Who she is: Meghan Wren
Where she’s from: Millville
What she does: Executive director of the Bayshore Center at Bivalve
What inspired her: Meghan Wren recalls the moment when she decided to devote her life to teaching environmental stewardship through a historic sailing ship.
She was sailing in the Gulf of Mexico on a restored 19th-century schooner en route to a festival of tall ships in New York. It was a gorgeous evening. She was, at the age of 21, in the company of people she had bonded with, and she was proud of the ship where she had been working as a volunteer for months.
“It became apparent to me that it was the perfect classroom,” Wren said. “I decided that was what I wanted to do with my life, having a traditional vessel as a classroom — connecting people with the environment, with the ocean, with things that are timeless.”
What that led to: Ultimately it led to the nonprofit Bayshore Center, a treasury of local history and culture on New Jersey’s Delaware Bayshore in Cumberland County. Another result of Wren’s epiphany is the A.J. Meerwald, a restored 1928 oyster boat that has been taking school parties and adults on sailing trips from the center since 1996.
The cruises encourage participants to take responsibility for the environment, and to become more aware of issues such as sea-level rise which is already lapping at the feet of the county’s isolated coastal communities.
The vessel, captained by Wren’s husband, Jesse Briggs, is just part of the multifaceted Bayshore Center that also operates a museum about the once-mighty local oyster industry; runs a newly launched fishermen and farmers market; promotes the work of local artists, and has played a prominent role in the ongoing recovery from Hurricane Sandy.
The museum and other shore-based activities grew out of Wren’s vision for the A.J. Meerwald. “I came in the beginning with the idea of using the boat to teach about the environment, and I got more interested in the history of the place,” she said. “There’s this incredible history here, and I didn’t know half if it when I started the organization.”
The history, which includes oystering, sailing, and the making of salt hay in coastal meadows, is expressed in the center’s museum, whose collection began with a donation of artifacts from a board member.
What the center holds: The center occupies seven buildings that once housed one of America’s biggest oyster industries. Calling itself the “Oyster Center of the World,” the appropriately named port of Bivalve shipped out an average of 80 boxcars of oysters a day at the turn of the 20th century.
The railroad is memorialized by a single boxcar — now housing restrooms for visitors —sitting on a few yards of track outside the museum and a gallery, while a wooden 1904 dock where millions of oysters were loaded from boats is open to visitors on the bay side of the museum.
The center is the result of some 30 years in which Wren found her mission, learned seamanship, and acquired skills ranging from fundraising to museum management and community organizing.
Sense of place: She’s motivated in part by a desire to nurture a sense of belonging to the Bayshore region that she acknowledges she didn’t have while growing up in Millville. She rediscovered her love for the region after moving away in her late teens when she dropped out of the University of Pennsylvania and traveled across the United States with a tent and a dog. “I wanted to leave but as an adult really fell in love with the area,” she said.
Realizing her dream didn’t come easily.
First came the shipwreck: The ship that began the center sank — twice — after Wren acquired it for the nonprofit but before its restoration was complete. On the second occasion, she refloated it from the nearby Maurice River with the help of powerful pumps provided by the local fire department.
Wren conceded that the sinking of the boat was not good for her morale, while she also faced skepticism from some members of her community.
“In the early days of the operation, it was difficult to explain to people why we were doing all this,” she said. “People would look at this decrepit hull and they would say, ‘Why are you spending all this money’”?
The 115-foot-long A.J. Meerwald — named after the patriarch of the family that owned the boat when it was used for oysters — was finally commissioned in 1996, eight years after being donated by a local oysterman who gave it to the new nonprofit after abandoning his own plans to restore it.
Then came the restoration: The rebirth of the A.J. Meerwald followed years of hard physical work and financial uncertainty that brought out Wren’s resilience. “One of the things I bring to the table is stamina,” said Wren, 51. “That’s my advice to people who take on things like this: just be persistent. Focus on the next thing you have to do, and don’t get overwhelmed by how big the task is.”
Her powers of endurance were called on during her high school and college career as a competitive swimmer, and in August 2013 as the first person to swim across the mouth of the Delaware Bay from west to east, a distance of 13.1 miles.
After Hurricane Sandy: Wren, who also has experience as a triathlete and marathon runner, had thought about swimming across the bay but needed a reason to do so besides the pure physical challenge. After Hurricane Sandy ravaged the Bayshore’s communities and beaches in 2012, Wren decided she would do the swim to raise money for Bayshore recovery and to draw public attention to the issue.
“It seemed like the perfect opportunity to do something that I wanted to do but have it be for a cause and try to raise awareness of the lack of attention and the need for recovery,” she said. The swim, which took her eight hours and 45 minutes, raised about $25,000.
Wren said she didn’t initially recognize the dangers of what she was attempting, but then took a more sober look at the challenge after a younger female swimmer died while attempting to swim the 23-mile English Channel shortly before Wren’s event. “It really hadn’t occurred to me that this was a life-threatening endeavor,” she said. “It made me pay closer attention.”
As a result, she decided to swim slowly and take frequent breaks for food and water but without touching any of the “flotilla” of boats that was accompanying her.
Her conservative approach to the swim left her feeling surprisingly fresh when she landed at Fortescue on the Jersey side of the bay. “When I got out, I didn’t have the appearance to people that I was tired, and I really did feel that if it wasn’t on its way to getting dark, I could have turned around and swum back,” she said.
Mitch Brodkin, a retired sea captain who once worked as full-time captain on the A.J. Meerwald and still works as a relief captain, said Wren is known for her perseverance and her willingness to work “more hours than there are in the week. She’s very determined, and she’s focused,” he said. “She has a plan and she knows what she wants to do.”
State neglect: Among Wren’s achievements, Brodkin said, is that she has restored a sense of local pride that had been battered by years of perceived neglect from the state, especially after receiving less Sandy-recovery money than the tourism-rich Atlantic shore.
“She has made many people aware that the community of Port Norris and that area of South Jersey even exists,” he said. “And she has instilled a pride in the people that live there; they don’t feel like they are second-class citizens.”
Local people once thought they had been “shunted aside” by politicians who regarded the Bayshore as an “inconsequential” area inhabited by a few farmers and fishermen.
With the Bayshore Center offering a variety of activities for visitors, there is now more reason for people to visit the area, Brodkin said. “She has brought some life back to that area.”