Long Beach Island Summers: Five Generations and Counting

By JOHN L. MacWILLIAMS | May 30, 2018

My father drove from Philly to LBI to go fishing in the 1930s, down the old Route 72 sometimes-gravel road you can still see as a bike path parallel to the existing roadway through the Pine Barrens. Way earlier – and I mean way! – that section of New Jersey and LBI were under 200 feet of ocean.

My father would drive over that old wooden causeway that even I remember as a kid for its rumbling as you drove over it. One story about the old causeway was of friends of my parents, the DeFreitases, who had a restaurant in Holgate that was destroyed in the ’38 hurricane. Their son got trapped on the causeway during the ’38 storm and it blew his pants off. Luckily, he survived holding onto a railing. DeFreitas’ is now Kubel’s Too in the Crest.

A lot of my early time on LBI was spent in the bay because the ocean was often too cold for swimming. It was during a solar minimum that they didn’t know about then and a period of cold ocean currents. So we did a lot of crabbing and clamming, using the fish heads we collected from Norwegian commercial fishermen who docked right there on the beach. They would give us fish they didn’t want, usually blowfish, for crabbing. We would tickle their bellies and they would blow up like a balloon. I think the blowfish are mostly gone now.

We netted crabs, including soft shells, because they were relatively easy to catch up against the marshes that are now all bulkheaded for housing. The whole family and friends would feast on the catches laid out on an oil-clothed picnic table. Picking crabmeat wasn’t any easier than it is now. (That’s why crabmeat is so expensive).

We bought a house in 1947, so starting at age 10, I got to spend summers on LBI. I remember painting golf balls so I could hit them on our deserted spring beach. One day I had just painted a bunch of them when my mother asked if I wanted to go with the family and friends to see the Lucy Evelyn, which had recently been grounded in what is now Bay Village, brought in on a moon tide. I remember telling them I couldn’t go because my balls were still wet. I didn’t understand why everybody was laughing.

Then at 14, I “cut the curbs” (removed weeds from curbs with a shovel before weed killer was invented) in Long Beach Township as my first summer job. You could do that then with a parent’s approval. It wasn’t called child labor, just a way for kids to learn the experience of earning some money.

Following that was Morrison’s Restaurant (now burned down), where I cleaned toilets and was kitchen help for Pete and Peggy Morrison, particularly after they typically got a bit tipsy later in the evening. That’s where I learned to cook french fries and flounder, and open clams with Charlie. Next, I worked in the old fishery in Beach Haven, behind Centre Street, packing menhaden through a vat in the cold room.

I progressed to the Beach Haven garbage patrol. One morning I fell into the bay on Fourth Street with a huge can of garbage. I remember coming up amid floating fish heads and banana peels. During college, I was a lifeguard on the Fourth Street beach under Ben Benhajian. And there were girls, lots of them.

After college and marriage to one of those girls (whom I first remember running and bouncing on the beach when she was a developing 16), we relocated in my job around the country, from coast to coast. But with four children, we always got back to LBI. My beautiful daughter was married here in the Spray Beach chapel by a surfing minister. We have experienced Long Beach Island through five generations now, and if I hang around for a few more years, maybe a sixth.

So, I’m sitting here on a dreary May morning. (Is it really spring yet?) I’m reflecting on all those years and how LBI has changed, mostly for the better, but with a few bummers, too:

• Lots of new and better, hurricane-resistant houses;

• Restaurants galore without them being in your face;

• No honky-tonk;

• A great beach, recently replenished;

• A new first-class causeway being completed.

On balance, we are better than the Hamptons and somewhat more affordable. There are still a few middle-class residents left, mostly retirees.

Long-time homeowners have seen major increases in property values. For newcomers, perhaps only Wall Street can afford the million-dollar price tags.

Our taxes have gone up 1,000 percent in the years we’ve been here. Paying those taxes is no small task.

Do taxes have to go up with property values? Is LBI better or worse off when everybody has to rent to cover their costs? Is LBI better off with renters or homeowners with a vested interest?

New Jersey is on a slow road to bankruptcy. It’s in the worst fiscal shape in the country. The powers that be don’t think so because they can just tax you more, unless you leave.

One interesting migration is from North to South Jersey. As bad as taxes are here, they are much worse in North Jersey

I often wonder why property taxes in Delaware can be 50 to 75 percent lower with no sales tax, and beautiful homes in Corolla, N.C., have property taxes 75 percent lower.

This does affect wonderful LBI and its future generations, who may not experience what we did here. Most local officials are apparently doing their best to keep a lid on increases, as they struggle with state bureaucracies and keeping this island community, with tidal water on both sides, up to snuff.

But LBI has some of the same issues as the rest of New Jersey: too many municipalities that drive up local government costs. There’s also an imbalance between what people in the private and public sectors make because of unions. After the Affordable Care Act, insurance rates skyrocketed for many local self-employed and small business people who live in a different economic world than government employees with bullet-proof benefits.

I hope homeowners on LBI, 90 percent of whom don’t live here, will become more attentive to the place where they have a property investment of anywhere from $750,000 to $10 million. Maybe there should be a law passed in New Jersey or at the federal level that says anywhere you are taxed you can vote in elections. Now, there is an idea: “No Taxation Without Representation,” a corny little statement baked into that, you know, old U.S. Constitution.

Life goes on. I wish we could spend more time here, but we, too, rent our shore house. Otherwise, we would have to sell. In either case, our grandchildren don’t get to experience what we did. Their big deal is soccer. You know, that sport where little kids run around and then up to the ball and then stop.

John L. MacWilliams lives in Newark, Del., and The Dunes.



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