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LBI Becomes Home for 'Nature Freaks'

By Thomas P. Farner | Mar 06, 2012

Sometimes the introduction of a species into a new location is intentional and sometimes it isn’t. The first mention of a strange species on Long Beach Island came in the February 1878 issue of Harper’s Monthly after a Harper’s reporter visited the Island.

“A visitor is sometimes surprised to see foreign brands of olives and canned stuffs on the shelves of the village stores; he learns that they have been secured from a wreck; and the host of one inn at which we spent a night had some excellent Maria Benvenuto claret, labeled, with grim suggestiveness, ‘Importation direct via Barnegat Shoals.’”

But there was more on board many a vessel.

“Much queerer things than these are occasionally picked up. A forlorn old parrot, feeble from its un-English complainings, drifted in on a spar, and at another time a pair of Manx cats were saved from a wreck by a noted old beach man, Caleb Parker, of Harvey Cedars, near the Barnegat Light(house), who has raised a family of eleven more, and meets a visitor at the door of his cottage with a purring retinue of his furry friends, one of them perched on his cap, two others playing on his shoulders, and the rest brushing his legs. ‘Dad’ Parker is one of the heroes of the coast, and carries a silver medal presented to him for life-saving.”

Caleb Parker was born in Parkertown, then part of Burlington County, in 1820. He later moved to the Island and became one of its best-known lifesavers.

George B. Somerville wrote of the cats in his 1914 version of Lure of Long Beach.

“During the war of the Rebellion an English vessel came ashore at Barnegat, and the only survivor of this wreck was a cat with short front legs, long hind legs and no tail. ‘Uncle’ Caleb Parker, a quaint and unique character who ‘kept’ at Barnegat Light, found the cat clinging to some wreckage and took it home. A few days later he found himself the possessor of a family of cats, all with short forelegs, long hind legs and no tails.

“These cats were considered nature freaks by the simple-minded shore folk until an Englishman visiting the island explained that they were of a distinct ‘breed of cats’ from the Isle of Man, off the English coast. Although frequently crossed with the common and well known variety, several good specimens of these Manx cats, with ‘gait like a rabbit and a hopping lope,’ are still to be found on Long Beach.”

But other than a mention of the cats, the best account comes from the pages of the San Francisco Call, which featured a story in a June 10, 1911 article.

“Seven miles from the mainland on which the village of Beach Haven, N.J., stands is a narrow strip of land which is called Long Beach.

“On it there is the only tribe of tailless cats in this country. Early in the last century a large English ship was wrecked on that part of the Jersey coast. The sailors were saved, and so were a lot of cats on board. They came from the Isle of Man, in the Irish Sea, and belonged to a curious breed found only on that island, known as Manx cats and born without tails.”

The Call was the first to follow the cats after their arrival and the impact they had on the Island.

“At first the animals were quite tame and frequented the vicinity of the light-house, where they nightly held open air concerts that were not musical enough to merit the appreciation of the light keepers, and ultimately resulted in their being driven away. Then they took to the woods and managed to subsist during the first winter on birds, thousands of which lived in the swamps. The cats increased rapidly and in a few years numbers of them could be found almost anywhere in the Barnegat woods.

“Their outdoor life made them savage, and the breed seems to have increased in both size and courage, for eventually they became so fierce that they would stand and show fight toward any one who invaded their homes.”

They weren’t hard to find. According to the Call, “The cats make good fishers and when fish are plentiful they go along the beach, and as the breakers run up on the shore, carrying with them small butterfish, mullets and silver bait, they jump into the shallow water and with their sharp claws pin a fish to the sand, and the outgoing wave leaves their prey exposed. Then, before another breaker can roll in, they catch the fish and take it up on the dry beach and devour it.

“At times dozens of these strange looking cats can be seen on the beach making meals off the surf clams that are cast up by the tide.”

But the Island was changing.

“For the last 20 or 30 years Long Beach has been a famous summer resort. Many of the cats have been killed by tourists or frightened back into the swamps. Occasionally some more humane visitor endeavors to tame one of the animals. It is hard work, but when the effort is successful there is no more domestic or affectionate pet than a Manx cat.”

That some were tamed is supported by a San Francisco Chronicle article of 1895 about the New York City Cat Show.

“The exhibition also contains many of the odd specimens of the feline race, among them many Manx cats, the tailless animal from the Isle of Man. ... Jersey has a cat hailing from Barnegat bay, said to have come ashore from a sinking vessel, and to be minus the caudal appendage and to have extra claws.”

But most remained in the wild. In the 1920 book The Call of the Surf, Van Campen Heilner remembered, “Many the night I have lain in my tent on the north point o’ Barnegat, listening to the whistle and moan of the wind across the dreary sand, and to the breakers roaring in fury like great beasts who would kill and destroy. And suddenly, out of the darkness, would come, like the cry of a tortured soul, a long, unearthly scream. It was the Manx cats, remnants of their tailless ancestors who were shipwrecked on the shoals more than three score and ten years ago. Along that desert shore for nearly a century these felines, now as wild and savage as their fiercest jungle relations, have subsisted and bred until their numbers are uncountable. Upon awakening in the mornings we would often find that ham, sausages, or various other articles of camp diet had vanished – carried off to some syrtisian lair.”

While the local problem of the Manx is no more, another problem has grown that seems to have been caused by an Ocean County judge. Ephraim P. Emson was born in 1830 and became a prominent cranberry grower. At one time he owned 15,000 acres in Jackson Township. He was elected to the state Legislature and appointed by the governor as a judge for Ocean County. But in a Jan. 24, 1895, article in The New Jersey Courier, he is remembered as “being a millionaire farmer who started in life as a farmer, and who has always stuck to the farm. Now he is accounted the richest man in Ocean County, and one of the richest in the rural districts of New Jersey. He raises more cranberries than any one else in New Jersey, and consequently more than any one else in the world; he is a prominent Democratic leader, who has represented a Republican county in both branches of the State Legislature, and is sitting now on the Common Pleas court bench, and owns a score of the finest farms in Monmouth and Ocean Counties.”

But it wasn’t his rulings that affected the environment.

“Judge E.P. Emson is probably the only man in the United States who can boast of having a flock of wild geese that make their home upon his premises the year around.”

What had Emson done to be able to make such a boast?

“The Judge’s home is at Collier’s Mills, so called in recognition of the fact that much of his fortune was founded upon the charcoal trade. On his estate there is a fine lake or pond, and here a flock of fifty wild geese now make their home. No one is allowed to molest them; and all through the winter they are fed with corn by the Judge himself becoming so tame that they will come out on the banks of the lake to take the corn he scatters. As a consequence the older birds remain on the lake all the year through, while the breeding pairs almost invariably return in the fall with their young, which they have hatched the summer before within the Arctic Circle.”

Today not many would look at keeping the flocks of Canada geese in New Jersey for the winter as something to boast about. Maybe if we could trap some Manx cats at Barnegat Light and transport them to Manahawkin Lake they would take care of the geese. On second thought, scratch that idea – this series is about unknown consequences, and I don’t want to be responsible for creating a force of flying Canada-Manx that wipes out bluefish.

Next Week: The judge vs. the schoolteacher.

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