July, 2016 note: This article was originally published on Blogfinger in August 2009, only two months after the blog’s e-birth. Needless to say, we had few visitors back then. The story of the Ocean Grove “gates” is pivotal in the history of this town and should be re-told occasionally so that those who are unfamiliar with the details can gain some perspective as they view life in the Grove now. We re-posted it in 2011 and then again now.
By Paul Goldfinger, Editor @Blogfinger:
The year is 1875, and the Camp Meeting Association’s first President, Rev. E.H. Stokes said, regarding the gate closure on Sunday, “There is no human probability that these rules will ever be revoked.” That same year, the President of the United States, Ulysses S. Grant, came to Ocean Grove on a Sunday. A wooden picket fence with a swing gate blocked his way at the entrance to town, and he had to leave his horses and carriage and walk one half mile to his sister’s house on Wesley Lake. Then he went on to the open air auditorium, where 5,000 adults, children and Civil War veterans waited for his arrival.
Of all the “blue laws,” the ban on parking of all-wheeled vehicles and the ban on driving such vehicles into town, from midnight Saturday to midnight Sunday, was the one that seemed to best define the spirit of those Christians who came to Ocean Grove each summer for the chance to relax with their families and to praise God in a most unique environment. Only police, fire, doctors’ cars, and ambulance units could enter and leave.
In 1916 two stone pillars were erected, and a chain was used to prevent access into the town’s two entrances. A policeman would be in charge of opening and closing the “gates” and he would remain stationed in a little gate house at the Main Avenue entrance. That little house still stands. On Sunday nights, before midnight, a festive atmosphere would prevail, until the officer on duty allowed the folks to drive back into the Grove.
Some people moved to town just because of those Sunday rules, and, for most of those who lived in Ocean Grove, part time or full time, they totally supported the idea of Sundays free of noise, clutter, and secular distractions. They didn’t care that they could not go to the beach, play ball, garden, smoke, play cards, drink alcohol, dance, buy food, mow the lawn, hammer a nail or even ride a bike. To them it was unthinkable that this rule might be abolished, because they thought that if it ever happened, Ocean Grove would never be the same.
Ocean Grove had received a charter from the State of New Jersey in 1870, which allowed the Camp Meeting Association to govern the town, including making laws (ordinances) and enforcing those laws with their own police department and municipal court. The CMA governed in Ocean Grove, while the homeowners paid property taxes to Neptune Township. Ocean Grove received some services from Neptune, but Neptune considered the Grove to be a sort of private estate or gated community and thus they expected Ocean Grove to be somewhat self sufficient, even though Grovers paid full taxes. This tension between Neptune and Ocean Grove regarding taxes and obligations would be a point of recurrent stress for many years to the present.
As time went by, it became apparent that there were those in town who were not so enamored by the blue laws or by the CMA governance. Periodically there would be arguments about this, and in 1921, there actually was a secular Borough of Ocean Grove that lasted one year. After that, there was a suit, and the courts returned the town to the CMA over the issue of the “blue laws.”
In 1975, a lawsuit emerged and eventually made its way to the New Jersey Supreme Court in 1977. It was brought by The Ocean Grove News Service which wanted to be able to enter the town for one hour each Sunday at 2 am in order to deliver the Asbury Park Press. For years, the CMA had made an exception for those deliveries, but they tightened the rules so the deliveries were blocked, and the News Service sued.
The NJ Supreme Court went beyond the suit and considered the question of how a religious organization could govern a town, but they eventually decided to avoid church vs. state issues and, instead, they made a narrow ruling, based on “freedom of the press,” that allowed the newspaper deliveries to take place. The vote was 4-3. The three in the minority would have taken governance away from the CMA. The ruling did not abolish the chains or change the authority of the CMA, other than in a one hour lowering of the barrier, once per week.
Just as that controversy quieted, another storm blew into town. A man named Louis Celmer, Jr., of Belmar, was arrested by the Ocean Grove Police for drunk driving. He was convicted in the Ocean Grove Court, but he sued in 1977 on the grounds that the court was illegal. The judge in the Monmouth County Court agreed that the OG court was unconstitutional and reversed the Celmer conviction and the Sunday closings.
The chains were temporarily taken down pending appeals, causing confrontations at the gates that summer, with people blocking traffic and setting up lawn chairs in the streets. At one point, according to a police officer who was there, a near riot ensued. Since the judge had thrown out the CMA rules, Neptune Township tried to help the CMA by approving an ordinance which banned parking in Ocean Grove on Sundays. So you could drive into town, but since you couldn’t park, you had to keep driving, or leave.
