South Cape May, NJ, the beach town that defined Joseph G. Burcher’s childhood, no longer exists. By 1946, relentless storms had reduced South Cape May, now a bird refuge, to sand and varied debris.
Joe, a TCNJ professor from 1962 to 1991, has fashioned a fitting tribute to the place he loved: Remembering South Cape May: The Jersey Shore Town that Vanished into the Sea. The book, a collaboration with Joe’s son-in-law Robert Kenselaar, examines the town’s 51-year history and features Joe’s colorful first-person memories—beachcombing, observing rumrunners, his mother’s ingenuity as a cook and tailor—of living there. It also includes numerous photographs, some from Joe’s collection.
Since the book’s release last summer, Joe, who divides his time between Cape May and Haddonfield, NJ, has received coverage from The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and NJN. And the book has sold well: As of mid-December, Remembering South Cape May was in its second printing. The attention surprises Joe, 87, who quips, “I’m amazed anyone would publish this damn thing.”
Whitney Tarella, the commissioning editor for New Jersey at History Press, the book’s publisher, had no such reservations.
“I thought it was a really unique story (not often that an entire community washes away), and that it was important to document it from the perspective of someone who had lived in South Cape May, who loved the community, and remembered it well,” Tarella says. “Too often we wish that we had first-hand accounts of places and events in the past, and this was an opportunity to preserve those memories.”
The book and its success is arguably the result of a magazine writer’s oversight. When Cape May Magazine ran a story on the extinct town in 2006, no one interviewed Joe or his surviving siblings. “It was a nice article,” Bob remembers, “but I thought, ‘Why didn’t they talk to Joe? He lives right across the street from where South Cape May used to be.’” Joe’s vivid stories, Bob thought, could yield a book. So the men visited “the old beach”; Joe talked while Bob followed with a tape recorder. From there, it grew. “It was nothing planned or preordained,” Joe says.
Bob, 56, a longtime employee at the New York Public Library, organized the transcripts, researched the town’s history, and took photos of surviving houses (which were moved to safer ground). Both credit each other for the book’s success. “He’s the ultimate organizer, director,” Joe says of Bob. “But it’s your story,” Bob counters.
For Joe, one of the town’s last surviving residents, that’s a sad fact: “I look at my grandchildren and I want to cry because it doesn’t exist anymore.” He knew everybody and could safely roam around town, but Joe recognizes that “it’ll never be the same, and maybe that’s a good thing because it was very difficult times.” The Burchers’ primary residence in South Cape May had no sewer system and featured few conveniences, save for a Kerosene stove. When Joe wasn’t on the beach, he was working a series of unglamorous jobs, including cutting neighbors’ lawns with hand scissors.
Joe’s time at TCNJ, where he helped develop the early childhood education program, was just as memorable. “I had so much fun [there],” says Joe, who happily shares warm remembrances of bosses, coworkers, and classroom escapades.
The stories are so good they could be published. Any takers?