The White Horse Pike is almost 60 miles of fill-it-up, fast food, farmlands, pinelands, and wetlands, a fast-moving smorgasbord of suburbs, small towns, and wide-open spaces between Camden and Atlantic City.
The pike also enjoys the distinction of having been my address since 1980, and last week, I took a leisurely day trip along the highway’s entire length, with stops that include a blueberry ice creamerie in Hammonton, an auto repair shop/art studio in Egg Harbor City, and a Jiffy Lube in Absecon that marks a site of particular significance in pike history.
“There’s something intriguing about driving down the White Horse Pike,” says Tom Kinsella, a self-described pike fan who’s director of Stockton University’s South Jersey Culture & History Center, on the Galloway Township campus not far from the pike.
This pioneering stretch of pavement is said to have been the world’s longest concrete highway when it debuted in the mid-1920s, quickly eclipsing the railroad as the primary way South Jersey and Philly got to the Shore.
Competition from a copycat upstart calling itself the Black Horse Pike notwithstanding, the White Horse pretty much ruled until the Atlantic City Expressway opened between the two pikes in 1964.
“There are still people who like to hop on the pike and explore,” says Brian Pollock, owner of Brother Bear’s BBQ on the pike in Chesilhurst. The area has a rich barbecue history, particularly a few miles west in Lawnside; Pollock, a 49-year-old Gloucester Township resident with deep South Jersey roots, says the White Horse Pike is right where he wants to be.
Designated as U.S. 30, the White Horse Pike is like a South Jersey version of Route 66, the famous way West that was overshadowed by faster interstates but endures as a storied showcase of American car culture.
Our pike has a renown all its own. The white horse sculpture that towered over the site of a former drive-in movie in Lawnside was taken down in 2014 (RIP), but the pair of 25-foot concrete Renault winery bottles in Atlantic County still stand.
The Ideal store (“if you’ve got a passion for fashion”) is, alas, no more. But its building (“it’s only a Quonset hut, but…”), a shopping destination for decades, is still there as well, in an area where one can see a tractor raising beige puffs of dust against a distant horizon.
“Our motto is fresh from the fields,” says Lou Graziano, owner of Royale Crown — the dairy bar in Hammonton, not the cola. This homegrown business has been dishing up homemade ice cream and custard on the White Horse Pike since 1953, using fresh, locally sourced ingredients before doing so was a big thing.
“It’s a wonderful year for peaches,” Jennifer Pastore says, cradling her 4-month-old daughter, Charlotte, outside the Pastore Orchards farm stand.
Pristine and picturesque, with temptingly arranged bushels of camera-ready tomatoes and other produce, the stand has been a pike landmark for more than four decades; the Pastore family has been farming in Winslow Township for 100 years.
“Our traffic is up,” Pastore says. “But there are bits and pieces of the pike where it’s dead. It’s not Route 70 or 73.”
She’s right: Bustling with vitality in many places, the White Horse Pike is pocked along much of its length by deceased businesses and vacant buildings of all sorts.
An enormous, extinct Kmart plaza outside Berlin looks like a post-apocalyptic movie set. In nearby Atco, a weedy jumble of signs and structures unusual enough to be noticed by those zany folks at the “Weird NJ” website proclaims itself “God’s Co-Op.”
With all due respect to the divine, the private automobile is the overlord of a White Horse Pike dominated by enterprises that cater to cars and people on the go.
“I started doing sculptures with mufflers and pipes and stuff, and now I’m doing more by assembling things from things I find in the trash,” says Tom Peterson, the owner of Peterson’s Service Center, doing business on the pike in Egg Harbor City since 1926.
His distinctive interpretation of the Statute of Liberty raises her torch and greets passing motorists out front of the shop. A gentleman from Mount Holly who’d gone by Peterson’s for years stopped recently and bought the Rocky sculpture and many others “to decorate his lawn,” Peterson, a talented self-taught folk artist, tells me.
“I need to do something creative,” the 44-year-old father of four explains. “Doing the same thing over and over is bad for you.”
Egg Harbor City, where Peterson grew up and still lives, was founded as a German settlement in the 19th century and is not unusual among pike towns in having a strongly ethnic history. Lawnside is among the oldest African American municipalities in the country, and Hammonton — where Mexicans have become a strong presence in recent years — proudly promotes its Italian American roots.
“I live a couple of steps off the White Horse Pike,” says Dennis M. Niceler, a transplant from Philly’s Tacony neighborhood who has resided in Galloway for decades and is a passionate student of the history of the pike and its towns.
So much so that he painted the Egg Harbor City Historical Society building by himself. And he passes on a bit of trivia that neatly sums up why we’re still talking about, and utilizing, South Jersey’s version of Route 66 nearly a century after the concrete was laid.
“There was a railroad hotel on Station Avenue in Absecon,” Niceler, 56, says. “But after the pike was built, they picked up the building and turned it around so it would face the highway.”
Heading home on the pike after reaching Atlantic City, I stop in Absecon to see the place that so perfectly symbolizes the automobile’s defining role in the history of the pike, and of South Jersey.
The site where the hotel once stood is now a Jiffy Lube.