The northern section of Ludlum Island was known only as Corson’s Inlet until developers offered a $1,000 prize to rename what they described as an “ocean-girdled gem in the diadem of the Jersey Shore.”
The winning submission of “Strathmere,” a word that apparently means “strand by the sea,” became legal Jan. 17, 1912.
The small section of Upper Township is celebrating its centennial this year, with its annual Fourth of July parade just one of several events that will hold a special significance because of the anniversary.
Less than two miles in length, with fewer than 160 permanent residents, it is a unique place to call home.
“It’s quirky, it’s low-key,” said Ken Weaver, corresponding secretary for the Strathmere Improvement Association, a neighborhood group that is organizing a variety of centennial events this year. “We don’t have a lot of rules here.”
The beaches are rarely raked, leaving natural ocean debris that seems alien for those used to the constantly maintained sand along most of the New Jersey coast. It is a steep hike over the lushly vegetated dunes, but no beach tags are required on the other side.
There is no mail delivery. Instead, everyone picks their mail up in the post office on Commonwealth Avenue, something they prefer because it allows them opportunities to see and chat with their neighborhoods.
Debbie Vandegrift lives above the post office. She is one of the only lifelong residents left, and her aunt Bertha Wittkamp was the first recorded baby born on the island in 1901.
She said that changes to her hometown have been obvious. Beach cottages have turned to oceanfront mansions in some places, more people rent their homes out now rather than return every summer and the number of year-round locals has dwindled.
“There were a lot of kids on the island when I grew up,” she said, but now there is only a handful.
Compared to neighboring shore points, though, Strathmere is a living relic. Its lack of big development, of a boardwalk or promenade filled with gift shops, of intersections jammed with cars, is its allure.
“I think probably the biggest draw for vacationing in Strathmere is you step back in time,” said Grace Curran, owner of Grace Curran & Family Real Estate. “It’s very laidback, it’s very family-oriented … it’s just very simple.”
Curran’s office and home is in a building on Commonwealth Avenue that predates the naming of Strathmere and had been a variety of businesses before. She grew up in Sea Isle, purchased the property in Strathmere in 1994, and raised her three children here.
“It’s really unusual,” she said. “It reminds me of how Sea Isle used to be in the ’70s. It hasn’t changed that much.”
Not that developers haven’t tried. Two railroads used to run through Strathmere, and engineers drew up a variety of over-ambitious plans that boasted it as the next Atlantic City in the early 20th Century.
But Mother Nature has been restrictive. The island’s only two blocks wide, and it has been battered by storms many times in its history.
“We’re cut off in storms, and it’s really just us,” said Linda Bateman, president of the Strathmere Improvement Association, adding that’s a reason why neighbors are so close with one another.
In recent years, locals have gained a reputation for trying to keep the community a secret. They petitioned Upper Township to keep the water tower blank — the government wrote “Strathmere, Upper Township,” anyway — and Weaver made up car magnets that read “Shhh. It’s Strathmere, but don’t tell!”
There has also been a years-long effort from one local group to secede from Upper Township and join with Sea Isle, arguing it would provide for better local services, a matter that divides even Strathmere residents.
The issue has been in court a number of times. Upper Township rejected the petition, and Cape May County Superior Court Judge Valerie Armstrong upheld that decision.
The group seeking the de-annexation, Citizens for Strathmere and Whale Beach, appealed to the state Appellate Division, and oral arguments were heard in March. They are currently awaiting a decision from the court.
Upper Township Mayor Richard Palumbo did not want to comment on that matter. He said he’d rather talk about the significance of Strathmere’s history and it’s on-going importance to the township.
“They really have a unique situation,” he said. “There’s a really close bond between the neighbors who live in Strathmere, and they have contributed a lot to the fabric of Upper Township society as a whole,” he said.
That’s something that Vandegrift said hasn’t changed over the years.
“It’s a camaraderie that you don’t find in very many communities anymore, I don’t think,” she said.
And it’s something that Curran said she doubted would change anytime soon.
“Maybe not for another 100 years,” she said.
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