Nostalgic feelings have been running high in Brigantine recently since the remnants of the Rod 'n' Reel Tavern, which many locals proclaim to be the last in a long line of beloved, salt-encrusted dive bars that dotted the island, was demolished in September.
The Rod, as it was affectionately called, was a local watering hole since the 1930s that backed up to Steelman Bay on 13th Street North. It bore the brunt of Hurricane Sandy — which was not-so-affectionately dubbed Frankenstorm after scoring a direct hit on Brigantine around Halloween of 2012 — and never recovered. Any hope for another neighborhood pub rising from the rubble were also dashed when the property recently got the go-ahead to be turned into residential dwellings.
“I sat there with my dad, and there was just a lot of old-school Brigantine family time spent there,” said Justin Skyler Daniels. “The Rod just had that family feel to it. I think it was the last bastion of that, honestly. Even though it's been closed a while, it's such a period on the end of a sentence to see it torn down.”
Daniels' family history in Brigantine goes back to 1950, when his father, the late John Daniels Jr., relocated to the island at age 2 with his parents. John Jr.'s two younger brothers, James and the late Jules Daniels, also raised their families there and were longtime members of the Brigantine Beach Patrol. Justin's cousin Jen, Jules' daughter, left her mark as one of the highest-scoring girls basketball players in Holy Spirit High School history.
The last of the Daniels family left Brigantine when its matriarch, Margaret Daniels, died in 2015 at age 93. Justin Daniels never lost the love he had for growing up on the island despite moving away, nor the desire to return as often as he could. He also created a Facebook group called Brigantine Nostalgia that allows longtime locals or summertime visitors to share their fond memories of days gone by.
“When I come over that bridge and smell the salt air and see the seagulls, it still feels like home to me, and always will,” Daniels said. “My daughter swam for Absegami (High School) and they practiced at the Brigantine Aquatic Center, so for four years I was driving over the bridge just for that. But I always find a reason to go.
“I also kind of figured that there must be a lot of people who grew up like I did who remember it as that kind of town where everybody knew everybody. So I started a page to share those stories.”
Brigantine Nostalgia has nearly 3,300 members. Posts span the gamut from menus and photos of bygone pubs and restaurants, to every kind of activity one can imagine that is common in a seashore environment.
Commentary is equally diverse, and often funny. Justin Daniels posted a shot of himself as a toddler in the late 1970s during an adult-league softball game. Budweiser cans are clearly visible in the shot, prompting someone's comment, “The drinking age was super young in the '70s!” and other comical, if not politically correct, remarks.
“There's something about a small-town island community, especially in the off-season, where everybody knows everybody, and I knew the stories I had were not the only ones out there worth sharing,” Daniels said. “I knew there had to be some others, and I wanted to hear them and see some of those old shots. There's stuff being posted that I'm just wowed by. There's nostalgic pictures of when all the streets were dirt roads. I love seeing those old photos.”
Daniels is in the nostalgia business. He and his wife Penelope own Farpoint Toys & Collectibles in Mays Landing, which deals in vintage toys, games, comic books and other collectibles.
“I'm in the nostalgia business, but the only reason I started the (Brigantine Nostalgia) page is for people to share memories,” he said. “There's no sponsorship behind it or motive other than sharing the love of Brigantine. I don't want to hear about what's going on in Brigantine in terms of drama or politics. I want to steer clear of that. I just like the idea of the innocent memories of how we grew up, or the memories people have who vacationed here for years or since childhood.”
Occasionally, Daniels or some other Brigantine Nostalgia forum member will throw out a question to prompt a discussion. One such case drew dozens of responses when Daniels mentioned that his childhood mailman would often teach him random facts when they crossed paths during mail deliveries.
“I only retained that the capital of New Jersey is Trenton,” Daniels wrote. “I wish I remembered his name. Who was your mail person?”
Forum member Ted Basile posted a shot of his father as a letter carrier in the 1960s and '70s.
“I remember my dad taking me to the Brigantine Motor Inn when I was a kid, and the Barefoot Pub was a connected bar on the beach where they'd have bikini contests and wild times,” Daniels said. “It was just packed on the beaches, and of course the beaches are a huge part of the memories in Brigantine and other shore towns.
“Nostalgia's my trade, and I'm a very nostalgic guy, but it's not like I live in the past,” he added. “It's just that I respect where we came from, and I really like revisiting the good feelings.”