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Bizarre History of Cape May: 23rd president made Cape May his ‘summer White House’

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He never ranked among the 10 best presidents, not even close, but if they had a social network in the Cape May area in those times Benjamin Harrison would have reached near the top for his local popularity during his summer visits there.

It was an image contrary to the cold and unfriendly personality attributed to him in Washington, D.C., but then, some people, especially the Chamber of Commerce, will say Cape May has a tendency to change personalities, once its visitors enjoy the sunny days and the cool breezes from the ocean.

The 23rd President of the United States was not the kind of celebrity who came to Cape May and enjoyed its virtues and then quickly left for somewhere else, ala Ulysses S. Grant to Long Branch and Chester Arthur to his anchored offshore ship which soon was to resume its voyage to northern points.

Harrison not only visited the resort, but he established a home in Cape May Point and conducted national business at Cape May’s Congress Hall, which has been referred to in history as his summer White House. Many national government figures visited him, not the least of whom was Postmaster General John Wanamaker, the Philadelphia department store entrepreneur who had persuaded Harrison to bring his family to the Cape May area as a refuge from the scorching summer heat in Washington.

Some from those times contended Harrison should have claimed Cape May as his summer home because he spent more time at Congress Hall and exploring the nearby territory than he did at Cape May Point. He and an entourage of friends, many of them national figures, took the time to go beyond the boundaries of Cape May in 1890 and travel by train to Wildwood where he participated in the dedication of the island’s big Hotel Dayton, named after a man who is said to have challenged Lincoln in the nomination procedure for the presidency.

When he was not attending to affairs of estate Harrison and his ailing wife, Caroline, occasionally climbed into a horse drawn carriage and directed the man at the reins to explore Cape May territory they had never seen.

One day their journey took them to the Cold Spring section of nearby Lower Township and Harrison, once an active Presbyterian back in Indiana, noticed the Cold Spring Presbyterian Church in the distance.

During his younger days Harrison had considered entering the ministry, but chose the law instead. Nevertheless he continued to remain active at his Indianapolis Presbyterian church where he served as a deacon, an elder for almost 40 years and a Sunday school teacher.

“I want to attend that church next Sunday,” the president declared as they drove by the Cold Spring church that sometimes is called Old Brick.

So they did on Aug. 24, 1890, and it caused quite a stir. After all it’s not every Sunday that a President of the United States shows up at your church service to worship with you.

“The natives were astounded,” described one newspaper.

So, apparently, was the Rev. John L. Landis who wasn’t accustomed to sermonizing a president. With the president were his wife Carrie and his future wife, the former Mary Dimmick, who was the niece of the first lady and whom he was to marry after Carrie died a few years later.

They sat in the fifth pew on the right side facing the altar, evidently an unknown historic pew today for those who occupy it in a church that is celebrating its 300th anniversary and is nationally recognized for its history.

When the service was completed the worshipers and the pastor gathered around the president and the two women for an informal and unscheduled reception. An article in The Gazette said the president was “especially kind to the many children who were bashfully pushed forward by their elders for the honor of a hand clasp by President Harrison.”

Another Harrison local story tells of the time he met an elderly couple who asked for a copy of his picture. He said he had none with him, but would give them one better, a picture of Abe Lincoln. He reached inside his wallet and gave them a $5 bill.

Harrison was to serve only one term as president from 1889 to 1893 after ousting incumbent Grover Cleveland. Cleveland later made a comeback and returned to the White House in 1893 after defeating Harrison in a return match.

Unlike his visits to Cape May, Harrison didn’t move around much and meet people during his re-election campaign. He is said to have campaigned from the porch of his Indiana home where he made speeches and gave interviews.

Cleveland, whose family also had Presbyterian roots, is the only New Jersey born president. He came into this world in Caldwell but his political prominence was established in New York where he served as mayor of Buffalo and governor of that state.

Meanwhile, the health of the first Mrs. Harrison continued to deteriorate. Specialists were called to the White House in the spring of 1892 and she was diagnosed as being stricken with tuberculosis. Instead of Cape May, whose boosters had long claimed as a good place to cure whatever ails you, she was sent to Loon Lake in the mountains of the Adirondacks. The movers and shakers there contended it was even a better place to cure ailments, especially tuberculosis.

It didn’t help. The president returned her to the White House in September and she fell into a state of semi-consciousness before finally succumbing on Oct. 25, 1892 at the age of 50. Her husband was 59.

The Lord was to come to Harrison twice in his life. First, of course, was the mighty Lord, then came along his second wife, the former Mary Lord.

Her early life was not kind to Lord. At the age of 23 she married Walter Erskine Dimmick, the son of the attorney general of Pennsylvania, on Oct. 22, 1881. He died three months later.

Mary Lord Dimmick was the niece of the first lady and when the president assumed office she too joined the White House as an aide to Mrs. Harrison. She usually accompanied the family wherever they went including their trips to Cape May and despite her short marriage she was identified as Mrs. Dimmick.

After Mrs. Harrison died (and perhaps while she was alive?) a romance developed between Dimmick and the president and they were married at St. Thomas Protestant Episcopal Church in New York City on April 6, 1896, a year after they announced their engagement. She was 37, he 62.

Conspicuous by their absence were the adult children of Harrison’s first marriage.

Harrison was to live five more years to 1891. His second wife died in New York City on Jan. 5, 1948, at the age of 89.

 


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