The Beachcomber – Memorial Day

Harvey Cedars: a Tiny Town With a Lot of Heart

By VICTORIA FORD | May 25, 2018
Courtesy of: Margaret Buchholz

Jonathan Oldham, who has been mayor so long he can’t remember but it’s “close to 25 years,” summed up the qualities that make Harvey Cedars unique: its smallness, its quaint business community and its longstanding traditions. At just about 2 square miles, residents are “more apt to know everybody,” he said.

The High Point Volunteer Fire Co. and the borough Activity Committee are integral to the town’s identity as a place where memories are made, be it at the annual Dog Day Road Race (marking its 40th anniversary this year; see related story) or the Wednesday night outdoor concerts in Sunset Park, where neighbors gather, greet and groove on the dirt dance floor in front of the stage.

The borough of Harvey Cedars was formally incorporated on Dec. 11, 1894. The first mayor, Capt. Isaac Jennings, died shortly thereafter and was replaced by Isaac Lee.

Oldham said he thinks of Harvey Cedars as off the beaten path, even though everyone headed to or from Loveladies, Barnegat Light or High Bar Harbor passes through it. To wander down any of the side streets, to sit and reflect under the bayside gazebo at Sunset Park, or to pay a visit to the Maris Stella Retreat and Conference Center (a ministry of the Sisters of Charity of Saint Elizabeth) or the Harvey Cedars Bible Conference, is to explore a piece of LBI with a character truly all its own.

Oldham was born and raised in Harvey Cedars, to parents who moved there in the 1940s. He is now also director of the Bible Conference, as was his father before him.

Historian Margaret “Pooch” Buchholz points out the borough is the only LBI municipality with a natural interior body of water, namely Kinsey Cove, off Bay Terrace, behind Neptune Wine and Liquors and Neptune Market. Oldham suggested Harvest Cove as possibly another, between Holly and Harvest avenues near Sunset Park.

“I think this town is special,” Buchholz said, “because we have such a small commercial district, no high-rise buildings, apartment complexes or the like (thank you, Daddy) and the best, most beautiful park on the Island.” The Daddy she refers to is Reynold Thomas, who became mayor in 1955. He had first come to High Point as a boy in 1906, and settled here in 1934, according to Buchholz. Thomas “had a vision of the town that did not include extensive development. He wanted a town with a small commercial center, single-family homes and no hotels or motels. (Two hotels had been built and burned down between 1900 and 1936.)”

The word Harvest in the name of things is significant in Harvey Cedars because according to a 1751 deed, the locality’s name once was Harvest Quarters. Over a century later, the community was separated into two parcels. The northern 100 acres, Josiah Busby Kinsey’s development, was called High Point. “As there is nothing ‘high’ here, I don’t know why,” Buchholz said. Isaac Lee, one of the earliest mayors, had the 50-acre southern portion. Incidentally, Reynold Thomas was Kinsey’s nephew.

Sometime in the 1930s the two parts of town merged – something about post office confusion with the other High Point, a town in the northwest corner of the state, as Buchholz recalled. High Point Volunteer Fire Co. retains the old name.

Much of the following chronology is borrowed from Buchholz’s written histories.

During Colonial times, farmers crossed the bay to pasture their cattle and harvest the salt hay used for cattle feed and mulch in what is now the south end of Harvey Cedars. Whalers, too, came from Cape May and New England.

“They set up a lookout on the northern edge of Great Swamp, which extended from Surf City to the southern boundary of present-day Harvey Cedars. A 30-foot tower, nicknamed an ‘owl’s tree,’ projected above the highest dune, giving the whaler a good vantage.” (The Owl Tree sound familiar? It was a legendary watering hole where Plantation Restaurant now stands.)

The earliest town photographs show high dunes backed by a lush growth of bayberry, cedar, sumac, poison ivy and holly, then wide salt marshes stretching to the bay.

“Most of the activity in the late 19th century centered around the Lifesaving Station, one of the first in the country, and the Harvey Cedars Hotel, now the Bible Conference. First opened about 1850, by 1870 the hotel was a sportsman’s boarding hotel known as ‘Kinsey’s.’”

By the turn of the 20th century, Harvey Cedars was a “thriving summer resort,” with visitors arriving by train.

“Vacationing children and adults alike swam, sailed, clammed and crabbed, and in the evenings had marshmallow roasts on the beach or played cards. They met the train to see who had come down or waited for the fishing boats to land to buy the makings of an inexpensive dinner.

“Construction on the Boulevard started in 1914, the year the automobile causeway was built parallel to the train trestle, and High Point grew steadily in the 1920s. The bay was crawling with crabs, and it was almost impossible to dig your toes into the soft sand and not hit a clam. One year a brother and sister caught so many crabs that they filled up the boat and had to swim back pulling it.

“By the mid-1930s, Harvey Cedars had a hotel, a real estate office, a gas station, a general store, a tearoom (formerly Kinsey’s barn), a rowboat rental place, paved roads, and a year-round population large enough to send about a dozen children off to the one-room school in Barnegat Light and to the high school in Barnegat on the mainland. The town gained a reputation as a summer art colony.

“The Garden State Parkway was completed in 1955, opening up the town to visitors from North Jersey. Empty lots were being filled and graded and every summer when the ‘old-timers’ returned, they’d find a new Cape Cod or raised rancher in their neighborhood.” The beaches were guarded in three locations to protect bathers. “The 80th Street beach might be crowded with a hundred people on a big weekend. Teenagers gathered driftwood and had beach parties with blazing fires at night. All that was required was a permit from the police, issued if the wind was blowing in any direction except east.”

The March 1962 nor’easter, a powerful system of two storms that stalled over the Atlantic Ocean, would gain the reputation as “The Storm of the Century.” When it was over, what was left of Harvey Cedars looked like a war zone. The borough lost some 350 homes, 50 percent of its ratables, and won the unenviable distinction of being the most heavily damaged town on the New Jersey coast. After it recovered, in the 1970s sewers were installed and the Boulevard widened. Property values through the 1980s escalated beyond longtime residents’ wildest imagination.

Back in the present, Oldham added the town is fortunate to have such salt-of-the-earth people as Pooch and Howard Baum (owner of the Exxon station) who add personality and authenticity.

Looking to the future, Oldham places equal emphasis on preserving the past and embracing forward progress. Respect the past, but don’t dwell in it, he quipped.

“Our parents, grandparents and great-grandparents live in our minds as we swim and sail where they did, explore the same bay islands, plant our umbrella in the same beach, or gaze at the same ocean horizon,” Buchholz writes in the introduction to Seasons in the Sun: A Photographic History of Harvey Cedars 1894-1947. “And we in turn build memories here for our children, memories of the exuberance of life and an interdependence with nature.”

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