With love from Cape May

So, you want to get married in Cape May, do you? That’s an excellent notion. The quaint beauty and charms of America’s oldest seaside resort provide not just the perfect backdrop for a summer vacation, but also an ideal setting for tying the knot—ask me, I know. I was a Pennsylvania resident when I married here in 2001, and in my mind, Cape May was not just at the top of the list, it WAS the list.

Indeed, approximately 500 weddings per year are performed in Cape May, a number that’s steadily ticked upward over the past decade. Think about that for a minute: that’s approximately 10 weddings per week, more than a wedding a day. Given the size of our fair city, that’s quite a lot, and it’s largely because so many of those who marry here are non-residents who choose Cape May to make their nuptials all the more special. One of the reasons for that, of course, is because Cape May is a National Historic Landmark, its Victorian architecture providing a vintage tableau. But the big draw remains the beach. We spoke with a few wedding planners and officiants around town, and they all estimated that 90% of the weddings in which they participated take place on the sand.

Catherine Walton has been running Weddings by the Sea for over 18 years—“I’ve almost lost track,” she laughed. When we asked her about the most memorable one she could recall, she didn’t hesitate. “It was back in 2004 or so. It’s still the biggest wedding that I’ve ever done, if not the biggest in Cape May that I can remember,” Catherine told us. “It took place at the Beach Club, and I think the final price tag on it was $250,000. The couple was from New York City. There were only about 150 guests, but the venue was unbelievable. We had several huge tents set up—one was strictly for desserts, with every possible candy, cakes, and ice cream that you could imagine. The guests swooped in on it like locusts—they went nuts,” she laughed. “The lighting alone cost $37,000, and there were four-foot sparklers like a gauntlet along the path outside the tents. There were sand castles, and they even had an ice cream truck parked outside next to the trolleys, so the guests could get a treat for the ride back to their hotels. It was like something out of a movie.”

If you, like most of us, don’t have $250k to spend on a wedding, fear not. Bob Steenrod has performed ceremonies in which it was just the bride and groom, where he not only officiated, he had to provide a witness to the nuptials. “Sometimes I drag Linda along,” he said, referring to his wife, with whom he runs the Billmae Cottage. “And then I just promise to buy her dinner.” He said he once married a couple at a B&B, and pressed the desk clerk and chambermaid into service as witnesses.

The biggest issue with beach weddings is, of course, the weather. I recently took a walk along the promenade on a picture perfect Saturday afternoon. It was 70 degrees, with just enough of a breeze to send flags fluttering a bit, and not a cloud in the sky. I saw chairs being set up on Broadway beach for a wedding and thought “How perfect!” But Mother Nature isn’t always that cooperative. “I remember performing a ceremony at the Cove pavilion in April, and it was chilly and really windy,” Bob said. “Sometimes it’s hard for everyone to keep focused when the bridesmaids’ dresses are blowing up constantly.”

Crystal Hardin, another wedding officiant in town, couldn’t agree more. She’s been helping folks say “I do” in Cape May for 12 years now, and her most memorable wedding by far featured Hurricane Igor as an uninvited guest. “I was performing what was then called a civil union for two gentlemen, to be held on the beach. They were circus people, and they had guests flying in from Nevada, Florida, and as far away as England,” she said. “There was just a little bit of rain at first, and then it hit, and we had to move everything into the Hotel Macomber at the last minute. My sons helped me decorate, and the ceremony was just so moving. Nature was the music, and everyone was crying. My youngest son said afterwards, ‘Mom, that was SO COOL!’ And it was—we overcame Igor.”

If you don’t want to take your chances on the beach, there are other options. Our officiants told us of marrying couples on the steps of their favorite bed and breakfast inns, in friends’ backyards, even at the Cape May Lighthouse. West Cape May Mayor Pam Kaithern remembers one young couple that she married atop the lighthouse on a beautiful early summer day. “They were so lovely, starry-eyed, even,” she said. “And I don’t have to tell you that the view was breathtaking.” Any other memories from that day? “Yes,” she chuckled. “The stairs are worse coming down than they are going up.”

The garden behind the Chalfonte is a spot that’s gaining in popularity, according to Catherine Walton. “People are starting to stick to places where the reception’s being held for their ceremony, too, instead of transporting people back and forth from one place to another, especially in the summer. If the reception’s at Congress Hall, they’ll get married on the lawn there. If it’s at The Grand, the beach out front. If it’s at the Southern Mansion, they’ll get married in the garden there, etc.”

