You could say Tony Puggi grew up in a close family — so close that when he was born in 1920, he lived in a house with three generations of Puggis and Cincottis, his mother’s people.
But you can’t exactly call that the family home, because little Tony would grow up to learn that his grandparents, uncles and aunts and some of their kids were squatters in the house.
They found an empty property in the McKee City section of Hamilton Township and took over, because they needed a place to live. They stayed for years, apparently getting away with it until the owner died and the church he left the property to came to the family to offer them a choice:
They could get everybody out, or they could buy the place. And, by then, times were better, so the extended-family members put their money together to buy the property, which included close to 50 acres. Eventually, they knocked down that one main house and built separate homes for each branch.
After Tony, who lived in Mays Landing, died recently at 93, members of the Puggi family said he stayed close to those earlier generations and worked with his uncles for years.
“Oh, they had every kind of business,” said his daughter, Betty Ann. “They were all entrepreneurs. They all knew how to make money.”
And Tony fit right into a crowd that opened motels and repair garages and bars and farms and farm stands and more businesses, not all of which they could do right out in the light of day. Tony, who went through life as a walking history lesson, liked to tell how he was just 8 years old when he started driving supplies for a moonshine operation some of his elders ran during Prohibition — the kid would pick up sugar and wood to fire the still.
He also started a family pig farm — with one small pig that was his pay for a hard day’s work for a neighbor. Tony walked the pig home on a leash and named it Grandmom. That one animal would grow into a lively farm of 3,000 pigs and spawn another family business, going into Atlantic City and hauling away the garbage it took to feed all those hungry hogs.
But when he grew up and went into his own business, it was an excavation company, A.J. Puggi and Sons, with sons Gene and Fred. Tony helped build some New Jersey landmarks, including Fort Dix for the U.S. Army and the Naval Air Station Atlantic City — now better known as the William J. Hughes Technical Center, in Egg Harbor Township.
He also worked for major local builders as they created a modern South Jersey.
“He did everything from clearing the land to the final grading to building the roads,” said another son, Chuck.
“You could drive down a road with him and he’d say, ‘I did that house and that house. ... I did that development and that development,’” Betty Ann added.
As part of his excavation operation, Tony bought a gravel pit on Mill Road in Egg Harbor Township in the 1940s. In 1998, that became A.J. Puggi Recycling, Tony’s final business, where he kept up that old family tradition of working with family.
His wife, Betty, is co-owner. Other company workers include daughter and son Betty Ann and Chuck and a grandson, also Tony.
Big Tony definitely wasn’t the kind of boss who just sat around the office and gave orders. His family said he was out working in the yard six days a week until just this spring. So at 93, he was still operating the heavy machines the family uses to turn raw brush and trees and dirt and more material that landscapers and other businesses dump there into mulch and topsoil and the other finished products A.J. Puggi makes and sells.
And Tony could maintain the company equipment — from his growing-up days working back in his uncles’ garages. Even in the last few years, he could give a detailed description of the workings of a Ford Model T, and he was obviously a fan of classic cars: He was still very proudly driving a 1967 Cadillac that he bought when it was brand new.
He was a lifelong cigar fan: “Even sick in bed at home the last few months, he had to have his cigar,” his wife said.
Tony’s funeral was Aug. 31. On the way from the church in Linwood to the cemetery in Mays Landing, the long procession took a detour to go through A.J. Puggi Recycling, the successful business built by a man who started his life squatting in somebody else’s house.
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