Small Town, Big League

The first sign that something unusual was happening on a freezing day in late January, deep into Cape May’s off season, was that there was nowhere to park within blocks of Convention Hall. Outside, latecomers were streaming in twos and threes up the steps, and unlike many events in town that lean toward beach casual, folks were dressed to the nines. Inside, the place was packed: hundreds of men and women, sipping wine or cocktails, perusing an expansive array of silent auction items.

Another thing was unusual, too. Unlike many events in Cape May, where—let’s face it—the attendees often skew toward older and grayer, the crowd was chock full of people in their 20s and 30s. And at the center of the action, smiling and greeting his way through the shoulder-to-shoulder scene, was Lower Township’s Matt Szczur. Nattily outfitted in a sharp blue suit and a radiant orange shirt open at the collar, Szczur presented a silhouette that was tall, trim, fit and athletic-looking. Which wasn’t surprising, given that Szczur is a three-sport athlete who just happens to play for the Chicago Cubs, the World Champion baseball club that ended a century-long drought by winning last fall’s World Series.

Szczur (pronounced: Caesar, like the emperor or the salad) is, of course, a local boy made really, really good. Born and raised in Cape May County and a product of Lower Cape May Regional High School, he just might be Cape May’s most famous resident—and not only for his skills on the field. For Szczur is also—and humbly—a hero of another kind, as bone marrow donor and a spark plug for a nationwide charity drive to raise funds and donors for Be the Match. It is an organization operated by the National Bone Marrow Donor program aimed at fostering transplants to help cure people with life-threatening blood cancers, such as leukemia and lymphoma.

That evening, Convention Hall was hosting a “Szcz the Day” benefit for the Andy Talley Bone Marrow Foundation. And the reason why so many millennials and Generation Xers were in attendance is that Szczur, who organized and promoted the event, attracted sports fans, fellow LCMR grads, and alumni from Villanova University, where Szczur was a standout star. Talley, also there for the festivities, was Szczur’s Villanova coach, and the person who initially inspired Szczur to get involved with Be the Match.

It was, as we shall see, a decision that could have drastically affected Szczur’s sports career. But, he told Cape May Magazine, it wasn’t something he thought twice about, and he’s never looked back. As he told ESPN, which produced a stirring video account of Szczur’s journey from star athlete to bone marrow donor, it was just something he had to do. “To be able to make a difference, I honestly think that anyone in my place would have done the same thing,” he said.

Szczur, who’ll be 28 in July, was born and raised in Cape May Court House and grew up in Erma. From a very early age, both Matt and his older brother, Marc, were naturals at sports and, according to their father, Marc Szczur, they excelled in virtually every one they explored. Beginning at three years old, they participated in karate, pee-wee wrestling, soccer, tee-ball, Little League baseball, football, basketball, and hockey. “When Matt was three, four, five years old he hung around with his older brother, and he was as good or better than he was in just about everything,” said Marc. “He was always working out, and he was always trying to get bigger, better, faster, stronger.”

Both boys, said Marc, were good kids. “Sure, they got into their share of trouble, but they were so involved with sports that they couldn’t get into too much trouble,” he said, laughing.

Matt Szczur is a legend at LCMR, where he earned varsity letters in baseball, football, and track and field. On the baseball field, both brothers excelled, and for a time they formed a fraternal battery, with Matt catching and Marc pitching. “That,” says Marc Sr., “was really fun to watch.” In 2007, a scout for the Los Angeles Dodgers noticed Matt’s prowess at bat and in the field, and he was drafted by the Dodgers in the 38th round to enter pro ball. Instead, Matt opted to head for Villanova upon graduating.

Szczur with (from left): Kevin and Erica O’Neil, Lisa Wiedmeyer

Coach Talley, who recruited Szczur to Nova’s football program, says that the school had their eye on him since ninth grade. “Matty was someone we had out to our summer camps when he was in high school, and we were able to evaluate him as an athlete,” he told Cape May Magazine. “He was someone who could play several positions. And he was a two-sport guy, who could play baseball, too.”

At Villanova, Szczur played football in the fall and baseball in the spring. Truth be told, he might have been able to turn professional in either sport. “To be honest, I probably always preferred baseball to football,” he told Cape May Magazine. Some of his reasoning was practical, since the professional life of a football player averages just a few years, while baseball pros tend to stay in the game far longer. “When I thought about it, it just seemed like baseball players had a lot more longevity in their careers.” Not many people, of course, ever get to make that choice.

It would be Talley who opened the door for Szczur’s life-changing decision to get involved with the bone marrow donation program.

In 1992—when Szczur was just three years old—Talley began working to find people willing to be bone marrow donors. He started by asking Villanova football players to lead the way. This is how it works: a person can offer to become a bone marrow donor, but only if the specifics of their genetic makeup are compatible with the bone marrow needs of a specific cancer sufferer. In the vast majority of cases, it’s a long shot, and many people whose blood is tested never find a match. (According to the Chicago Tribune, which profiled Szczur’s involvement with Be the Match, it’s a 1-in-80,000 chance that a donor and a recipient will match.) If, in fact, a match does turn up, and if the would-be recipient qualifies for a transplant, then the volunteer still has the option, naturally, of deciding whether or not to follow through.

Talley was excited about the idea of involving student athletes on campus at Villanova. “I thought, ‘Wow, I’ve got 90 healthy football players,” he told Cape May Magazine. Many of them signed up, and Talley began to expand the effort, drawing in other area colleges, including Temple University. “I was trying at the beginning to get local schools and colleges to have bone marrow drives,” he said. The program grew from a dozen schools to more than 40 by the mid-2000s, and today it encompasses more than 70 colleges and universities nationwide. In 2010, he founded the Andy Talley Bone Marrow Foundation, with thousands of potential donors. “Recently, we hit the 5,000 mark in terms of student athletes,” he said. The National Bone Marrow Donor Program/Be the Match has completed more than 70,000 transplants since the late 1970s, and it currently does 6,400 a year.

In 2006, as a Villanova freshman, Szczur—who had a friend in high school who had battled leukemia—signed up. And three years later, in 2009, right in the middle of the football season, Szczur learned that a young girl in Ukraine, Anastasia Olkhovsky, was a match. Without blinking, knowing that if anything were to go wrong with the procedure, it could end his chance of becoming a professional athlete, Szczur agreed to go ahead.

Though often considered a routine procedure, having bone marrow extracted for a donation is not exactly a walk in the park. It is, according to the ESPN report on Szczur, “E:60 Risking It All,” an “exhausting, three-hour” event which, in some cases, can lead to severe damage to the donor’s spleen and other side effects. Despite all that, Szczur wasn’t deterred. In introducing Szczur at Convention Hall in Cape May in January, Kevin Reilly, a former special teams player for the Philadelphia Eagles who’s now a broadcaster—and a cancer survivor himself—described it this way: “It’s 2009. You’ve got a chance for a national championship. Your best player is Matt Szczur,” said Reilly. “Matt didn’t even hesitate.”

