Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Preserving the Barnegat Baymen's Heritage at Tuckerton Seaport

Preserving the Barnegat Baymen's Heritage at Tuckerton Seaport

In an increasingly global and digital world, the local traditions and stories of the past are being forgotten. At the Tuckerton Seaport in Tuckerton, New Jersey, the heritage of the Barnegat Bay region and those who have worked their lives in its industries, whether on the land or in the water, performing its unique crafts and traditions, and serving as the backbone of hometown America has been preserved. These ways of life, which are unique to south Jersey and the Pinelands, can still be found if you look hard enough, but are quickly fading in the era of modern technology. The Seaport strives to preserve this slice of American history and demonstrate the important legacy these individuals have left behind and how it connects to us today.

Tucker's Island Lighthouse replica at the Tuckerton Seaport.
The idea to conceive a seaport village began in the late 1980s. In 1989, a group of individuals formed the Barnegat Bay Decoy and Baymen’s Museum, which would open in Tip Seaman Park in a hunting shanty in 1992. Across the street from the park was 40-acre wooded parcel along the Tuckerton Creek which was slated for commercial development which included a motel, campground, and marina. The Baymen's Museum officially announced a revised plan for commercial development on the Tuckerton Creek site, an 11-building village dubbed the "Tuckerton Seaport." As time went on, the plans for the site ballooned to twenty-six buildings, but never fully came to fruition.

A groundbreaking was held July 12, 1997 and the Seaport held a grand opening on May 13, 2000, featuring thirteen historic and replicated structures, including the Tucker's Island Lighthouse, decoy carving shops, a houseboat, a sea captain's house, a sawmill, a boat works, and a hunting shanty.

For the past fifteen years, the Tuckerton Seaport has served as the town square for Tuckerton. Wanting to truly be a part of the community, the Seaport strives to remain relevant and engaging at a time when throughout most of the nation, museum visitorship and donations are down.

A Francis Life Car on display inside the Tucker's Island Lighthouse.
Inside the two-story Tucker's Island Lighthouse replica are displays on lighthouses and lifesaving, New Jersey maritime history, shipwrecks, and crafts of those who live in the region, such as decoy carving and basket making. The original Tucker's Island Lighthouse was built in 1868 on Tucker’s Beach. In 1927, the lighthouse was destroyed when it fell into the ocean and what remained of the island was swallowed up.

On the other side of the property, inside the Perrine Boatworks, you can find Ron Spodofora, Head Boat Builder at the Seaport. Ron's father was a boatbuilder, which is where he learned the skills and crafts to fashion sneakboxes and other wooden boats. However, Ron is the last of a dying breed. After working thirty-five years in the private sector, Ron was approached by the Seaport to work in the boatworks. Unsure if he remembered, once he started, it was like riding a bicycle. Today, he carries on a rich tradition that unfortunately is not a profitable venture. Once fiberglass boats came around, the wooden boatbuilders saw their demise. There is still an interest in wooden boats, but not enough for someone to realistically make a living and raise a family. A typical boat that Ron builds can cost anywhere from $7,000 - $9,000. Ron has an assistant, but he only works part-time and according to Ron, boating building requires a full-time commitment. Unfortunately, as Ron begrudgingly admitted, he may be the last boatbuilder at Tuckerton.

Ron Spodofora, Head Boat Builder at Tuckerton Seaport.
Boat building has a rich tradition in the Barnegat Bay region. In 1836, Captain Hazelton Seaman developed the Barnegat Bay Sneakbox. A unique boat, indigenous to New Jersey and built of white cedar, it became one of the country's best known one man duck hunting boats. The boat can travel through marshes in as little as three inches of water and is very stable in most weather conditions. In addition to duck hunting, sneakboxes were used for clamming, fishing, and boat racing. It is also very versatile in that it can be rowed, sailed, or motored. Throughout the Seaport you will notice a variety of old and new sneakboxes on display.

Barnegat Bay sneakbox built by Josephus Seaman (1860-1923) of West Creek, NJ.
Two other large boats can be found on the property, but they are not your typical pleasure or fishing boats - they are houseboats! In the early twentieth century, houseboating was in vogue along the Barnegat Bay. Over one hundred houseboats could be found in the waters and back bays of New Jersey and a 1920 Tuckerton Beacon newspaper article stated that, "More than 3000 persons in New Jersey give houseboats as their permanent place of residence." The Skinner/Donnelly Houseboat, built circa 1935 and the Periwinkle houseboat built in 1930 were donated to the Seaport and are now displayed on dry land, but remain closed due to damage from Superstorm Sandy.

Crest Fishery (scale replica) and Hotel DeCrab (recreation).
The newest addition to the Seaport was in 2010 when the New Jersey Surf Museum opened. As early as 1912, many of the baymen became some of the first surfers in New Jersey during their downtime. The museum features a large number of surfboards, including some from the early twentieth century, and explores the science behind waves.

As mentioned above, the site was not immune to the effects of Superstorm Sandy. The storm caused over $350,000 in damage to buildings and exhibits but the site never shut down. The day after the storm, townspeople congregated at the Seaport, which despite no power, was open and welcoming the community. The Seaport has not fully recovered from the storm - Kelly’s Oyster House, the Skinner-Donnelly and Periwinkle Houseboats, and Joe Dayton’s Sawmill are still in need of repairs and not open to the public. Since the storm, the Seaport has hosted a community gathering each year where all local families, regardless of need, are invited to come together for a free meal and give thanks. The food is donated by local businesses and there are a number of family activities and entertainment. Throughout the year, the site hosts popular events, including a boat show, classic and antique car and truck show, the Ocean County Decoy and Gunning Show, and a privateers and pirate festival.

Recreated buildings along the boardwalk at Tuckerton Seaport.
Three original historic homes can be found on the 40-acre Seaport property. The oldest is the Andrews-Bartlett Homestead. The original section of the home was built circa 1709 and is the oldest home in Ocean County. It was built by Mordecai Andrews, a Quaker who settled in the region around 1700. In 1824, a Federal style addition was built by Nathan Bartlett. The home is closed and awaiting restoration. The smallest historic building is the Sunny Brae Salt Box House, which dates to the early 1700s. In the 1960s, it underwent extensive additions and renovations to create the saltbox appearance. The home presently serves as the office of the mayor and town council of Tuckerton. The largest home, located on the highest point in Tuckerton is the circa 1855 Sea Captain's House. It was originally built for Edmund Bartlett and later home to Zebedee W. Rockhill, a sea captain, from 1873 to 1891. The home is listed on the New Jersey and National Registers of Historic Places.

The staff at the Seaport and volunteers, which now number over 500, strive to keep the history and traditions of the Jersey Shore and back bays alive. Without their dedication and investment, this important legacy in southern New Jersey would be forgotten and the community of Tuckerton would not have this important resource to gather at and provide enrichment to those from near and far. This site is truly more than a museum - it is a destination that demonstrates the relevance of history, science, the environment, community,and sense of place in the twenty-first century.


Additional photos of my trip to the Tuckerton Seaport on Pinterest

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Tuckerton Seaport


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