In the end, though, people are people, and weddings are fraught with emotion no matter where they’re held. “You just have to be ready for anything,” Bob Steenrod said. “Once I was marrying a couple at the Montreal in front of 60 guests. The groom didn’t have the rings when I asked for them and he bolted out of the room to get them. I had to stand there for 10 minutes and keep the bride calm and 60 people entertained until he got back.” He said he once counseled a couple in his office when the bride-to be noticed a Rastafarian hat—complete with dreadlocks—on his hat rack. A Jamaican native, she asked Bob to wear the hat when he performed the ceremony. So what did he do? “I wore it, of course. The bride gets what she wants. Each wedding is special, because each person is special.”

Katlyn Mogavero, Director of Catering at The Grand, definitely agrees. “We had a bride in March 2013 who wanted a fairytale wedding. And she arrived at the ceremony on a ‘unicorn.’ It was a horse from Cape May Carriage Company with a horn attached, but she wanted a fairytale wedding, from her décor to her dress to her demeanor, and that’s what she had. “

For Krystina Kennedy, Event Coordinator at Congress Hall, that’s the name of the game. “I’ve been doing this for four years, and I always say ‘If I don’t cry at a father-daughter dance, it’s time to get out.’ The thing that makes it really memorable for me, though, is building a relationship with these couples, and having them return to Cape May to celebrate anniversaries and growing families.”

Bob Steenrod agrees. “I married a young couple recently, and their family was so taken with this town, I’ll be doing their parents vow renewal ceremony. People love a good wedding, and they love Cape May.”

Brew Crew

Seven or eight years ago, two young men who’d met in college at Villanova in 2001 began to fool around with beer-making. From the rooftop of an apartment building in Park Slope in Brooklyn, Ryan Krill filled his bathtub with snow, begged and borrowed some used equipment from local restaurants, and concocted his first batch of beer, cracking the tub’s porcelain in the process. At around the same time, Chris Henke—who’d gotten a home-brew kit for Christmas from his roommate—set up his own experiment in industrial chemistry in the garage of his house in North Wales, Pennsylvania, fiddling around with ingredients until he’d cooked up a brew that he called Jump the Jetty. And, together, the two friends refined their hobby in the backyard of Ryan’s family’s beach house on 22nd Street in Avalon.

Today, the renamed Jump the Jetty—using what Henke asserts is pretty much the same formula—is the flagship brew of the Cape May Brewing Company, founded in 2011. “That’s what turned into Cape May IPA,” he says, referring to the company’s India pale ale, its best-selling brand. And what started as a hobby (“I’m not sure if they knew whether it was legal or illegal at the time,” says Bill McCaughey, a brewery worker giving visitors a tour) has turned into a multimillion-dollar business that in the spring announced a $1 million expansion. Of course, what Krill and Henke did for kicks early on wasn’t exactly Breaking Bad (or “Brewing Bad”); among other things, it’s perfectly legal to whip up beer at home for your own use. But, in just four years, they have built an empire of sorts, complete with its own sales force, its own trucker-deliverymen, and hundreds of restaurants, bars and liquor stores from Cape May to Burlington County and into southeastern Pennsylvania that offer their beer. “It’s pretty wild, how it’s gone from a hobby to a pretty good-sized, year-round business with 18 full-time employees,” says Krill.

From the fledgling venture producing just ten gallons of beer per batch at its infancy, last year the company churned out more than 2,500 barrels. (One barrel is 31 gallons.) With its brand-new, $250,000 brewhouse—a gleaming array of stainless steel tanks and pipes that arrived in March, after a ride on a cross-country flatbed all the way from Premier Stainless Systems in San Diego—the brewery expects to double its output in 2015, eventually boosting it within a couple of years to 15,000 barrels annually. And it’ll unfold inside a just-renovated, cavernous building on the grounds of the Cape May airport, just off Breakwater Road in Lower Township. Besides the new brewhouse, already settled into place inside what had been the dilapidated ruins of a former wallpaper company, Cape May Brewing Company also boasts an impressive new bottling and packaging line, a spic-and-span cold storage area, shipping facilities, and more.

On a recent Saturday afternoon, the Cape May Brewery’s tasting room is packed, with a healthy mix of locals and visitors from Philadelphia, north Jersey and beyond. It’s early April, and outside it’s unseasonably chilly, but inside patrons are quaffing suds in four-ounce samples and pints and filling 64-ounce bottles called “growlers” for take out. And just as connoisseurs of fine wine describe the subtle taste and bouquet of their favorite shiraz or chardonnay, the brewery describes each of the sixteen beers listed on its ever-changing menu in colorful, often flowery language not usually associated with people used to Budweiser, Miller or Coors. Of its Cape May IPA, says the menu, “We load it with Cascade hops that provide floral and citrus notes.” The “nose” of its Justin’s ‘Niu’ Coconut IPA is “filled with freshly toasted coconuts and grapefruit, rounded out with mango and other tropical fruits.”