As it turned out, Olkhovsky wasn’t quite ready—yet—to be a recipient. Szczur went on that year to lead the Villanova Wildcats to a national championship in an upset, 23–21 win over the University of Montana. In the championship game, Szczur racked up 159 yards with two touchdowns, and he was named the game’s Most Outstanding Player.

That spring, however, while Szczur was on the field for Villanova’s baseball team—and while expecting possible offers from both the NFL and Major League Baseball—he was informed that his bone marrow was needed, and right away. It was the climax of the baseball season, but once again he didn’t hesitate. “When he was told that he would miss some games in the greatest season of his life, he just said, ‘So be it,’” said Talley. Not only—Szczur would learn later—would the transplant be successful, but the whole story took a magical turn. In his last at-bat before missing 10 days for the bone marrow transfer, Szczur hit a home run. Then, in his first at-bat back on the field, he homered again.

None of this surprises Talley. “Matt is a small-town guy, with small-town values,” he said. “He’s really a dream come true. He’s got a heart as big as a football field.”

“I never really thought of it as a really big deal,” said Szczur. “It was all worth it, and when I saw the effect that it had on Anastasia’s family, I knew it was the right thing to do.”

A few weeks after his bone marrow helped save Olkhovsky’s life, Szczur was drafted by the Cubs in the fifth round of the 2010 MLB draft, earning a $100,000 signing bonus and an additional $500,000 if he agreed to pass up a football career. Later, he signed a $1.5 million deal with the Cubs, moving from the minors to the major league team in 2014. He had stints with the Cubs in both 2015 and 2016. In limited action last year, playing in 107 games, Szczur hit a respectable .259, with five home runs, nine doubles, a triple, and 24 RBIs. And last April 29, Szczur hit his first grand slam home run in the eighth inning of a 6-1 win over the Atlanta Braves.

Joe Maddon, the Cubs’ manager, is effusive about Szczur. “He’s kind of like a manager’s dream player. He knows his role. He stays ready. He’s very versatile.” Last October, Maddon took the Cubs into the post-season and eventually the World Series, which the Cubbies won in seven games over the Cleveland Indians—the Cubs’ first World Series victory since 1908.

For Szczur, the post-season was bittersweet, however. Despite his credible season stats, Szczur was left off the Cubs post-season roster, and didn’t see any action. He spent the Series on the bench, in uniform, rooting for his buddies but unable to contribute. “It was hard,” he told Cape May Magazine. Nevertheless, Szczur was part of the Cubs history-making season, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that he’ll cherish forever.

For Marc Szczur, Matt’s father, it’s all like a dream come true. “I’m a baseball fanatic,” he said. “The way I feel is, it’s more than just being proud. It’s fun.” A mechanic who works at Morey’s Piers in Wildwood, Marc gets a couple of months off in the summer after the boardwalk is up and running, and he often travels to Chicago, Philadelphia, Washington, and New York to see his son play ball. “When they’re playing the Phillies, sometimes we’ll have 50 or 75 friends, and the whole family, at a tailgate party.”

At Convention Hall, looking out at the hundreds of people gathered to raise money for Talley’s foundation and for Szczur’s “Szcz the Day” program, Lower Township Mayor Eric Simonsen summed up Szczur’s journey so far. “You can set records in your local high school. You can go off to college and be the MVP,” he said. “But not too many people can say, ‘I saved someone’s life.’”

All-American Recovery: The Bald Eagle

On an ordinary afternoon in March, Cape May resident Linda Portewig was standing outside with her son when she witnessed a fierce battle suddenly erupt in the sky. To her great surprise, two Bald Eagles had forcefully collided and appeared to be stuck in a deadly embrace as they spiraled down through the air. Linda and her son watched in awe, fully expecting the eagles to break off before smashing down to earth. But these eagles were locked in a death grip, their powerful and deadly talons unbreakably intertwined. As the birds neared the treetops they quickly maneuvered to avoid any large branches and landed in some rose bushes with an audible crash.

Forty years ago, two Bald Eagles appearing over a Cape May backyard would be an almost unimaginable sight. Their precipitous decline, followed by a miraculous recovery, is a rare conservation success story. At their low point in the early 1970s, the American Bald Eagle was on the edge of extinction, especially in the lower forty-eight states. Like many species in the 19th and 20th centuries, and despite its national reverence, the Bald Eagle had been mercilessly persecuted by humans on multiple fronts. In the entire state of New Jersey there was just one breeding pair, but their attempts were unsuccessful.

Mike Lanzone cradles an eagle after pulling it out of rose tangles. Photo credit: Linda Portewig

Bald Eagles were nearly eliminated from Eastern North America. A number of factors contributed to their decline, including indiscriminate shooting, habitat loss, and overfishing; but the main culprit was identified as the pesticide DDT, a chemical first used during World War II. This poison was especially toxic to insects, and was used after the war as an agricultural insecticide and as an agent to destroy mosquito populations in communities around the United States. The toxicity to humans and wildlife was unknown at the time, nor was its effect on the environment. Apex (or top of the food chain) predators—including large birds like the Peregrine Falcon, Bald Eagle, Brown Pelican, and Osprey—were particularly hard hit by chemical spraying. As it worked its way up the food chain from insects to fish, and smaller animals in greater quantities, predators accumulated large amounts of the pesticide in their tissue; many were outright poisoned. However, the most insidious problem developed within their reproductive systems. The mechanism is still not completely understood, but it is known that DDT affects calcium absorption during an important period of eggshell development. Despite an egg’s natural strength, DDT exposure causes drastic thinning of the shell. Once the mother laid her eggs, the simple weight of her brooding would break the eggs underneath her. Unable to reproduce, the populations of many raptors and other predatory species quickly fell.

In Rachel Carson’s seminal work, Silent Spring (1962), she highlights the many detrimental effects of DDT on wildlife and humans. Her book is credited with jumpstarting the burgeoning environmental movement in the 1960s and 1970s, resulting in a major change in how Americans viewed and used our natural resources. Legislation such as the Clean Air Act, Water Pollution Control, and—most important for the Bald Eagle—the Endangered Species Act, set mandatory protections for vulnerable species in the United States.

To gain some perspective on Bald Eagle recovery in New Jersey, I spoke with Wildlife Biologist Larissa Smith, who works on the Bald Eagle program for Conserve Wildlife New Jersey. I first asked about initial recovery efforts. “New Jersey and the rest of the east coast had a couple of major challenges,” Smith answered. The first challenge, the elimination of the use of the pesticide DDT, began with its ban in 1972. Although it can persist in the environment, the ban on new spraying in the early 1970s would limit new exposure to wildlife. The second major problem was the virtual elimination of the breeding population of Bald Eagles in the state. With just one pair remaining, it was unlikely the Bald Eagle population would rebound without help.

