Even to a church room filled with history buffs, many of whom grew up in this town, it seemed incredible: that once the population of Barnegat barely exceeded 1,000 people or that the town once sported a number of hotels and five grocery stores.
Township historian and lifelong resident Mary Catherine Kennedy, 84, brought pictures, stories and lists of fun historical facts to the meeting of the Historical Society Tuesday night at the Barnegat Bay Assembly of God Church in Waretown, where she spoke about Barnegat’s evolution over the last 200 years.
Kennedy, who retired two years ago, after teaching for more than 40 years, talked about transportation, industry and town life as she walked her audience through history.
Whaling and salt production were the earliest important industries, Kennedy said. “And in case you were wondering, salt was not used for cooking,” she said. “It was used for gunpowder during the Revolutionary War.”
Later mink farming, lumber and master schooner building industries also came to the township. Eventually, Barnegat boasted its own glass company, mink farms and master schooner builders.
Kennedy mentioned important historical structures, some, like the Masonic Cemetery and the Cedar Bridge Tavern still around today. The last armed conflict of the Revolutionary War took place at the Cedar Bridge Tavern site, which is now owned by Ocean County, and provides annual re-enactments of the famous skirmish.
In early 1800s the Township of Union was formed, Kennedy said, which encompassed parts of present-day Barnegat and also the northern part of Long Beach Island.
That was the period when Barnegat’s first schoolhouse opened its doors, at the cost of $160 to the township.
“And it cost $170 to build an addition,” Kennedy added.
These were the times when many visitors came to Barnegat for woodland and bay hunting, and for fishing and clamming, as well as for catching eels – a tradition that continued into the next century.
“My grandmother used to cut up eels,” Kennedy said. “They were really good.”
In the second part of the century, railroads changed the face of the area yet again, with some trains coming from the western part of the state through Barnegat to Tuckerton, and others arriving from Jersey City and “dead-ending” in Barnegat, “right behind the Cox House,” Kennedy said.
Fast-forwarding through a few more decades toward World War II, Kennedy spoke about some of her own memories. She remembered gas lamps replacing oil lamps at her school, as part of the changing times. She also spoke about spending time in the town’s center.
The village center, which was on Bay Avenue and Route 9 then, had five grocery stores and three of them sold meat,” Kennedy recalled. “There were also lots of mom-and-pop’s stores all around.”
The town also boasted two hardware stores, two lumber stores, a blacksmith shop, a silkworm farm, a pharmacy and a sawmill, Kennedy said. But ice cream parlors, were, by far, Kennedy’s favorite establishments, especially the one that is now Sweet Jenny’s.
“All around the store they had shelves high up, because they sold over-the-counter cosmetics and over-the-counter medicine too,” Kennedy said.
And then there was penny candy.
“You got a bag this big –” Kennedy spread out her arms, “and you could fill it with whatever candy you wanted, and you paid a penny for it. How great was that?”
During that time population still consisted of only about 1,200 to 1,500 residents, Kennedy said. It is after the 1960s-1970s that the numbers of local residents started swelling, reaching the current population of 20,000, Kennedy said.
At the end of her presentation, Kennedy shared a list of some of Barnegat residents’ most popular occupations throughout history. The list included such jobs as trapper, guide, glass maker, woodcutter, ice house operator, shipbuilder, undertaker and chimney sweep. Local hunters prowled woods, meadows, bays and oceans for game and fish, while gatherers collected eelgrass, moss, laurel, pine cones and salt hay.