This is not your grandfather’s beer—and that’s no accident.

If you came of legal drinking age before, say, the 1990s, it’s very likely you grew up without imbibing anything that called itself a “craft beer.” According to the Brewers Association, formed to represent small, independent and regional breweries, by the end of the 1970s there were only 44 beer makers in the United States after a wave of bankruptcies, mergers and consolidation; mostly manufacturing giants, only a tiny handful were “craft” breweries. Today, there are 3,464 breweries—of which 3,418 are microbreweries, brew-pubs, and regional craft breweries. (Just last year alone, 615 new ones opened their taps.) From nearly zero a generation ago, craft breweries have elbowed their way to an 11 percent share of the market, growing at an accelerating rate and throwing a healthy scare into Big Beer. (Thus, Budweiser’s 2015 Super Bowl ad, accompanied by clomping Clydesdales and marshal music, trumpeted: “Proudly a macro beer. It’s not brewed to be fussed over. … Let them sip their pumpkin peach ale.”)

Henke points out that craft beer has found its niche. “It really started to catch on in the ‘80s,” he says. “It followed wine. Everybody was ready for flavor.” Adds Krill, “By then people realized that there was more to life than microwave dinners and light lager.” Beginning on the West Coast, with Anchor Brewing on Potero Hill in San Francisco and, later, New Albion Brewing Company in Sonoma, microbreweries and brew-pubs took off, catching Big Beer off guard. Five years ago, wondering why south Jersey didn’t have a craft brewery, and with the help of Bob Krill, Ryan’s father, they decided to get into the game, investing $15,000 in their hobby-turned-business. “We asked ourselves, ‘What could go wrong?’” says Ryan Krill.

As it turned out, pretty much nothing. From its earliest beginning—Krill says that it started as a “nano-brewery,” nano- being the techie term for “one-billionth,” that is, a thousand times smaller than micro—Cape May Brewing Company began lining up local bars and restaurants as outlets for its product. First was Cabanas, on Beach Avenue in Cape May, where the company’s beer got rave reviews and, according to then manager Payton Bowman, sold out as fast as Krill and Henke could deliver it. “It was a huge, huge draw,” says Bowman. “We were selling as much as they could supply.” Cabanas was soon joined by eateries such as Lucky Bones, the Mad Batter and many others throughout Cape May County. “They were smart to be the first ones on the block,” says Mark Kulkowitz of the Mad Batter. “When people come to the bar, they’ll ask for a Cape May beer just because it’s local.” At last count, Cape May Brewing Company supplies 240 customers, including a growing number of liquor stores. With its new brewhouse and bottling facility, the company expects to generate a steady of supply of six-packs and cases for a range of its most popular beers.

You can, in fact, try this at home, and according to the brewery’s blog, more than a million people do exactly that. There’s no secret to beer-making, really. There are only four basic ingredients: water, grain, yeast, and hops. The Cape May Brewing Company buys its grain, mostly barley, already processed, from Germany. “They’ve been doing it for a long time,” says Henke, with some understatement. The German maltster soaks the grain, and, after it begins to germinate, dries it in a kiln and mills it for export. When it gets to Cape May, the brewery takes the product, called malt, and mixes it with hot water in a huge tank called a mash tun, which allows naturally occurring enzymes to generate a sugar-rich liquid called wort. Some beer-makers tout the water they use (Coors boasts that its beer is “brewed with pure Rocky Mountain spring water”), but Cape May Brewing is perfectly happy to use unfiltered Cape May water, which works just fine. The wort is strained and transferred to a “boil kettle,” where it’s boiled along with hops, derived from flowers or seed cones of the hop vine, which contribute bitterness, flavor and aroma. Finally, the product goes to the fermenter, where yeast is added and the friendly little yeast microorganisms convert sugar into alcohol.

But perfecting beer is a kind of chemistry experiment, and Krill, Henke and their brewmasters love to tinker. By varying temperature, changing the grain-to-water ratio, using various kinds of hops, adding other ingredients, such as fruits, sugar or honey, and other methods, a beer-maker can create an endless variety of tastes. One of Cape May Brewing Company’s hottest products is its Honey Porter, made with 90 pounds of honey from a south Jersey supplier for every 15 barrels. That earned the company the coveted label of “Jersey Fresh” from the New Jersey Department of Agriculture, which bestows that designation only on products certified to utilize an approved amount of locally grown produce.