“In 1983,” Mrs. Smith said, “the State Endangered Species program began a ‘hacking’ program, eventually releasing 60 Bald Eagles over an eight-year period.” Hacking is a technique used to increase an egg or chick’s chance of survival. New Jersey’s only Bald Eagle pair—the Bear Swamp pair in Cumberland County—had been unable to successfully hatch an egg in many years because of eggshell thinning. State biologists removed their eggs from the nest after they were laid and incubated them until hatching, then reintroduced the chicks to the parents. “With intensive efforts by biologists within the Endangered Species program, by the mid-1990s Bald Eagles were able to reproduce on their own,” Mrs. Smith said. New Jersey Fish and Wildlife and organizations like Conserve Wildlife continue their work today with the help of many volunteers to protect and monitor nesting Bald Eagles in New Jersey.

Cape Island currently has a territorial pair of eagles that has successfully fledged young birds for several years through 2015. With the population of Bald Eagles soaring in New Jersey, it is no wonder clashes between individual birds are becoming more common. Perhaps this is part of the reason I ended up in Linda Portewig’s backyard after receiving a call about the two Bald Eagles stuck in a rosebush. A bit incredulous of the call at first, I knew that Linda’s identification of the birds as Bald Eagles was pretty straightforward. It didn’t take long to decide who to call. I contacted eagle researchers Mike and Trish Lanzone, conveniently located down the street in West Cape May, with the news that there were two grounded eagles. They certainly didn’t waste a minute; 30 seconds into the phone call I heard a car door opening and Mike yelling for Trish to come out to the car. Mike and Trish took off running (in jeans and t-shirts mind you—no protective outerwear) directly into the overgrown rose bushes for the tangled eagles. After one bird was freed from the tangles and expertly wrangled by Trish, Mike grabbed the second bird by the legs as it attempted to fly away. By the time I arrived on the property there were two comfortably bundled eagles lying on the ground, ready to be processed.

The first thing you notice about a Bald Eagle, even one bundled and masked comfortably on the ground, is their size. These birds were particularly large females, and in the raptor world, the girls rule. It’s not yet clear why raptors show such extreme reverse sexual dimorphism. In fact, the females can be up to one third larger than their male partners. It may have to do with egg production, territorial defense or having slightly different niches in their choice of relative food size. Regardless, Bald Eagles are one of the largest birds of prey in North America, having a wingspan of up to seven and a half feet! Their huge size makes them expert soaring birds.

An eagle scavenges a dead animal on Cape May Harbor, washed up by a storm tide. Photo credit: Sam Wilson

Sticking out from underneath their feathers were yellow legs and feet with the sharp, nearly finger sized talons bagged up for safety. This is by far the most dangerous part of the bird to a human handler, as they are more than capable of piercing flesh. The raptor talons are designed to quickly subdue and kill prey. Bald Eagles are typically thought of as fish eaters, but they commonly hunt ducks and sometimes small mammals like rabbits and muskrats. They also commonly feed on carrion. A hungry eagle has no qualms about pushing out vultures over fresh road kill. Ducks are a common tell that there is a bald eagle nearby. If you notice a flock of ducks suddenly careen off a pond into the air, it’s a good time to look up, because more often than not they are reacting to a flyover Bald Eagle.

Another Bald Eagle foraging characteristic is simply to steal from other birds. Often one of the best places to view this piratic behavior is from the Hawk Watch platform at Cape May Point State Park during fall migration. Migrating Osprey are commonly spotted flying high over the bunker pond with their freshly caught meal, seemingly showing off their skills as fishermen. I often wonder why they do this, since it sometimes attracts the attention of a hungry eagle who beelines straight for the Osprey. Just as the first observer yells, “Eagle coming in hot!” the Osprey realizes his predicament and quickly ascends higher into the air away from the pursuing eagle. Unfortunately for this Osprey, Bald Eagles are persistent bullies, and being weighed down by a two-pound Menhaden doesn’t help. Eagles are powerful flyers and capable of rapid ascension when need be. As the eagle nears the Osprey, the desperate fish hawk will attempt to weave away but it’s often in vain. There’s an audible gasp as the eagle closes in, extending his talons out to attack, and then the Osprey drops the fish from hundreds of feet in the air. The Eagle anticipates this victory and as soon as the fish drops it agilely tucks in its wings, engaging in a steep dive toward the prize. One hundred feet before the fish hits the ground, the eagle reaches terminal velocity and adeptly snatches the flying fish right out of the air.

Even after witnessing this impressive show, observers usually side with the Osprey, not impressed with the outright thievery of our National Symbol. Perhaps this is why Benjamin Franklin apparently argued against the Bald Eagle’s form on the presidential seal. Franklin was familiar with the natural world and certainly knew of the Bald Eagles’ unsavory exploits!

Meanwhile in the Cape May back yard, both eagles were inspected for broken bones and fortunately had not sustained any serious injuries—a bloody eyebrow on one of them seemed to be the extent of the damage. Their wings were stretched out and measured, beak measurements taken, and they were weighed upside down from a portable scale. The two eagles were also bled to gather DNA for sex determination, to test for heavy metals in their blood, and assess their overall health. Finally, each bird was given their “bling,” a metal band on the leg of the bird meant to identify them if they are recaptured in the future. These bands are entered into a national database at the Bird Banding Lab, run by the USGS (United States Geological Survey). Neither of these birds had been banded before, but if they are recaptured they will be identified. Mike and Trish posited that one of the two eagles was probably from a local nesting pair.

Bald Eagles lay their eggs very early in the season compared to most other birds. In New Jersey, pairs lay their eggs between the third week of February and the first week of March, with an average clutch size of two to three eaglets. Eggs may hatch late March through early April, and the nestlings are entirely dependent on their parents for food in the nest for two to three months. After they fledge (leave the nest) young eagles continue to rely on their parents throughout the summer until they learn how to hunt and forage on their own. According to Conserve Wildlife biologist Larissa Smith “the population is doing really well and has shown a particularly strong increase in the past 10 years.” Last year, biologists and volunteers documented 216 young in 132 nests throughout the state. In Cape May County, Bald Eagles fledged about 12 young last year, mostly in the northern part of the county. However, there are active nests along the lower bay shore, in Middle Township, and a resident Higbee pair.

The most exciting and rewarding part of rescuing a wild bird is the release. The first eagle was released by Linda’s son; it flew powerfully into the sunset. I was allowed to release the second bird after it was treated for minor injuries to its feet and head. After launching into the air it seemed to have no trouble until it lost some steam; my excitement turned to distress as it neared the tree line. Before it could clear the trees, it caught itself on some vines, and it seemed another rescue might be in order. Fortunately, it only took a minute before she regained her composure, untangled her feet and flew to a height above the neighborhood trees. The next day Trish Lanzone spotted the bird I had released perched on a telephone pole near the West Cape May Bridge, informing us that the rescue and treatment were successful and she was back to her normal routine.

