By DONALD WITTKOWSKI
As he flipped through dozens of old photos on display at the Sea Isle City Historical Museum, Leonard Bonitt Jr. discovered a black-and-white picture of four people enjoying themselves many years ago at a local restaurant.
“Those are my parents,” he said with a smile while pointing to one couple, Leonard and Sis Bonitt. “The other people are their friends, Helen and Sam Migliaccio.”
There are other photos of Bonitt’s family stored in the museum, including one of his mother on her wedding day, but the picture he saw of his late parents came as a complete surprise and immediately brought back fond memories of his chldhood.
“It reminds me of being very young, basically,” the now 68-year-old Bonitt said.
For Bonitt, who lives in Ocean View, the discovery of the old photo of his parents made this holiday season seem even more special. He visited the museum Saturday during its annual Christmas Open House, an event that showcases a trove of artifacts and memorabilia representing the rich history of Sea Isle City.
Bonitt’s mother was an active member of the museum. Years ago, when the museum formerly operated out of an old garage behind the former City Hall, some of the artifacts that couldn’t fit in the tiny building were stored in the Bonitt home.
“It seemed like our house was a museum annex,” Bonitt recalled.
Now housed 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.
The Christmas Open House partly serves as an old-fashioned holiday celebration, but is also a way to invite in new visitors who may be discovering the museum for the first time.
Ginny and Allan Hall, who live in Havertown, Pa., and have a vacation home in Sea Isle, wandered into the museum for the first time Saturday, not knowing what to expect. They came away impressed after viewing the array of exhibits and artifacts, including old maps and an antique barbershop chair.
“I think it’s great that they have preserved so much of the history here,” Ginny Hall said. “All of this history shows how Sea Isle started as a small town, and that it wasn’t always a vacation town. Much of the history is being shared. I think that’s important, historically speaking.”
Adding to the old-time Christmas atmosphere of the open house were vintage toys and a model train set from years ago. A Christmas tree, toy soldiers and poinsettia plants were among the decorations adorning the museum. Harpist Lucia Marone entertained visitors with a medley of classic holiday tunes.
Santa Claus paid a surprise visit, dropping in with a sack of gifts slung over his shoulder and plenty of good cheer.
“Didn’t I get you that sweater last Christmas?” Santa jokingly asked one visitor.
While ringing his bell and shouting “Ho, Ho, Ho, Merry Christmas!” Santa moved through the museum and spotted its president, Abby Powell.
“You look like a boss lady,” he comically told Powell, drawing her laughter.
Powell later got Santa back by photobombing him while he was busy signing the museum’s guest book. As if anyone was bold enough to question Santa about his hometown, he wrote “North Pole” in the guest book for good measure.
Also during the open house, members of the Sea Isle Historical Society & Museum swapped some of their favorite stories, reminisced about the past and also talked of why the town remains so special to them today.
“It’s the joy of being together,” Shirley Gill, a Sea Isle resident for 35 years, said of spending the holidays in town.
Gill, 88, recalled that when she first moved to Sea Isle, Christmas carolers would ride around town in the back of trucks, stopping from house to house to serenade the residents.
Although Sea Isle has evolved into the bustling summer vacation retreat that it is today, museum members believe it still retains its small-town charms, particularly around the holidays.
“The people are so friendly. They make you feel so welcomed,” said 91-year-old Ada Steinberg as her husband, Jack, 89, nodded his head in agreement.