In New Jersey, beer making is an increasingly popular business. The Cape May Brewing Company is one of 26 craft brewers who belong to the Garden State Craft Brewers Guild, whose president is Ryan Krill. Outside of Cape May, elsewhere in south Jersey, there’s the Pinelands Brewery in Little Egg Harbor, Tuckahoe Brewery in Ocean View, the Tun Tavern Brewery and Restaurant in Atlantic City, and the long-established Flying Fish Brewing Company in Somerdale. Not only that, but in the pipeline statewide are 17 breweries in various stages of planning and development. But, in Krill’s and Henke’s view, the more the merrier. And to underline the point, they’ve organized Brews by the Bay, an annual event held on both sides of the Delaware Bay on the grounds of the Cape May-Lewes Ferry, at which eight New Jersey craft breweries and nine Delaware breweries will promote their wares to thirsty festival-goers.

As for the competition, Krill isn’t worried. “Demand,” he says, “has always been ahead of our ability to meet it.”

Roth’s Candyland

It’s the day after Easter and I’m sitting at the kitchen table with my aunt, Patty Volpe, while she and my father talk about Roth’s Candyland. For almost a century, the family business produced the best candy in town, then petered out in the 1980s, just before I was born. It’s always been a mythical place to me (and a good excuse for my hereditary sweet tooth), but today I’m looking to learn more.

“Hard candy was my grandfather’s specialty,” Patty says.

“And the old folks loved the horehound drops, for medicinal purposes,” my dad says. “The people in the Towers used to eat that up.”

“Remember the buttercreams? They were to die for,” Patty’s husband, Joe Volpe adds.

I ask, “What’s a buttercream?” and there’s a collective groan of disappointment.

My dad shakes his head, and my aunt throws down a basket of cream-filled eggs. They’ll never be as good as my grandfather’s, she warns. I bite through the dark chocolate shell, chew the vanilla-sweet filling, and try to imagine something better. True to form, everyone else takes a piece (sugar is in our blood, after all) and they start telling stories.

We know Frank Roth emigrated from another resort town, Baden-Baden, Germany in 1856, and his son Joseph started making candy at the age of 12. He ended up in Florida, honing his trade at Henry Flagler’s Hotel Ponce De Leon—at the time a brand-new, Spanish Revival showpiece, and one of the first buildings wired for electric light. By 1903, he was head candymaker at the St. Louis Exhibition.

Joseph Fralinger, the rumored inventor of saltwater taffy, was at that same fair. Impressed by Roth’s confectionary skills, he brought him up to New Jersey and installed him at his shop on the Atlantic City boardwalk. Already a studied hand at chocolate and hard candy, Joseph learned to work taffy, all the while saving money with an eye toward having a shop of his own.

In 1913, my great-grandfather left Fralinger’s to open Roth’s Candyland at Beach Avenue and Decatur, on the remains of Victor Denizot’s Iron Pier. The receipt for that first season’s rent reads ‘$150, paid in full’ (about $3500 in today’s money). The oldest and best photo of Candyland was taken around that time: it shows Joseph and his wife Abigail standing proudly before their new business, offering saltwater taffy, sodas and cream candies. That same year, Abigail gave birth to George Roth, their only son, who would carry the business into the next generation.

As a working couple, Abigail and Joseph didn’t have the funds or the time to find childcare for George. “He was a wild kid,” Patty tells me. “When he was little, his parents tied him to the pier. As the tide came in, they’d just pull in the rope along with it.” Roths start work young, and most of us guess George got into the candy game as soon as he could untie himself.

As father and son began working together, the business grew. In 1945 they left the boardwalk and opened shop at 513 Washington Street, next to Our Lady Star of the Sea. Bob Roth, George’s second-oldest son, still remembers the move. “I was about three years old when they went in on that store. I remember them pouring the concrete floor all the way through it. The basement was all dirt—that amazed me at the time.” Eventually, the layout included a luncheonette, soda fountain and candy counter in the front, and in the back, a small factory and cold room for production and storage.

The Roths rented the retail space from the Doughertys. Barney Dougherty, who was born in the building and lived upstairs, still remembers Joseph well. “I liked him very much,” he says. “Sometimes he’d make mints, and that smell would penetrate our apartment something… unbelievable. At this stage in my life, though, those things are comical.”