Spotting a Bald Eagle majestically soaring free in the wild instills a sense of pride, and inspires those of us who are lucky enough to see this fascinating bird right here in our midst.

The Tale of William Coachman: Kidnapped In Cape May and Sold Into Slavery

Many people have seen the movie Twelve Years a Slave, the true story of a free black man from New York, lured to Washington, D.C. by slave traders and sold into bondage in 1841. But few people know that such things happened right here in Cape May.

In the years before the Civil War, no person of color was truly safe anywhere in the country. Enslavers and bounty hunters tracked those fleeing from slavery in the south across state borders into the north. And even people born free in northern  states had little protection from kidnappers who sold them into slavery.

In New Jersey, as elsewhere in the north, sentiment against slavery built with the start of the American Revolution. This was especially the case in the southern part of the state, with its large Quaker population. And for many of the area’s small farmers, it made more sense to hire help rather than hold slaves. So by 1804 there was enough opposition to slavery that the state legislature enacted a gradual emancipation law. It didn’t free people then enslaved, but those born after the law passed would be indentured to their mother’s enslaver and freed when they reached their twenties. New Jersey eventually freed all slaves and ended slavery in 1846.

William Coachman was born a slave in Middle Township, Cape May County around 1775. Elijah Godfrey bought him when he was four years old. When Coachman was about 18 years old, he was sold to George Hand, who wanted him to work his farm.

After several years Hand decided he would be better off hiring someone to do the farm work. So, as the century came to a close, Hand made Coachman a deal. Coachman, then legally a slave-for-life, could instead become an indentured servant. If he agreed to work hard for a nearby farmer for a fixed period of time, the indenture would end and Hand would free Coachman.

The deal was struck and Coachman was sent off to work for Jonathan Leaming. By all accounts Coachman worked diligently, knowing the precise day the arrangement would end and he would be a free man.

A copy of the indenture / bill of sale for William Coachman Photo credit: Pennsylvania Abolition Society papers [Coll. 490], Historical Society of Pennsylvania

All seemed to go well. Leaming later testified that Hand did free Coachman, who stayed in the area, not 10 miles from Hand’s farm, earning money by working for various farmers. A county official later testified that for two years, from 1802 to 1804, William Coachman paid taxes to Middle Township as a free man.

But then everything took a turn for the worse for Coachman. One night in the summer of 1804, as he was sleeping in his bed next to his wife in a cabin close to the Delaware Bay, several men broke down the door. They strode purposefully toward Coachman, clearly knowing where his bed was, and pulled him outside.

It all happened so suddenly and swiftly that his wife didn’t have time to look carefully at the men. She told friends that she had no idea who kidnapped her husband or where they had taken him. Nobody in the area knew what had happened to Coachman. But there was speculation that, in the words of his friend Amos Tommar, someone “took Bill away to the Southward.”

Some of Coachman’s friends in the free black community sought help to find him. They went to Philadelphia to speak with members of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society (PAS), the country’s first anti-slavery organization.

Statement from tax assessor for Cape May County that Bill Coachman has been assessed for the last two years as a free man. Photo credit: Pennsylvania Abolition Society papers [Coll. 490], Historical Society of Pennsylvania

Its official name was the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery and for the Relief of Free Negroes Unlawfully Held in Bondage. Its goal was to stop the slave trade and enact state laws gradually ending slavery. PAS also provided legal aid to those fleeing slavery, as well as free people unlawfully kidnapped by enslavers.

Members of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society came to Cape May to investigate the Coachman case and deposed his friends and neighbors, both white and black. Everyone testified that William Coachman was free when he was kidnapped.

Elijah Godfrey recounted his regret at selling Coachman to Hand as a slave-for-life, but stated he was gratified to learn that Hand had made Coachman an indentured servant. Bill knew “the time to a day” when he would be freed, testified Godfrey, and when that happened, “the aforesaid Bill came to me and said that he had served his time out and was free. And I set him to work.”

Another white neighbor confirmed Coachman’s determination to work for himself. She too said he knew exactly when the agreement to free him would go into effect. Peter Humphries, a free black man, testified that Hand wanted to hire him to work his farm. Hand had told Humphries he was going to free Coachman in the spring and would need someone else.

But none of these people knew what had happened to Coachman. Some suspected that George Hand had a part in his disappearance. Hand had acted strangely before freeing Coachman. One woman told the PAS that Hand tried hard to get Coachman to go with him to Philadelphia the day before he was to be freed. Hand wouldn’t say why. Coachman refused and not even Hand’s threats could persuade him to leave Cape May.

A free black man also testified that Hand tried to lure Coachman away from the farmer he had been hired out to and return to his farm. Hand promised him a new suit of clothes. But Coachman knew that if he left Leaming’s farm before his contract was up, it would abrogate the indenture agreement to free him.

Despite the best efforts of the PAS lawyers, the investigation yielded no firm clues as to Coachman’s whereabouts. About all anyone knew was that Coachman was a free man when he was kidnapped and probably sold into slavery down south. It seemed possible that William Coachman’s quest for freedom had ended.

But, many months later, a knock on the door of noted Philadelphia abolitionist Isaac Hopper changed everything. Hopper, an early member of the PAS, was known in the city as a public advocate for kidnap victims. Many also knew that his home was a safe haven for people fleeing slavery.

The man at his door was a free black sailor named Tate who worked aboard a ship that had just docked in Philadelphia harbor. As soon as it tied up, Tate had made his way to Hopper and related a harrowing tale.

Henry Course captained Tate’s ship, which carried cargo between Savannah and Philadelphia. Two years before Coachman disappeared, Hand illegally sold him to Course for $180. Although Course knew Coachman was already a free man, the bill of sale labeled him a “slave for life.” Course intended to take him south and sell him. But it took Hand and Course two years to seal the arrangement.

Course abducted Coachman in the middle of the night on his way to Savannah. Coachman was kept tied up until the boat was clear of the Delaware Bay and any chance he would jump overboard and swim back.

Course brought his captive to Georgia, where he sold him to a Captain Spencer for $320. Then he returned to Philadelphia. It took another round trip between the two cities before Tate was able to reach Hopper and tell his story.

Enraged, Hopper went with Tate to the mayor and demanded the arrest of Captain Course for illegal kidnapping. A warrant for Course’s arrest was issued, but Hopper had a hard time getting anyone to serve it because yellow fever raged in the streets near where the ship was anchored. Finally Hopper got a constable and two free blacks to row out to the boat; they soon found Course.

