VISITING FORTESCUE today, you would never guess it was once a pretty wild and wooly place. After passing through a long stretch of pastoral marshland in Downe Township, Cumberland County, NJ, you’ll come to a small bridge over an inlet that meanders out to the Delaware Bay. You’ll see Higbee’s Marina on your right, occupied by a few fishing boats, some gulls whirling about, squawking at each other mostly, and a small number of boaters wandering around or shooting the breeze. It’s a sleepy scene to be sure.
Higbee’s is the last refuge of a huge fleet of party boats that used to carry hundreds of recreational fishermen out for a day on the water—every day. During the gravy days, visitors would stream into the bayside town for a chance to do some serious fishing in “The Weakfish Capitol of the World!”
Fishing was not the only recreation in Fortescue. During the 1930s, this seemingly innocuous little village was complete with rum runners, speak-easies and dance halls that stayed open until the wee hours. Places like the Green Door and the Gray Goose were raided regularly by the ABC (Alcohol Beverage Control) adding to the excitement of visitors and vacationers from all over the eastern seaboard. (More often than not, the officers in charge of the raids were just looking for free drinks). And it seems they actually had peep holes in their doors, just like the familiar cliches. Fortescue was just far enough off the beaten path of the ocean side resorts to make it an ideal spot for off-loading illegal liquor. A mother ship carrying the booze would anchor at “Rum Row” just outside the three-mile limit near the mouth of the Delaware Bay and the smaller but very speedy smuggling boats would pick up the illicit cargoes in the middle of the night. Boats like the Robbi, the Goose, Osenosisakak and Kashagawigamog would play cat and mouse games with the Coast Guard on a regular basis.
In August of 1933, a Coast Guard cutter from Cape May began chasing a suspected runner off Fortescue. The pursuit lasted for 15 miles before the cutter finally fired on the 50 foot boat causing an explosion and its eventual sinking. The bootleggers dove overboard and were hauled aboard the cutter and taken to Camden to await a hearing. Events like this were typical during prohibition.
Fortescue’s story goes back further than the 1930s however—much further. Back to the early eighteenth century when Lord John Fortescue’s wife Mary came into possession of about 10,000 acres of bayside property in Cumberland County. The Fortescues were from Cullington in England but it’s not clear if they ever visited their property. There were plans for development, but instead the land was sold in 1776 to one William Smith for a meager five shillings. He decided to retain the sellers name however, perhaps for status, or perhaps because Fortescue sounded tonier than Smith.
DURING THE Second World War and continuing for about twenty years, members of the Philadelphia Sketch Club (www.sketchclub.org) visited Fortescue at the invitation of Herbert and Preston Foster, who owned side-by-side summer homes known as the Salt Box and the Seahorse Cottage. The Club is the oldest artists organization in the country, founded in 1860 by a group of “Bohemians” (as they called themselves)–students at the Philadelphia Academy of The Fine Arts. I have had some of my work displayed at the Sketch Club, but despite that indiscretion, they remain one of the class acts in the American art world. During the construction of the Academy’s new facilities in the 1870s, the club invited the school to use it’s building where Thomas Eakins conducted life drawing classes, and was made an honorary member.
The Club has an equally distinguished list of other members that included illustrators, painters, watercolorists and sculptors of the likes of N.C. Wyeth (father of Andrew and grandfather of Jamie Wyeth), Howard Chandler Christy, Henry Pitz, Joseph Pennell, Thomas P. Anshutz, Benton Spruance, and Edward Redfield, among many, many others. They also counted as a member the cartoonist Pete Boyle. I remember as a child watching a local TV show he hosted called “Lunch With Uncle Pete”. I would eat my lunch every day in front of the Philco while “Uncle Pete” would show off his drawing skills and run old cartoon clips. He was also the father of actor Peter Boyle who appeared in one of my favorite movie scenes ever—as the monster in “Young Frankenstein”. He screams out “Puttin’ onna Riiiiiiz!” which was being sung by Gene Wilder as he was presenting his creation to a group of doctors and physicians. It puts me on the floor every time I see it.
After spending a week in Fortescue painting and drawing, the visiting members of the Sketch Club would either sell or give away their work to local cottagers. It would be interesting to find out how much if any of those pieces still exist. At least some of the work made it back to Philadelphia and was exhibited at the Sketch Club galleries in 1950.