Cape May is justifiably proud of its history. And now the group that has turned itself into the town’s unofficial history department is offering professional-level lectures on Cape May’s rich past to anyone in free lessons during the next two weeks.
That organization is the Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts & Humanities, commonly known as MAC in its hometown. MAC is known for putting together many of the tours and activities that keep people coming to and busy in Cape May at times of the year when tourists have left most other local shore towns after the summer beach season.
MAC is so eager to get the past right for those visitors that the group’s leaders take time every year to train all new staff members in several key areas of Cape May history. The organization regularly retrains staffers.
This year’s round of lectures is scheduled to start Thursday, when MAC’s director, Michael Zuckerman, does his annual presentation, “Cape May Architecture” — no doubt the most-visible manifestation of the town’s history. His syllabus promises to help the audience recognize what’s what in the town’s signature look, such as Italianate style, Gothic revival style, gingerbread trim and board-and-batten siding.
The lessons continue May 13 with “History of the Cape May Lighthouse,” which dates to 1859, and “World War II Tower History,” which focuses on the town’s wartime history. They are taught respectively by Rich Chiemingo, a MAC museum educator, and Bob Heinly, the organization’s museum-education director.
MAC’s boss, Zuckerman, gets in front of the crowd again May 15 for an overview lesson in Cape May History, which promises to tell “the story of the nation’s first seaside resort and ... the development of Cape May.” On May 20, Zuckerman leads a session on the “History of the Cape May Beachfront,” exploring “the emergence of East Cape May (and) the early 20th century architecture found there.”
Zuckerman said he started the local-history lessons as required courses in 1983, when he first got to the organization.
“For about the first 20 years, it was totally in-house staff training. But 10 or more years ago, we opened it to volunteers,” he said. And it was just in the past few years that “we decided to open the doors up wide to mostly the year-round residents in town,” he said, adding that anyone is welcome, but the schedule is not built around appealing to tourists.
Heinly, who has a doctorate in history, also portrays Dr. Emlen Physick in period costume at numerous events in and around Cape May. That doctor is the namesake of MAC’s history-heavy headquarters, Cape May’s Emlen Physick Estate.
Heinly, a retired history teacher and school administrator, does talks on Cape May’s World War II Tower regularly to anyone from local schoolchildren to adult history buffs. But that doesn’t mean that everyone learns the same material, he added.
“We get into much more detail training the staff than we would with a school talk, typically. ... I think that’s fair to say,” Heinly said.
He said his lookout-tower lectures typically take 30 to 45 minutes — and he always leaves plenty of time for questions-and-answers and discussions about an area of local history that still isn’t well known.
“Even five years after (the tower) reopened, I still get people coming and saying, ‘I didn’t even know that was open,’” Heinly said, plus many people who did know the tower exists often have a wrong impression about what it was for.
“They say, ‘We thought they built it to spot submarines.’ But that was actually a third-level priority,” Heinly said. The top missions were to “ward off” surface ships, and watch out for amphibious invasions or air raids, which is why they were projects of the U.S. Army, not the Navy. They were part of a local network that had artillery bunkers on the grounds of Cape May Lighthouse.
Chiemingo figures he has done his lighthouse talks for groups ranging from 15 to 150 people. He said the history has a way of getting better as history goes on.
“More information will come to us from the National Archives about the history of our particular lighthouse, and I read all the lighthouse literature, online or in magazines. And we’re always ... finding better information and more information about the keepers and their lives,” he said.
MAC holds its “richly illustrated” staff/public lessons in two places, the Cape May Lutheran Church Hall and the Kiwanis Club of Cape May. By Zuckerman’s rough figuring, the church hall can seat about 150 people and the Kiwanis building about half that many. But MAC asks that anyone who’s interested call or email to reserve a seat.
Zuckerman said that at least one of his detailed talks usually ends with a quiz. Still, curious members of the public have no need to worry about what grade they’ll get in this history class.
As the teacher/trainer, “You tend to view yourself as the one who actually actually passes the quiz” — or doesn’t, he said.
MAC would be happy to see every seat full for these five sessions, Zuckerman added.
“We very much welcome the public to take advantage of what we have to offer,” he said. “We’ve built up a corps of knowledgeable experts who can talk about a variety of topics. And part of MAC’s mission is to educate the public in all the topics we’re concerned with.”
Contact Martin DeAngelis: