Although I did not realize it at the time, my first public history “gig” was my high school summer job giving tours of Lucy the Elephant, a national historic landmark in Margate that was built in 1881 to draw potential land buyers to what was then the sparsely populated borough of “South Atlantic City.” At that point the belly of the beast resembled a small gallery, displaying a range of local historical artifacts, including a horse-drawn firehose cart, which were soon removed to the just-opened Margate Historical Society Museum where they stayed on exhibit until the building itself was damaged by Hurricane Sandy. The Atlantic City History Museum on historic Garden Pier at the north end of the Boardwalk has similarly suffered in recent years, due to both natural disasters and economic dislocations. The current exhibit hall was open for only two months following renovations before Sandy struck, while the simultaneous shuttering of the Revel and Showboat casinos in September 2014 left few parking places within walking distance of the site and the ongoing threat of municipal bankruptcy has led to a reduction in open hours. In contrast, a partnership between the African-American Heritage Museum of Southern New Jersey and Stockton University has enabled the opening of a new gallery near the bustling “Walk” shopping district.
Several other small area museums continue to thrive, as I saw first hand over the last year while leading a local public history site-focused study group for the Friends of Encore Learning of Stockton, a lifelong-learners organization affiliated with the university and for which I had previously taught a course called Lies My History Teacher Told Me. The six-session class began at the Ventnor History Museum and concluded at the Longport Historical Society Museum, housed in a preserved Coast Guard station built in 1939, and also visited multiple mainland museums including the Northfield Museum and Casto House located in Birch Grove Park as well as the Leedsville Schoolhouse in Linwood. At all of these sites, expert volunteers led tours and in every case elicited story sharing by the members of my study group who grew up in each locality, which, along with the moment at the Linwood Maritime Museum when our guide opened a locked door to reveal a clam boat from the 1930s, was one of the highlights of the experience for me. These field trips also revealed the degree to which many local museums strive to stay up on cutting-edge techniques for visitor engagement, such as the Interactive Boardwalk Building display at the Ocean City Historical Museum, which exhibit creator and museum executive director Jeff McGranahan told me was designed to engage younger audiences. Indeed, between the current temporary exhibit on surfboards and a permanent curio cabinet display on Grace Kelly’s local upbringing, there is something for all ages.
One site I made sure to visit with my study group was the Atlantic County Historical Society museum in Somers Point, where I volunteered as a teenager since it is only a few blocks from the historic home in which I grew up, a Queen Anne style Victorian called the Charlie Steelman House that the ship’s captain built with his wife, Elvira, in 1892 and that is a part of the city’s Historic District stretching between Shore Road and Bay Avenue. This district is overseen by the Somers Point Historic Preservation Commission, which was established in 1992 to offer advice to the Zoning Board about how best to retain the existing architectural character of the neighborhood and on which I’ve served as secretary for the last two years. My involvement with the SPHPC, which along with the local Historical Society, has spearheaded efforts to commemorate the life of Commandant Richard Somers (including a bronze bust and an outdoor mural), also gave me the opportunity to attend the National Forum on Historic Preservation Practice at Goucher College, held the same week as the 2016 Annual Meeting of the National Council on Public History in nearby Baltimore. In addition to learning about innovative approaches to architectural preservation amid rising sea levels, a major issue for homeowners in the Somers Point Historic District who must deal with revised flood elevation guidelines, I also came back from these conferences with a sense of the possibilities for heritage tourism and public history entrepreneurship at the Jersey Shore.
The State of New Jersey currently offers several different avenues for local government entities to apply for grants to encourage heritage tourism, an opportunity that I brought up at the last SPHPC meeting and that other similar organizations have utilized, such as the Ocean City Historic Preservation Commission in its ongoing efforts to turn a Life Saving Station built in 1886 into a living history museum. Although Atlantic City lost much of its historic architecture in the decades after WWII, as documented by Bryant Simon in Boardwalk of Dreams: Atlantic City and the Fate of Urban America, many of those older restaurants that survive, such as the Knife and Fork Inn, have long advertised their affiliation with famous figures, including political boss Nucky Johnson. I saw the possibilities for using existing infrastructure to create new heritage tourist options first hand when I created and led historical tours of the James Candy Company factory in Atlantic City for two summers after the family-run Salt Water Taffy empire decided to capitalize on its long history at the Boardwalk. Drawing on this experience, I’ve decided to test the local heritage tourist waters this summer by starting Jersey Shore Tours to offer walking tours focused on the beaches and boardwalks, as well as preserved historic buildings of Atlantic City and Ocean City.