Like a lot of people, Barney also remembers Joseph was pretty blind in his old age. “He had glasses like the bottoms of Coke bottles,” he says. Tom Roth remembers that, and more: “Sometimes when people would go in to buy candy, he’d give the impression he couldn’t see and put in some extra sweets. People would say ‘He was so blind, he didn’t know how much candy he was giving!’” Tom says. “But he knew. He just liked you.”

When Joseph passed away in 1961, George took over the store in full, with help from his wife Margaret and his ten children (George, Bob, Joe, Don, Marge, Patty, Jerry, Carl, Tom, and Jon, if you’re counting). Each one worked as soon as they were able, usually starting out on the 60-foot conveyor belt. “The worst was sitting at the end of that belt, at the dryer,” Jon Roth says. “It was like that scene from I Love Lucy.”

Sisters Marge and Patty (my grandmother called them “the roses between the thorns”), usually worked the front of the store at the soda counter and luncheonette, starting around 1964. “We learned to multitask when we were 13 years old,” Patty says. Marge adds, “We could take a lunch order, run to the kitchen and put the hamburger on the grill, make a milkshake, pack a pound of candy, then drop off the burger. That was the best training to be a server anybody could ever have.”

But it wasn’t just Roths working the shop. A lot of names come up immediately—Sherry Eckel, Linda Hess, June Halbrunner, and a hell-raiser named Laura Welch, who rode a Harley, tempered chocolate by hand, and didn’t retire until she hit 93. Angie Washington, who started there in 1962, put in 17 years. “It was very interesting work. I got a chance to see how all those different candies were made,” she says. “I started back in the factory, where the candy was made, then graduated to working in the store at the luncheonette up front. I was working there the day John Kennedy was killed. Nobody could believe that it happened. People wandered in and out of the store, shocked, and things just sort of came to a standstill for the rest of the day.”

In 1970, Cape May got a facelift when then-Mayor Frank Gauvry broke ground on the Washington Street Mall. “I remember them tearing up the cobblestones and the railroad tracks and everything that was buried,” Bob Roth says. Before long it became a three-block pedestrian thoroughfare.

Business owners spruced up their own shops to match the tone of the mall, and Roth’s underwent a serious renovation. “They just gutted it, and then everything was tiled and modern, with a new kitchen in the restaurant and a new cold room,” Jon says. Walking in, you’d see five four-top tables to the left, with candy display cases to the right, and toward the back a soda fountain and an extra-long ‘family table’ before the kitchen.

“Everyone’s gonna mention the family table,” says Tom. “There were a hundred people that would just sit at that table throughout the week, including just about every cop and every politician in Cape May.” Some regulars included Rob Sheehan Sr., R.E. White, Bob Robinson, Barney Dougherty, John Sudak, and John Ward, who won $10,000 scratching off a lottery ticket there in ‘77. “We all used to congregate in there with the guys, have coffee and shoot the breeze and chase the girls that worked the counter,” Barney says. “We had a good time.”

“He was a socializer,” Bob tells me. “Pop sat outside all the time and greeted everybody coming up and down the street. When they had the mall there were finally benches, so he had a perch out there. After all, you can’t make candy all day.”

But for the most part, he did. Even more than summer’s crush of visitors, the holidays were the busiest times at Roth’s—particularly Christmas and Easter. A 1983 article in The Cape May Gazette shows George and my uncle Joe, cooking, rolling and bending candy canes by the hundred. That year they made 20,000 candy canes, 2,000 a day, in both peppermint and cinnamon flavors. “We make anise when we can get it,” George said in the interview, “but this year it was $600 for a pound.”

Easter was an even bigger production, as the team turned out chocolate-covered Easter eggs in ten flavors (fudge, peanut, and buttercream were favorites). “On Good Friday, my dad would close the store from noon to three,” Marge says. “When we got back, there would be a line of people stretching past the church, waiting to pick up their orders. Everyone used to get their eggs there.” And not just in Cape May—candy from Roth’s made its way across the country and the globe. “I remember going to the post office and taking boxes to be mailed to France, England — all over the world,” says Bob.

Despite the demand, it became increasingly difficult for Roth’s to turn a profit. George was an old-school perfectionist, which could lead to a lot of wasted inventory. “If the candy canes didn’t have the right shine, they weren’t being sold,” Patty says, echoing her father’s words from his ’81 Gazette interview about Easter eggs: “If the temperature is off by one degree, we can’t sell them.”

