The summer season at Cedar Grove Beach traditionally began on Memorial Day weekend with an opening dance and it ended on Labor Day weekend with a mini-Olympics.
In between, there were lavish Friday night dinners, barbecues, a camp, talent shows, bike rides, fireworks on the Fourth of July, swimming, lazy days on the beach -- and nearly a century (99 years to be exact) of priceless memories in a place where time seemed to stand still.
Cedar Grove Beach was unusual: Located at the foot of Ebbits Street in New Dorp, it sat next to the glitzy hotels and amusement parks at Midland Beach and South Beach, which drew tourists from across NYC and New Jersey. But this quiet patch of land was the summertime home for Staten Island residents with many of the cottages passed down from one generation to the next.
“You came into Cedar Grove and you became part of a larger family -- it was a community,” said Eleanor Dugan, a West Brighton resident and retired special education public school teacher who summered at Cedar Grove Beach for 40 years.
In the late 1800s and early 1900s, Cedar Grove Beach was a tent colony -- “and this became a continuous thing with certain families coming back each year and they would rent the tent space for the entire summer,” Dugan said. In 1911, they built cabanas around their tents, and eventually, cottages followed, along with the incorporation of the Cedar Grove Beach Club.
Cedar Grove Beach was condemned by the City in 1958 when Robert Moses proposed a shore parkway that would run along Staten Island’s coastline. When the parkway failed to materialize, the City agreed to lease back the land to the families with the understanding it could repossess the property at any time. That would come in 2009, but until then, life was sweet at Cedar Grove Beach.
Dugan found herself at Cedar Grove Beach by chance: After her husband, Bill, finished a tour of duty with the Navy -- he was stationed in Key West -- they returned to their native Staten Island in 1970 to purchase a home. Bill visited a friend at Cedar Grove Beach and there were two cottages that were vacant that summer. They moved into one of the cottages with their 18-month-old son. They bought a home in West Brighton, but their hearts belonged to Cedar Grove Beach in the summer. They spent every summer there with their two children, and later their four grandchildren for a short time, until the very last day.
“It was a fun place,” she said. “There were always activities going on.”
A camp operated each day with a few counselors -- at least one was certified as a lifeguard by the Red Cross. There were morning activities for the campers from 10 a.m. to noon and afternoon activities from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m.
On Friday nights, all the residents would eat dinner together in the clubhouse, which had a large kitchen and industrial ovens.
“There would be a dinner prepared by different families on the beach,” Dugan said. “We would cook on Friday afternoons and then we would serve 70 to 80 to 120 people. Where else would you find people crazy enough to go to an un-airconditioned clubhouse and cook for 70 or 80 people? But, that’s what we did. That was part of the community, that was part of the fun of being together.”
At its peak, there were at least 80 cottages dotting Cedar Grove Beach -- some were damaged by fire, others swept away by storms. Many had both waterside and street-side entrances, front and back patios, picture windows and well-maintained gardens. Flags hung from every cottage.
“Very often, if you were walking on the beach, somebody would say, ‘hey come in and have a drink’ or ‘hey, come and join us on the deck,’ or your neighbors would have a party or we would have a party,” Dugan said. “You could wander in and out of any of the parties that were going on. It was just very open.”
The culmination of the summer was a mini-Olympics, which began the Friday of Labor Day weekend. The campers competed in potato sack races, bike races, sailboat races, tug-of-war and swimming. And, it wasn’t just for the kids. There was a women’s softball game -- the married ladies played against the single ladies. That was followed by a men’s softball game with the married men versus the single men. There was a dinner-dance on Saturday night and a medal ceremony on Labor Day at 4 p.m. before the summer residents cleared out and returned to their winter homes, just a few miles away.
But, all good things must come to an end.
In 2009, the City held to its promise that it could seize the land back when the Parks Department announced that it planned to remake the beach and open it to the public. The residents owned their cottages, but not the land underneath. Members paid approximately $6,000 each year to the Cedar Grove Beach Club, which in turn paid the City a fee to use the land. In 2008, the beach club paid the city $134,000, according to the Staten Island Advance.
Though the beach was always open to the public -- and maintained by the summer residents -- many stayed away because there were no lifeguards or restrooms and they thought it was privately owned. However, Dugan said they often became friendly with the daily beachgoers, even inviting them to their parties.
A letter was sent to the Club’s leadership in December 2009, giving members up to 30 days to vacate the cottages.
The Parks Department said this in statement to the Advance: “On Dec. 31, 2009, the license agreement for seasonal land will expire. At that time, the Parks Department looks forward to cleaning up and increasing public access to this 307-acre waterfront property. Once the area reopens, Staten Islanders will enjoy an uninterrupted stretch of public recreational shoreline from Oakwood Beach to New Dorp Beach, reconnecting the borough to its maritime heritage.”
They were granted a reprieve and the lease was extended to 2010 for one last summer, just a year shy of what would have been the centennial of the incorporation of Cedar Grove Beach.
“A lot of us didn’t believe this was ever going to happen,” Dugan said. “It was a devastating blow.”
As the days dwindled, the residents cleared their belongings from their cottages for a final time. One of the staples was the flags hanging from each cottage, put up in May to mark the beginning of the season. At the end, the residents removed the flags that were in disrepair, replaced them with new ones and hung them upside down – the traditional signal of a vessel in distress.
The beach is currently open to the public.
At first, Dugan occasionally took a drive over to reminiscence, but she stopped after a few years.
“It’s hard to look at because it’s not the same anymore -- the camaraderie is gone.”
(Photo: Two men are seated in front of a tent in the early 1900s, courtesy of the Staten Island Historical Society)