Fate of landmark shack off Route 72 is debated

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The duck-hunting cabin, near the causeway to Long Beach Island, has inspired paintings, photographs, and even a Facebook page. (Lawrence Kesterson / Staff Photographer)

STAFFORD TOWNSHIP, N.J. - It's known simply as "the shack."

The rough-hewn duck-hunting cabin, located off eastbound Route 72 on the causeway to Long Beach Island, has been pondered, painted, and photographed.

So decrepit locals marvel it survived the brutal winter, the beloved landmark fashioned from cedar and pine boards seven or eight decades ago is a reminder of when the Ocean County Shore destination was an enclave of humble cottages and fishing shanties.

Alarm over the shack's fate hit like a wave last year when the property adjacent to it, a tidal mudflat on the Barnegat Bay islet known as Cedar Bonnet Island, changed hands.

New owner Chet Atkins, of Cherry Hill, says he has come to appreciate the community's attachment to the place.

"It's really a visual icon," said Atkins, whose Moorestown-based company, Jersey Outdoor Media, owns a huge billboard that casts a shadow on the structure.

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Following word of the land transfer, at least three "save the shack" groups formed, and area historical societies were bombarded with calls. Within two days of its creation, more than 5,000 people had visited a Facebook page to share their memories of the place - most of them impressions formed as they whizzed past at 60 m.p.h.

Some have contended that the apparently abandoned structure - on land formerly owned by the late Wesley K. Bell, a locally famous sign-painter and former Stafford mayor - should be left to its own dignified demise and eventually slip into the mud to become a memory. Others want to see its skeletal remains incorporated in a reproduction on LBI.

Another group, led by Beach Haven resident and magazine publisher Lisa Ball, envisions collecting funds for a more idealized version of the structure to be built on the island. It would serve as a visitors' center and a gathering spot where shack-inspired art could be viewed.

"I never would have imagined that this place that I've always noticed and dreamed about was noticed and beloved by so many other people," Ball said.

"But that's the mystique of it," she said. "Nobody really knows for sure who built it and exactly when it was built. It's just always been there as long as anyone around here can remember."

After months pondering what to do, Atkins has concluded that the shack should stay put. He is in the midst of a lengthy process to obtain clear title to the site of the shack, once called "Happy Days," after purchasing 12 acres that belonged to the Wes Outdoor Advertising Co., a part of Bell's estate.

Taking title to the 200-by-115-foot plot has been complicated, Atkins said. Its ownership history dates to the 1600s, the days of land grants and Indian treaties, he said. More recently, interests including the state Department of Transportation, which owns an adjacent parcel parallel to Route 72, have been involved.

Atkins has considered various possibilities for the shack - including using it as a fishing getaway for his family.

"We decided that it would be a lot of trouble to try to do that, so really we just want to fix it up so it doesn't fall in," he said.

It's "something that, really, everybody should be able to enjoy from afar. But it needs some work," said Atkins, who doubts the wood could survive being moved to another location.

As a young man, Atkins lived in Harvey Cedars, where he often saw the "Norman Rockwellesque" Bell painting billboards and signs in the area.

"I was convinced I would someday own his company," said Atkins, 54, who summers in Somers Point. "For me, it's like a dream come true to actually own this property."

The shack was almost an afterthought for Atkins, who said he had been unaware of the strong feelings people had about it.

He plans to hold a "Shack Party" this fall, he said, and set up a nonprofit to collect money for repairs, though he is unsure what kind of restoration will take place. Atkins is agreeable to working with Stafford Township, he said, but he wants to retain ownership of the parcel.

Ball, who in September plans to release a limited-edition book of shack-inspired artwork to raise funds for the cause, says her group is willing to assist in the preservation effort.

In the meantime, the shack continues to inspire artists, whose depictions have ranged from the glorious to the moody. Their works run the gamut: the shack at sunrise, the shack at sunset, the snow-covered shack, the flag-draped Americana-style shack, the shack in its heyday, the shack in decline, with a junked truck in the yard.

Artist Tony Desiderio, of Beach Haven, has painted it in various stages of decay, starting in 1976.

"I look at it as a kind of survivor that has endured all kinds of storms and weathered over the years," said Desiderio, who compiled his paintings to create a popular postcard that serves as a time-lapse history of the shack.

"I think that's the appeal of it," he said, "why people look for it year after year."

 


Contact staff writer Jacqueline L. Urgo at 609-652-8382 or jurgo@phillynews.com.