Wonder Women

The Ocean City Life-Saving Station Museum honors trailblazing females who shaped the resort’s treasured history

Story by Olivia Minzola   |   Photography by Grant L. Gursky 

Travel back in time with The Ocean City Life-Saving Station Museum’s newest exhibit, A Feminine Touch: The Women of Ocean City, as it explores the resort town’s rich history of female independence and entrepreneurship.

“We decided to open this exhibit around the same time as the 100-year anniversary of women’s right to vote. And I should note that it was the anniversary of White women being able to vote. African American women and Native American women were, unfortunately, not included in the celebration, as they have not yet reached their 100-year anniversary,” said curator Christine Okerblom.

The exhibit begins with the story of Zipporah “Zippy” Lewis, one of Ocean City’s first successful female entrepreneurs, who spent her days collecting treasure along the beach. Most of her treasure included shipwreck remains, which she would then bring to town and sell for money. Zippy’s resourcefulness and boldness paved the way for many women seeking independence in Ocean City during the mid-1800s.

Other notable women spotlighted include the Petticoat Regime, a group of forward-thinking women who built, owned and operated some of the town’s first, largest resort hotels.

One particular hotel, known at the time as the Plimhimmon Hotel, is still in operation today. The hotel was founded in 1890 by Rosalie Tilghman Shreve and has since been renamed the Plim Plaza Hotel.

Pearl Bonner, another noteworthy businesswoman, played an important role in Black history during the late 1900s. Bonner owned and operated The Henry Hotel, a rooming house for African Americans. At this point in time, segregation was considered common practice and African Americans were not welcome at many hotels.

Bonner purchased the hotel in 1964 and ran the establishment until her passing in 2003. She remains immortalized for her contribution to the African American community and overall development of Ocean City.

A Feminine Touch: The Women of Ocean City pays tribute to the female entrepreneurs whose spirit and determination helped contour the popular resort that exists today.

“It’s pretty impressive, first, to be a woman and own and operate a hotel and, second, to be a Black American woman and own and operate a hotel. Pearl is pretty special,” said Okerblom.

Okerblom and the president of the Ocean City Museum Society, Nancy Howard, continue to seek any new information, including photos and artifacts, concerning African American women.

The exhibit also delves into the lives of the Steel Magnolias, a group of women who were honored by the Ocean City Hotel-Motel-Restaurant Association for their success as businesswomen during the late 1900s.

Thelma Conner, founder of Dunes Manor Hotel, and Ann Showell, founder of Castle in the Sand Hotel, were two women, in particular, who were honored by the association. Both women dedicated their life to their careers to the hospitality industry.

Visitors to the exhibition will also learn that prior to the 1870s, the town that is now famously known as Ocean City was referred to as something else entirely. As illustrated along a wall of the exhibit, the town was first recognized as The Ladies’ Resort to the Ocean. This was done as a way to highlight the successful female entrepreneurs of the time.

Both Okerblom and Howard expressed optimism that those who choose to walk through the exhibit doors will gain a new knowledge and awareness of the women who had a hand in creating Ocean City.

“We want people to know that there was a large group of women who started Ocean City — women who were entrepreneurs, who sparked growth in this resort town, and who really shaped Ocean City into what it is today. Having so many women on the island with such strong entrepreneurship was unique then and still is today,” said Okerblom.

The Ocean City Life-Saving Station Museum continues to make great strides in educating the public. For more information on this important chapter in the town’s history, visit ocmuseum.org. 

Editor’s note: Olivia Minzola is a senior Media and Journalism major at Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania preparing to graduate in May 2021. Olivia’s minor is Gender Studies and her current GPA stands at 3.77. She began interning with Coastal Style in February.

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