Ocean Grove Tent Community Disbands for Fall

By Lauren Wanko

In historic Ocean Grove, certain residents are just as sad as school kids to say goodbye to summer.

“It’s beginning to end now and we kinda feel the loss coming,” said Kenneth Keating.

“We want to start over again,” said Peggy Billings.

They call themselves tenters. From mid-May to Sept. 15, these folks move into tents they lease from the Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association — a Christian organization which owns the land within the shore town. It all began nearly 150 years ago.

“A group of Methodist people came together and were looking for a piece of land of the Jersey Shore that would be a great place for Christians to come and rest from — if you could believe it — the craziness of society in 1869, and they came together 10 tents,” said Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association Executive Director and COO J.P. Gradone.

Ocean Grove’s tent community has since grown to 114 tents and 15 cottages. The Keatings transformed their 10 by 16 tent into their bedroom. A cabin is attached to the tent, plus a kitchen and a full bathroom. In September, everything’s unloaded out of the tent. It’s pitched again in the spring. Residents insist it’s the tenters — not the tents — who define this community.

“We’re very supportive of each other. We have a lot of fun together,” said tenter Audrey Bussani. “I think this is a block that doesn’t go to the beach because all we do is talk with each other.”

Neighbors are literally within arms’ reach. She even joined in on Audrey’s interview.

“You can’t have secrets here,” Audrey said.

“Someone sneezes two-tenths away and you say god bless you,” said Justin Billings.

As for marital disputes, Shirley Koch said, “They always say go to the car or take a walk, but you just don’t fight with your husband.”

Like many of the tents Koch’s summer home has almost all the amenities you’d expect in a typical house, including china.

“I keep saying I want to pare down, put less out, but my granddaughter and daughter won’t let me,” Koch said.

Residents are expected to attend church services, volunteer and make financial contributions to the Camp Meeting Association. Tents typically rent for $4,000 to $7,000 a season. Since tenters have the right of first refusal each year, there are several hundred people on the waiting list. Some have been waiting since the 1980s. The Billings have lived in the tents for more than 40 years.

“She says, ‘You know we’re getting old,’ and I say, ‘When I’m dead I’ll give it up,'” Justin Billings said.

The tents have become a popular tourist destination in Ocean Grove. So popular that the Billings have created a guest book for people who often stop by and ask questions about the tent. They’re typically given a tour.

But now some tents are already packed up for the winter.

“It’s sad. We all go home and cry but you know that we all say see you next summer because we know we’re gonna be here,” Bussani said.

Their countdown for next summer has already begun.