By DONALD WITTKOWSKI
Sometimes, historic treasures or artifacts are found in the most intriguing places. Gold coins plucked from an ancient shipwreck resting in the deepest depths of the ocean, for instance. Or a Renaissance painting discovered hidden underneath the rafters of a musty old attic.
But other times, epic finds are made in the most mundane places. For the volunteers at Sea Isle City’s Historical Museum, they stumbled upon some valuable pieces of local history inside a box that was tucked away in a storage room for years.
When the box was finally opened by the museum’s intern, Chris Pigeon, a collection of vintage bridal veils was discovered. Volunteers then used old photos to match the veils to the museum’s centerpiece collection of historic wedding gowns worn by Sea Isle brides dating all the way back to the late 1800s.
The museum is eager to show off the revamped wedding gown exhibit to the public – as well as its thousands of other artifacts and Sea Isle memorabilia – now that pandemic-related shutdowns and crowd restrictions are being eased or lifted altogether.
“I feel people will want to get out and do anything they can,” Powell said of things gradually returning to normal following the emergence of the COVID-19 vaccines.
The collection of bridal gowns and other artifacts had been locked away for months while the museum remained closed during the pandemic. Although the museum reopened in February with limited hours, Powell and other volunteers want to welcome back even bigger crowds heading into the summer tourism season.
The museum brims with historic keepsakes, some of them predating Sea Isle’s founding in 1882 by visionary real estate magnate Charles K. Landis.
The quaint museum is tucked away on the first floor of the Sea Isle branch of the Cape May County Library at 4800 Central Ave. When the library reopened on Feb. 22, the museum was able to throw open its doors, too.
Visitors will find plenty of new changes, starting with the wedding gown collection that serves as the museum’s main exhibit. Preserved in pristine condition, the 19 gowns were worn by Sea Isle brides from 1880 to 2007.
The display includes the gowns worn by three Braca sisters, Jeanette, Mary and Henrietta, when they married three Gibson brothers, Jack, Gar and Arthur. Jeanette and Jack were married in 1934, Mary and Gar in 1939 and Henrietta and Arthur in 1941, according to museum records. The Bracas and Gibsons are prominent Sea Isle families.
All of the ornate gowns had been carefully stored in garment bags and were steamed before they were put out on display again.
“We steamed most of them. With some, we couldn’t get all of the wrinkles out. But they still look beautiful,” Powell said.
However, Powell thought the exhibit needed some freshening up to make it more eye-catching.
She oversaw a redesign that includes the recently discovered veils, floral decorations, a new backdrop made of tulle and a handmade satin bedspread presented as a wedding gift to William and Florence Hinshillwood in 1947.
“It really pops now. That’s our artist, our president. She’s our visionary,” museum volunteer Ron Kovatis said of Powell’s brighter makeover of the gown exhibit.
While the wedding gown exhibit is sure to attract the most attention, other smaller, though important, changes have been made to make the museum even more visitor-friendly.
For example, smaller displays containing vintage photos and artifacts on such things as Sea Isle’s old schools, churches, railroads and organizations now include binders that have detailed information about all those topics.
For museum visitors, the binders give them information right at their fingertips. Previously, they would have to find the binders in another part of the museum, Powell explained.
“It makes more sense to put the binders next to the display items,” she said.
The museum also has a revamped section that features displays on local businesses, including bars, restaurants and banks. One display item is a barber chair dating to 1898 used by local barber Louis Braca.
Powell also pointed out changes to the museum’s “essential workers,” display, which is highlighted by a collection of uniforms once worn by members of the military, police officers, firefighters and ambulance crews. They include the uniform of Rose Milano, Sea Isle’s first female police officer.
The museum also has a trove of research material, including thousands of photographs, maps, books, pamphlets, and personal remembrances, plus collections on specialized subjects such as the monstrous storms in 1944 and 1962 that devastated large swaths of Sea Isle.
The museum is open on Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. and Fridays from 1-3 p.m. Admission is free. More information is available by visiting www.seaislemuseum.com or calling the museum at (609) 263-2992.