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The Bizarre History of Cape May > Whilldin family had longstanding ties to Cape May

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 The next time you visit Florida, think of the historic Cape May connection if you are in West Palm Beach or Orlando.

The man who brings the communities together was born in Cape May, is a descendant of a Mayflower passenger and went on to become mayor of West Palm Beach in 1898 and 1899. His gravestone in the Woodlawn Cemetery in West Palm Beach also cites him as having been “a pioneer in the upbringing of Orlando and West Palm Beach.”

His name is Wilmon Whilldin, not an unfamiliar surname if you are a student of history in Cape May. There were at least two other Wilmon Whilldins before him and enough other Whilldins living in this area to nearly match the number of Clancys in Ireland.

The first Wilmon Whilldin Sr. was born on March 4, 1773 not far from Cape May. In his early life he moved to Philadelphia where he studied navigation. Considered a pioneer in steam navigation, he was to navigate his steamers, one of them The Delaware, between Philadelphia and what was then still called Cape Island, as well as other points.

In the interests of their business, Wilmon and other captains built steamboat landings at Cape May Point and Higbee Beach, the latter to receive notoriety many years later when nudists landed there for their days in the sun. Long before that, though, when people usually clothed their bodies in public, the stage coach owners were not all that happy that the steamboat entrepreneurs were adding to their competition.

Wilmon lived to April 2, 1852. Soon after he died, planning began for a Cape May toll turnpike from Court House to Cape May where Route 9 is today. It is ironic that today’s Route 9 is a free road while parallel to it is much of the toll Garden State Parkway.

Surviving the father was his son Wilmon Jr. An earlier son, Dr. John Galloway Whilldin, a physician, had died of consumption in Philadelphia at the age of 41.

Wilmon the second was to vigorously take over his father’s business and when it appeared that the toll turnpike would become a reality the son stepped up to oppose it. First, he said he could not afford to buy any stock because of the scary economic panic of 1857. Second, he said he needed the money to build another steamer to carry passengers and freight from Philadelphia to Cape May. He contended that it was the steamboat, not a turnpike, that would restore Cape May’s economy.

“If we are satisfied nothing can be done here, that Cape May is blighted and mildewed, we had better pitch our wigwams in California, New Mexico, Oregon or Texas, for there will be those improvements directly be,” he wrote.

As it turned out Wilmon was quite prophetic in his financial assessment of the turnpike. It eventually came to reality but was hardly the success that it was hoped to be. It was frequently in need of repairs because of stormy weather, there were not that many toll payers and stock subscribers. The last blow came when some farmers and others got together and built a free road, which may not have been the quintessential 19th century road but accomplished the purpose without affecting their pocketbooks.

Wilmon, meanwhile, pursued his father’s business diligently until the Civil War broke out and, as it was to be in future wars for other ship owners, most of his vessels were conscripted for the transportation of troops and ammunition.

Wilmon is said to have played a dramatic local role in the Civil War. He is credited with having helped Harriet Sawyer in winning the freedom of her husband, Henry, who was destined to be executed in a death lottery when he was held as a prisoner by the South.

When peace was restored, Wilmon expanded his business until he died on May 23, 1866, two years after the Civil War ended.

Enter the story of Florida-bound Wilmon Willdon the third, perhaps the most colorful of all the Whilldins. Believed to be a cousin in the Willdon family, he was born in Cape May on July 27, 1843 when Wilmon the first was 70 years old.

While early details of Wilmon the third are sketchy there are indications that he did not move to Florida until after the Civil War. On Aug. 9, 1861 he enlisted in the Union Army‘s Company 1 of the New Jersey Infantry and served until June 16, 1862 when he was discharged at the nation’s capital for disability reasons.

Sometime after peace was restored he became a snowbird and moved to Florida. Although his gravestone claims that he was a pioneer in the “upbringing” of Orlando and West Palm Beach, the historical society in Orlando cannot find any reference to him. However, the Historical Society of Palm Beach County has confirmed that he served as mayor of West Palm Beach during 1898 and 1899 before he resigned. Nine years later he died there suddenly on Jan. 25, 1908, survived by his wife, the former Hannah Leaming, and a sister, Mary Austin, who lived in Burlington County.

Wilmon apparently had some turbulent times in his role as mayor. He is said to have taken on Henry Flagler, the powerful businessman who is credited with having played a major role in the development of Florida and the building of a railroad there. His tomb is at the Presbyterian Church in St. Augustine.

There were other Whilldins in the Cape May area in those bygone years. James and Matthew Whilldin were assigned to look for British fleet movements at the tip of Cape May as fears mounted that the British would send ships to assault Philadelphia. As part of their mission they were to ride furiously to inland posts to tell the military leaders that the British were coming.

Seth Whilldin, fighting the war in Burlington County, reminded his wife on the home front at the cape that she needed to slaughter the pigs and salt the pork for the winter.

Many of the settlers here were descendants of John Howland, a passenger on the Mayflower who is known for signing the governing document of the Mayflower Compact.

The 100-foot ship left England in September of 1620 with 162 passengers and a crew of 30. But Howland almost didn’t reach the ship’s destination. A violent storm threw him overboard but he quickly grabbed a halyard and he was hauled back to the deck safely.

Many of the Mayflower’s descendants are buried here at the Cold Spring cemetery of the Presbyterian Church in Lower Township. It claims to have more Mayflower descendants than any other cemetery in the nation except at Plymouth, Mass.

One of them is Wilmon Whilldon the first.

(Some of the information in this article was researched at the reference department of the Cape May Count Library and via the Historical Society of Palm Beach County in Florida.)


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