By Donald Wittkowski
Old postcards are adorned with pictures of bathing beauties and dreamy scenes of the seashore.
An old barbershop chair sits empty, as if awaiting the next customer to stop in for a haircut and shave.
Twenty old wedding gowns, all neatly lined up in a row, remain in the same pristine shape as the day they were worn by young brides many years ago.
Individually, these items may not mean much to the casual observer. But collectively, they are treasured artifacts that represent the rich history of Sea Isle City.
The Sea Isle City Historical Society and Museum, which held its annual Christmas Open House on Saturday, wants everyone to know that this collection of local memorabilia, and more, is free and open to the public.
Abby Powell, the new president of the Historical Society, said the museum is an overlooked gem that, hopefully, will become a must-see attraction for visitors and residents alike.
A new marketing effort is planned to draw more attention to the museum and to build up membership in the Historical Society, Powell noted.
“We want to make it more of an attraction,” she said.
Tucked inside a wing of the Cape May County Library at 4800 Central Ave., the museum is brimming with thousands of historic keepsakes, some of them predating the town’s founding in 1882 by real estate magnate Charles K. Landis.
What the museum calls its unique display of “magnificently preserved” wedding gowns, for instance, dates back to 1880. All of the brides who wore them were Sea Isle residents.
Other treasures on display from the 19th century include a two-foot-high school bell, a baby’s wooden cradle crib, and an old firefighter’s helmet.
Parts of the museum are devoted to the monstrous 1944 hurricane that obliterated large swaths of the seashore, as well as the infamous 1962 nor’easter that devastated Sea Isle.
Museum volunteers and others who attended the open house on Saturday recalled how entire buildings collapsed and were swept away by the ocean in the 1962 storm.
“My parents lost their home. There was absolutely nothing left. Nothing,” Mary Anninos said of the house at 50th Street and the beach.
Anninos, now 78, noted that she was married two years before the storm. Most of her wedding gifts were being stored at her parents’ house. Those gifts, along with her wedding dress, were destroyed.
Anninos and her husband, Peter, were living in a modest house in Bordentown, N.J., at the time. After the family home in Sea Isle was destroyed, Anninos’ parents and four brothers came to live with her in Bordentown for a while.
“I was in a little house with my husband, my parents and my four brothers. I don’t know how we did it,” Anninos said.
Mary Stearne, who lives in a 130-year-old Victorian house at 34th Street and the Promenade, said the home miraculously survived the 1962 storm. The Victorian was owned by her parents in 1962.
“There were five houses between my parents’ home. Only one house was left – my parents’ home. Everything else was gone. It was destroyed,” Stearne said.
Sea Isle went through a rebuilding surge after each storm in 1944 and 1962. Dramatic growth occurred again during the town’s more recent transformation into a summer vacation destination crowded with large, upscale homes.
“It was a little town and had little houses. It was wonderful. Everybody knew each other,” said the 80-year-old Stearne, recalling the Sea Isle she knew when she first moved to town 75 years ago.
Although Sea Isle has evolved into the bustling summer vacation retreat that it is today, Stearne believes it still retains its small-town charms, particularly during the quiet, off-season months and around the holidays.
“Everybody still knows each other,” she said. “Its history of families is amazing.”