Cox House Recollections
One old house is at the heart of town history
It's nice to see the Cox house at Route 9 and West Bay Avenue in Barnegat open to visitors during the holidays. I've been tempted to stop in, but resisted the temptation because I still treasure the memories I have of the home, and its former owners, Luther and Mary Ann Cox.
It was our first New Years together as husband and wife, and we spent it sharing the warm hospitality of my new employers as 1964 turned into 1965. Barnegat was a different place then, far different from today, rural, still focused on harvesting the fruits of Barnegat Bay, with abundant poverty and few families as well off and important as the tall, slender, Quaker, G. Luther Cox, and his equal in all things, Mary Ann.
The Cox house had been the center of many things in Barnegat. Luther had been the mayor and on the school board. He owned the Barnegat Water Company. Later he owned the Times-Beacon newspapers. That's how I met him. I started newspapering in the brand new offices of the weekly New Jersey Courier at 300 West Water Street in Toms River.
Before long Bob Bliss, a Navy photographer at Lakehurst who was starting taking pictures for area newspapers as part of a new business, called me aside. The prospect of a $20-a-week raise to a guy making $60-a-week was attractive. I went south, met with Dan Clay, the editor of the Tuckerton Beacon and the Beach Haven Times, and took a job in a newspaper plant in a converted house on North Green Street in Tuckerton. There we were, Dan and I, right in the big front window, right across the street from the Tuckerton Firehouse.
It soon became clear that I was in the middle of a political and newspaper war. The détente had been broken. The agreement went like this: W. Steelman Mathis, son of Sen. Thomas A. Mathis, patriarch of the Ocean County Republican machine and owner of the weekly Ocean County Sun in Toms River, was not to cover news south of Berkeley Township. Cox and the Times-Beacon dared not go north of Forked River. The deal previously had the Times-Beacon newspapers covering from Forked River to New Gretna and Long Beach Island, and the Sun battling it out with the Courier in Toms River, Berkeley, and the towns along the Toms River.
Young Mathis, apparently sensing the sunset of Luther Cox's political clout, hired Henry Martin of Lanoka Harbor, and started the push south. It wasn't so much the competition for the news, it was the legal advertising that was at the heart of the invasion. Big retail advertisers in and around Barnegat were few, but every town had to publish legal notices. That income was important to the publishers.
So there I was, working to turn back the invaders. In Barnegat, Cox had been deposed by another Republican, W. Elmer Seaman Jr., a fun-loving, cigar-smoking, ruddy-faced man who fancied himself of a sailor, although the records of the U.S. Coast Guard on its various tows for the Liki Tiki and the Liki Tiki II, Seaman's sailboats, cast doubt on that assertion.
That the Cox house, derisively called "The White House'' by the Seaman supporters, had been the center of the political universe in Barnegat, was not hard to believe. Out the back door and across the park dedicated to veterans, and you were at the municipal building. Just up the street was the only bank in town. Walk north and cross Route 9, and you were at Barnegat High School, which no longer was Barnegat High School because the high school students were going to Southern Regional in Manahawkin. What now is Barnegat Township then was Union Township.
The geography explained, suffice to say everywhere a reporter went in Union Township he ran into W. Elmer Seaman Jr., dreaded enemy of the people signing my paycheck. He was on the three-member Union Township Committee. Covering the Union Township Board of Education, and there was Elmer, a school board member too, more often than not a cigar fuming from his mouth.
Later there would be attempts to tinker with Luther Cox's water company franchise, and other political mischief, all blamed on the Republican insurgents. I had reason to question Cox's business sense myself sometimes. Why had some of the Barnegat Water Company's patrons not received bills for years? How could anyone selling water allow his artesian well to flow freely, for anyone to use, on East Bay Avenue, just west of the Double Creek. There's business, and then there's the business of politics, I learned. Each has its rewards.
In addition to the house in downtown Barnegat, the couple had a cottage on Double Creek, south of East Bay Avenue, where Luther kept is boat, The Mary Ann. They loved spending time on the unspoiled bayshore, and the boat, nearly as much as they did in the grand house downtown. They could watch the baymen coming in with thousands of clams, some oysters, and scallops. Government ran on the bayman's clock. The Union Township Board of Education meetings were often delayed in the fall because member G. Elliott Giles Jr. was not yet in off the bay. Township Clerk Nelson Mills was a noted bayman too. A search for official records often ended on the front porch of his home.
