Don’t miss all the historical sites and interesting restaurants of this wonderful NJ beach town.
Somers Point, NJ is such a picturesque and historical town with lots of historical sites and delicious restaurants to visit. It is fun to just get in the car and drive the Historic District and see how the town has grown and developed.
I took time out of my walking project in Manhattan after finishing the Chelsea neighborhoods, walking the 13-mile Broadway walk for the sixth time and preparing to do “The Great Saunter” on my own next week to go ‘down the shore’ as we say in New Jersey (it’s never ‘Down to the Shore”, that takes too long).
I had never been to Somers Point, NJ before. It is a small waterfront community across the bay from Ocean City, NJ, which is a popular resort and recreation town. Somers Point is low key with wonderful restaurants and bars, a popular waterfront and beaches on The Great Egg Harbor Bay and beautiful little turn of the century beach homes and a town steeped in history. I read about three historical spots on Shore Drive in the heart of the Historic District and had wanted to visit them.
The Atlantic County Historical Society at 907 Shore Avenue
The Atlantic County Historical Society
I recently visited the historical sites of Somers Point and took my time to tour the Atlantic County Historical Society, which tells the story of life in Atlantic County from the beginnings to today with a major concentration the early history of the County with the Native American Lenape Indians and into the late 1700’s and 1800’s with the founding of the town, the Revolutionary and Civil Wars, shipbuilding, fishing and the start of the Victorian Age. Each floor has interesting displays that sometimes have been over-decorated with too many objects.
When you walk in the door, you enter the library where people study the history of the town and their geneology. There are stacks of books, periodicals and town records with people to help you research your work.
As you head downstairs, you will see the various displays that have been set up on life in Atlantic County through the ages. Most of the artifacts in the displays are from the late 1800’s to the early 1930’s. The displays represent the home life of middle to upper middle class Americans at the time. There are parlor sets with musical intruments for entertainment, family portraits, writing sets and living and dining room bric-a-brac. The museum portrays the life of properious residents of the area.
The Middle to Upper Middle Class parlor of Americans in the late 1800’s
The Dining Room set and dishes of a 1920’s Atlantic County family with all sorts of kitchen and play items for engagement for the family through the years.
The display really shows that entertaining since those times has not changed over the years except that today that things are less formal. China, crystal and silver were your way of showing your status in the community. Today’s generation is not so apt to do this.
Lifestyle was a big part of people’s lives during these time periods so the way you dressed and presented yourself was a big part of who you were. With the advent of ocean swimming, outdoor recreation and weekend activities that came with the push of the unions. You can see that leisure became a big part of the Victorian’s lifestyle.
One thing that emphisis was put on was children and their well-being. We see the start of children’s education, their health and livelihoods and their playthings. The Victorians especially worked hard to give children a better life than the workhouses and factories that children had been subjected to in the previous century. There was a push to make children well-behaved ‘little adults’.
Children’s playthings and clothes were a big part of Victorian children’s lives
Children’s dolls and playthings represented the house and to prepare for household responsibilities
People were expected to do their chores at home such as cooking, washing, dressmaking and taking care of the house. Before electricity this was not an easy task made even more difficult by the Victorian expectations of propriety and cleanliness.
Home decoration was a big part of home life. The house was where the family spent their time and Victorians especially liked to room for everything including the bedrooms. This is where privacy was king if you could afford it. In the era of ‘children were seen and not heard’, if family members could have their own rooms that was paramount.
There was also a large collection of vintage clothing, quilts and bedding, hats and gloves and walking sticks to show the dressing the middle and upper middle class citizens.
Manufacturing was also a big part of the community and shipbuilding was one of the businesses by any waterfront community that was important.
The shipbuilding and fishing displays on the third floor
The Third floor is dedicated to industry of the area with fishing and shipbuilding a very important part of any waterfront community. Tourism which was a new thing in the industrial age and people having weekends off to enjoy themselves discovered these new shore communities for swimming, sunning, staying at hotels and ocean dining.
The last display on the third floor was the office set up of Senator Frank “Hap” Farley, whose innovations and protections of the shore and transportation to various parts of the state opened it up for development and tourism.
The office of Frank S. “Hap” Farley was a testiment to a well spent time in government
The upstairs galleries is also a place where groups meet and discussions and lectures are held. There really is something for everyone at the Society.
There is more to see and do here and take your time to visit all the displays and take a tour of everything. It is also an enjoyable rainy or hot sunny day alternative to the beach. You will learn a lot about Atlantic County and the history of New Jersey here.
The History and Mission Statement of the Atlantic County Historical Society:
(From the Society website)
The mission of the Atlantic County Historical Society is to encourage the study of local history and genealogy and to disseminate this information to our members and the general public.
To fulfill our mission, the Society publishers an annual journal of local history and genealogy as well as a quarterly newsletter. Other means include programs, lectures, field trips, partnerships with local libraries and school districts, library and museum interpretative exhibitis and guided tours of the circa 1790 oysterman’s farmhouse, the Risley Homestead, in Northfield, New Jersey.
