Jersey Reflections: Wild and Wind-Twisted

By: Vince Farinaccio

Photo courtesy of Wildwoods, New Jersey Facebook page.

Vineland’s Baker intended to christen the new settlement Florida City before naming it Wildwood.

Beginning in the 1880s, Philip Baker, Vineland entrepreneur, and friend of Charles K. Landis, set his sights on land development. The success of Atlantic City several decades earlier seems to have triggered the imagination of more than a few enterprising individuals who would convert many of the barrier islands off the South Jersey coast into resort communities that could take advantage of summer tourism before the end of the century.

Baker’s first foray as a developer was a new project Landis had in mind. Convincing Baker to join him as an investor, Landis began collecting property on Ludlam’s Beach in 1879 with the intention of establishing a resort community to be called Sea Isle City, an enterprise that would soon prove profitable. Meanwhile, in the same year, Humphrey Cresse sold land he owned on an island further south to a company that developed it over the next several years into Anglesea, which incorporated in 1885.   

While Landis’ work on Sea Isle was nearing its completion in the early 1880s, a former clerk of the Vineland founder, John Burk, was beginning to develop Five Mile Beach to the south of his ex-employer’s resort. He “formed the Holly Beach Improvement Company with Dr. Aaron Andrew of Vineland (whose interest in the beach was stimulated by the need to find a healthful spot for his ailing wife), John L. Davis of Chicago, and other investors,” according to Jeffery M. Dorwart in his book Cape May County, New Jersey: The Making of an American Resort Community. The group purchased property from various families, including the Bennetts and the Hildreths and, by 1885, Dorwart reports, the settlement of Holly Beach had become a borough. 

Ninety acres of land between Anglesea and Holly Beach were ultimately purchased by Baker and his brother Latimer, but not without initial reservation. According to a sketch of Baker by George F. Boyer published by the Cape May Historical Society’s Magazine of History and Genealogy, Latimer recalled his brother saying the area they were thinking of purchasing was “uninhabitable and inaccessible.” 

It’s easy to understand Baker’s perspective at the time. Unlike similar locations off the Jersey coast, this property, which Boyer explains was called the Wales-Physick Tract, contained a vast forest, had only the beach and a narrow Indian trail for access to any nearby town and had not yet been settled. Despite these setbacks, Dorwart explains, Baker chose to acquire the land with the intent of christening the new settlement Florida City before naming it Wildwood after “the wild, wind-twisted trees found on their beach.”      

Lewis Townsend Stevens described the territory in his 1897 book The History of Cape May County, New Jersey: From the Aboriginal Times to the Present Day, noting that more than 50 percent consisted of  “woods [and] grand timber, some of the trees being nearly one hundred feet high, and two to five in diameter. They include pine, red, white and black oak, sassafras—six feet in circumference—red and white cedar, holly, magnolia, wild cherry, persimmon, sweet gum, beech, plum and other varieties, and from the branches of many of them hang festoons of beautiful green mosses, three to six feet in length. Gigantic grape vines here flourish, one monster nearly a yard in circumference ten feet from the ground, spreading away over the branches of the oaks a distance of two hundred feet.”

According to Boyer, Baker formed the Wildwood Beach Improvement Company and “slowly cleared the forest…”  Stevens reports that once “all underbrush, undesirable vines and bushes [had] been cleared away,” it was possible “to view the innumerable variety of beautiful wild flowers which cover the ground in every direction.” On the cleared land, lots were laid out with street names commemorating the type of trees recently hewn to make way for the town.

In taming the Wildwood wilderness, Baker, Latimer and a third brother, J. Thompson Baker, transformed the area into a popular resort. Dorwart reports that a visiting journalist praised the early look of the community and returned a year later surprised at how much it had developed over the previous 12 months. In 1890, President Benjamin Harrison traveled to Wildwood as a guest of the Bakers.

Next Week: Expansion