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The Bizarre History of Cape May > Strom Thurmond preached anti-communism here in 1980

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When historians write about the past of Cape Island/Cape May, reference is usually made to the five presidents (six if you count the disputed Abe Lincoln) who vacationed here during their terms of office. They include Franklin Pierce, Ulysses S. Grant, James Buchanan, Chester Arthur and Benjamin Harrison.

There were others high in government who made their presence known either before or after they bid unsuccessfully for the presidency. They were all United States senators, which is about as high as you can go in government power, perhaps even higher than the vice-presidency, without being president.

Probably the most famous was Henry Clay, the senator from Kentucky who vied for the presidency several times and vacationed in Cape Island while mourning the death of his son in the Mexican-American War. In more recent times George McGovern, the senator from South Dakota and unsuccessful presidential candidate against Richard Nixon in 1972, vacationed at the Mainstay and liked it and Cape May so well that he recommended the resort to fellow South Dakota Senator Tom Daschle, who later became Senate majority leader and was to spend 15 summers in Cape May.

The most colorful and probably the most controversial senator who came to Cape May was Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, where sometimes they still fight the Civil War although they have lost it.

Thurmond was appointed to the Senate as a Democrat in 1954 and was elected to that same post two years later. He switched to the Republican Party in 1964 and on his 100th birthday in 2002, some six months before he died, he became the oldest person ever to serve in Congress.
The senator had two Cape May connections, one of them former Cape May city manager Fred Coldren. Coldren was active in the 1960s in an organization called Young Americans for Freedom, which in the heart of the Cold War sought to counteract Communist cells that were said to be springing up throughout the nation.

Thurmond, an active and outspoken anti-Communist, was a strong supporter of the Young Americans for Freedom and came to know Coldren early on.

His other connection was fundamentalist preacher Rev. Carl McIntire who came to Cape May in 1963 and while McIntire didn’t exactly take Cape May like Grant took Richmond his presence here was close enough to make it a reasonable analogy.

With big plans, McIntire and his Christian Beacon Press moved from the mountains of North Jersey to the seashore of Cape May and went on a real estate buying spree, first in 1962 of the Christian Admiral Hotel which in its early days had intended to be a prime time resort hotel but did not live up to its fullest expectations. The purchase price for the Christian Admiral and the land near it was said to be $300,000 and improvements to it an astronomical $1.5 million.

The next year he moved his Christian liberal arts college from Passaic County to a new 24-acre site behind the Christian Admiral Hotel.

A few years later he bought the historic but faltering Congress Hall Hotel and operated it from 1968 until 1995. The sale price was said to be $550,000, at that time one of the largest private real estate transactions in local history.

The seller was Gilbert Ramagosa, an officer in the holding company of S.B. Ramagosa and Sons, a big developer of the Wildwood Boardwalk.

The decision to purchase Congress Hall, McIntire said, was based on the presence of his Shelton College and “its growth factor.” Everything went well for a while but then, as Robert Burns said, the best laid schemes of mice and men often go awry.

One of the problems was losing state accreditation from the state for the degree awarding college. The New Jersey Department of Education contended the college did not meet academic requirements, so McIntire took his college, which had started off with some 200 students, to Florida while maintaining his other interests in Cape May. Then he ran into other problems, not the least of which involved taxes and zoning.

Eventually, unable to use the Christian Admiral because it was condemned by the city, he held a Sunday morning church service on the sidewalk of Beach Avenue in front of the hotel.

But that was years away from August of 1980 when upon McIntire’s invitation Senator Thurmond spoke at the still functioning Christian Admiral. The preacher and the senator had much in common, both being outspoken critics of communism they claimed was infiltrating the United States.

McIntire once led a protest against Russian trawlers which he said were too close to the county’s shoreline. The 1969 protest was triggered when a 250-foot Soviet ship cut the anchor cable of a county party boat while passing too close to it.

Thurmond was a big draw in that summer of 1980 when battle lines were being drawn for the presidential election that November with incumbent President Jimmy Carter and challenger Ronald Reagan. Some 400 people gathered at the Christian Admiral where McIntire introduced his prize speaker and long time friend as “a man who fights for his convictions.”

Thurmond wasted no time in attacking the Russians and communism, claiming that the two were taking over the world.

“I’ve been telling you this for years. People better wake up and listen,” he urged.

One way to handle this, he said, was to establish a strong military. He charged that Carter had been lax in establishing defensive weaponry funding for nuclear war heads.

“When you live in a world of dictators, you should have superiority,” Thurmond said.

And in something of a prelude to the recent presidential election, Thurmond called for a balanced budget and the need to reduce the national debt. He said the budget has been balanced only eight times in the past 40 years.

“When you have a $70 billion national interest debt, you know something has got to be wrong,” he said in a comment often heard today in larger and louder numbers.

The speech by the senator was perhaps McIntire’s biggest moment in his public relations campaign in Cape May. Years later he was to bring to the city a conservative Republican congressman from Idaho. First on the program was a concert by a United States Navy band that packed the large ground floor auditorium of the Christian Admiral. When the concert finished and it was the congressman’s turn to speak, only a handful of the audience remained to hear him.

Perhaps it was symbolic that Thurmond lived to 100 and McIntire to 95, both to see the end of the Cold War. But still unresolved is spending and debt.

(Some of the information in this article was researched at the reference department of the county library in Cape May Court House.)

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