History of the organization:
The Atlantic County Historical Society is an independent, non-profit, tax-exempt membership organization. Originally founded in 1913 to collect and preserve the history of Atlantic County and southern New Jersey, the organization was incorporated as the Atlantic County Historical Society in 1915. In 2006, the Society was briefly renamed the Atlantic Heritage Center, but the original name was restored in 2011.
The Society opened its library and museum at the current location in 1968. In 2017, an extensive renovation project added additional space for the museum and to provide handicapped accessibility. The Risley Homestead site was bequeathed to the Society in 1989 by Virginia Risley Stout. She and her husband were the last to live in this historic building, of which portions date back to 1790. The building is listed on the State and National Registers of Historic Places.
Atlantic County Historical Society and Risley Homestead are registered trade names of Atlantic County Historical Society.
I visited the Somers Mansion, the three story former home to five generations of the Somers Family. The mansion sits on a buff overlooking the bay and the bridge to the barrier island where Ocean City is located. The original part of the house was built in 1725 and in 1920 the last family members moved from the home and deeded it to the town. The modern additions of the home have been stripped off so you see the original house.
The historic marker of the home when it was donated by the family
I have to say that I was very disappointed with the condition of both the house and of the rooms and displays inside the house. There was not much to see. The lower level of the home has the main room with the hearth known in most early homes as the “Keeping” or “Everything” room where all the cooking, household chores and socializing was done because of the warmth of the fire.
Here and there were pieces of furniture but nothing labeled or decorated to make the room look ‘period’. Just old furniture here and there to fill the space. Some of the original family china was in the cupboards built into the walls.
The upstairs which must be reached by a rope bannister lead up a narrow stairs to two upstairs bedrooms. The home is not handicapped safe. The front bedroom had a fireplace with a small side room that held spinning wheels and some children’s furniture. There was not much to see in the upstairs.
The tour guide did not offer much in the way of information on the house and the only period pieces of the Somers family that were left inside the house were a chest, a clock, some of the china that was in the side cabinents and a bedwarmer.
Outside the house the Somers Point Garden Club planted a period garden of fruits and vegetables on the back lawn and lead tours of the gardens.
The Somers Mansion Kitchen Garden
The Garden Club planted fruits and vegetables that would have been grown in the time periods of the late 1700’s to early 1800’s. You can walk amongst the beds to see the plantings.
Somers Mansion Kitchen Garden planted by the Garden Club
The whole tour takes less than a half hour and it is more impressive from the outside. You are also not allowed to take pictures of the house for security reasons.
The History of the Somers Mansion:
(From the NJ State Historical Site.com):
The mansion and surrounding city bear the name of the family who owned and occupied the house for 200 years.
The original mansion after it was stripped of the modern additions
The Somers Mansion, a three story home constructed of brick in the Flemish bond pattern, sits overlooking the Great Egg Harbor Bay at Somers Point. In the late 1600’s, the property which surrounds the mansion was acquired by John Somers, who operated a ferry service across The Great Egg Harbor Bay to Cape May. He referred to it as Somers Plantation and Somers Ferry and the surrounding settlement, the olders in what became Altantic County and then Somers Point in the mid-18th Century.
The mansion is considered to be the oldest existing house in Atlantic County, predating the County itself. His son, Richard, the first of the family to be born in New Jersey, built what is now referred to as the mansion by 1726. That year the local Society of Friends (Quakers) used the home for a meeting and memorialized it in their minutes, making the earliest recorded date of the home’s existence.
By the end of the 19th century, the mansion’s architecture had been added to and changed to reflect a Victorian style. The house remained in the Somers Family until 1937 when it was deeded by Florence Hayday Brooks and Lulu Hayday Smith, daughters of Hannah Hayday Somers to the Atlantic County Historical Society for the purpose of creating a permanent memorial to the Somers family.
In 1941, it was transferred to the State of New Jersey, dedicated on September 26th, 1942 and in the early 1940’s was restored to its colonial appearance as a Works Progress Administration (WPA) project. Laborers for the WPA both renovated the surviving furnishings and conducted a historical restoration, including the elimination of rooms and architectural details dating to the 19th century. The site was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1970 and is now a State Historic site.
Somers Point was originally settled by John Somers, an Englishman and practicing Quaker, who bought the land from Thomas Budd. Early names for the area were Somerset Plantation, Somers Ferry and Somers Plantation named after the first settlers in 1693. The land purchased originally covered all of Somers Point, part of Linwood and went into Egg Harbor Township. In the early years, it was part of Gloucester County, because Atlantic COunt had not yet been named.
The name “Somers Point” was adopted in 1750. It was a seafaring town and sloops, schooners and barges were built in the many shipyards located along the Greate Egg Harbor Bay, Greate Egg Harbor River and Patcong Creek.
The Sooy Boatworks was located on Shore Road and the completed ships were rolled on logs down Shore Road to Delaware Avenue and then down to the bay. Shipbuilding and life along the waterways was a very important part of life in early Somers Point.