So, yes, maybe the candy was too good. “He didn’t skimp, that’s for sure,” Tom says. “The hot fudge he used for the sundaes, that was the same fudge that he sold by the pound.” A sign inside the store read: “We have no qualms with those who sell for less. They know what their stuff is worth.” It was funny, and it was true, but it became a liability. “That business wasn’t really making money,” Tom says. “Costs kept going up, and you had to keep prices really competitive. That wound up being our downfall, I think.”

In 1983, George Roth closed up shop, selling the space to the Bogle brothers of The Original Fudge Kitchen, who still run it today. He retired, and six months later died of a heart attack. After more than 50 years of beating fudge, pulling taffy and coating eggs, maybe taking time off was the biggest shock of all.

He did live long enough to help his son, Joe Roth, set up a new candy factory out of the Cape May Airport. When his father passed away, Joe tried to keep the company alive through mail-order business, but the money wasn’t coming in. “Joe just lost the location,” Marge says. “You can’t lose the mall and still survive.” In today’s age, where shoppers prize artisanal chocolate and purchases are made with a mouse-click, it might have taken off. But in the mid-80s, it was a short-lived enterprise. “Joe was bound and determined to keep that business going,” Barney says. “Even when he started working for the ferry, I think he was still doing something on a limited basis.”

In 1995, Joe was diagnosed with leukemia and died a year later. He left behind a grieving family, and took with him every Roth’s recipe he’d ever learned. From my great-grandfather Joseph, to George, to his son Joseph, the family passed on their knowledge as a kind of oral history, one-to-one, never writing down a formula. Some of us still think there’s a book of recipes somewhere, the keys to Candyland. But the more people I talk to, the less likely that seems.

George Roth

So we don’t have the store, and we don’t have the recipes. But when we all get together, the Roths still end up talking candy. Bob says there’s a spot in Baltimore, the Inner Harbor, where a guy makes fudge that’s close to his father’s. Aunt Patty found a place in Vermont that sells chocolate straws almost like her dad’s, but they’re broken up in pieces (George would have thrown those out). If my dad wants to remember Roth’s Candyland fudge today, he’ll go to the mall and order some maple fudge, no nuts, which he says tastes nearly as rich as his father’s vanilla. But not quite.

I’ve never tried a piece of that candy, but I’ve heard about it from upwards of a hundred people now. His fudge was killer, his chocolate straws were to die for, and nobody could touch his Easter eggs. People still dream about the sundaes and the red-hots, remember the marzipan and the saltwater taffy, the caramels and the mints and the buttercreams…

And if you listen long enough, you can almost taste them.

The Coast Guard’s Hometown

On a chilly Friday morning in late April, bright sun streamed through the windows of the spacious gymnasium on the grounds of the U.S. Coast Guard’s training center as Captain Todd Prestidge rose to address the latest crop of recruits to complete their eight-week boot camp. Having entered as raw recruits, some of whom may not have anticipated the rigors of the training they’d signed up for, within days the 36 men and six women would be winging their way to Coast Guard facilities across the country. But today Prestidge wanted them to remember where it all started. “This is Cape May!” he boomed. “This is your new home town!”

For casual and part-time visitors to Cape May, intent on enjoying its beaches, Victorian architecture, and fine restaurants, the Coast Guard base can be almost invisible. Perhaps they hear the faint echoes of the national anthem and military music from the center’s loudspeakers each morning and at lights-out. They might notice neat ranks of recruits chanting and jogging in step through city streets now and then. And, of course, when more advanced recruits get a rare day of leave, they can be spotted in small groups at Wawa, along the promenade, or in Rio Grande’s shopping area—erect, exceedingly polite, and always in uniform.

But the relationship between the Coast Guard’s training center—TRACEN, in military lingo—the city of Cape May, and the broader Cape May community is far more complex and runs much deeper. Sixty-seven years after the Coast Guard established itself in Cape May in 1948, TRACEN and Cape May have built an enduring partnership. And it’s one that received its formal seal of approval in May, with the designation of Cape May County as an official “Coast Guard community.” Years in the making, that designation was marked by a May 8 proclamation ceremony, followed by a weekend-long public celebration, with walking and trolley tours, live music, children’s activities, interactive exhibits, a beer-and-BBQ bash, a gala dinner, and plenty of political speechmaking.

“It celebrates Americana,” says Prestidge later, speaking in an armchair in his office. With a firm handshake, a confident bearing, and a shaved head atop his muscular frame, Prestidge has served as TRACEN’s commanding officer since 2013. He’s quick to sing Cape May’s praises. “The relationship between Cape May and the Coast Guard celebrates everything that’s special about the area, from Wildwood and the doo-wop days to Cape May as one of America’s first resorts. We’re proud to be part of that, and I can’t think of another place where I’d rather send new recruits out into the world.”

