“This is it,” Hal Taylor said, stopping the car. “This is Gandy’s Beach.”
The preceding miles of exquisitely green marshlands were beautiful. But the up-close vastness of the Delaware Bay merging with the summer sky, and the sun-bleached jumble of modest houses hugging the coast, were a superlative-ready vista.
“It’s magic,” said Taylor, an author, illustrator (haltaylorillustration.com), self-taught historian, and raconteur whose manner, in person and on the page, is wry, dry, and not inclined toward overstatement.
His latest volume, The Book of Wedges, focuses largely on Gandy’s Beach, a mile-long Downe Township, Cumberland County, community that’s perched on a precipice and making the most of it. It’s a working-class piece of paradise that barely survived Hurricane Sandy, long ago lost its beach, and is connected to the rest of the terrestrial world by a single narrow road.
“I spent time down here, and ideas started to percolate,” said Taylor, 73, explaining how Gandy’s Beach eventually spurred him to become an author after many years of playing in bands and doing illustrations for a commercial publishing house.
He’d never heard of Gandy’s Beach until the late 1970s, when a friend and fellow musician invited him to visit; later, Taylor and his wife, Chris, and their kids spent 15 memorable summers at Gandy’s. They delighted in exploring other Bayshore communities such as Money Island, Fortescue, and Port Norris, aka Bivalve, as well.
“People should know about the culture here,” said Taylor.
Visitors with a taste for ornamental beach grass and opulent hardscaping will leave disappointed. But anyone interested in fishing, boating, or hearing that indelible deep South Jersey accent will find much to savor.
There’s a reason the entire 41-mile stretch of Garden State coastline along the bay is sometimes referred to as New Jersey’s Other Shore. There are no crowds (unless July’s greenhead flies count), no boxy mini-mansions marching shoulder to shoulder, and no boardwalks.
Gandy’s Beach has somewhere between 60 and 70 houses, depending on who’s counting. There are no restaurants, bars, or Wawas, and barely any traffic save for the occasional golf cart on Cove Road.
That’s what “Painter John” — full name, John Francis Gilligan — utilized to transport the author and a visiting reporter. His nickname is a story in itself, and it was he who, a quarter century ago, loftily cited the “Book of Wedges” as a supposedly authoritative source during a well-lubricated argument.
“I just made it up out of my head,” said Gilligan, 73, a retired IBM hardware technician, part-time school bus mechanic, and, like many residents of Gandy’s Beach, a devoted angler, skilled crabber, and master storyteller.
“Let me tell you about Molasses.” That’s how Painter John would generally begin a story — in this case about a giant horseshoe crab, Taylor writes in the opening chapter of Wedges.
Neither Gilligan nor Taylor can remember what the argument was about. But as is true of many Gandy’s Beach stories — such as the one about a house that floated away in a storm and washed up with a bottle of whiskey still standing on the kitchen table — it has aged well in the retelling. Plus it provided a title for the new book.
Taylor’s previous work includes The Illustrated Delaware River; Artifacts: An Illustrated Treasury of Delaware Valley History; and Before Penn: An Illustrated History of the Delaware River Colonies.
His Gandy-centric latest offers vivid vignettes and quirky images as it meanders through geography, history, and local lore, unspooling tales tall and small along the way.
Seafood scavenging seems to have come naturally to the old-time residents of Gandy’s, perhaps recalling hard times during the Depression. Loretta, a neighbor of Uncle Bill’s, had a fondness for wild mussels … the author writes in another chapter.
Taylor goes on to detail a scheme in which the resourceful heroine convinces a utility worker on a pole to spot the quarry for her from on high; unappetizingly, Uncle Bill turns out to be less selective but even more resourceful in his shellfish scavenging adventures.
Reading Wedges is like listening to a tangent-laden but compelling conversation. The listener/reader doesn’t know where it’s going or what’s coming next, but nonetheless wants to find out.
“They’re little pieces about little things that happened that are just crazy and funny,” said Taylor, a father of three and grandfather of one. He grew up in Haddon Heights and lives in Berlin Borough with his wife, an IT professional; they’ve been married for 45 years.
Taylor said that while his books reference historic storms such as Sandy, he intentionally doesn’t write about the vulnerability of Gandy’s Beach and nearby communities to rising seas, sinking land, and extreme weather, as The Inquirer has reported.
“I believe other people have covered plenty of that,” he said. “We all know about climate change, and it’s become clear to many people that the Bayshore is in trouble.”
Back in the golf cart, Painter John suggested the visitors meet his friends Trish and Russell DeCamp.
Russell’s family goes back fishing on the Bayshore for generations; Trish is known for the glorious sunset photos she posts on Facebook — many of them taken from the back dock of what she calls Paradise DeCamp.
So hospitable were the DeCamps, both of whom are retired, that they offered to start their regular, neighbors-are-welcome happy hour a tad early to accommodate the visitors. But everyone opted for water.
“The community we have down here is unbelievable,” said Trish. “It’s a real nice, tight-knit community.
“But we’re losing a lot. We’re losing the land.”
Taylor, Gilligan, and the DeCamps reminisced about the Cove, the Point, and the direct walking route to Money Island — all longtime features of Gandy’s Beach claimed by Sandy, or other storms and floods.
Despite these concerns, the remote location and relatively inexpensive real estate is proving attractive to city dwellers and suburbanites considering post-pandemic changes.
“Wine drinkers,” Gilligan said. “They carry around wine glasses and we carry beer cans.”
Later in the day, at Higbee’s — the landmark restaurant/roadside bait shop in nearby Fortescue — fourth-generation owner Betty Higbee said some outsiders have been asking whether something can’t be done about the biting greenhead flies that often characterize July on the Bayshore. And the price of real estate has soared.
“At one time, this town was all about fishing. Now, we’re losing our little town,” sighed Higbee, who had been at the grill at 3 a.m. and was preparing to close the restaurant at 2 p.m., “due to the heat.”
Before leaving, Taylor autographed a copy of Wedges and handed it to Higbee, who makes a hilarious cameo appearance in the book.
As the story goes, she cleverly called out a loudmouthed sexist of a customer by asking him if his meal was satisfactory.
After he said yes, she replied: “Good, because that’s the last meal you’ll ever get in this place!”
Turns out that later that day, the guy got pulled over by a state cop for driving a golf cart on the highway.
Another classic Bayshore tale, preserved for posterity in The Book of Wedges.