dock jutted out into the bay. On land he couldn’t be any closer to the home of the fish than that. I can’t produce an accurate account of the number of fish caught, but the week in the tent, followed by a week in the dock cabin, left my mother with a strong desire to spend a vacation in a soil-rooted house, with doors and lots of windows.
She must have been effective in her subliminal suggestion campaign. The next year we contacted the Blair Agency and rented a house on 26th Street in Ship Bottom, separated from the Coast Guard station by a narrow street and watched over by the Coast Guard tower at the beach end of the block. The house was sturdy, if not elaborate, replete with a permanent roof, a semi-screened porch and all the requisite doors and windows.
The Coast Guard station was an important feature that especially pleased my 8-year-old fancy. On Saturday nights dance music filled the neighborhood, and from my bedroom window on the street side of the house, in addition to hearing the music, I was able to look across the street, through the open doors of the station, to watch the Coasties and their dates dance.
The surprise relative for the dock-cabin week was just the vanguard for the troops of people my father invited to be with us in Ship Bottom. Always a generous man, he felt if we were fortunate enough to have rented a house at the shore, it was nothing less than a moral obligation to share the good times. Some came with our prior knowledge, others unexpectedly. Some brought vegetables from their gardens; others had nothing to add to the larder. Some brought their own sheets and towels; others imagined we had an endless supply of bed linen, worthy of a resort hotel. Some of them brought their children, never quite the right age match for playmates for me.
In spite of all our company and the resulting hubbub, during the second summer in the agency house, the folks next door, who owned their own home, asked if we would be interested in renting directly from them for future vacations. I believe the house is now called “The Hedges,” but to us it might as well have been named “Heaven.”
The couple’s adult daughter had done much of the woodworking in the house, so her personal touches accounted for the recessed shelves in the kitchen and much of the design of the upstairs sitting area. The rest of the second floor was largely one open space, divided by draperies into private sleeping quarters. In addition to the kitchen, the first floor had a living/dining room, bath, and a bedroom that opened to an enclosed, jalousied porch. The tent, dock-cabin and even the agency house withered on memory’s vine as our new house took root in our hearts.
We were in that house several summers, enjoying not only the structure but also the closeness of the Pioneer Food Market around the comer, Seiler’s Drug Store, White’s frozen custard stand, the Beach Market several blocks away, the post office in the private home across the street and, of course, the ocean beach. Just a short walk across the Boulevard brought us to the bay with its short dock and steps leading down into the water, with all swimmers under the watchful eye of the lifeguard.
The Coast Guard station and tower were not the only attractions on 26th Street itself. To the left of the tower was Camp Dune-by-the-Sea, offering – in The New York Times magazine section, can you believe! – happy camping and watersports for girls. Every day the camp’s open truck headed down the street to take the laughing, happy girls to the bay.
So there we were in Ship Bottom, secure that we could be in the same house summer after summer. We watered the garden, carefully replaced the occasional broken dish and felt as though the house was practically ours. But just when you think things can’t get any better, sometimes, surprisingly, they do.
Sometime earlier, my parents had invested $500 in a lot in Brant Beach, with no prospect of being able to build on it for years. My grandfather, however, seemed oblivious to their “some time in the future” plan and decided that “now” was the right time. When my father raised the logical concern that it cost a lot of money, which we didn’t have, to get a house built, his matter-of-fact reply was “I thought you and your brother would build it yourselves.”
Although I knew my uncle was handy, to the best of my knowledge my father’s building experience consisted of constructing a bedroom closet in his parents’ home and a concrete fish pond and bird bath in my mother’s parents’ back yard. I wasn’t sure these were qualifying credentials for building a house, but my grandfather’s faith in his sons was firm. His faith was backed up with a check for $2,000 for building supplies, which was ultimately deposited with the Home Lumber Co. in Manahawkin. My parents bought a book of plans for small houses (our lot was 50 by 75 feet), selected one they liked, sent for the blueprints, and in September 1949, my father and uncle were digging the footing.
The building effort soon became a friends and family project. A second uncle, a long-time friend, fishing pals and a plumber buddy joined the endeavor, and by January the exterior was ready for winter’s worst. The interior work moved along at a slower pace, but finally the house – our home – was finished.
There are several accomplishments connected with the do-it-yourself building project that have always struck me as remarkable. To take advantage of the prevailing southeast breeze, my father decided to reverse the plans of the L-shaped house, so the master bedroom and porch faced east. He also created an extra bedroom upstairs. Impressively, all the construction was done with hand tools: saws, hammers, shingle cutters – not a power tool in sight. But the most outstanding feat was the building of the fieldstone fireplace and chimney. Each stone was individually picked from my grandfather’s field in Woodbridge and transported in many trips to LBI in the trunk of my father’s 1949 Plymouth. I’ve always thought it a lasting tribute to the man with a $2,000 check and total trust in his sons’ ability.
My parents lived in that house for many years. I spent my teenage years in that house, and later my husband, our children and I enjoyed happy vacations there. Our daughter and her husband live there now, well acquainted with the house’s history.
The first in our family to vacation on the Island were my grandparents in the 1920s, and now, in 2012, our grandchildren are also enjoying happy times here – five generations in just one family. Decades pass, features change, tents are replaced by cabins, cabins grow into cozy houses, small houses enlarge to a grander scale. But whatever the decade, whatever the shelter, Long Beach Island remains the lure, the unique natural attraction of the Jersey shoreline.
Marjory L. Bradshaw lives in Mountainside, N.J., and Brant Beach.