• Saving History

    Saturday, December 21, 2013 12:01 am                                           

    The PRESS of ATLANTIC CITY                                     

    By MARTIN DeANGELIS, Staff Writer   

    Still, it was a revelation, a life-altering moment for DeMartino, who lives in the Manahawkin section of Stafford Township and admits not all his pursuits are saintly. For instance, he's a regular at his favorite Atlantic City poker tables.

    But on this occasion, he was down in Wildwood, strolling by as workers ripped up a section of Boardwalk decking to replace the worn wood. What opened his eyes was that they were just tossing the old lumber away like it was trash.

    That was a problem to DeMartino, a guy who has always had an appreciation for history - and for officially licensed and certified memorabilia. So where those work crews saw junk to get rid of, this spectator saw history to be preserved - and marketed, he hoped.

    That's how DeMartino starts his history of The Historic Pen Company. The business he opened 18 or so months ago makes products of many kinds out of wood with much history to it, including those lumber leftovers from Wildwood's Boardwalk, wood Hurricane Sandy tore off Atlantic City's Boardwalk and wooden walls from The Shack, a long-suffering landmark on the main route to Long Beach Island.

    DeMartino's company does sell collectible-grade, high-value pens painstakingly turned out of "Witness Wood," as he calls it - in a legally trademarked phrase. Some of them them retail on his site for $1,000 and more apiece. But he also makes - or actually pays American craftsmen and contractors to make - pencils, bookmarks, keychains, nightlights, refrigerator magnets, bottle stoppers, ice-cream scoops, Christmas-tree ornaments and more stuff with history soaked into its fibers, and sells it mostly in a range of $10 to $25 per item.

    The Historic Pen Company doesn't just work the shore's history. DeMartino also has turned floorboards from a farmhouse in Gettysburg, Pa. - floorboards he says still had bloodstains on them from the Civil War battle there - into pens. He has pens made from seats at Philadelphia's long-gone Connie Mack Stadium and others made of wood from more local and national landmarks.

    Still, DeMartino has been finding lots of his raw materials lately right along the New Jersey coastline, where there's no shortage of used wood - although most of it doesn't date back 150 years.

    "The Boardwalk is volume - just because so much of it was destroyed," he said, on a wintry day earlier this month, standing by a section of missing Atlantic City 'Walk along Absecon Inlet.

    He has turned some of the higher-grade lumber Sandy tore away - from an already damaged and closed section of Boardwalk - into pens listed on his website at about $150 apiece. But most of the old, pine decking went into things such as keychains, magnets and holiday ornaments that highlight area icons including Absecon Lighthouse, Atlantic City lifeguard boats, Steel Pier and more.

    And the lighthouse's gift shop was happy to agree to try to sell his products, says Jean Muchanic, the executive director of the oldest standing structure in Atlantic City.

    "It's beautiful, and the detail on it is phenomenal," she said. The gift shop carries a holiday ornament that features the lighthouse itself and another that shows the Atlantic City skyline towering over a lifeboat, "and they're both selling."

    On a weekend day earlier this month, "One woman bought about six of them. And right after she got them, she posted a picture on Facebook - and we got a ton of responses," said Muchanic, who has had to reorder from the company a few times already. "Everything is very authentic, and it's unique."

    Another fan of DeMarino's work is Wildwood Mayor Ernie Troiano Jr. DeMartino contacted Troiano shortly after he saw the Boardwalk wood being discarded, and he found a guy who appreciates the Historic Pens mission.

    "We give him wood, and he makes Christmas ornaments out of it ... absolutely beautiful stuff," said Troiano, whose town is memorialized with a "Watch The Tram Car Please" ornament made from ex-Boardwalk boards, among other locally significant selections. "We were excited about what he wanted to do, and I hope he succeeds. Everyone wants a piece of the Boardwalk."

    But DeMartino says he actually had his first realization history was being trashed considerably north of Wildwood and Atlantic City, at the national historic site of Ellis Island. He was taking a tour there years before his eyes were opened on the Boardwalk - in part because he knew his family was part of the flood of immigrants whose American history started at Ellis Island. He got there and found workers doing a building renovation and throwing away the "trash" they were replacing. He cringed, but he also saw a business opportunity.

    "I had to put it on the back burner," says DeMartino, who's now "semi-retired." In his previous life, he says he was a "sports and entertainment licensee for 25 years, manufacturing product for about 200 colleges, the NFL, MLB, NBA, NHL, Disney, MGM, Paramount (and) CBS among others."

    But after a start-up business he was in on had to close up, he found himself on the Wildwood Boardwalk, not believing he was watching history go into a trash can, again.

    That sent him to Troiano and to the leaders of other New Jersey towns with boardwalks of their own. But with many of them, he got there just shortly before last year's Hurricane Sandy did, and suddenly created huge reserves of wasted Boardwalk wood.

    He has done a lot of work with and in Seaside Heights, the town that ended up with the roller coaster dumped in the ocean. He has bought a lot of officially certified former Boardwalk lumber from the town - but says he keeps turning down a private citizen who wants to give DeMartino wood that supposedly also came from the town's wooden walkway. Likewise, DeMartino just wasn't interested when a guy in Atlantic City told him at least a few blocks of wrecked 'Walk wood ended up on the other side of Absecon Inlet, on Brigantine's south-end beach. There, it was free for the taking - if only because it would have saved the city the cost of cleaning it up and disposing of it.

    "I was in the licensed-products business," he said. "I have to do this where all the provenance, all the history, is documented. I can't risk anything. ... Our business model is based on that authenticity."

    So he bought a "small truckload" of Atlantic City wood for $200 at a city-run auction. And his website now brags that new finds for The Historic Pen Company include Boardwalk lumber from Ocean City, although he hasn't yet started selling any landmark products from America's Greatest Family Resort.

    He also got a Barnegat Bay sneak box - a classic but deteriorating boat - from Tuckerton Seaport and Baymen's Museum, and has turned that into wooden souvenirs.

    DeMartino is always looking for more history - and in fact he says he got into history long before he got into business. He traces his interest back to "Mrs. Fox, my fourth-grade teacher," taking little Bobby and his classmates on a trip to Cape May and showing them some of the old-time wonders of America's first shore resort.

    Now, by the way, he's trying to get into products from Cape May, too. He knows there's plenty of history there, and some of it has to get thrown away.

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