The Shifting Sands
Of Island Beach
Author Gordon Hesse’s Timeless New Book
By Christine Menapace
For centuries, man has been living, fishing, hunting, life-saving, looting, swimming, surfing, snow shoeing, horseback riding, researching, working, vacationing, and even beach buggying on the timeless shores of Island Beach State Park. A gorgeous new coffee table book, Island Beach–A Sonnet in the Sands, chronicles this last significant stretch of undeveloped barrier island ecosystem in the state. Beautifully written by Gordon Hesse and including over 385 photographs, it is both a poetic love letter to Island Beach’s 3,000 acres and an important historical document on the march of time through the sands—from Lenni Lenape foraging and fishing to shipwrecks, Henry W. Phipps Jr., “Sedge House,” beach shacks, and even a WWII secret project.
Hesse writes eloquently, “This seemingly simple place has a history that begs to be recorded before it fades away. I hope this book will leave a respectful imprint and capture some of the history, folklore, beauty, culture, and significance of this precious gem of a place.”
This is Hesse’s second book published by Jersey Shore Publications. All Summer Long - Tales and Lore of Lifeguarding on the Atlantic, was inspired by working with and meeting generations of lifeguards, whom Hesse came to realize have a rich oral tradition. Raised in Roselle Park and Lavallette, he lifeguarded for a total of ten years on NJ and Florida beaches.
Beyond writing and lifeguarding, Hesse’s life reflects a panorama of diverse interests and adventures. After earning an English degree from Clemson University, he traveled to Hawaii and worked as a bartender. Other jobs over the course of his years included: photographer, film production assistant, teacher, publication designer, public relations counselor, investigator for the Ocean County Probation Department, and Apple specialist. He’s even spent time in a foreign jail. In Florida, while working as a deckhand, the shrimp boat he was on mistakenly entered Cuban waters. He was arrested, accused of being a paramilitary operative, and imprisoned in Cuba for nearly ten months.
With all this varied experience, what led to authoring Island Beach? Below Hesse talks about the book that has consumed his interest and his life as a writer for the past several years.
Island Beach is amazingly comprehensive in its scope. Was it your idea or the publishers? How long did it take to write?
After All Summer Long, I wrote several articles for Jersey Shore Publications. My recollection is that I suggested doing an article about Island Beach. I enjoyed taking photos of its rich landscapes that seemed so otherworldly and thought it would be interesting to research a little bit of its history. The idea for the article lay fallow for several years and then, about seven or eight years ago, the publisher said he’d like to produce something grander: a coffee table book about Island Beach. He said he wouldn’t be ready for a few years, but wanted to know if I’d like to undertake the task when the time was right. We agreed on a plan where I’d write an article for Jersey Shore magazine and then expand upon it for the book. The book would be primarily photos with light text. The publisher envisioned the content to include brief history, landscapes, flora, wildlife, beach buggies, fishing and shacks.
[But] building upon that article for the book took much longer than either of us rather naïvely anticipated—in part because the network of people with links to Island Beach grew, more sources provided more information, and more information raised more questions. I felt my first draft didn’t do justice to the subject and I kept uncovering “just one more thing” that added to the rich story and people who lived in and loved the place.
This was a big project that grew each month I worked on it, and every time I thought I was finished, some new information or contact arose For example, after the book was well into layout, I made contact with Pearl S. Buck’s son, Edgar Walsh. He had some rare photos and comments that seemed to capture the essence of Island Beach. We ended up delaying production so we could add them to what was almost ready to go to the printers. In all, with a few minor sabbaticals from the project, it has taken about four years to complete this book.
There was information from a variety of publications, both historical and more current. Where did you find the sources? And so many photos? Did you track them down yourself?
The Island Beach State Park files had numerous newspaper clippings and photos; many were undated or with no source or explanation. The park staff were all tremendously helpful, especially those who worked in the Personnel Building and the maintenance crews.
I can’t say enough about the Ocean County Historical Society and people there like Betsy Dudas who helped me numerous times to piece together slivers of clues. What a great resource for the legacy of the county! They also had some exceptional publications they either sold or had on the shelves. It was where I stumbled upon Margaret Thomas Buchholz’s New Jersey Shipwrecks - 350 Years in the Graveyard of the Atlantic.
That, in turn, took me to the New Jersey Maritime Museum in Beach Haven where I found some wonderful discoveries and images. The staff would lock me in at night and tell me to turn off the lights and slam the door shut. It seemed everywhere I turned there were people who wanted to share what they heard, saw, or did at Island Beach.
The Internet and Library of Congress also provided a great deal of information, especially about the Life-Saving Service, U.S. Coast Guard, shipwrecks, World War I and World War II.
Did you know much of Island Beach's history before you started research? Did you find any of it surprising?
I knew little about the history of Island Beach before I started researching. I grew up in Lavallette when it was simply referred to as the Phipps Estate, never really knowing anything about Phipps. (In the 1920s, Henry W. Phipps Jr. bought our several smaller landowners with plans for a vacation resort on IB. He constructed a 4.5 mile road and three of his dwellings remain today; The Governor’s Mansion, the Freeman House and the Bay House.)
