Depression Era in Ship Bottom: Enjoying ‘Real’ Childhood

The Beachcomber
Photo by: Island Album/ Down The Shore Publishing The dock for diving and swimming at 27th Street in Ship Bottom was the popular summer spot for local residents during the 1930s.

We didn’t have a lot of news in the 1963 Beachcombers – we left that job to the Beach Haven Times. Through our various columns we covered everything important to the summer vacationer, and if the news was important enough – beach erosion, new groins, development – we commented in the Beachcombings column, a real catch-all. (It’s embarrassing for me to look back and see how one story ran into the next, with no break. Well, 50 years ago I was learning on the job.)

What we did have were exceptionally good writers for such a small newspaper, and I pretty much let them write what they wanted. The following is a recollection of Depression-era summers in Ship Bottom. Children were few and far between and made their own fun.

—Margaret Thomas Buchholz


“Mommy, when you were a little girl my age and lived here, what did you do for fun?” The 10-year-old’s eyes are soft and inquiring.

“Oh, lots of things.”

“Like what?”

I cross over to the window and take a look at the bay. There is a single sailboat, nodding like a Chinese mandarin, dipping its prow politely, gently. Its mast forms the stick for a giant, orange-red lollipop of a moon … I could speak of cutting it adrift and sailing upon it into yesterday, but I dare not. This would be sentimental, and the small adults who go by the archaic name of children distrust sentiment.

Well, we climbed up the sand dunes and gathered bayberries and boiled it up and tried to make candles. (We didn’t know we were poor.) We grew weary of the public float at the bay on 27th Street, where every 4th of July there were fireworks and water sports. We swam over to the private dock belonging to the exclusive “Camp Dune by the Sea” and treaded and clawed hard clams out of the stinking bay mud, and cracked them on the private dock and ate them.

We stuck out our tongues at the camp counselors and went “yah-yah-yah” at the “veddy propah” chaperones. We called the Camp Duners the “damp cooners,” and we loathed them. Once a year the “damp cooners” presented a variety show at the Brant Beach movie theater. Then we’d get all dressed up and it was our turn to be “veddy propah” as we madly and sincerely applauded them. And for that moment, we loved them.

We were forever “borrowing” oars and rowboats. Our modus operandi was simple and surefire. We simply found out who would not be down for the weekend and took it from there. We learned to swim by pushing one another in the deep water; we learned to row by braving the white-capped bay. We knew the flats, where there were soft clams, and the little islands where the buster and soft crabs clung helplessly to the grass underneath the banks. And we went after them mercilessly and sold them for exorbitant prices to the summer people. But under no circumstances would we take a female crab with eggs in her pocketbook.

We’d get up early to meet the poundfishing boats coming onto the beach and grab the blowfish roe. Not one of us would eat blowfish. They were poison! We would use fish heads for hard crab bait and stones for sinkers. (We called these dipseys. Nobody had a bought dipsey.) We’d go down to the surf with some kind, any kind, of pole and beg some kind-faced fisherman to “please cast out” for us. We caught croakers by the dozen and sold them.

We did lots of babysitting, then called “keeping an eye on the children for an evening.” We found glass jars, and stuck them all over with putty and embedded shells on them, then shellacked over the whole mess, then stuck watermelon vines in them and gave them to our mothers.

On rainy days we’d go around to the ice cream parlors and beg empty containers and wash them out and paste magazine pictures on them with flour and water paste. And our mothers would have new wastebaskets.

We’d go to Ramage's General Store and ask for a quarter-pound Virginia baked ham. We’d eat it very slowly. We’d go to Mrs. Krepps, who sold Nehi beverages, and ask her how the bathhouse business was doing. It was never doing very well. We’d go to the drug store and buy big glasses of Brady’s Mint Freeze (five cents) – a delicious forerunner of a grasshopper (when we were old enough). The two-cent deposits on pop bottles supplied us with ready cash. We’d never miss the firemen’s carnival – bingo, ten cents a game, three games a quarter, and we’d arrive home with dolls, pitchers, blankets. Early in the morning we’d return to the carnival grounds, our eyes glued to the earth, searching for coins left the previous evening.

We walked to the Surf City Pavilion; rode bikes to the Lighthouse; bought punk and firecrackers from Mill’s store; ate charred marshmallows; scanned the beach for ambergris, positive we would someday find ourselves millionaires on the spot; dug shuffleboard courts from the sand; wolfed down potatoes that we roasted for five minutes in the sand. We’d hitchhike to Beach Haven where somewhere out in the marshes there was a nickelodeon and penny arcade.

We made stink bombs out of jars and sulphur matches (No my child, I will not tell you how), and tried to sneak them past Mr. Colmer’s X-ray vision at the movies. We usually failed. “Girls, no ice cream or stink bombs allowed in this theater.”

We were in the ocean or bay at least a part of every day, except on Sunday. Sunday was pretty well taken up with church. We went to Union Church to Bible School, and so did our Catholic and Jewish friends. “I can’t possibly see what harm could come to my children in a house of God,” was the way one of my mother’s Jewish friends put it. Nobody blinked when, on her return to the city, a Catholic friend held a dance and card party in her home and sent the proceeds to Union Church.

And that’s all Mommy can remember right now. So, go turn on the television, or get ye to the trampoline, or the custard stand. But never, in these wild, man-made thickets of commercialism, present and future, become confused as to which of us had a real childhood.

Margaret Buchholz is the former owner of this newspaper and author of Josephine: From Washington Working Girl to Fisherman's Wife, Shore Chronicles, New Jersey Shipwrecks, Island Album and co-author of Great Storms of the Jersey Shore. Comments welcome at lbipooch@comcast.net. For more on Camp Dune, see Six Miles at Sea, A Pictorial History of Long Beach Island by John Bailey Lloyd.

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