In 1978, The New Jersey Superior Court ruled that the OG Court was constitutional and they reversed the Monmouth County decision. The chains were now lawful once again. Many people became interested in the issues at stake. Letters to the editors of the APP from ministers, priests and even a rabbi encouraged support for the Sunday rules. It was said that 90% of Ocean Grovers wanted the ban to continue.
In 1979, the Celmer case was appealed again and went to the New Jersey Supreme Court. This time the composition of the court was different compared to the 1977 case.
On June 21, 1979, the situation in Ocean Grove was changed forever. The court voted 7-0 and said, “The 1870 charter is unconstitutional and of no force and effect.” The ruling stated, “The Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association of the United Methodist Church can be delegated neither the power to manage public highways or other public property, the power to make laws, nor the power to enforce Board rules through establishment of a police department and municipal court. These functions must hence forth be exercised by the governing body of Neptune Township, of which Ocean Grove forms a part.”
The court expressed its admiration for the CMA and its goals in Ocean Grove. The ruling said, “This way of life need not be abandoned on account of today’s decision. The Association may continue to adopt rules which it deems necessary to protect Ocean Grove’s unique cultural and spiritual characteristics. The inhabitants of Ocean Grove and indeed all others who so choose, remain free to voluntarily abide by those rules.”
Rev. Harold Flood, President of the CMA, said on June 28, 1979, in the Ocean Grove Record, that the CMA ordinances were no longer enforceable. He referred to the “former ban on Sunday driving and parking” and he asked that Ocean Grovers cooperate. He said, “The best we can do is to obey the law, and the law says our gates are open.” The CMA Board then voted to take down the chains permanently.
But in the Asbury Park Press, Rev. Flood was quoted as saying that the parking ban would continue, because it is enforced as a Neptune ordinance approved by the State. So the CMA, in collaboration with Neptune Township, tried to continue the Sunday ban by disguising it as a parking ordinance. The plan was to keep the “gates” open, but have the Neptune Police enforce the Sunday parking ordinance.*
That strategy would not work, because a group of Ocean Grove citizens, led by Mr. Joseph Krimko (subsequently the Mayor of Neptune Township) and Mr. Art Liotti, raised money and sued on the grounds that the Neptune ordinance was illegal. The case was decided in appellate court, and the ordinance was thrown out “three zip” as Mr. Krimko described it, in a recent interview with Blogfinger. When asked why he and his colleagues brought the suit, he said, “It was the right thing to do.”
So the chains came down permanently, and Ocean Grove did not fall into the sea. It did not wind up like other religious towns, including Ocean Grove, Australia, which was founded by the same Rev. Osborn who founded Ocean Grove, New Jersey. The Australian town no longer attracts Methodists. It is now a magnet for surfers.
Today, in Ocean Grove, New Jersey, some people still come because they love the spirituality of the town. It still is a traditional place, especially on Sunday, and the Camp Meeting Association continues its religious mission with great vigor. The CMA activities, the Victorian architecture and the town’s history all add to that special “flavor” which is still present and which suggests a place from 100 years ago.
The changing demographics have contributed considerable diversity and a secular tone which add zest to the mix. Now (2009), in the town’s 140th year, it remains a one-of-a-kind special place to live in and visit, with elements of both the old and the new complementing each other.
Acknowledgments: Mr. Ted Bell (Ocean Grove historian and author), Mr. Joseph Krimko (former Ocean Grove Police officer and Neptune Mayor), Mr. Joseph Bennett (former Neptune Township Clerk), staff at Asbury Park Library and Neptune Township Library, and “The Other Side of Ocean Grove” by Mr. Ted David.
Historical note: We had some difficulty establishing the exact date in 1979 or 1980, when the chains came down permanently. The written materials and oral histories were unclear on this point. My best guess would be June 1979, after the Supreme Court ruling, but there were some indications that the chains were up and down a few more times into 1980, before they permanently left town. —-PG
*Editor’s note: 2016. Regarding that peculiar collaboration between Neptune Township and the Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association in 1980, a collaboration designed to ignore the freedom ruling of the NJ Supreme Court and constrain the citizens and visitors in OG, it reminds me of the current collaboration of the CMA and the Township regarding the plan to turn the North End of OG into Asbury Park South—something that is not in the best interest of the citizens of this town. What else has that partnership accomplished in the past for the “benefit” of those who live here? Paul Goldfinger, Editor @Blogfinger.
BROADWAY CAST OF HAMILTON “Raise a Glass to Freedom—The Story of Tonight”