From the porch of the Judge’s Shack, the sun-bleached dunes, steel blue water, and crystalline sky are a vista of the New Jersey coast before it became the Jersey Shore.
“You see this place and you realize what it was like here years ago,” said Steve Maybury, a trustee of the nonprofit Friends of the Judge’s Shack. “The view has not changed, which makes this unique.”
Nicknamed for prominent Newark jurist Richard Hartshorne, whose family owned it for nearly 80 years, the shack is believed to have been built in 1911, most likely from local red cedar, yellow pine, and driftwood, on the ocean side of what is now Island Beach State Park. The narrow, 10-mile southernmost stretch of the Barnegat Peninsula between Barnegat Bay and the Atlantic remains largely unchanged even as development has enveloped most of the Garden State’s 141-mile oceanfront.
Handmade, rough-hewn “vernacular” structures used for fishing and hunting — or foraging for wild edibles like beach plums — were once common up and down the East Coast. Most such shacks have been demolished, washed away, or altered beyond recognition. But the Judge’s Shack still exists much as it was built, a beloved reminder of a lost way of life and a long-gone culture on a coastline that once reliably sustained not only the well-off, but people of far fewer means.
Credit for the unlikely survival of this three-room (four, if you count the screened porch) building belongs to the Hartshorne family, the State of New Jersey, and especially, the roll-up-their-sleeves devotion of the 15 trustees who make up the Friends.
“Five of us in the group were here at different times as guests of the judge’s family,” said Ted Nickles, 75. “We’re people who came here, loved it, and wanted to save it.”
Said Hector Griswold, 72, who fondly remembers the judge (”I sat on his knee”) and is the president of the organization: “This is a place that shouldn’t disappear.”
A decade after the Judge’s Shack was built, the tycoon Henry Phipps Jr. bought all of what is now Island Beach State Park and planned a posh seaside resort that ultimately would have replaced all 100 of the “squatters shacks” on the peninsula, had the Depression not intervened. And in 2012, Hurricane Sandy blew away half the roof of the Judge’s Shack and left the shack surrounded on three sides by water.
“We thought we’d lost the building,” Nickles said. “We couldn’t get in here for a month or so, and as soon as we did, we started running fences to protect the dunes.” Continually shifting sands have necessitated additional cinder-block piers to support the structure; rising sea levels threaten the future of the shack and of the vulnerable barrier island itself.
“Let’s face it,” said Griswold. “Ultimately, the shack has got to be moved back 50 or 60 feet and put up on pilings, which is anathema to some people. ... But we’ve got to be pragmatic and start thinking about it.”
The Friends organization leases the property from the state, which permits the trustees and other volunteers to traverse the protected dunes in order to maintain the shack. The entire area around the shack between the beach and the main road is closed to the public, as is the shack itself.
Nevertheless the rustic structure and its distinctive center gable are visible from the beach as well as the water, and the Judge’s Shack is said to be among the most photographed landmarks at the Shore, if not in the state. The cover of a 1980s L.L. Bean catalog featured a drawing of it. And the shack also serves as an indispensable reference point for surf-side anglers seeking to best position themselves where the striped bass are said to be running on any particular day.
“Isn’t it incredible? I get emotional about it,” trustee Mike Gersie said, as the back of the shack came into view from a tangled, tricky path through the dunes on a recent Saturday morning. Although constructed six miles up-island and moved to its present site by the judge in 1952, the stark yet dramatic little building looks as if it were born into its spectacular setting.
At 68, Gersie is one of the younger trustees, a close-knit group of men and women, most of them professionals from Pennsylvania or New Jersey. Many have deep ties to Island Beach State Park; Gersie, who grew up in North Jersey, spent time fishing with his father on the island, and went on a first date there with his wife, Gail.
“We’re beach people,” Maybury said.
Like Griswold and Nickles, other trustees have connections to the Hartshorne family and especially to the judge’s daughter, Penelope Hartshorne Batcheler. An architect and preservationist who worked on the restoration of Independence Hall and other buildings in Independence National Historical Park, ‘Penny’ Batcheler was the shack’s knowledgeable and charismatic champion for decades before her death in 2007.
“Ted introduced me to Penny, and Penny sort of invited me to visit,” said trustee Jack Abgott, who works for Nickles’ construction company in Haddon Heights. Abgott and Nickles arrived shortly after Gersie unlocked the shack on May 1 — the first workday of the season.
Abgott focused on figuring out how best to reconnect the supply of fresh groundwater on the site to the new hand-cranked pump in the galley kitchen. Maybury brought along his daughter, Katie; she designed the Friends’ website.
“I’d seen all the pictures. But this is my first visit,” she said. “It’s exactly what I imagined: Absolutely gorgeous.”
Others among the volunteers carried cinder blocks, unrolled snow fencing, cut wire, and drove fence posts. The dune where the shack stands is about 18 feet above sea level and 200 feet from the surf line; installing or repairing fences and planting dune grasses are regular tasks for the trustees.
A number of the trustees have skills that are particularly useful in caring for a fragile artifact like the shack — and raising money to do so. Griswold is a successful entrepreneur, Nickles’ contracting firm specializes in historic restorations, Abgott is vice president of operations for Nickles’ company, and Gersie is operations manager for the George School, a private Quaker institution in Bucks County.
Friends trustee Gordon Hesse wrote the handsome coffee-table book Island Beach — A Sonnet in the Sands (Jersey Shore Publications, 2017). And like the late Penny Batcheler, the trustees have a way of making allies by introducing people to the spell the shack can cast.
After a visit, brothers Abe and Alf Brooks of Kanga Roof, in Bristol, Bucks County, installed a new roof of “material [that is] the modern equivalent of the original mineral surface roofing material,” according to the company website.
“We bought the materials, and they supplied the labor,” Nickles said. “It was a nice donation.”
As was true with the roof, the goal of the volunteer work is not only to maintain the shack, but strengthen and restore it in a way that honors its original materials, spartan interior, and humble beginnings in the previous century.
Modern beach culture is more about the comforts of home, and then some: Surf anglers with annual permits traverse the sand in huge, four-wheel-drive vehicles and set up elaborate fishing operations, with generators, lights, and even music.
But sitting on the porch of the Judge’s Shack with the windows wide open on a glorious spring morning is “just incredible,” Gersie said.
“You don’t need anything more.”