CAPE MAY — Dot Burton has always told people the secret to her Southern fried chicken at The Chalfonte hotel is the thickly sliced onion rings she puts in the hot grease before frying.

The real secret is something the 83-year-old can barely lift off the stovetop — a gigantic, cast-iron frying plan. You could call it an ancestral frying pan. It contains the residue, and the history, of countless Chafonte dinners cooked by generations of Burton’s family for guests.

“This fry pan is 100 years old. I can’t even take it off the stove anymore,” said Burton, of Moore Street in West Cape May.

Others have tried to copy the family’s fried chicken recipe. They even included the thickly sliced onions. But it just was not the same.

“People tell me they tried it at home, but they didn’t have that pan. It’s been around since Henry Sawyer bought this place,” Burton said.

The Chalfonte has always played up its roots of being built in 1876 by Union Civil War hero Lt. Col. Henry Washington Sawyer. There are areas of the hotel named after Sawyer and for President Abraham Lincoln, who stepped in to free Sawyer from the infamous Libby prison in Richmond, Va., in an exchange with the son of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.

But the new owner of hotel, Robert Mullock, has decided to start playing up the Southern connection that began in 1911 when the Satterfield family of Richmond, Va., bought the hotel. Mullock said the Satterfields fought for the Confederacy.

Mullock plans to rename a section of the hotel the Southern Quarters and promised the Southern connection will be covered in a new book being written about the hotel that will come out next year, the 135th anniversary of the hotel.

The Satterfields

The Satterfields came up from Virginia every summer to run the hotel and turned it into a decidedly Southern institution, and not just another wooden Cape May boarding house. The dining room is called the Magnolia Room. Children eat in a separate dining area. The menu speaks for itself.

The Satterfields brought blacks with them to do a lot of the work. Burton’s grandmother, Clementine Young, was a maid of the Satterfields in Richmond and spent six decades working at The Chalfonte. The late Helen Dickerson, Burton’s mother, began working there at age 4 and gave 77 years of service to the hotel, including 60 years in the kitchen.

Dickerson’s cookbook on the hotel’s Southern cuisine, called “I Just Quit Stirrin’ When the Tastin’s Good,” has been featured on television shows. It includes recipes for pig’s feet, spoonbread, cheese grits, peach pie and other Southern fare.

Mullock has put a watercolor portrait of Dickerson, who died in 1990, by the kitchen door and a large oil painting of Mrs. Calvin “Meenie” Satterfield Jr., who ran the hotel from 1923 to 1973, in the lobby.

“We have the Lincoln Wing, The Colonial Sawyer Room and all that story, but it’s the subsequent owners who explain why there is a large Southern influence at The Chalfonte,” Mullock said.

“This place is where the South meets the North, both geographically and culturally. It’s centered right here,” Mullock said.

Mullock will not give much away about the book but described it as a “Gone with the Wind” type of story. The resort was an unusual mix of Northern and Southern guests before, during and right after the Civil War.

Local lore says Sawyer’s Boarding House, which he later changed to The Chalfonte — which means “cool fountain” in French — was purchased for Rose Satterfield in 1911 so she would have a diversion to help her forget the drowning of her daughter in the James River, near the Libby prison where Sawyer was held after being captured June 9, 1863, at the Battle of Brady Station. The Satterfields brought their own hotel employees, blacks from Virginia and North Carolina.

Through generations

Burton’s sister, Lucille Thompson, 81, of West Cape May, recalls her first trip to the area.

“I came at 7 from Richmond, Va., with my mother, Helen Dickerson. I did the bathhouse, rinsing sand out of bathing suits, hanging them to dry and bringing them to their room the next day. I made $5 a week. Now they take care of their own bathing suits,” Thompson said.

Like her mother and sister, Thompson ended up in the kitchen cooking the Southern food they grew up with. As a child, she went back to Virginia after Labor Day, but she and Burton eventually married men from New Jersey and moved north.

Both her grandparents worked for the Satterfields in Virginia, and Thompson recalled one summer having to stay home to care for her ailing grandfather, but she still got a paycheck from the Satterfields as if she had been working in the hotel.

“They weren’t crazy about black people, but they loved my family,” she said.

Satterfields still come to the hotel for reunions. Maria Neligan, 20, of Charlottesville, Va., the great-granddaughter of Meenie Satterfield, worked at the hotel this summer in reservations.

“We still come here every summer, so I figured I might as well apply for a job,” Neligan said.

Mullock called it “a thrill” to bring back a Satterfield and said Neligan did a very good job. Although Burton’s children have worked at The Chalfonte, Mullock worries about the kitchen’s future.

“My thought is, ‘How can I preserve Dot and Lucille for another 50 years?’” Mullock said.

Burton said he worries too much.

“If I can put one foot in front of the other, I’ll be here for Bob. It’s like my second home,” Burton said.

Contact Richard Degener:

609-463-6711