Course admitted buying Coachman, but denied knowing he was a free man. Course and the ship’s owner, Savage Stillwell, were formally arrested, bail was set at the hefty sum of $1500, and they were ordered to appear at the Mayor’s Court.

Course quickly struck a deal for his release. He agreed to return to Savannah and bring back Coachman. In exchange he would get back his hefty bail and would not be jailed.

Course set out for Georgia and found Captain Spencer. He explained that Coachman was a free man and needed to be brought back to Philadelphia. Spencer agreed, but demanded back the money he had paid Course for Coachman. Course told Spencer he would pay the money when he picked up Coachman and was ready to sail for Philadelphia. In a day or two, Course arrived at Spencer’s place and announced he was ready to pay for Coachman. But when they called for Coachman to board the ship, he was nowhere to be found.

Course acted distressed, saying he couldn’t go back to Philadelphia without the man. He printed up flyers, offering a large reward for him. And when Spencer acted dubious about Coachman’s disappearance, Course opened his ship’s hatches and offered to let it be searched. Reluctantly Spencer accepted that Coachman had somehow fled. So Course set sail for Philadelphia ostensibly without Coachman.

But the truth was that Coachman had been secreted on board Course’s ship. And soon he was returned to Cape May. Course managed to bring back Coachman and keep the money Spencer had paid him for Coachman.

But that is not the end of the story.

About a year later, Spencer heard that Coachman had returned home. Spencer went to Isaac Hopper’s house in Philadelphia, demanding to know if that were true. When he learned it was, he hired a carriage and set out for Cape May. Meanwhile Coachman heard that Spencer was after him and left Cape May for Philadelphia and Isaac Hopper’s house.

Spencer retraced his steps to Philadelphia. He had Coachman arrested at Hopper’s house. But Hopper went to court and presented documents proving Coachman was a free man. Coachman was released from jail.

Unable to lay claim to Coachman, Spencer offered a huge reward for Captain Course. In his mind Course had stolen his property. But it was now Course who was missing. Finally Spencer gave up and went back to Georgia.

In 1814 William Coachman bought an acre of land in Middle Township, and lived there until his death in 1825.

Coachman had a role in fighting slavery even after his death. In the 1840s, Isaac Hopper wrote a series of articles about free blacks kidnapped in northern cities such as Philadelphia. They were published in the leading abolitionist newspaper, the National Anti-Slavery Standard. The stories shocked many northerners who had considered slavery a southern problem. The articles confronted them with the fact that its horrors reached their doorstep. One of Hopper’s stories was the tale of
William Coachman.

The Quinine King— And His House, the Survivor

Cape May—in its heyday as the first and most popular seaside resort—attracted all sorts of VIPs. Lured by the restorative powers of the sea and the status of socializing at the beach were United States presidents, southern plantation owners, entrepreneurs, inventors, industrialists, military heroes, architects, artists and—the Quinine King.

William Weightman of Philadelphia, the Quinine King, earned the title for perfecting the mass production of quinine in the United States, and subsequently becoming one of the richest men in America. He had a near monopoly of the drug at a propitious time—during the Civil War—when quinine was prescribed for malaria, which felled more soldiers than swords and guns. Malaria, an infectious disease carried by mosquitoes, causes fever, vomiting, chills, and joint pain. Troops, not understanding the cause, camped near swamps, streams and ponds, the breeding grounds for mosquitoes. Malaria impeded both the Union and Confederate armies, exhausting soldiers and sending them to sick bay. Quinine, made from the bark of the Peruvian cinchona tree, was prescribed as the miracle drug for treating malaria. It was credited with saving thousands of Civil War lives, its demand unrelenting during the battle years of 1861-1865. Often more important than cash, quinine was smuggled past Confederate blockades in coffins, children’s toys, and food supplies. Dr. Nathan Mayer, a Connecticut regiment volunteer, wrote in describing a daylong march: “In one pocket I carried quinine, in the other morphine and whiskey in my canteen.”

Even before the war, William Weightman’s fortunes were expanding, as were his chemical processing plants in Philadelphia. There is a lithograph at the Free Library of Philadelphia showing new Powers & Weightman brick laboratory buildings, established in 1848, stretching across the hills of Schuylkill Falls (now East Falls).

In the 1850s, Weightman was among the first of wealthy Philadelphians to erect a summer mansion in Cape May. He purchased a lot at Washington and Jefferson Streets, at the edge of the commercial district, where the U.S. Post Office is now located. There he built for his family—his wife Louisa, sons John and William and daughter Anne—a huge, handsome three-story Second Empire home with some Queen Anne detail.

The house Weightman built has had several incarnations as a family home, hotel, restaurant, dormitory, and one of the most beloved bed and breakfasts in America. Perhaps most important of all, it has been a lucky survivor. It was split in half, endured two moves to two different locations, escaped two Cape May infernos, in 1869 and 1878; outlived at least two demolition attempts, and has withstood powerful hurricanes and nor’easters over more than a century and a half.

In 1881, the Weightman family seized an opportunity to move the house to the beach front. The 1878 fire started in the sprawling three-story Ocean House on Perry Street below Washington. The fire burned virtually every hotel, home, and business, including Congress Hall. The heart of town was destroyed in a four and a half block area along the beach from Congress to Gurney, from Washington to Beach Avenue. It was devastating. The fear was that the halcyon days of the first resort had ended in a pile of ashes. How could Cape May possibly survive?

Original cottage at Washington and Jefferson Streets

The naysayers were wrong. The city was quick to rise like a phoenix with renewed construction in 1879, including plans for a new Congress Hall and next door, construction of the Windsor Hotel. At this time of revived rebuilding, the Weightmans acquired an oceanfront lot on the scorched Columbia House grounds. William Weightman, the son, supervised the project, and according to news reports, townspeople were excited about what might be built. Instead he moved the existing family house several blocks from Washington and Jefferson to the corner of Ocean and Beach, next to where the Marquis de Lafayette is now, and across the street from the Colonial Hotel, now the Inn of Cape May.

The local legend says that farmers were hired to make the move during the winter using mules and horses to pull and push the house on rolling logs. They discovered the house was too big to move in one piece—so they cut it in two. Once they arrived at the destination, it was impossible to match the pieces together. Instead each part was renovated to its best advantage. The larger structure was set at an angle to provide ocean views from most rooms. Local builders Ware and Eldredge were contracted to add towers, long verandas on the first and second floors, lacey railings, pillars and bric-a-brac befitting the fancy Victorian style sweeping Cape May.

A big house on the beach no doubt provided carefree summer times for William Weightman Jr., his wife, Sabine Josephine d’Invilliers Weightman, their growing family, and staff. By 1882 they had five girls: Mary Louise, Anne, Bertha, Louisa, and Ethel. Another daughter, Sabine Josephine, had died in infancy. A seventh daughter, Martha, was born in 1886.

