“They had Christian principals, but they also wanted to make money. It was a business.”- Ken Cooper, presenting “131 Years of Ocean City Real Estate” at the Ocean City Historical Museum.
OCEAN CITY – There wasn’t much to see on the barrier island then known as Peck’s Beach when the Lake Brothers founded it in 1879.
It was seven miles of sand dunes, woods and brush, meadowlands, marshes and mudflats. There were lots of trees and fresh-water ponds.
In chronicling “131 Years of Ocean City Real Estate” for the Thursday evening lecture series at the Ocean City Historical Museum, speaker Ken Cooper said the island – once host to grazing cattle - had lots of small hills, too.
It was, however, just what the founders envisioned: a seaside Christian retreat providing religious sanctuary and healthful recreation. Cooper said the founders prayed under a tree and went to work on a project that took 20 years to complete.
“They came here and purchased the entire island, and they did it for a purpose,” he said, adding that property deeds prohibit the sale of alcohol, among other things, including strict regulation on the Sabbath. They needed to own the entire island to make the covenants effective as they parceled off the land, said Cooper.
While primarily interested in developing a community with religious roots such as Ocean Grove, they were also cognizant that a new seaside resort might prove a profitable real estate venture.
The Lake Brothers, said Cooper, were Ocean City’s first developers. There is a reason that Ocean City was carefully laid out with 30, 40 and 50-foot lots, he said.
“They had Christian principals, but they also wanted to make money,” he said. “It was a business.”
With the help of their father, the Honorable Simon Lake, a prosperous farmer who represented Atlantic County in the state legislature, Ezra B., S. Wesley and James E. Lake purchased the island. The elder Lake placed a $10,000 mortgage on his farm to provide needed capital to purchase and survey the land, and lay out streets.
“They leveled it. there were hills and savannahs, and they leveled it,” said Cooper. “From Fourth Street to Ninth Street, from West Avenue to Wesley, they developed.
As the lots sold off, they expanded development. The Gardens was a vision in 1913, but World War I and then the depression pushed it back. The north end was partially developed in the ‘30’s and ‘40’s for the most part.
The Corinthian neighborhood developed in 1898.
Among the first inhabitants were Parker and Louisa Miller, who settled on Asbury Avenue, which is now Hoy’s, and used to be Woolworth’s.
“They came here to protect the rights of the insurance companies,” he said. “About 50 ships a day would come by, it was only a matter of time before there was a crash. Whoever got there first had rights.”
The Lake Brothers gave a lot of land away for churches and schools and recreational areas. The entire stretch from Fifth to Sixth Street, from the ocean to the bay, was set aside for public use.
Ocean City real estate benefitted from the vision of the Lake Brothers, he said.
“Some houses in Ventnor, Sea Isle City and Wildwood are a lot cheaper, but this is a family resort, it’s not known as a great place for a group rental,” said Cooper. “Ocean City real estate is worth more, and a lot of that has to do with the founders. Ocean City prices are higher than average, no doubt.”
“It’s a special town and we’re proud of it,” he added. “Real estate has always done well, we have salt air and it’s a clean place to live.”
Cooper said we have Ocean Grove to thank for Ocean City.
“The founders didn’t think you should give up God because you took a vacation,” he said. “Ocean Grove was the model. They had tents, like camp meetings, and the Lake Brothers set that up, cottages on the Tabernacle grounds.”
Some of the simple, small cottages still remain along Fifth and Sixth Streets, he said.
Long before technology intervened, property transfers were recorded by hand. City officials used a big map, and placed a square on it when a property was sold.
“It was so antiquated,” said Cooper.
The highest part of the island is from First to 13th streets running along Wesley Avenue.
“Anyone who has ever bought a home, the Realtor told you it was the highest part of the island, right?” he said, chuckling. “Not everybody is.”
West Avenue was named West for a reason, he said. Anything west was swampy and marshy.
“Imagine, cattle grazed here. They used to come here to hunt water fowl,” said Cooper.
Basements were popular on high ground, he said.
“Anyone who has one is very proud of it,” he said. “They say ‘c’mon, let me show you!’”
The boardwalk once extended north to Seaspray Road. When the northern area washed out it extended to Morningside Road, then to St. James Place. After a big fire in 1927 wiped it out, the city moved it out a block and all of the beach front owners were given more land thanks to Riparian rights laws. There were bowling alleys and dance halls, lots of old places that have since disappeared.
Cooper said he remembered when the big part of boardwalk extended to Park Place, with Johnson’s Ice Cream, with a sour ball in every cone, Larzalere’s, where he bought penny candy, and the Tiki, where he took his first date, Nancy Connor.
“They were very, very important stores when you were a kid,” he said.
He remembered other landmarks that were once mighty and now gone, such as Chris’s and Hogates, Watson’s, the old Wesley Avenue School, the Gardens Train Station, the Pink Pussycat, the Moorlyn Theater, the Brighton Hotel, the Delaware Hotel and the Hotel Southern.
Chris’s was his first real job, said Cooper
“I washed dishes and steamed clams,” he said. “It was a neat place, with wood floors. You could hear the bay sloshing underneath.”
People used to arrive by ship, and then train and automobile.
“The first bridge was at 34th Street, they laid reeds over the marshes,” he said. “Old steamers would come in at Second Street, and it was marshy and wet in the old days. It was like a beach on the bay, mushy and stinky.”
Cooper noted that his grandmother Katie once taught algebra at the Central Avenue school. The century old building now hosts the police department.
Cooper bemoaned the impending loss of the DuBois estate on Battersea Road.
“It’s sad to see it go,” he said. “There is an effort to save the place, but it’s money and politics. It’s a shame to lose it, it has such prominence.”
The town has changed, Cooper acknowledged.
“I live in a 100-year-old house,” he said. “For those of us who love history, it’s sad to see the grand old houses torn down. You can’t stop progress, some of those old homes were beyond repair. It’s a shame, we respect that everyone has a right to do what you want with your house, it’s sad to see these things go. I’m old, I don’t like to see change.”
Cooper suggested anyone interested in learning more about history come to the museum.
“I went as a kid, it was the only place my parents would let me walk to,” he said. “The little old ladies took good care of me, I was fascinated. It’s a world of resources.”
Cooper will return to the historical museum to further discuss real estate and the island he has loved calling home for most of his life.
“I could talk all night,” he said, adding that history is not always accurate, but always fun to learn about.
Ann Richardson can be e-mailed at email@example.com or you can comment on this story by calling 624-8900, ext. 223.