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History > Mecray family has a long history in Cape May

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When researching the history of Cape May nee Cape Island the family name of the Mecrays pops up now and then without much recorded embellishment.

The name goes back to the days before the Civil War and extends even to today with what may be the most famous of all Mecrays in the family’s long history. Truly some fame belongs in the recounting of the city’s past to names like Henry Sawyer, Emlen Physick and Cornelius Jacobsen May (Mey), but there are many in the Mecray family who deserve accord too, among them a doctor who helped start a baseball team, a soldier killed in the Civil War, a man who commercialized a prominent block in Cape May, another who opened a bank five years before the big stock market crash in 1929 and, perhaps the biggest achiever of all, a Cape May native who has gone on to be a world famous marine artist.

The tale of the Mecrays begins, according to available historical information, back in the 1850s when Jeremiah Mecray was one of the wealthiest men in the county. He was among just ten people living in then Cape Island. He was the owner of a hotel there and was joined by other affluent hoteliers in similar ventures, among them Jonas Miller, who managed Congress Hall, George Stratton and Israel Leaming, as well as wealthy store owners John Rutherford and John Dougherty.

The story saddens, however, in the next decade when the Civil War breaks out and another Mecray, Private John A., joins Company A of the Seventh Regiment of the New Jersey Volunteers to fight for the Union. He is called to Williamsburg, today one of the most historic sites on the East Coast, and there he is among 41,000 from the North and 32,000 from he South who fight in what is known as The Battle of Fort Magruder.

Young Mecray does not survive. He is killed in action on May 5, 1862 and he is buried after the smoke of battle has settled in the cemetery of the Cold Spring Presbyterian Church in Lower Township. A ten-foot obelisk honoring him still stands at his grave site not far from the front entrance of the church. A further tribute is given to him when the John Mecray Post No. 40, Grand Order of the Republic is named in his honor.

The war is over. Time marches on and so does the Mecray family. It is now 1866, the Reconstruction period. Enter the name of Dr. James Mecray, a fan of the relatively new game of baseball founded in 1845. The good doctor joins with others, attorney Walter A. Barrows, builder William F. Cassidy and Ocean Wave publisher Christopher Magrath, to start a Cape Island baseball club, an added attraction to woo tourists to the once popular resort that lost some of its tourism sheen because of the war.

Three years later, 1869 is a big year in the rehabilitation of the municipality and the Mecray family is right in the middle of it. This is the year when Cape Island changes its name to Cape May on March 9 and when James Mecray Jr., presumably the son of the 1866 doctor, is chosen as city treasurer at a salary of $200 a year. The first mayor under this new name is Waters B. Miller, who is paid $500 a year and is said to be the wealthiest man in Cape Island at the end of the war. He is soon to take over the management of the Congress Hall Hotel from his father, Jonas.

Improvements are taking place throughout Cape May while Mecray Jr. is guarding the treasury. Streets are being graded, flagstone crossings are laid, sidewalks curbed, curves are removed from Lafayette Street, said to be the prettiest street in town, and Washington Street is widened ten feet.

The names of the streets are being changed too. Front Street is renamed Wood Street and later Windsor Avenue. Second Street becomes Grant Street and Beach Street is renamed Columbia Avenue.

More years pass and it is now the Roaring Twenties and two more Mecrays enter history. One is Jeremiah E. Mecray who in 1923 and thereabouts is to build the Focer-Mecray block on Washington Street, an area that would house a post office, lodge rooms, a civic meeting place and the Ford-Lincoln automobile showrooms.

The second big Mecray name of that same era belongs to John W. Mecray who, with Judge Henry H. Eldredge and Everett Jerrell, becomes a prime leader in banking for the further development of Cape May after the founding of the Merchants National Bank in 1924.

Next, the most celebrated Mecray, a native of Cape May, is to be John Marcy Mecray, born on Feb. 13, 1937 and a resident of Stockton Place at the beginning of his life. John, named after the Civil War hero killed in action and a grandson of Jeremiah E. Mecray, is a man whose life has taken him close to the water, whether it be in Cape May or in Newport, R.I., once considered to be a tourism rival of Cape May.

John is to attend Cape May High School and the early seeds of the world of art are planted there through the encouragement of his art teacher, Margaret Schellenger. He is to go on to college at the prestigious Philadelphia College of Art, now named the University of the Arts, and he majors in illustration and painting.

While a Dean’s List student in his junior year, he enlists in the Army and is sent to Germany. He spends two-and-a-half years there, some of his time at Army headquarters in Stuttgart with the Seventh Army Symphony Orchestra and Soldier Shows Company where his talents are used as set and poster designer and later as illustrator for the Army’s Psychological Warfare Unit. His duties enable him in his free time to visit every museum in western Europe.

“It was a priceless experience,” he is to say years later.

His military commitment fulfilled, the 24-year-old Mecray returns to the states and completes his college education at the Philadelphia College of Art, freelancing wherever he can to bring food to the table. One of his big early assignments is to illustrate the Senior Girl Scout Handbook.

Mecray’s career begins to blossom after college. In the turbulent 1960s he illustrates four books, many magazine articles and numerous advertisements. In the 1970s, the lure of the sea attracts him to a new and totally fascinating part of his career. He is about to become a marine artist, a famous one to this day.

It begins in 1972 when he is invited to join the crew of a sailboat journeying to St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands. There are other races and aboard with Mecray is American media mogul and philanthropist Ted Turner. A friendship develops and Mecray, now caught up in the euphoria of sailing, turns from the field of illustration to exclusively marine painting. He and his wife, daughter and son settle in Rohde Island in Newport in 1976 and Mecray gains international recognition when he is commissioned to paint a picture of Turner’s yacht “Courageous” as it successfully defends the America’s Cup in 1977.

Mecray’s career has gone even higher since those early days of success. He has an agent who sells his paintings at prices only the affluent art aficionados can afford. The National Maritime Historical Society gave him the “Distinguished Service Award” at its annual dinner at the New York Yacht Club.

“His work has helped energize a greater appreciation for the magnificent racing yachts that are his trademark,” one tribute to him states.

Mecray, who now lives in Jamestown close to Newport, still thinks of his early days in Cape May. His father, the late James R. Mecray, died in 2001 and was a lifelong resident of Cape May, owning a fuel oil business and the appropriately named Mayflower Shop, which sold women’s sportswear. The son still has friends there who grew up with him in their high school days and they speak glowingly of him.

He and his family predecessors are indeed part of Cape May history, sometimes hidden with the passage of time.

 

(Some of the information in this article was researched at the reference department of the Cape May County Library, in the book “Cape May County, New Jersey” by Jeffery M. Dorwart and in interviews with John Mecray.)

 


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