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Ocean Grove, New Jersey began as a Methodist camp meeting site following the Civil War. A collective of thirteen ministers and thirteen laymen was organized in 1869 to govern the small summer settlement. Having been chartered by the New Jersey State Legislature, the first summer Camp Meeting was held in 1870. From ten families camping on today’s Founder’s Park, the August retreats eventually attracted crowds of 10,000 seeking rest and spiritual rejuvenation in the pine barren on the Atlantic Ocean. By 1875, there were 600 tents, 400 cottages, and 79 hotels and boarding houses.

The camp meeting continues on a somewhat smaller scale every summer to this day. But, today, the town is a community mix of year-round residential, summer resort, and camp meeting. Both visitors and residents form an interesting, sometimes bizarre, always fascinating, conglomeration of families, single people and couples, both gay and straight, old and young, professionals and mechanics, artists and musicians, the sane and something less than sane, and, as ever, Methodists.

No longer governed by the Camp Meeting Association, but a municipal part of the town of Neptune, Ocean Grove is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Its architectural sweep features everything Victorian, from simple cottages, with a few Craftsman bungalows thrown in, to suitably gee-gawed larger homes, rambling shore hotels, cozy inns and B&Bs, and, of course, tents. There is not a single motel in all of Ocean Grove.

The star of the architectural show is the 6,000-seat Great Auditorium. The Gothic Revival wood edifice, with its lighted white cross that shines out to the ocean, is a constant reminder that the town’s modern secular incarnation is rooted in religious spirit. Erected in 3 months in 1895, the Great Auditorium is painted in earthy shades of brown and was built entirely without nails. It was the day of the electric light bulb’s invention and the novel device was celebrated throughout the building’s lighting system. Row upon row of unadorned light bulbs climb the vast wood-paneled ceiling, vigorously wave a giant American flag, and illuminate to the left and right of the flag the good motto advice, “Holiness To The Lord” and “So Be Ye Holy.”

The Great Auditorium is known for its fine acoustics and its 1907 Hope Jones organ. Over its 100+ years of concerts, guest artists have included Paul Robeson, Enrico Caruso, songstress Patti Page, the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra, folksingers Peter, Paul and Mary, comedian Bill Cosby, and pop singer Neil Diamond. American presidents who have spoken here include Ulysses S. Grant and Theodore Roosevelt. During the Viet Nam War, Richard Nixon came to deliver a speech and was met by local war protestors. Evangelist Billy Sunday preached here in 1916 and modern day preachers from all over the country are regularly scheduled.

The Great Auditorium remains the center of the life of the town, both religious and secular. On concert nights, the streets fill with residents and visitors, all moving in one direction towards the Great Auditorium. Outside beneath the trees people set up lawn chairs and eat from picnic baskets. Inside the hall is filled, literally, to the rafters. The sounds of music drift out over the town of Ocean Grove.