If Cape May is the adopted hometown for thousands of new recruits every year, it’s also the Coast Guard’s hometown, too. A web of ties binds Cape May to the Coast Guard, from the popular sunset parades to the participation of TRACEN’s color guard units at Fourth of July, Memorial Day, and other events year-round. Ed Mahaney, Cape May’s mayor, says that Coast Guard personnel play an important role in the community. “They attend our churches and sing in church choirs, they coach our Little League teams, they get involved in civic activities of all kinds,” he says. “They volunteer to help out with our music festivals, at Harborfest, in our parades. If we had to run all of our festivals and special weekends year round without them, well, we couldn’t do it.”

Several years ago, Mahaney and Captain William G. Kelly, then TRACEN’s commanding officer, began serious discussion of having Cape May win designation as an official Coast Guard community. By then, 14 other cities had already earned that distinction, beginning with Grand Haven, Michigan, in 1998. (Since then, two others have joined their ranks.) “Kelly was surprised, and I was surprised, that Cape May wasn’t already included,” says Mahaney.

The city began the process of applying, which requires expansive documentation of a community’s Coast Guard ties, and which must be approved by the Coast Guard and both houses of Congress before it’s a done deal. Soon Mahaney was joined by Bill Morey, a newly elected freeholder, and they agreed to expand the application to include not just the city but the entire county. Backed by Vicki T. Clark, the president of the county Chamber of Commerce, Mahaney and Morey began recruiting politicians and business and civic leaders to support the effort, and they established a county-wide committee to oversee it all.

To learn how it all works, Morey flew out to Grand Haven, which calls itself “Coast Guard City, USA.” Says Morey, “We had as our focus that, number one, we don’t want to repeat what they’ve done, but we wanted to learn from their experience.” At first, Morey says, he looked at the Coast Guard from the standpoint of its economic impact on Cape May. “But I quickly found out how important the social aspect is.” For instance, he points out, plenty of Coast Guard personnel find spouses in Cape May, and many end up retiring here, too, after their service.

One of those driving the process to certify Cape May as a Coast Guard community herself has intimate ties with the Coast Guard. Vicki Clark’s father-in-law, Sam Clark, was a career Coast Guard member who served with the Guard in Vietnam, and her sister-in-law is married to a career Coastie. And, years ago, her husband made a surprise oceanside marriage proposal on the Coast Guard beach in Cape May, hiding the ring inside an Italian hoagie.

Clark had little trouble getting local businesses to take part in the designation effort, and letters poured in endorsing the campaign from businesses and civic groups, from the New Jersey State Chamber of Commerce to the Cape May Nature Center and local churches—along with resolutions in favor from 17 municipalities in Cape May County.

At least part of the reason that businessfolk backed the campaign was because having the designation could cement the Coast Guard’s presence in Cape May for many years to come. “Having this designation is critically important to making sure that base stays here,” says Clark. “It’ll work in our favor should there be any chance in the future of the base closing.”

Twenty years ago, that came perilously close to happening. Twice, remembers Mayor Mahaney, in 1995 and again in 1997, the Coast Guard threatened to close its Cape May facility, part of the post-Cold War budget cutting and retrenchment that led to the shutdown of scores of military bases around the nation. “The Coast Guard set up a commission and hired a consulting firm called Tetra Tech to look at whether or not to maintain, consolidate, or close the base,” Mahaney says, and Tetra Tech recommended doing so. However, a tidal wave of support from businesses, civic groups and citizens culminated in a packed meeting at the Grand Hotel’s ballroom on Pearl Harbor Day in 1997 that began at 4pm and ran into the early morning hours, with 700 people in attendance. The Coast Guard stayed put.

One who’s stayed put in Cape May is Tom Carroll, a retired Coast Guard officer who, with his wife, Sue, owned the Mainstay Inn from 1977 until 2004. The Carrolls themselves have become mainstays in Cape May, including as patrons of and volunteers at the Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts and Humanities. But, like many other Coasties who’ve retired in the Cape May area, Carroll hasn’t forgotten his Coast Guard roots. After going to the service’s Officers Candidate School in 1969 and serving on active duty until 1971, Carroll joined the Coast Guard reserves and served as the commanding officer of Cape May reserve activities, retiring with the rank of captain. “When I was there we had 60 to 80 reservists in Cape May who helped with everything from search and rescue to boating safety,” he says.