As for surprises, there were many. The biggest one was that Pauline Miller, who is venerated as having been Ocean County’s historian, was not beyond spinning a yarn and treating it as history!
The gripping drama of the ships that wrecked and both the survival and loss of lives was spellbinding. One wreck in particular took me a year to flush out the details. It started from
finding just one sentence about a sailor being buried in the dunes. It turned out the sailor came from a ship with more than 300.passengers that ran aground in December 1856. It took two days to bring all ashore and ended with an attempted mutiny.
The second section of the book contains personal recollections of people who lived, worked or vacationed on IB. It’s really special and should make for an important historical record as time goes by. Was it hard to find people? Did you interview them yourself?
I was surprised that some people from Island Beach were hesitant to speak to me and did NOT want to be interviewed. They liked privacy, were suspicious of publicity and, in general, were self-reliant. Many seemed to want to want to go back in time to more simple living and eschewed cellphones and television. They saw these devices as hindrances rather than conveniences.
Francis Parkman Freeman was manager of Island Beach from 1925 to 1948. He “was a naturalist with sensitivity to the delicacy of the landscape,” writes Hesse. These were Freeman’s four surprisingly perennial admonitions to shack leaseholders and guests:
Leave things be.
Don’t trample the sand dunes.
Don’t pick the flowers.
Don’t annoy the osprey.
Then, in large measure, were others who wanted to leave a message about this unique environment and their antecedents. Some, like Penelope Hartshorne, the daughter of Judge Hartshorne (the Judge’s Shack is one of only 7 remaining “lifetime leased” shacks from the 74 that were active when NJ purchased IB), related accounts of the joys of simple living, and sights as evocative as cedars covered with butterflies “blinking” their wings. Before he died, Glyn Erwin, who grew up on Island Beach in the 1940s and ‘50s, sent me a 125-page memoir that he had written for his grandchildren. We never met, but had an extensive correspondence by email.
What do you find to be the most interesting/special aspect of Island Beach? What are your hopes for its future?
My experiences at Island Beach have been so unique. Every time I was there something new would reveal itself: five riders on horses running at full gallop before a surging surf; a couple cross-country skiing on the beach following a February snowstorm; a chance meeting with former IBSP superintendent Bill Vibbert or environmentalist Jim Merrit ). Vibbert and Merrit are the type of people who respected this natural wonder and tried to expose people to its value.
Your bio is incredibly varied, and writing seems to be just one aspect of it. Yet your writing is very poetic. You mention trees that "seem to have been wrought by howling winds rather than grown." How did you come to start writing? Do you enjoy the writing process? How does it affect how you see the world?
My writing began years ago when I attended Lavallette Grammar School and a few classmates and I started the Lavallette Junior Press, a mimeographed newsletter. It came out bi-weekly as I remember. We ran it for a few years before adolescent interests developed. At Point Pleasant High School, I had a series of teachers who inspired me to read a variety of contemporary writers (Harper Lee, John Steinbeck, Ernest Hemmingway, Joseph Heller, and William Golding, to name a few), as well as fields of interest that infused my own writing. After studying Architecture for three years, I switched to English. Finally, as an investigator for the Ocean County Probation Department, I conducted hundreds of interviews and submitted reports to judges about cases for which they would pass judgment. Each of those experiences extended my scope of experience and interviewing skills.
And yes, I do enjoy writing. English has so many options to express ideas and concepts precisely or to evoke an image, a moment. It can put you in another person’s mind or sensibilities so well. A quote that has resonated with me and informed my reading and writing is by Jesse L. Bennett: “Books are the compasses and telescopes and sextants and charts which other men have prepared to help us navigate the dangerous seas of human life.”
Lifeguarding was also once a big part of your life. How did that affect your view of the ocean and Shore life?
Lifeguarding gave me the opportunity to be paid to observe human behavior for hours at a time. [I also] witnessed people in peril, often without them even knowing it, and took them out of harms way. I got to study the ocean and its many moods— from lazy lapping days to tidal when the sumptuous beauty of a wave’s stunning shoulders were uplifting. I also saw and felt the sea’s ferocious and fear-inducing power; although a strong swimmer, I was humbled by its forces. [On anther level], the beach itself invites a casual attitude, where people of all walks of life meet and friendships, often lifelong, develop.
Any plans for a next project?
The next most important project is updating and adapting for film or serialization the incredible story of little-known explorer Álvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca. He came to North America as a conquistador and, over the course of eight years, was enslaved yet ultimately came to champion and be perceived as a deity by Native Americans. Although the story is set 500 years ago, I fervently believe it is relevant to our times and current divisions.
I expect, also, to bring my digital books to print in the near future. (Two books, Children Of The Sky – The Odyssey of Álvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca and Cuban Blues, are currently available in electronic format.)
Finally, I look forward to speaking to interested groups about Island Beach and the remarkable place I’ve found it to be.
Island Beach–A Sonnet in the Sands will be available in November. For more information, visit www.jerseyshorevacation.com.