By Mary Walton
The year is 1858. Margaret Coleman is awarded a medical degree, becoming one of the country’s tiny number of female physicians. But in Ocean Grove their numbers are swelling. By 1900 five of the town’s 10 doctors are women. Nationwide, the figure is just 5 percent.
And by 1880 one of those Ocean Grove doctors is Coleman, who has moved here after practicing 20 years in Williamsport, Pennsylvania. She purchased what was known as “Block House” at 40 Pitman Avenue and turned it into a treatment center that offered “first class accommodations to patients.”
Block House likely featured the therapeutic salt baths spiked with electricity — sometimes too much electricity — that were popular in those days. “Occasionally they lost a few people,” Lyndell O’Hara tells a rapt audience of 29 people, who have signed up for her women’s history tour sponsored by the Historical Society of Ocean Grove. The group is standing in the shade of a stately sycamore across the street from 40 Pitman, now the Allenhurst apartments. O’Hara gleaned the news of salt bath casualties from the Ocean Grove Record for that period.
A history professor at the Manhattan campus of Nyack College and an Ocean Grove resident for the past decade, O’Hara has spent three years exploring the role of women in Ocean Grove from 1870 to 1900. From census records, newspapers, Camp Meeting Association yearbooks, biographies and other materials she has painstakingly assembled a surprising portrait of a feminist haven.
During those three decades the Grove was both a center of the Holiness movement, which allowed women to develop as religious leaders, and a stronghold of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. “Because of the Holiness movement and temperance, women gathered here every summer,” O’Hara said. By 1900, 64 percent of the Grove’s population was female. In Asbury Park it was 56 percent, in Long Branch 51 percent.
Among the boldface names who spent considerable time in Ocean Grove were Phoebe Palmer, known as “the Mother of Holiness;” Frances Willard, president of the WCTU, and Amanda Berry Smith, a world-famous African American evangelist.
Not only did women flock to the Grove, they put down roots and prospered in business. “Ninety percent of the tourist business was run by women,” O’Hara told the group. Many of them were single or widowed. They owned and operated boardinghouses and cottages, or they rented boardinghouses from owners and rented out rooms. The industrious Carolyn Sissom somehow managed to lease 14 lots from the Camp Meeting Association when two were the limit and turned herself into a real estate maven.
Forty Pitman was the first of nine stops on O’Hara’s recent tour. Another was the site of the Manchester on Ocean Pathway, which was destroyed by fire in 2010. It was owned in the 19th century by Kate Kellogg, who had lived in Pennsylvania with her husband and two daughters. After her husband’s death she moved to the Grove and supported herself by taking in boarders until she was in her early 90’s.
At 6 Atlantic (also 5 Surf), today’s four-story olive green Aurora is “exactly the same” as when the three Bull sisters ran it, O’Hara said. Raised in a family of 11 children in Bradford, Pennsylvania, the sisters later moved to Newark, where they did piecework in the textile industry. Around 1879, the eldest, Matilda, rented “Shadyside Cottage” in Ocean Grove. By 1884, she owned the Aurora. And some five years later the enterprising Matilda opened the first hotel in Dunedin on the west coast of Florida and ran it during the winters. One of her visitors was Camp Meeting Association president Ellwood H. Stokes, who was quoted in the Ocean Grove Record as saying that it was “a real joy to be greeted at our place of entertainment, the ‘Dunedin House,’ by the courteous proprietor Miss M. A. Bull and her sister Lydia.”
Throughout O’Hara’s tour, Esther Dajnowski of New York City took copious notes and photographs. “I knew this was a place where a lot of women movers and shakers were,” she said. “But I’m glad to get more information and specific examples.” She said she would “type it up and share it with people who have similar interests.”
Thus far this summer O’Hara has led two tours, with a third scheduled for 1 p.m. August 30. The cost is $8 and reservations are advised.
Gail Shaffer, president of the Historical Society, said O’Hara’s research will be the basis of an exhibit next year at the Society’s museum, and O’Hara says a book is in the works. She will continue to lead tours next summer to different addresses. Ocean Grove is so rich with stories of women’s accomplishments linked to various locations, she said, that “I can do it anywhere.”