Both Weightman sons, John and William, died in their early 40s. Sabine, now a young widow, lived with her daughters, at least part time, at her wealthy father-in-law’s winter townhouse on Philadelphia’s Rittenhouse Square, his summer mansion Ravenhill, high above his factories in East Falls, and at the beach cottage in Cape May. Six years after her husband’s death, Sabine married socially prominent Jones Wister in June of 1895.

When William Weightman, the Quinine King, died in 1904 at age 91, his sons’ widows and their children were not in the will. The sole beneficiary was his daughter Anne. His obituary in the New York Times reported: “His only partner in the firm is his one surviving child Mrs. Anne Weightman Walker, who was at his bedside when he died. Mr. Weightman’s fortune is estimated at $50,000,000 and his estate, which is thought to be one of the largest ever acquired by a Philadelphian, is of the solid-material kind. His money for investment went into realty, dwelling houses, and business buildings.” Computerized inflation rates show that 50 million dollars in 1904 translates to $1,289,841,293.85, or one billion, 289 million, 841 thousand, 293 dollars and 85 cents in 2016.

Sabine, believing her daughters had been cheated, contested the will. She claimed there was a codicil to the will and went to court in 1906 to prove her case. According to news reports, Sabine alleged that her father-in-law, Willam Weightman, Sr. was not of sound mind prior to his death; that he may have excluded her daughters because she had refused a marriage proposal from him.

The New York Times headlined the trial in Philadelphia, October 15, 1906: “Mysterious Note Stops Weightman Will Fight–A bit of notepaper, yellow with age, with only a few sentences on it, brought to a sudden halt today the contest over the $50,000,000 estate of William Weightman, the late Philadelphia chemist. ….What was written on this bit of paper to make it so remarkably effective was not revealed. Only a dozen persons know and they have been pledged to secrecy”. ….

Prior to the abrupt stop to the trial, there was testimony that one of the witnesses to the will had received gifts totaling $109,000 from Weightman’s daughter Anne. The reason for the payments was not established. The Times reported that on the stand, Weightman’s daughter claimed she had no knowledge of a previous will or any codicil, and she emphasized she had no undue influence on her father making her the full heiress. She testified there was a time her visits with her father were infrequent. “Of course, I did not see my father much then, for he was staying with Mrs. Wister—Mrs. Weightman Jr., she was then.” Under questioning, she claimed that Sabine Wister had caused her and her father “great injury.” She said her husband initially broke the news her father had changed his will. She testified she visited her father the next day and he said, “My daughter, I have changed my will and left everything to you. It is better that way.” Asked if there was a suggestion that his grandchildren should be provided for, she quoted her father: “Do as you please. I know you love your nieces and nephews.”

During further questioning, according to the Times, Sabine Wister’s attorney asked, “Did Mr. Weightman write on a separate piece of paper and put it in his desk? May I see the note?” After shuffling through papers, a note was presented to Sabine Wister’s attorney. It was reviewed silently, but not read into the record. Then, suddenly, there was a recess. The trial never resumed.

Sabine Wister’s son-in-law Richard W. Meirs is quoted as saying, “I hope the note never saw the light of day. I would rather have my tongue cut out than reveal what was on that paper.” Tabloids of the day speculated the note may have contained a secret about the past relationship of Sabine and her father-in-law, William Weightman, the Quinine King. Daughter Anne is said to have moved to New York after the trial, in the fear she would be poisoned. She kept most of the inheritance for her own extravagant lifestyle. In her later years she converted to Catholicism; she gave millions in cash and property, including Ravenhill, to the church.

Despite the will controversy, Sabine did become owner of the Weightman cottages on the beach in Cape May. In a 1923 auction advertisement the property is listed as The Wister Estate. It had been subdivided, allowing the buildings to be purchased individually, or together. The ad promoted riparian rights—that is, owning the beach in front of the cottages. The larger cottage was described as in first-class condition with large living room, dining and breakfast rooms, butler’s pantry, kitchen, basement, seven bedrooms and three bathrooms on the second floor; three bedrooms and a bath on the third floor, gas and coal ranges, a garage, plus beautiful furnishings and a fine lawn. The smaller cottage had eight bedrooms, two baths, living and dining rooms and a kitchen, fully furnished.

It is Sabine Weightman Wister’s daughter, Ethel Emile Jamart d’Invilliers Weightman Benson, who provides a thread through the more than century and a half history of the house from the Victorian era to today. Ethel kept scrapbooks of important events and memories. Among the newspaper clips is an article describing her wedding to Edwin North Benson Jr. a Philadelphia aristocrat. April 30, 1908: “Married in a Bower of Apple BlossomsUnique and Elaborate Decorations in Holy Trinity Church [Rittenhouse Square] for Benson-Weightman Wedding – Breakfast Followed at Bride’s Home [her mother’s] …1819 Walnut Street..The drawing room was banked with pink and white azaleas and palms screened an orchestra, which played during the breakfast..”

Ethel collected photographs of her family’s summers at the Weightman cottages with her sons, Perry, Richard and Peter, her husband and other family members, the vintage photos published here for the first time.

Ethel’s son Perry Benson, who played on the beach in Cape May as a child, married Phebe Ingersoll in 1941. They were attracted to each other as accomplished equestrians in the Penllyn and Whitemarsh Valley area of Montgomery County, Pennsylvania which was still fox hunting country. By then the Weightman cottages had changed owners several times. It was best known in the 1940s and ‘50s as the Ocean View Hotel and Restaurant. An old menu shows three-course dinners, for example: Cherry Stone Clams, Sirloin Steak, Flake Potatoes, Salad, Fresh Huckleberry Pie, Bread and Butter, Iced Tea for $1!

The Weightman and Benson descendants no longer vacationed in Cape May. They had moved on, summering on Mount Desert Island in Maine and Harvey Cedars up the coast in New Jersey.

In 1962 the Weightman cottages were victims of the three-day Ash Wednesday Nor’easter that hammered the Cape May beachfront, tearing up the boardwalk and battering old Victorians facing the sea. Radio preacher Carl McIntire was establishing his Shelton College in town. He had a passion for historic buildings and expanded his real estate holdings by purchasing architectural treasures badly damaged in the storm. The Weightman cottages were to be torn down to make way for a parking lot. Reverend McIntire saved them, moving them once again in 1967—this time by flatbed truck to Trenton Avenue, between Beach and New Jersey Avenues. He painted them white with green trim and used them for housing students and staff.

The cottages attracted no attention until the early 1970s, when a team of University of Pennsylvania architects came to town on a Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS) recording project. Cape May, once a whaling destination, then a fancy Victorian resort, presented one of the largest collections of frame Victorian buildings in the country. Its architecture was diverse—a “textbook of Victoriana,” said Carolyn Pitts, an architectural historian who organized the HABS team. Its mission was to record in measured pen and ink drawings, photographs and deed records of Cape May’s most significant structures, which would be placed in the Library of Congress.