Carroll points out the many ways that members of the Cape May community engage with TRACEN:  There’s Operation Fireside—a Red Cross-run program under which more than 180 families host upwards of 500 Coast Guard recruits in their homes on Thanksgiving and Christmas. There’s the Coast Guard Family Assistance Fund, which helps bring friends and family of graduating recruits to Cape May every week, often paying plane fares and, in cooperation with local hotels and motels, arranging free or reduced-rate stays. And there’s the Coast Guard auxiliary, which has 199 members in Cape May County, an all-volunteer, civilian program that the Coast Guard calls a force-multiplier. “Anybody can join,” says Carroll. “It’s the only volunteer service like that for any branch of the military.”

One leader of the Coast Guard auxiliary in Cape May, dubbed Flotilla 8-2, is Joe Giannattasio. “The auxiliary in south Jersey is among the oldest and largest in the country,” says Giannattasio, who owns the Milky Way Ice Cream and Mini-Golf in Villas. “Our members do pretty much every mission there is.” Besides conducting tours of TRACEN, assisting in recruit training, going to sea on missions from aid-to-navigation efforts to boat checks, members of the auxiliary help prepare, cook and serve meals for members of each graduating class and their families. “We don’t get paid,” he adds.

From the reserves to the auxiliary to local businesses and Operation Fireside, hundreds of Cape May area residents are engaged with TRACEN. Tracey Martin, who works for Cape Resorts, is a long-time resident of Cape May whose grandfather was a career Coast Guardsman, and her family hosted recruits as part of Operation Fireside when she was in school—back at a time when, she says, some school kids would say, “Don’t make friends with Coast Guard kids, because they’ll just leave.” Now, with a family of her own, Martin hosts recruits every year. “It’s part of our holiday,” she says. “And it feels special to be able to do something for the [recruits].” Each holiday, she visits TRACEN and comes home with a few young men and women who, she says, are gratified to get a home-cooked meal and a chance to call relatives, jump on a computer, or take a nap.

By the numbers, it’s hard to exaggerate the importance of TRACEN to Cape May’s economy, too. The base is the largest employer in the county, supporting 700 year-round jobs for military and civilian personnel and an additional 150 contractors from Cape May and surrounding communities who work on the base. On top of that, TRACEN hosts up to 500 recruits at any one time. According to a 2013 economic impact study by Atlantic Cape Community College, the base itself, including TRACEN and 11 other Coast Guard commands headquartered there generates $173 million a year in direct and indirect spending. Among other impacts, at least 40,000 people a year visit Cape May to attend their son or daughter’s graduation ceremony—staying in local hotels and motels, eating at local restaurants, buying souvenirs. “If you go to C-View Inn on any Friday night, you’re likely to see four or five Coast Guard families eating there,” says John Cooke, the manager of the Victorian Motel on Perry Street.

Cooke, who serves as the Cape May Chamber of Commerce liaison to the Coast Guard, works closely with the Family Assistance Fund to make sure that families can get to their son or daughter’s ceremony. The fund also maintains a web site so that families of each graduating company can network and get to know each other before they arrive in Cape May, says Cooke. “And we’ll work with Cape May hotels to get deeply discounted or, in some cases, free rooms for them when they get here.” The day that Cape May Magazine caught up with Cooke, twenty people were booked into the Victorian Motel for the next day’s ceremony.

The 40,000-strong U.S. Coast Guard replenishes its ranks every year with up to 3,500 graduates of TRACEN’s boot camp. Except for men and women who go to the Coast Guard Academy along the Thames River in New London, Connecticut, every single member of the Coast Guard passes through Cape May. At the ceremony for Zulu 190, the company of recruits who graduated in late April, Captain Prestidge told the 500 people packed into the gym—led by cheering relatives—that the kids they sent to Cape May aren’t the same anymore.

“They have changed,” he said. “They’ve lost a little weight. Their hair is different. They will stand up straight. They will look you in the eye. We took what you gave us, which in some cases wasn’t much”—laughter at this—“and we turned them into Coast Guardsmen.”
Captain Bill Kelly, the former commanding officer of TRACEN—who rose to Rear Admiral in May—looks back fondly on his tenure in Cape May, where he lived through frozen winters and storms Irene and Sandy. “The people who came there in the summer didn’t have a clue about the Coast Guard base, but when you get to know the residents who are part of the community, the support from the auxiliarists, the people from the community who help us, well, that was neat.”

And Kelly agrees with Prestidge that Cape May is the Coast Guard’s hometown. “Eighty percent of all Coast Guardsmen come through Cape May,” he says. “That’s their birthplace. That is where Coast Guard careers all start. And what they learn in Cape May will stay with them.”