By: Vince Farinaccio
Early Vinelanders aided the development of Wildwood, Wildwood Crest, other seaside locales.
When Vinelander Philip Baker established Wildwood with his brothers in the 1880s, converting a largely wooded area into a seaside resort, his career in land development was far from finished.
According to George F. Boyer’s profile of Baker published by the Cape May Historical Society’s Magazine of History and Genealogy, “part of the success of Philip Baker was not only his own energy and character, but his ability to influence other men to settle in Wildwood.” Yet it was also hard work and the vision of a thriving seaside community that drove Baker and those working for him to prepare “the foundation of the Borough of Wildwood with feverish energy,” clearing the land and setting up lots for housing.
After the Borough of Wildwood was incorporated in 1895 and his brother Latimer elected mayor, Baker set his sights on expanding his territory over the next few years. The May 1898 acquisition of a 110-acre forest known as the Creese Tract provided the Baker Brothers the opportunity to double the size of their resort.
Next, they turned their attention, according to Boyer, “to the land south of Holly Beach” where, by 1905, workers were dispatched “to level the sand dunes and pump in sand from Sunset Lake” for a project that “raised the ground and deepened the lake” and made way for the construction of 40 cottages.
The new settlement became the Borough of Wildwood Crest in 1910 and the 64-year-old Baker was elected mayor, receiving 28 of the 48 votes cast in the election. Two years later, the consolidation of Wildwood Borough and Holly Beach created the City of Wildwood.
In 1913, Baker began plans for his retirement, building a new home for his family in Wildwood Crest at 5911 Pacific Avenue, where he would enjoy his last seven years. He died on August 14, 1920 and was buried at the Cape May Courthouse Baptist Cemetery.
Baker’s years as a resident of both Vineland and Wildwood offers an interesting connection between to the two towns, but Boyer identifies a far more meaningful relationship between the municipalities. In a 1973 letter to the Vineland Historical and Antiquarian Society, he commented that “Wildwood owes a debt of gratitude to the City of Vineland. Your city can rightly be called the Mother City of Wildwood.”
Boyer, the chairman of the Wildwood Historical Commission at the time, goes on to credit the involvement of Vinelanders such as the Baker Brothers for the settlements of Holly Beach and Wildwood before acknowledging a series of overlooked contributions Vineland made to the commerce and development of these resort towns. He provides a little-known fact about how Vineland founder Charles K. Landis’ 1890 visit to Europe aided in preparing one of the Wildwood boroughs. “When the lower end of our island was developed to form Wildwood Crest,” Boyer explains, “Philip Baker used a plan to protect the beach front from erosion that was given to him by Charles K. Landis, who had made a study of seacoast protection in Holland.”
The clearing of the forests for Wildwood is attributed to the “many hardy pioneers from Vineland and Cumberland County,” and “all our churches can be traced to a beach tent erected in 1886 by Reverend and Mrs. Meech of Vineland.” Mrs. Meech is also credited with opening the first store in Wildwood.
“The first fresh water [was] brought down from Vineland in bottles,” Boyer reports, “and the first newspaper, the Holly Beach Herald, was printed in Vineland by Mr. W.L. Sigman of the Vineland Journal on July 25, 1885.”
The first mayor of Holly Beach, Franklin J. Van Valin, had been a resident of Vineland, according to Boyer, and Van Valin’s daughter Mary, also a Vinelander, became the first school teacher of Five Mile Beach.
Boyer concludes his letter with a gracious statement to all early Vineland residents who contributed their talents, services, loyalty and commitment to the development of these seaside locations, which were twenty to thirty years younger than Vineland but filled with the same spirit for success as their inland cousin: “For all of these and other early settlers, we owe a debt of gratitude to the City of Vineland.”