a  magazine  of  travel  and  discovery

by George Oxford Miller

Boardwalks, beach tags, ice cream, sun screen… this is holiday-speak for going “down the shore.” From Sandy Hook to Cape May, the Jersey shore becomes a 127-mile long playground for families ready to escape workday demands and the scorching summer heat. But family fun in Jersey extends beyond the sandy strip that wraps the state’s eastern edge, and even beyond the traditional three-month window of summer.

City slickers can milk a cow at Longstreet Farm, sail the salt at Toms River, climb the winding steps of a half-dozen lighthouses, experience the 18th century lifestyle in living history villages, and find tigers in unexpected corners of the Pine Barrens.

Not much has changed at Longstreet Farm, near Holmdel, since the 1890s when the Longstreets moved their dream home, a fixer-upper built in 1775. Mules and horses still pull the plows and wheat thrasher, workers water the kitchen garden with sprinkler cans, and women cook and bake in a wood-burning stove.

“All the buildings are authentic and part of the original farmstead,” Sandy Byard, one of the period interpreters tells us. “We use a horse treadmill to power farm machinery, and harvest crops with the same equipment they used in 1890.”

Green waves ripple across the wheat in one field and potatoes ripen just below the rich soil in another. Orderly rows of squash, eggplant, tomatoes, and root crops line the kitchen garden. “We get heirloom vegetables from the Monmouth County fair,” Sandy says. “Visitors help with the harvest and share the surplus.”

Across the farmyard, the mooing of cows calls us to the milk barn. Lauren Coleman, another farm interpreter, holds up her hand with her thumb and forefinger in the okay sign. “The ‘OK’ method is the easiest way to milk. Just grab the teat and squeeze downward.” She demonstrates and a stream of milk squirts into the bucket. I give it my best squeeze and milk dribbles down my wrist. Myrtle munches her hay and looks back, probably in disgust.

Other historical parks demonstrate life on a cranberry farm and in a bog iron production village. Double Trouble State Park near Toms River preserves 8,000 acres of cranberry bogs and pinelands. The reconstructed village includes the production building, sawmill, and bunkhouses. A video shows footage from old films of women singing hymns as they sort and grade the fruit. Trails lead across a tea-colored stream to a white cedar swamp and through the pine-oak forest.

At Allaire State Park, we wander through a 1830’s bog iron production village. The ring of an anvil echoes across the grassy banks of the mill pond and a 24-star flag waves in front of the blacksmith shop.

“The sandstone in the pine barrens soaks up the iron oxide in the water like a sponge” Tom Robinson, the blacksmith, says. He shows us a fist-sized nodule of ore. “The foundry fired two tons of ore twice a week using charcoal made from the surrounding forest.”

Robinson pulls a red-hot strip of iron from the coals and pounds it into a heart-shaped coat hook. “The blacksmith made everything from nails and plows to hinges and cooking pots,” he says. “Smiths and carpenters were the highest paid tradesmen in the village.”

Lighthouses, icons of the coastline, have watched over the Jersey shore since the Sandy Hook light first flashed its warning across the New York Harbor in 1764. From Sandy Hook to the picturesque 157-foot tall structure in Cape May, more than half a dozen historic beacons are open to the public.

A 95-step spiral staircase leads to the top of Sandy Hook Lighthouse. We squeeze into the top chamber and see the buildings of Manhattan rising across the harbor. The brick barracks of Fort Hancock, decommissioned in 1974, line the narrow peninsula and cavernous gun batteries stand empty against the harbor. Four miles south, the two towers of the Navesink Twin Lights highlight the 250-foot hill of the Atlantic Highlands. The lights warned mariners to sail around the sand spit connecting Sandy Hook to the mainland.

The two brownstone towers, built in 1862, look more like chess players that lighthouses. “We don’t really why the towers resemble the king and queen pieces,” Kathy Dwyer, a Navesink park interpreter tells us. “Maybe the architect, Joseph Lederle, was an avid chess player.”

A 25-million candlepower electric arc light installed in 1898 made Navesink the most powerful light on the U. S. coastline and visible for 22 miles at sea. The current 500 watt light has a 10 mile range. Marconi sent the first wireless telegraph message in America from the hilltop in 1899, two years before his famous first transatlantic transmission.

I don’t expect to see Bengal tigers and lions in the Pine Barrens, but then I’d never heard of an out-of-the-way attraction called Popcorn Zoo. Don’t compare the mini-zoo with institutions like the Philadelphia Zoo. At Popcorn, more animals roam free than live behind fenced enclosures.

“Popcorn Zoo began as an animal shelter in 1977 for the area dogs and cats,” John Bergmann, the zoo manager, tells us as we dodge two geese challenging our presence. “People started bringing in injured and orphaned native animas and Parks and Wildlife needed a home for four cougars confiscated from the pet trade. A sanctuary in Texas had three Bengal tigers taken from a hunting ranch, and a zoo had a bull elephant nobody could manage. We welcome all unwanted animals and give them a home for life.”

Popcorn Zoo has about 100 exotic animals and 200 dogs, cats, and farm animals. Peacocks strut across the pet cemetery and chickens peck at tour feet. The tigers purr and rub against the fence like giant house cats wanting attention.

Bergmann gives us gram crackers to feed the camel. “We run a contest each week during football season. The crackers in each hand represent opposing teams and Princess chooses the winner. Last year she had an 18 and 7 record. She even picked the Superbowl champion.”

From historical to off-beat, the Jersey Shore offers plenty of excitement beyond the boardwalks. The beauty of the off-shore attractions is that most are open all year. Even if sun and sand don’t whisper in your ear, going Down the Shore is a fun escape for the whole family.

Beyond the Boardwalk

The Jersey Shore offers Year-Round Family Fun

All contents of this website are copyrighted and cannot be used without permission of George Oxford Miller