In Another Time > Competition was fierce for visitors a century ago

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The first decade of the 20th century posed new challenges and decision making for the four major municipalities on Five Mile Beach. The choices their leaders made were to shape what exists today, albeit not in the size that anyone then had envisioned.

Holly Beach, a borough since 1885, was weighing in the 1900s whether to give up its identity and merge with the borough of Wildwood, its neighbor a bit to the north. Wildwood, which became officially incorporated in 1895, was deciding whether it should accept Holly Beach and change its own status to that of a city, and Wildwood Crest was planning to join the others as an official borough in 1910.

The borough of Anglesea, also incorporated in 1885 and the island’s northernmost municipality, was years ahead of the other communities. While the others were talking and planning, Anglesea took action and changed its name to North Wildwood in 1906.

The other changes on the island, however, came to fruition not too much later, but first their leaders were to learn that they had a lot of learning to do.

As the 20th century arrived Holly Beach apparently was upstaging Wildwood in popularity. Led by long-serving Mayor Frank E. Smith, who holds the double distinction of also having served later as mayor of Wildwood, Holly Beach’s population was listed as 560. Wildwood, its mayor Latimer R. Baker, one of the three brothers who founded settlement on most of the island, had a population of 150. That Wildwood total was to grow to 898 in 1910 and, enhanced by the merger of the two municipalities, to 2,790 by 1920.

Construction work and fishing were big early on as new houses began to emerge and fishermen caught enough fish in the first summer of 1900 to send 8,000 pounds out of Holly Beach to market.

Still, as tourism crept into the minds of the leaders, it became apparent that improvements were required to attract the visitors. Atlantic City, Cape May and Long Branch already were there and to meet that competition Holly Beach and Wildwood had to make their resorts more attractive than just the ocean and the beach to woo the tourists. Many roads, for instance, were just dirt paths, and there was emphasis from the government fathers to improve them. But by 1903 there were some signs of improvement as a bridge was constructed above the inland waterway on Rio Grande which was still upgraded. Acquisition of the land on the Holly Beach side was not without controversy, but was finally resolved in 1902 and a bridge tender was hired at a fee of $20, the cost to be shared by Holly Beach, Wildwood and Anglesea.

Equally as important for municipal attention were the cow yards, pig stys, hen houses, cesspools and “privy and compost piles” that were said to “contaminate the atmosphere.” The island had no sewer pipes and there were few cesspools and at one time there were 27 complaints that the pure ocean air wasn’t pure anymore.

Conditions worsened so much that a number of diphtheria cases were reported and an ordinance was drawn banning the throwing of dish water, slops, tin cans, shells, glass and broken china into water closets

But the island’s movers and shakers persevered. Holly Beach, still on its own, embarked upon a marketing campaign in 1909 when its Board of Trade, for all purposes that day’s tourism board, published a booklet aimed at attracting visitors. Not so modestly but accurately it called itself the “Parent Resort of Five Mile Beach” and spoke of a three story building that was built in 1903 to house

city offices and the fire department, adding in an apparent effort to assure tourists of their safety that the fire department consisted of almost 50 men who have proven their efficiency “on innumerable occasions.”

What’s more, the booklet continued, the borough has 950 houses, stores and business offices, and a railroad station with service by telegraph operators 24 hours a day at Andrew and Holly Beach Avenues. (Train service continued to the Wildwoods until 1959, forced out of action by the increased number of automobiles that came onto the island during the competitive years.) And imagine this, the promoters said, there is electric lighting in the town day and night!

Havilla Hotel, then at 233 East Burk Ave., boasted in the promo booklet that the hotel was “central to all amusements” and faced the beach. Ernst Schlichting, proprietor of the Philadelphia Hotel on the same street, proudly proclaimed he was the “oldest saloonkeeper on Five Mile Beach.” The German-born hotelier, in fact, lived to the age of 80 before succumbing in January of 1915.

The Sweets Bath House, which was to be destroyed by an early morning fire on the morning of Independence Day, 1923, enthused that it had the finest bath houses on the New Jersey coast.

Holly Beach’s governing body was assured that the Board of Trade was now a fixture on the island. It had purchased 20,000 booklets for $525 for distribution to possible visitors. But it needed financial help for distribution and other expenses, like $1,000 for instance. The council came up with $750 instead for advertising. Scheduled for that summer of 1909 were conventions by the confection industry and the National Salesmen Association.

The island was still having growing pains. The local gas company was dumping tar and waste in the relatively new sewers and local residents in the area of Lincoln Avenue, represented by attorney Jonathan Hand, were raising a stink about it, literally and figuratively. The smell was so bad that people had to keep their windows and doors shut, the lawyer complained to the governing body. Oysters and clams were suffering a worse fate. They were being wiped out in the waterways, the lawyer said. The council was about to take the matter up with the New Jersey Board of Health when a representative of the gas company promised that help was on the way.

A bout the same time, Wildwood Crest, still two years away from becoming an official municipality, was getting into the promotion act. It published a real estate booklet in 1908 and quoted Vineland doctor Theodore Foote as a reason for vacationing or living in the Crest.

“The lives of many invalids and people in delicate health have been prolonged by even a short sojourn at the seashore, especially on the Five Mile Beach, because of the dry atmosphere due to the wooded growth and also to its exposure to the saline breezes of ocean and bay, tempered by the gulf current, in which respects Wildwood Crest particularly excels,” said the doctor.

It was a tourism claim that others used in wooing visitors. Long before Foote’s boost a similar inducement came from another doctor, William A. Tompkins, the first mayor of Anglesea in 1885. He was not a living testimonial to what he said, however. He died in his first year in office.

First mayors apparently had bad luck in those early days. The initial mayor of Holly Beach was Franklin J. Van Valin who served from 1885 to 1886 also. He was killed soon after when he was struck by a train at a railroad crossing.

(Some of the information for this article was researched in the books, “Wildwood, Middle of the Island,” by George F. Boyer, and “The First Hundred Years… 1910 to 2010” of the Wildwood Crest Centennial Committee.)

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