CAPE MAY, N.J. - For 80 summers, Lucille Thompson has worked at the Chalfonte Hotel.
But she insists that for her, the venerable old hotel - which was built in 1876 by Civil War hero Henry Sawyer and is the oldest continually operating hostelry in this beach town - is more like home.
Her family's lineage of service to the place spans four generations. Thompson's grandmother worked there for 60 years, starting at age 12 as a chambermaid; her niece now works in the kitchen with her.
"I just love being here, around the people, around the kids. . . . If I wasn't here, I'd be at home by myself," says Thompson, 87. Known as Miss Lucille, she still presides over a half-dozen employees at the hotel's old-school kitchen from the end of a large work table.
From there, she has command of the kitchen, testing the consistency of the mixture for the crab croquettes; asking when batches of oatmeal raisin, chocolate chip, and other varieties of cookies will be coming out of the oven; and generally keeping the place humming so that guests can enjoy three Southern-style meals a day in the adjacent simple but elegant dining room.
"And I'll be here as long as my health allows . . . so long as my knees hold up. I really can't see stopping," contends Thompson, who arrives at the kitchen by around 6 a.m. five days a week and doesn't leave until after 6 p.m. A 60-hour workweek.
The season is winding down, and the Chalfonte will close for the winter in October. This was only the second summer in Thompson's eight decades that she didn't work side by side with her sister, Dot Burton. Miss Dot passed away in February 2015, one day short of her 88th birthday.
The two began working at the Chalfonte in the 1930s with the job of rinsing sand out of guests' swim attire, hanging it up to dry, and then returning it to the doorknob of the guests' rooms. Miss Lucille was 7 and Miss Dot 9. They were each paid $4.50 a week, which "was good money in those days for a little girl to be making," Thompson says, and they slept on an iron-railed bed next to the coal bin in an outbuilding adjacent to the hotel.
But it was for their cooking skills that the sisters eventually came to be known as "The Ladies" of the Chalfonte. They were so celebrated for their longevity on the job and their down-home cuisine that USA Today once named theirs the number-one fried chicken in the country and University of Pennsylvania Health System featured their images on Philadelphia SEPTA buses and billboards throughout the city and southern New Jersey for a campaign about the vitality of older healthy citizens.
It was custom for the sisters to dress alike for work in patterned cotton smocks, white pants, and white kitchen aprons. They'd do a sort of slow sashay around the kitchen, checking in on their staff on the various food preparations, tasting, making tweaks and suggestions before settling into their own projects, like fashioning the crab croquettes into little loaves or getting the bread crumbs seasoned just right.
"It was like a symphony how they worked together," says the Chalfonte's current owner, Bob Mullock, who with wife Linda bought the hotel in 2008. The Mullocks are the Chalfonte's fourth owners in its 140-year history.
Though their original recipes were developed by their mother, each sister had her own specialties: Miss Dot's were the fried chicken and the biscuits; Miss Lucille's the crab croquettes and the dinner rolls. Miss Dot's daughter - and Thompson's niece - Tina Bowser, 65, has worked at the hotel on and off her "whole life" but in the kitchen consistently for about 14 years. She enjoys making the cookies that are handed out to guests in the hotel lobby each afternoon.
"I still talk to my sister every once in a while; I still feel her here," says Thompson, recalling her grief over losing Burton last year. (Thompson has a son, three grandchildren, and a great-grandson.)
"I thought losing my mother was the worst heartache I ever had when she died. Then I thought losing my husband was the worst pain I could ever have, but now I know that losing my sister is the worst feeling of all," Thompson says.
After they each were widowed, the sisters moved together into a home in West Cape May they had purchased for their mother years ago.
It was their mother, Helen "Miss Helen" Dickerson, who brought them to the Chalfonte when they were small, just as she had been brought there as a child by her great-aunt Kate Smith, and her mother, Clementine, who worked during the winters for the hotel owners, the Satterfield family, in their home in Richmond, Va.
Miss Helen, who worked in the hotel for 77 years before she died, headed up the kitchen and created the unique cuisine served at the hotel. She coined the phrase "soul food with its Sunday clothes on" to describe it.
"This hotel has a lot of history, but within that story is the history of this family, Miss Lucille's family, that has been here for so much of the time the Chalfonte has been here," says Mullock, who each day brings Miss Lucille an afternoon cocktail - Scotch and water on weekends, a glass of red wine the rest of the week.
Thompson says she plans to put her feet up and rest and watch soap operas when the Chalfonte season ends next month. She'll also take trips to Atlantic City on occasion - to gamble.
To celebrate her 80 years of service, the Mullocks are sending Thompson and a guest of her choice on an all-expenses-paid trip to California for a week over the winter.
"She's such an amazing person," Mullock says. ". . . We try to get her to slow down, to work less, but she's here every morning and won't leave until after the dinner service begins. We really just love her."