417 North Broadway
One should, at some point, experience a West Cape May festival. Take your pick; there’s the Strawberry Festival in June, the Tomato Festival in August, and the Lima Bean Festival in October. They’re all delightful celebrations that harken to the borough’s farming roots (the summer Tuesday Farmers Market deserves a mention also). West Cape May was farmland before it was incorporated in 1884, and much farmland remains today.
The Eldredge House has stood like a sentinel at 417 North Broadway, at the head of Fourth Avenue, for over a century. The house is reminiscent of the borough of West Cape May itself; humble beginnings, lots of farming involved, and still going strong over 125 years later. It boggles the mind to think of the history the Eldredge House has witnessed over the years.
The structure has been in the Eldredge family for most of its existence and long-time owner Todd Land tells me he is a direct descendant of the Eldredge’s. His parents, William and Pearl, ran the property as an inn for 15 years, and today Todd offers the property as a whole-house rental. And a more charming rental you’d be hard-pressed to find.
“My mom and dad ran the inn for 15 years,” said Todd. “I bought it 30 years ago this year, and my mom and dad ran it as a small two-room inn with an antique shop with candles because my mom was really into candles. We also carried a line of glass called Clevenger – we did a series of collectible Cape May bottles. One day someone came in and bought everything in the store. I went to lunch, came back, and my dad said, ‘someone bought the whole store.’ I guess we were a little underpriced.”
The house consists of several additions built over the years, but the original section is on the north side. Construction of this section has been dated to around 1780 or so, making it one of the oldest surviving structures in town. Over the years, like many homes in the area, it was expanded and then expanded again.
“We think the house was originally a fisherman’s cottage, a story and a half, probably constructed in the late 1700s. This house was most likely first situated over by Madison and Lafayette in Cape May and then moved in the 1800s, most likely after the big fire in the 1870s, and then later more rooms were added,” said Todd.
The land on Broadway is theorized to have belonged to Thomas Hand, who purchased 400 acres on the Delaware Bay side of Cape May in 1695. Hand is considered one of the earliest European settlers in the area, and he sold some tracts to Abner Corson and then to Judith and William Eldredge. It’s possible Judith and William built the original cottage after they were married. Judith left a chunk of the property to her children, Thomas and Mary, who lived in the house in the 1800s. Todd thinks the house was placed at the top of Fourth Ave to overlook the Eldredge farmlands below.
“The property sits up high,” said Todd. “The Eldredges had a lot of land and this whole area around Cape May was originally called “Eldredges.” It was Lower Township, but it was all farmland belonging to Eldredges. The house is a mishmash of styles and there are some conflicting dates about when it was built and where it was at what time, but it’s a really cozy house. We also found a lot of ‘vacancy’ signs in the garage, so I assume it was an inn before we had it. We just tried to keep the house as historic as possible.”
Today the house has four bedrooms and four baths, each bedroom with its own bath and queen-size bed and each is named for an Eldredge that lived in the house: Thomas, Mary, and Hattie. Wifi is included and there is free off-street parking behind the house. There’s even a beach box with eight beach chairs. There are TVs in every room, an outside shower, and a backyard deck with a gas grill.
“When we bought it, it was the Mary Eldredge Seashore House because former owner Jean Davis wanted the house named after a woman,” said Todd. “There are not a lot of houses named for women in town.”
One of the bedroom windows has an etching in the glass signed by Hattie Eldredge in the early 1900s. Hattie, perhaps has not wandered far from her signature artwork. “Fortunately—or unfortunately—the window has become part of the ghost tour. Hattie Eldredge is a ghost who walks from Lafayette Street up to this house to look up at her etching. But she just stays in the yard and looks up.”
Todd tells me the only time an Eldredge has not owned the house was in the 1940s, when it was owned by Elwood Marshall, a former county commissioner, who was famous for his rose gardens; and again, in the 1960s when it was owned by Jean Davis, who was also the town clerk. Other than that, the house has belonged to an Eldredge since it was built.
I caught up with former West Cape May Mayor Pam Kaithern. Pam has long been involved with the borough and its history, and when I asked what she knew of Eldredge House she talked of the land-owning Eldredges and heavy-timber frame houses. She also mentioned how Eldredge House remains a vibrant part of the community.
“Todd has been a wonderful caretaker of that historic property,” said Pam. “It’s beautiful inside and the gardens and trees outside really make it special. And it’s such a part of the community. Every Halloween Todd continues the decorating tradition. It’s really something and everyone wants to go by there. He always puts eyes in the windows—look for that next time you go by at Halloween. And he does the Christmas tour, and he really keeps the house as part of the community. Todd and the house are part of the town.”