Memorial Day 2019

Entwined Roots:

The Family Tree That Helped Produce Sea Isle

By Linda Dougherty

F.H. “Hal” Sutton outside Sea Isle City Hall in 1960.

The Sea Isle Fire Dept. in 1930. F. H. “Hal” Sutton is second from the left.

More than a century ago, the island on which Sea Isle City is situated was a rough, untamed strip of land with rolling dunes, a lush forest teeming with wildlife, and only a few homes for the hardiest of inhabitants.


In this primitive seashore landscape, the Sutton family lived and prospered, working the land and sea from sunup to sundown as they married, raised children, and grew old, while Sea Isle City developed. The Suttons and their relatives were sea captains and surfmen, baymen, hunters, fishermen, bridge tenders and firemen. Their way of living changed just as Sea Isle did.


The first Sutton with ties to Sea Isle was Capt. William Sutton (1838-1910), who was born in Dennisville, on the edge of the Timber Beaver swamp, and became a Civil War sea captain.


Captain William Sutton, about 1900.


“Captain Sutton was my paternal great-grandfather,” says Jon Sutton, of Newtown, Pa. “As a young boy, he tended to his father’s sheep on land that is now Sea Isle; by age 14, he took to the sea as a cabin boy, and at 21 worked his way up to become the master of a vessel sailing to Southern ports. His vessel was charted by the government to carry supplies to the Union fleet in Southern waters, which he did until the end of the Civil War.”


Sutton says his great-grandfather came ashore about 1880 and opened a rooming house in Clermont, across from Townsend Sound on the salt meadows.


“His rooming house catered to sportsmen who came down on the trains via Sea Isle Junction to hunt and fish,” Sutton says. “His name appears in a magazine called Decoy Collectors Guide and lists him as a guide in 1883. His fee was $2.50 per day, including board. His house was noted as being the ‘sportsmen’s headquarters’ of the region. He took hunting parties out for shorebirds and ducks, and he handmade decoys and boats. He made a living market-hunting, clamming, and whatever else one could do at the time.”


Hal “Sunny” Sutton Jr. and his wife Dolly, outside their Sea Isle home with three children, 1947.


In 1885, the captain moved his family to Sea Isle, living on Paris Street, near where 43rd and 44th streets are located today. He continued to hunt and clam and also took a job as street supervisor, a position that included enforcing all ordinances relating to the obstruction of highways and sidewalks. An ordinance of that time read that “it should be the duty of the street supervisor to see that all alleys are kept absolutely free of rubbish, and the Board of Health should not tolerate for one day a nuisance of any kind in back alley, back yard, or side lot.”


Sutton held that job until late December 1910, when he died of pneumonia at his Sea Isle home. He is buried in the Union Cemetery in South Dennis along with his wife, the former Hannah Hickman of Dennisville, who died in 1921. The couple had seven children, including Frank Harold “Hal” Sutton Sr. (1882-1965), Jon’s grandfather.


 “My grandfather served as fire chief in Sea Isle from 1926 to 1958,” says Jon Sutton. “He was also the tax assessor, a deacon in the Methodist Church, and a Sunday school supervisor. He was a painting contractor in Sea Isle, which became his main source of income, and hired my father’s friends to paint houses. He lived on 47th Street and the house is still there – it was an old cedar shake home, but it’s since been modified.”


Like his father, Hal Sutton also made money on the water and off the land.


Hal “Sunny” Sutton Jr., first in line on the right, on the Sea Isle lifesaving squad, 1939.


“My grandfather was licensed to take fishing parties out on his large sailing catboat at age 14 and did this for a number of years before he married my grandmother, Laura Buck Sutton, in 1904 in Sea Isle,” Jon Sutton says. “He also was an able wildfowl hunter, and there were many winters where he would sell Mrs. Cronecker his black ducks [a hardy bird that winters along the Atlantic Coast] to serve in her restaurant, as well as feed his family. He would also on occasion guide ‘city sports’ for a day’s shooting of shorebirds before the migratory bird laws took effect in 1913.”


