Dot Wheeler

Dot Wheeler opens presents at her 87th birthday party last year. The Middle Township woman taught Sunday school, helped run a family farm and led square dances for years.

Wheeler family photo

Dot Wheeler lived on a farm, went to a one-room schoolhouse, led square dances, taught Sunday school and canned her own jelly from wild grapes.

"She was very old-school," says Jill Wheeler Nichols, who grew up next door to her grandmother on the Middle Township farm. "Even her house was plain - she didn't have a lot of stuff on the walls."

But Wheeler, who died last month at 87, usually had lots going on inside and around those walls. She and her husband - Jack died in 1994 - had four kids, eight grandchildren and now 17 great-grandchildren. The whole family is still in Cape May County.

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Nichols and her two sisters - the daughters of the Wheelers' only son, the late Jackie - were in and out of their grandparents' house like it was their own. Their cousins came and went all the time, too.

And almost every week for years, Jack and Dot hosted a Sunday family dinner that was at its best in the summer. Their farmhouse had a swimming pool, and the grandchildren say the adults were happy to join them in misbehaving, throwing each other in the pool.

"It was a great big barbecue," says another granddaughter, Sandi Maund, of Dennis Township. Everybody cooked and shared, and the 52-acre farm grew corn, tomatoes and melons - "The best watermelons in Cape May County," Maund brags - and more stuff to pick that day and eat that night.

"We'd always take the ripe, ugly tomatoes that you didn't want to put out at the stand," she adds. "So part of the meal came right off the farm."

The Wheeler Farm did have a stand out front, but the family also delivered to sellers around Cape May County. Dot didn't do much actual farming herself, although she did run a wholesale operation on the property where farmstand owners could buy Wheeler produce. And her kids would pick strawberries and get paid the same as anybody else - 10 cents a quart, recalls daughter Pat Garrison, of Middle Township.

But Dot couldn't devote all her time to her farm and family, because she also had to handle her career as a professional square-dance caller. She taught lessons for more than 30 years, and she even led her own dance group - the Wheeler Dealers.

She always liked teaching her family, but no other Wheelers loved square dancing as much as Dot, who was still teaching and calling into her 80s.

And for all her old-fashioned ways, she wasn't completely out of a different era. She was happy to have a dishwasher and pizza and Chinese restaurants in her world. Still, she had her limits and her loves, and the latter included her farm, her church and her square dancing.

"She changed with the times," Garrison, her daughter, says, "but just not to the times there are now."

A Life Lived appears Tuesdays and Saturdays.

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