By Michele Alperin
Some who cross the interstate 295 bridge over Crosswicks Creek near Bordentown might see the boats lined up below in front of a blue clubhouse and wonder why they are there.
Turns out boats have been docked at that building—the Yapewi Aquatic Club—since its establishment on April 12, 1892. Yapewi, which began with 50 members and now boasts 125, celebrated its 125th anniversary in May with a catered, dressy, sit-down affair—a far cry from the more casual member-catered events that dot the summer season.
On Aug. 19, Yapewi will host its popular luau, featuring a roasted pig. Last year’s luau drew over 300, including members, their guests and visitors from the league.
Sharing the history of the club one sunny July morning are 48-year active member Zig Targonski and 60-year-member Ted Lange, who moved to Fort Pierce, Florida, 10 years ago but spends summers here with his daughter.
The club was formed partially because people did not travel to the coastal shores, which could be reached only via sand roads. “Entertainment had to be local,” Targonski said.
In its first years, Yapewi’s dock served largely canoes and duckboats, used commercially for a time to supply ducks to restaurants and meat purveyors.
In the early 20th century the club hosted regattas that drew canoe enthusiasts from as far as New York City and Philadelphia, who shipped their canoes to Bordentown by rail. Gatherings at Yapewi also attracted a few famous names—Madeline Astor, Helen Gould, Cornelius Vanderbilt and Gen. George Pershing, to name a few.
In 1916, Yapewi added a south wing to its building, with a locker room, showers and a full kitchen on the first floor, and rooms for lease on the second. The space increase allowed the number of members to double to 100 in 1919.
Canoeing was popular through the ’30s. “There was no fuel for pleasure boats through World War II. Before the war was the Depression, and working men didn’t have money for gas,” Targonski says.
After the World War II, things changed. “You had people who were interested in boating, whose economic position had improved because of jobs in industry after the war. They had a little more disposable income and could afford a club like this,” Targonski says.
Decoy carving, popular in Bordentown through the ’50s and ’60s, also happened on Yapewi’s property. Targonski recalls club member Tony Bianco, who died in 1966, but whose decoys, some carved at Yapewi, still sell for $2,000 to $3,000.
In 1988, the side wing of the club burned down, and Targonski chaired the rebuilding committee. The state Department of Environmental Protection gave them permission to rebuild as long as they replicated the outside. Over the course of three years the members drew closer as they built together the new wing, completed in April 1992 at a cost of $2,100.
Before the 295 bridge over Crosswicks Creek was built in the ’90s, many boaters used sailboats. But the bridge restricted the height of a mast that could fit under the bridge. “At high tide, there is around a 30-foot clearance,” Targonski says, which meant that meant he had to be docked two hours before or after high tide to be able to get under the bridge. Now most boats are powerboats or pontoon boats.
Floods have been a periodic problem, with waters reaching the second floor in 1903 and making it halfway up the windows in 1955. Lange, who grew up in Chesterfield and worked for PSE&G as a lineman, joined provisionally as a “guest” in 1956 and became a member in 1957. He jokes about why he was accepted: “There had been a flood here the year before and there were a lot of old men; they needed young men to shovel the mud from downstairs.”
“The clubhouse was originally built like a barn, with post and beam construction; all you had to do was let it dry out,” Targonski says. And more recently, if a flood is anticipated, members carry everything upstairs, except for the big refrigerator, which they put up on a table downstairs.
Lange says that in the ’70s he quit coming to the club “because the river was so filthy.” But the river has come back and Targonski cheers this accomplishment. “Boaters were the original environmentalists,” he says. “Trash would come in, and we would clean up the waterfront. We were always concerned with the quality of the water.”
In the club’s early days, Targonski says, “to afford to belong, you had to be well off financially, even though the dues were cheap by today’s standards.” But, although Yapewi was founded by well-to-do merchants, “as the years went on, it is a working man’s club.”
Targonski describes club members as people who are highly skilled, have their own businesses, and “work with their hands for a living.”
“By no means are there members here who are wealthy; everybody here is pretty much working class. The reason they can own a boat and I can own a boat is because they can fix everything on it,” he says.
Targonski, now retired, was a shop teacher at Nottingham High School in Hamilton for 38 years and department head for 25. He just ended his political career, not seeking reelection as city commissioner, in charge of public works. He also served as Bordentown City’s mayor through the ’90s and has chaired the planning board.
He built his first boat at age 11 and is now refinishing the teak trim on his 35-foot trawler, Marine Trader. People help each other with projects via member know-how and tools. Only when absolutely necessary, like for a bent propeller blade, do they need to seek out a professional.
Yapewi joined the Delaware River Yachtsman’s League in 1939, becoming more active in the ’70s, including sending contestants to the league’s yearly Queen’s Pageant. The league requires a formal protocol for opening day ceremonies, including officers from both clubs dressed in white, with each one being introduced, saluting the flag and saluting the hosting commodore. Officers of a visiting club ask the commodore for permission to come aboard.
Members of the league hold events to which other members are invited. At Yapewi, one member generally sponsors the event and forms a committee to cook whatever they can ahead of time; then, on the day of the event, they grill hot dogs and hamburgers. Events vary yearly, and expenses are covered through ticket sales.
Another highlight is the Fourth of July. Yapewi also has had covered dish dock parties, ice cream socials, theme parties and picnics on the huge sandbar exposed for six to seven hours at low tide.
Targonski and his wife, Nancy, like to take advantage of Yapewi’s league membership by attending the crab feast at the Farragut Sportsmen’s Association in Camden or visiting the Chesapeake Bay via the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal, stopping overnight at a club near the Philadelphia airport.
Today, the club’s 125 members, about a third from Bordentown, come from as far away as Harrisburg, and there are 10 people on its waiting list.
At one time the constitution specified that Yapewi was a men’s club, Lange says. In the ’20s, the club had Friday night parties to try to attract women, but, he recalls, “after that year, the old timers ended it.” Women have been members for the last 10 years, and today the club has a half-dozen full time female members. Kaity Haley, once named queen of the Delaware River Yachtsman’s League, is the vice commodore, and Carol Hill is the recording secretary.
Dues are $200 a year, and every member has to volunteer five hours a year to help with tasks like cutting the grass. Boat storage fees go toward property taxes.
Member involvement is a critical ingredient at Yapewi. Targonski, who is the club’s captain and is in charge of installation and removal of the docks, says, “If you have a boat, it is mandatory that be here on these days.”
And members are always there to help.