Sutton says his grandfather was “part of the soul of Sea Isle.”


“Public service was important to him,” he says. “He taught many children to sail and loved baseball as much as fishing and hunting. He also knew how to make decoys and build small boats. I was fortunate to know him. And my grandmother was a lovely woman committed to her family, church, and Sea Isle. She would often welcome people new to town or down on their luck into their home for a delicious meal.”


Hal Sutton died in 1965 and is buried at Calvary Baptist Church in Ocean View; Laura Sutton died the same year, and is buried near him.


Hal “Sunny” Sutton Jr. (left) and Hal Sutton Sr. with their black ducks, after a day of hunting in Sea Isle, 1931.


Jon Sutton says family lore told of his grandmother Laura being born in Sea Isle on the upper level of what became Travascio’s Market off Pleasure Avenue in 1883. The Buck family was also notable in the early history of Sea Isle, as her father, Crawford Buck, became the town’s first bridge tender, at the old drawbridge at 44th Street.


Crawford Buck’s obituary in the Cape May Times called him “one of Sea Isle City’s original pioneers” and “one of the best known residents of Cape May County.”


Buck was the first to introduce the pedal base organ in the county, installing one in Calvary Baptist Church in Ocean View, where he was the organist and a member for 35 years. The obituary noted he played the organ in the Sea Isle City M.E. Church, and was widely known as a professor of music. He was a city councilman for several terms and was twice elected to the County Board of Freeholders.


A family photo from about 1900 shows Buck standing by the Sea Isle Life Saving Station, which today is called the U.S. Coast Guard Station, located between 81st and 82nd streets. And another family member on the Sutton side also had close ties with the station.


Crawford Buck outside the Sea Isle Lifesaving Station, 1900.


“My grandfather’s brother, Captain Norman Wallace Sutton [1886-1953], served as a surfman at this station, as well as at Hereford Inlet, Townsends Inlet, Brigantine and Wildwood,” Jon Sutton says.


He says a local newspaper wrote of Norman Sutton upon the announcement he was being transferred to Ocean City: “During his 12 years at Wildwood, he engaged in many exciting rescues and rendered assistance to many boats in distress. He compiled an enviable reputation as a nemesis of rumrunners during Prohibition days.”


Jon’s father, Frank Harold Sutton Jr., called “Sunny” because he had bright blue eyes and blond hair, was born in 1915 in a house on 47th Street.


“He grew up fishing, hunting, and sailing much like the other Suttons,” Jon says. “He went to Ocean City High School on a steam train and graduated in 1933. Upon graduation, he enlisted in the Army Air Corps and went to Chanute Field in Illinois, where he learned his tool and die-making trade. He later was stationed at Mitchell Field, Long Island, where he would occasionally fly down for a weekend of quail hunting with his dad and brother.


The Sutton family, 1960. Top row, left to right: F.H. Sutton Jr. (Sunny); his son Frank H. Sutton III, F.H. Sutton Sr. (Hal), his wife Laura C Buck Sutton, Sunny’s daughter Anna Marie Sutton, Clay Corson Sutton Sr., Sunny’s older brother. Bottom row, left to right: Clay Corson Sutton Jr., Sunny’s daughter Linda Sutton, cousin June Evelyn Sutton and on the end Jonathan Sutton.


 “He was a lifeguard for Sea Isle for several years and was Sea Isle’s first lieutenant on the lifeguard squad. That is where and how he met my mother, Clara Louise Enzmann [called Dolly].”


Sunny and Dolly were married in Sea Isle in September 1942, and had four children, and in 1951 moved from Sea Isle to Merchantville. Their house in Sea Isle was sold in 1966.


In many ways, the history of Sea Isle City, and the legacy of the Sutton and Buck families, intersects and evolves from the turn of the century to present times. Without the pioneering spirit shown by such early settlers, Sea Isle might not have become the shore destination it is today.

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