• Shanna Kelly

Swim back in time: Avalon History Center

Updated: Jun 19, 2020

John Pullen | Seven Mile Satellite


Originally published 2 August 2019

 

Seven Mile Island: A place full of delicious food, countless shops and white, sandy beaches that stretch as far as the eye can see. For so many families, it has been a tradition to head down the Garden State Parkway and make a turn at Exit 13 each summer. For many, this tradition stretches back generations. But, as we drive down Avalon Boulevard and the smell of marshlands intrudes our cars, do we ever stop to think about what it was like so long ago? 


Many don’t realize that the first road to Avalon was built in 1913 or think about the challenges of living on an island that people faced years ago, where they didn’t have phones and apps to receive weather updates. The sad truth is, not many people think of how Avalon became what it is today. And with so many of the older, cozy beach cottages being torn down in favor of large, modern homes, seldom do we think about what Avalon looked like in the late 19th century and into the 20th and 21st. How are we supposed to learn all about where we came from?


Enter the Avalon History Center. Nestled on 39th Street, the History Center is a place where many aspects of historic Avalon come together in one building. Founded in 2001, this location reminds us where we came from and enables us to better understand what life was like so many years ago. 


“We provide a place for the generations of families visiting Avalon to connect to the community’s past, and with one another,” Nina Ranalli, the Avalon History Center director, said. “So many families come here year after year. In the History Center, parents and grandparents can show their kids what the town was like years ago.”


On a daily basis, the History Center positively impacts its visitors by getting them to compare an older Avalon to current day.


“The Avalon History Center enables its visitors to educate themselves of the islands roots and therefore, compare what they experienced to the community a century later,” Anna Stout, a History Center visitor, said.


The facility is divided into sections that allow visitors to learn about different parts of the history and make their own connections between the categories, thus gaining an overall understanding of what life used to be like in our beloved beach town. The best part: It’s free.


It’s a little known fact that Avalon was purchased for $125,000 in 1887. Our quaint beach town looked much different in its first years of being incorporated. In fact, many of the buildings people pass on a daily basis are actually historical structures. 

The Diller Room in the History Center.

One of their many rooms in the history center is all about earlier Avalon. The Diller Room, the first room to the right, is rich with information about the earlier days of Avalon. In this room, one will find lists of historical buildings and many other artifacts and photos that help one imagine life on the island in the 1940s.  


On another note, we’re all familiar with Avalon Beach Patrol. Each day we go to the beach, and there they are, perched atop lifeguard stands, scanning the ocean to ensure safety. Countless visitors have taken a picture with the famous lifeboat with the word “Avalon” painted boldly on its side. But, while taking all those photos or each day when one hears the lifeguards blowing their whistles, it’s likely people don’t wonder what the Beach Patrol was like in the past. 

The Conti Room features historical aspects of the beach patrol.

However, an entire room at the history center is dedicated to the Avalon Beach Patrol. Inside, one will find countless pieces of memorabilia from way back, including the original Avalon beach patrol lifeboat. Old black and white photos can take one back to a different era, where one can’t help but want to learn more about those who kept us safe so long ago.


Additionally, while Avalon is filled with many unique businesses, many have since disappeared from Dune Drive. Chances are, there are many businesses that might’ve been forgotten. Well, the “Shop Talk” room can remind people of these businesses. In this room, there are many artifacts that’ll take one down memory lane. 


These are only a few of the exhibits within the History Center’s walls. This facility is filled to the brim with interesting facts, artifacts and visual aids. There’s even a restored painting from 1889 by Joseph Welles that shows what the island looked like.

This 1889 Joseph Welles painting captures the island during his time.

But why should community members and visitors learn about the roots of the island? Bill Mengel, the Avalon History Center’s interpreter, spoke of the struggles of living on the island so long ago, including the fact that people depended on rain water to drink. He also mentioned Nor’easters, and how devastating it could be on the island. 


“It raises gratitude,” Mengel said. “It makes people more grateful to live in the time we do now.”


We live in an era where our smart phones will get a notification if a thunderstorm is on it’s way. We live in an era where taller, bigger and more modern beach homes are being constructed. With all of this going on, it’s easy to forget where we came from and what others had to struggle through. The Avalon History Center is a great way to remind us.


John Pullen is a writer for the Seven Mile Satellite. Contact him at sevenmilesatellite@gmail.com.