In Another Time > A crooked tree gains fame in resort

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“I think that I shall never see
A poem as lovely as a tree
A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
Against the earth’s sweet flowing breast.
A tree that looks to God all day
And lifts her leafy arms to pray
A tree that may in summer wear
A nest of robins in her hair
Upon whose bosom snow has lain
Who intimately lives with rain
Poems are made  by fools  like me
But only God can make a tree.”

Those words, to become lastingly famous in the world of poetry, stemmed in 1913 from the pen of New Jersey’s Joyce Kilmer, who was to be killed five years later at the age of 31 in the second Battle of the Marne during World War I. Kilmer’s roots were in New Brunswick in North Jersey, where he attended Rutgers University, some 120 miles north of the Wildwoods.

Whether Kilmer was influenced by what was happening in the wilds of the Wildwoods or even knew there was such a place is a question unresolved, but the poem he wrote certainly could apply to the early days of the seashore resorts of southern Cape May County, where a tree became famous and then was cut down.

At the beginning, when the Lenni Lenape Indians vacationed there, the sandy land that years later was to accommodate the likes of boardwalks, restaurants, nightclubs, roller coasters and condominiums was populated by trees, among them the holly trees which drew some attention. But in the eyes of preservationists, it was not enough attention.

As history has so often recorded, the Baker brothers, Philip, J. Thompson and Latimer, discovered much of the island, developed it in the 19th century and converted it into seashore municipalities. First on the scene was Holly Beach when it was incorporated in April of 1885, the year before Joyce Kilmer was born on Dec. 6, 1886. The borough of Anglesea on the northern end of the island was incorporated on June 3,1885 and changed its name to North Wildwood on May 16, 1906. Wildwood joined the group as a borough in 1895 and a city in 1912 when Holly Beach became part of Wildwood. The borough of Wildwood Crest was incorporated on April 6, 1910 and tiny West Wildwood in 1920.

Trees were occasionally a PR inducement to beckon people to vacation or live in the Wildwoods. Philip Baker, the first mayor of Wildwood Crest, ran a newspaper advertisement on July 23, 1890 encouraging people in Philadelphia to journey to the Wildwoods for 50 cents and see “great trees wrapping around each other.”

One of the “great trees” was an American holly, which came to be known as the “W” tree and sometimes the “Methuselah” tree because it was as old as the Biblical character of the same name. Methuselah, a descendant of the more famous Adam, is said to have lived 969 years before he died in the Great Flood.

There is no record, of course, of how old Methuselah the tree was, but legend, if not history, has recorded that the Indians gathered under the tree for conventions in the absence of today’s Convention Hall. The tree was also artistically unique because it appeared in a contorted shape as a result of having been battered by hurricanes, northeasters and snowstorms when it was young, and its trunk was in the shape of a “W.” It can be assumed, too, that having lived to the age of 969 Methuselah’s body, especially his trunk, had some problems as well.

As the early years rolled by, the tree lived a peaceful existence in the area of what would become Pine and Wildwood Avenues not far from New Jersey Avenue. Then the tree was discovered by the founders of the island and others, and it became famous and partly well traveled.

The president of the United States contributed to its fame. Benjamin Harrison, the 23rd president who vacationed in Cape May Point and used Cape May’s Congress Hall as his summer White House, led an entourage of national figures and family members to Wildwood by train on Saturday, Aug. 23, 1890, to dedicate the 250 room Dayton Hotel, at the southwest corner of Atlantic and Wildwood Avenues. Among those in the party was Civil War general and hero William J. Sewell who had served as a United States senator, then lost the seat in an election and regained it in a subsequent election. He also was a prominent figure in the development of properties in the Cape May area.

While he was spending four hours in Wildwood, word got to Harrison that among the city’s trees was this unusual one with the strange configuration. Let me see it, Harrison urged. So the party trekked a few blocks away and with cameras flicking away the “W” tree became famous.

The tree became so famous that visitors started taking pictures of it with relatives and friends standing in front of it or, at least sitting in it. One example, the photo still existing at the George Boyer Museum on Pacific Avenue between Spencer and Spicer Avenues in Wildwood, was of a boy sitting in the trunk of the tree. The boy, said to be the first male born in the Wildwoods, was named Norman Wildwood Ryan. His father, Reuben Ryan, also known as R.W. Ryan, had been introduced by Philip Baker to the still-blossoming territory. Like others who came before and after, Reuben Ryan was so impressed that on the same day of his marriage on April 12, 1889 he and his bride honeymooned and established permanent residence in Wildwood where the groom became a successful merchant.

The boy’s photo was said to have been taken in 1897 and a year later, as development of the island increased, the tree was cut down, but the Baker brothers, perhaps recognizing its historical value as well as public relations potential, preserved the “W” portion of its trunk and transported the 72-inch wide tree bottom to the front of their boardwalk office for tourists to see as they strolled by enjoying the sea breezes and the man made attractions of the fathers of the Wildwoods.

That was to be the beginning of a long journey, sometimes hidden, other times more prominent, for the “W” tree. It is still on display at the Boyer Museum of the Wildwood Historical Society and may just be the Methuselah exhibit of all its many exhibits.


(Next week: The traveling tree that grew in Wildwood.)

(Information for this article was researched at the Wildwood Museum, Robert J. Scully, curator, and Robert Bright, historian and manager.)


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