One of the young architects was Perry Benson Jr., great-great grandson of William Weightman, great-grandson of Sabine Weightman Wister, grandson of Ethel Weightman Benson, the keeper of the family albums. Perry inherited some of the memorabilia when his father died. Perry never vacationed in Cape May as a child, but knew of his family’s connection through the old photographs. “I joined the HABS team, in part,” he says, “because I wanted to learn more about the architecture of Weightman Cottage, built by my great-great grandfather.” In his third season with the HABS team, in 1977, he committed the measured dimensions of his family’s four-generation summer place to paper in a pen and ink drawing, now among other Cape May architectural delineations of the city’s most important buildings.

In the mid-1980s, the state of New Jersey forced the closing of Shelton College on the grounds it was unaccredited. The cottages were padlocked, vacant—standing alone in the landscape, beacons of another era. The only attention they merited was an occasional visit by the police chasing vandals. Once again they were targets for demolition.

Then one day in late 1988, a miracle happened. John Girton, a local condominium developer, and his wife Barbara became curious about the old buildings. They stopped by to discover broken windows, rotted porches, falling ceilings, collapsed walls. They were intrigued and on further inspection, found the structures were worth saving.

They hired architect John Oliveri to design renovations to create a luxury bed and breakfast. Oliveri’s associate architect Paul Kiss recalls: “We crawled up and down, all through the buildings, then in pretty bad shape, to obtain measurements and photographs for drawings. January winds blowing off the ocean froze us to the bone. We’d take a break mid-day, go down to the Ugly Mug, get warmed up, and go back to work documenting the roof structure, all the piers and supports—everything that John Girton wanted to do with the buildings. There were the addition of a tower on the second building, porches, railings, a third floor deck, a new kitchen, large dining room area and a set-up of rooms for a spacious bed and breakfast. We also put together the presentations for the many approvals before the Historic Preservation Commission and other city boards.”

Girton told the Cape May Star and Wave soon after the restoration that the project required 103,000 manpower hours and an investment of three and a half million dollars. Carpenters and craftsmen worked around the clock, seven days a week, to install all new systems: water, electricity, heat, air conditioning, fire protection. Old windows were kept. Pieces of gingerbread and wood paneling were reproduced in a carpenter shop set up on the premises.

The Angel of the Sea B&B in 2017. Photo by Michelle Giorla

The larger building opened as the beautiful, elegant Angel of the Sea bed and breakfast, painted its distinctive pink, in July of 1989, offering 13 rooms. A year later, work on the second building was completed with 14 guest rooms and a conference center. The complex has become one of the most popular and rewarded-for-excellence bed and breakfasts in the United States. The efforts to lift the decaying buildings into modern-day usefulness won a Historic Preservation Award from the National Trust for Historic Preservation in Washington, D.C., for renovation to historic specification. Thousands of guests have enjoyed its hospitality and picturesque perch along the ocean. The Girtons sold the property to their daughter Lorie Whissell, who operated it for 20 years. In 2015 she sold the complex to Theresa and Ron Stanton and family, who are adding their own guest amenities and equipment to the historic structures. The Angel of the Sea will celebrate its 30th anniversary in 2019.

There is a saying, “We all have an angel who guards us.” Those words seem to be true of The Angel of the Sea—the beautiful, romantic survivor of the house William Weightman, the Quinine King, built more than 160 years ago.

Family Affair

In the early part of the 20th century, when the Wildwoods weren’t so wild yet, dreamers came to the shores here with a little money, rolled up their sleeves and built the place we know today.

They were men like Sebastian Ramagosa, the “King of the Boardwalk,” who ushered in tram cars and arcades. William Hunt opened movie theaters up and down the coast and built Hunt’s Pier, the greatest amusement pier in all of New Jersey. The Morey family helped give Wildwood its coat of neon nearly 50 years ago by ushering in doo-wop hotels, and today, brothers Jack and Will Morey continue to adapt and bring new rides and amusements to their three piers there.

The Dogtooth

These famous families of Wildwood have their photos and artifacts, blueprints of their famous designs, hanging on the walls of the George F. Boyer Historical Museum on Pacific Avenue.

The Sciarra family will be there too someday, if they can sit still for a few minutes or even pose for a photo without a phone ringing. On a fall Saturday morning in Wildwood, Brendan Sciarra is the first family member to grab a seat at Dogtooth Bar & Grill, his bar on Taylor Avenue near New Jersey Avenue. His phone is ringing almost nonstop.

Brendan is 34, a married father of three, and he purchased Mr. D’s Pizzeria Steaks & Subs next door and turned it into Poppi’s Brick Oven Pizza in 2014. The restaurant is named after David “Poppi” Sciarra, his late grandfather, who came to Wildwood from Italy and started a concrete business. ”I’m a workaholic,” he says, checking his phone and looking around for his father, Mike, and younger brother, Chris.

Indeed—to add to his impressive juggling act, Brendan also purchased the former Harley Davidson dealership, a cavernous building on Rio Grande Avenue, and is planning to turn it into the 5 Mile Brewing Company, a craft brewery and smokehouse.

Kona Sports

“That’s the next part. That’s the big one,” Brendan says. “We are waiting on the approval process for the brewery. We’re going to have our own little corridor going with all these businesses.”

Mike Sciarra, 66, arrives next in board shorts and a t-shirt from Kona Surf Company, his iconic surf and sports store that’s been an anchor on the corner of New Jersey and Rio Grande Avenues for decades. Mike’s a University of Hawaii graduate, and the islands are where his love of surfing and business classes collided in the late 60s and never came apart. According to Kona’s web site, Mike learned “the ins-and-outs of surfboard and skateboard shaping and manufacturing from some of the best on the North Shore.” Mike is almost permanently tan from summer days in the surf.

He started in the Wildwoods at age 12, riding the slow, gentle waves on longboards. On the day he met with Cape May Magazine, he was hoping an approaching storm, Hurricane Hermine, was stirring up some big swells. “I still surf all the time. Next week is going to be great,” he says after a brief hello to his son.

Mike Sciarra started making surfboards in a garage when he returned from Hawaii, and eventually rented a storefront next to the Apollo Diner. In 1976, Sciarra began renting out a defunct car dealership, and that building is where Kona still sits today, familiar to every local and tourist coming in from Rio Grande Avenue.“We’re open all year round but I survived because I was on Rio Grande Avenue,” Sciarra said. “I have great customers. Through thick and thin, they still come from offshore.”

In recent years, the Sciarras also purchased the former Blockbuster Video across the street from Kona, and they’ve turned a former Sherwin Williams paint store on Rio Grande and Arctic avenues into Kona Bike & Board House, a “hard goods” store where they’re selling surfboards, paddleboards and bicycles.

