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Chapter III: Religious Resorts

1Salter, 251.

2Charles A. Parker, “Ocean Grove, New Jersey: Queen of the Victorian Methodist Camp Meeting Resorts,” n.p., n.d., 19.

3George F. Boyer and J. Pearson Cunningham, Cape May County Story (Avalon, NJ: Avalon Publishing Co., 1975), 131-2.

4Audrey Sullivan and Doris Young, A Time to Remember: A History of New Jersey Methodists’ First Camp Meeting, South Seaville. New Jersey, 1864-1988 (South Seaville, NJ: South Seaville Camp Meeting Association, Inc., 1988), 73.

5Sullivan and Young, 63.

6Sullivan and Young, 61-79.

7Sullivan and Young, 73.

PHOTOS © The George Langley Collection

Tucked deep in the pines, inland of what is now Sea Isle City, settlement of this area dates to the construction of the King’s Highway in the early 1800s.

- BJaconetti

Farms and lumbering camps were scattered throughout the region in 1860, when the Cape May and Millville Railroad laid down tracks through the forest. A significant railroad stop, South Seaville offered stagecoach transportation to the more populated town of Beesley’s Point near Great Egg Harbor. The economy profited from bay industries; clams were harvested locally, while Chesapeake Bay oysters prospered in special beds before being shipped to Philadelphia as “Cape May Salts.” [3]

The founding of the camp meeting transformed South Seaville from a prosperous maritime community to a destination of religious pilgrimage. According to tradition, the first camp meetings were held “under the leafy canopy of oak trees.” Between 1865 and 1874, Methodist campers gathered at the Cape May County Agricultural Fairgrounds. [4] Common to every meeting was the ephemeral character of the assemblage, a seasonal occasion for the faithful to commune in a natural setting. In 1875 the camp was permanently established as the “South Jersey Camp Meeting Association located at Seaville Station, Cape May County, NJ.”

The founders drew an ambitious plan, with hundreds of numbered lots grouped in rectangular blocks and arranged around parks. The streets, named for past Methodist bishops, ran parallel to a central park where benches and a platform formed the main meeting ground.

- Bwatts

These more permanent structures (Image 1) retained much of the camp’s earlier transient feeling. Buyers were expected to build a canvas or frame structure on the land within one year. Most of the cottages were simple, two-story, balloon-frame dwellings with open porches and gingerbread trim. Often resembling tents themselves, they offered no protection during the cold winter months. Those who chose not to purchase property usually rented canvas tents, ranging in price from $5 for small “A” tents, to $15 for 12′ x 16′ wall tents. [5] By 1877, ninety cottages had been built and sixty tents pitched. These were assembled around a central meeting place, a 20′-square pavilion with three board-and-batten walls and an open front facing the seating area. Behind the pavilion was an office with preacher’s accommodations. In an 1877 director’s meeting, association vice president J. Milton Townsend suggested the construction of housing for summer visitors. A boardinghouse was completed in 1881 and a kitchen added the next year. In 1892, an additional room was attached to the rear of the building. The main room of the barnlike structure is still used as a dining facility. [6] By 1890, the meeting required a more permanent auditorium building (Image. 2). “The Prayer Meeting Tabernacle” was “moved in front of the pavilion and enlarged to make an auditorium 60′ long and 54′ wide.” A huge gable roof covered both wood-frame structures, but all sides were left open. [7] Itself a kind of canopy, the plain white front of the building is inscribed with a fanciful inscription proclaiming “Seaville and Salvation” beneath the trees.

Today, a variety of original cottages remain, including several two-story, two-room balloon-frame cottages with corner pegs, as well as larger steep-roofed dwellings with Gothic windows and Victorian gingerbread detailing. Some cottages have open porches and side wings that imitate the earlier tents with their canvas flaps propped open for air. The visitor entering the South Seaville meeting today passes modern all-weather homes before approaching the older section of the camp. Equipped with electrical wiring and other modern conveniences, the Seaville meeting remains a forest retreat Christians enjoy each season.