By KAYLA J. MARSH
As citizens of the United States prepare to elect a new president this November, a new exhibit at the Township of Ocean Historical Museum is shedding light on 11 former chief executives and telling the wide-ranging stories of their time spent visiting, relaxing and, in one case dying, at the Jersey Shore.
The new exhibit, “Presidents at the Monmouth County Shore,” will open June 26 from 1 to 4 p.m. in the Richmond Gallery at the Eden Woolley House, which is located at 703 Deal Road in Ocean. The exhibit will remain open through June 2017.
“It is a presidential election year, which makes it a good topic and a timely topic, and then it also turns out to be the 100th anniversary of Woodrow Wilson accepting the nomination for his second term right here at Monmouth University, which was then a private estate called Shadow Lawn,” said Peggy Dellinger, museum exhibit chair.
Dellinger said 25,000 people gathered to see Wilson officially accept the nomination of the Democratic Party for a second Presidential run.
“Because it is the centennial of that presidential event and a presidential election year, [the exhibit] seemed like a great idea,” she said.
While Dellinger said Wilson was not the first president to visit this slice of the Jersey Shore, some credit former first lady Mary Todd Lincoln for increasing the popularity of the area during her visit to Long Branch in the summer of 1861.
“The president [Abraham Lincoln] … wanted to stay [in Washington] and oversee the war effort, and so she came with her sons, and it was a big deal for Long Branch and it was covered in papers across the country,” Dellinger said. “We were able to find over 100 mentions of it in various papers … and that national press made Long Branch much more visible and fashionable to the elite.
“It was already a resort, but it really notched it up a bit.”
The first lady’s visit added immeasurably to the fame and appeal of the Monmouth County Shore and drew in many wealthy and influential individuals, including multiple presidents, starting with Ulysses S. Grant.
“It is helpful to imagine what it was like before air conditioning and before planes,” Dellinger said. “The cities were oppressively hot, particularly Washington, and of course the Victorians dressed in corsets and long dresses and high collars [and] it was just truly uncomfortable, so getting to the ocean would be a big deal.
“People brought their trunks and stayed for the season.”
She said in the mid-1800s, steamboats and rail travel allowed individuals to escape Washington, New York and Philadelphia, and, thanks to Mrs. Lincoln’s highly publicized visit, Long Branch became a desirable destination.
In 1870, a group of wealthy businessmen, who summered in the Elberon section of Long Branch, presented Grant with an oceanfront cottage where he vacationed for the next 15 years before his death in 1885.
After Grant’s death, however, officials feared the resort might lose its popularity.
“People were worried when [Grant] died,” Dellinger said. “He was an extremely popular president because he was a war hero and … of course it was a great boom for the city to have all of that tourist trade … [but] as you get later in the 20th century, people were starting to have other options [to travel by] … and the air-conditioned office at home, made it much less urgent to get out of the city.”
They needn’t have worried, however, since six of the next 10 presidents, Rutherford B. Hayes, James A. Garfield, Chester A. Arthur, Benjamin Harrison, William McKinley and Wilson, chose to spend time in Long Branch.
“They gave us some genuine histories to be proud of,” Dellinger said. “Garfield is perhaps the most dramatic because he came here to die and died in the cottage … right on the beach in Elberon.”
Mrs. Garfield was in Long Branch recuperating from illness when her husband was shot on July 2, 1881.
While initially taken to the White House, the lingering Garfield was eventually removed to Elberon where, according to Dellinger, locals worked through the night to build the spur to carry the president’s railroad car from Elberon station to the seaside cottage.
He died there 12 days later on Sept. 19.
“The story of the volunteers working through the night to build the extension to the rails so his car could take him right to the cottage is really a wonderful local story,” Dellinger said.
Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Richard Nixon also visited the Monmouth County area, if only, in some cases, for a political rally.
“We will do an overview of all of the presidents who came not only to Long Branch, but to Asbury, Ocean Grove and Sea Girt, and we’ll tell a little bit about their presidencies … and what their connection to the shore was and then most of the time [we’ll focus on] the ‘heavy hitters’ which would be Grant, Garfield and Wilson and then a little bit about Warren Harding,” Dellinger said.
According to Dellinger, Harding’s local connection brings a bit of scandal to the shore.
“His connection to Monmouth County was most notably that his lover gave birth to their illegitimate daughter in a rooming house in Asbury Park and then wrote a tell-all book called ‘The President’s Daughter,’” she said.
Hours for the Township of Ocean Historical Museum are Tuesday through Thursday 1 to 4 p.m. and from 1 to 4 p.m. the first and second Sundays of the month.
“We’re going to have President Grant’s rocking chair from his cottage in Elberon, the desk that President Wilson used for his campaign headquarters in 1916, which was in the old post office building in Asbury Park and we’re going to have a flag that was draped for a ceremony over President Garfield’s casket while it was still here in New Jersey and Long Branch … we have some nice items,” Dellinger said.