“I started making surfboards in my garage and now I’m back to designing them again,” Mike says. “We’ve gotten back to the roots.”



The Sciarras’ downtown monopoly in Wildwood is why they’re so busy, all of them looking like they’ve got someplace to be as their phones continue to ring. Their efforts haven’t gone unnoticed in Wildwood, where attracting and keeping non-boardwalk businesses isn’t always easy. The city recently awarded the Sciarras a certificate of appreciation for basically making sure Wildwood’s front door, Rio Grande Avenue, is thriving with fresh businesses.

Wildwood Mayor Ernie Troiano Jr. said he’s known the Sciarra family since he could open his eyes.

“I remember when Mike started with those surfboards in the garage,” he said. “It’s amazing to see how far they’ve come. They’re a great family. They’re workers. They work hard and believe me, they argue hard too.”

Mike prefers to deflect the attention and laud his sons, who he says were crucial in getting the Kona name out there in surfing circles in recent years. Chris hasn’t arrived yet at Dogtooth on this Saturday morning, so Dad is heaping praise on Brendan, along with a dose of fatherly concern that his firstborn is taking on more than he can handle between the bar, the pizzeria and the approaching brewpub. “He’s been pretty successful. He pretty much runs this himself,” Mike says. “I just worry that’s it too much.”

Brendan smiles because he’s heard this type of talk before.

“He’s always worrying,” Brendan says.

Brendan Sciarra, it seems, probably couldn’t operate at a slower speed. He’s always thinking about businesses and whether he can handle one more. “I just saw the opportunity here, and I eat and breathe Wildwood,” Brendan says. “I’m a little bit more year round. Wildwood is unique. My employees are from here. People can come here and I think if you offer something and you’re open and you stick it out… On the good days and bad days, people will come. I think with Poppi’s, we’ve really created a buzz. People from Cape May come over there. It’s nice having people from others towns coming here and not just for the beach and boardwalk. You just try to please as many people as you can.”

Troiano Jr. says he’s very impressed with what Brendan Sciarra has done, saying “the kid” doesn’t sacrifice quality for convenience with his businesses.

“Everything the kid does is top shelf,” Troiano said.

Brendan says he has a very patient wife, Robin, at home and that reminds Mike that his longtime wife, Dee Sciarra, is the “brains behind the operation,” as he put it. “She’s the one who keeps us all from killing each other,” Mike says.

Brendan laughs, as if that were an understatement. “We’re all very competitive,” Brendan says.

When Chris, 31, arrives at Dogtooth, you see the Sciarras in all their glory, dad and brothers all riffing off one another and yes, collectively, they all look like they’re running late for something else. Chris says he recalls himself and Brendan learning to surf with their dad as a kid, getting towed out into the waves with his father holding onto him, and then just letting go, like baby birds jumping out of a nest on their first flight.

“We grew up body boarding, and he was surfing and his idea of teaching us was that he would surf and get waves and we would fend for ourselves. Once we were out there, we’d be on our own,” Chris says, making Brendan smile at the memory. “It was everybody for himself.”

Dad smiles at the story too, knowing those mornings forged something in his sons that still sticks with them today. He’ll always be there for them, lending a hand at the bar or pizza shop if needed, but he can’t ride the waves for them. “I try to be as hands off as I can,” Mike says.

Chris Sciarra’s role in the growing family empire was to instill a bit of the old magic back into Kona Surf Company, to remind surfers—not just in Wildwood, but up and down the East Coast—that they’re one of the originals and they’re not going anywhere. “We’re bringing back the roots and bringing some of that original DNA back to the business. We’re trying to be different and not be a cookie cutter surf shop,” Chris says.

Part of that plan was simple: sell t-shirts. The Sciarras don’t just want to sell t-shirts, though; they want every tourist and surfer who comes to Wildwood or shops online at to feel like they can’t leave without one, much like Ron DiMenna did with his Ron Jon Surf Shop in Long Beach Island and Cocoa Beach, Florida.

“We’re trying to get it all across the country. We want to make it that when you go to Wildwood, you have to get a Kona shirt,” Mike says.

Wildwood, Mike Sciarra says, isn’t known for being a world-class surfing destination, obviously, or even a hotspot in the Garden State, but he says there’s a tight-knit community here that supports their favorite stores and keeps their top waves a secret. “It never took off here like it did in Ocean City,” Mike says. “It’s very good for beginners here. The beach is flat. There’s not a real big undertow. Everybody’s waiting for the surf to change around here and in two hours it could be flat.”

Chris says he’s also trying to keep Kona Surf Company friendly, which isn’t always a given in the world of surfing, where waves are guarded secrets and newcomers are often laughed off the beach. “We treat everybody equally. It’s a real open community here,” Chris said.

Kona is also looking to sponsor surfers and have brand ambassadors hyping its gear by more than word of mouth. Bringing back more of the Kona “DNA” means specifically talking about Mike Sciarra’s story and his time in Hawaii. The company has brought back Mike’s sun logo that he designed decades ago as part of its “classic collection,” and they are making new ones. Mike Sciarra’s past is prominent both in the brick and mortar and online in the “About Us” section. Here’s a sample:

“The year is 1969. Richard Nixon is being sworn in as President of the United States. Neil Armstrong is walking on the moon. Four days of peace, love, and music are happening in Woodstock, New York. And a young, wet behind the ears surfer named Mike Sciarra is fresh off the plane from the island of Oahu. With a bachelor’s of economics under one arm and a surfboard under the other, Mike set his sights on the east coast with a mission. To create a brand with a positive vibe that offers premium products at affordable prices for surfers young and old.”

The Sciarras don’t get much time off for leisure, to take a break from the grind of summer business, mostly because they’ve made an effort to be open all year. Kona Surf Company slows down a little in the winter, and Mike and Dee have a house in Florida they take off to when they can. “You have to step back and smell the roses,” Mike says. “It will help you handle the business better.”

Plus, there are good waves in the winter.

Winter is also time for trade shows and updating inventory and making projections for the next season, Chris Sciarra says. There’s not much of an off-season either. “We’re in development mode that time of year.”

Brendan doesn’t take much time off at all, and with the brew pub and restaurant in the works down the street, it doesn’t look like that’s changing any time soon. He wouldn’t want it any other way. “They go on vacation, I don’t,” Brendan says as his dad and brother laugh beside him.

Eventually, Brendan asks if he can head out, says goodbye to both of them, and disappears. Chris leaves too, and Mike takes a leisurely walk through his son’s bar, looking at black and white photos from his past. Then he strolls over to Kona, across the hardwood plank floors, past designs he made himself, decades ago when he as a dreamer in Hawaii.

“I would have been happy making surfboards my whole life,” he says. “I never dreamed it would be this big.”