There were frequent, pleasant interruptions in the business of journalism at the Cox home. Friends and employees would gather for parties at the latter, welcomed as though they were family.
"Would you like a highball?" Mary Ann would ask. It arrived with abundant evidence that the maker poured with a heavy hand. Conversation and smoke filled the room. Luther smoked incessantly. It eventually took at deadly toll on him. I was honored to be one of his pallbearers. He is buried in the cemetery at the Barnegat Friends Meeting House on East Bay Avenue in Barnegat.
The Times-Beacon empire in the mid-1960s included the Beacon office in Tuckerton, complete with all the clanging, banging, lead and ink squirting equipment needed to create weekly newspapers, and an old flatbed press to print them on.
Across the bay there was the Island Printery in Ship Bottom, just at the eastern foot of the Causeway. Its chief function was to print the prized sample ballots for the November general elections, a big, juicy piece of political patronage that flowed from none other than W. Steelman Mathis. There was money to be made, and lots of it, printing those overpriced ballots. The spoils were usually split between the Sun, Courier, and Times-Beacon. Robert "Bub" Pharo, of Tuckerton, who worked in the Ocean County Clerk's Office in Toms River, did the printing in Ship Bottom, often spending hours leveling the big press because the building was sinking.
In Beach Haven there was a rented office for the Beach Haven Times. Martin and the Sun would make forays onto Long Beach Island, but the Times remained the dominant source for news. I harvested police news from all the Island police departments and efforts to rebuild the Island in the wake of the March 1962 storm.
On the mainland, finding police news was largely one-stop-shopping. The State Police barracks on Main Street in Tuckerton was a weekly stop. Sgt. Joseph Miller would point me to an office and a desk with a pile of reports on it and I could supplement what I read with questions for the station detective or Miller.
I soon learned that while Stafford Township was not exactly a fountain of police news, there was another reason to stop there and talk with Chief Frank Carletto. His wife, Nina, often made breakfast.
A couple of things struck me as curious. Why did so many men in the southern part of the county use only their first initial? G. Luther Cox, G. Elliott Giles Jr., E. Myers Haines and W. Elmer Seaman of Barnegat, J. Mason Price and J. Chester Holman of Little Egg, A. Paul King of Beach Haven, J. Lawrence Entwistle of Tuckerton, on and on it went.
The nicknames are gone now. Alden R. Corlis of the Stafford Township Committee was "Spike,'' to distinguish him from Carlton "Shorty'' Corliss of Tuckerton, who worked for the Sheriff's Department. Acting Barnegat Police Chief Fred Bahr was better known as "Giggy.'' Tuckerton Mayor Stanley H. Seaman was more often called "Tip.''
Ultimately, it all filtered into stories for the people who read the weekly newspapers, loving or hating what they read.
Seaman once told me the Beacon was the "best fish wrapper you could buy for a nickel.'' That was until we raised the price. He read it from cover to cover.
Dan Clay's leadership and our work repulsed the invaders. Before we left the Times-Beacon, we had launched a shopper in Egg Harbor City and the Lacey Beacon. We were covering the news from Berkeley to Bass River, and the six Long Beach Island towns.
The publishers took the edge off the work. There were parties at Wida's in Brant Beach, in addition to the ones at their home. Turkeys arrived without fail in the upstairs kitchen of the Beacon office in Tuckerton for Thanksgiving and Christmas.
Sometimes their hospitality interfered with our publishing deadlines. They would show up at the office with their white Cadillac, collar Dan and I, and ask: "How about lunch at the Smithville Inn?'' I drove, carefully. Lunch at the well-known restaurant, owned by Fred and Ethel Noyes, was seldom a one-hour affair. Dan and I squirmed and fussed as time passed, time we needed to get the Beacon and the Times published. Of course we never had to explain why the papers were late.
I marvel that the Cox house has survived. Mary Ann Cox left it to the county, intending it to be used as a library. That never happened, but the grand old house has been preserved by the dedicated efforts of those who recognize its importance to the center of old Barnegat and the character of those who owned it and passed the treasure on to the public.