Last Saturday, hybrid and electric cars “raced” vintage cars down the main drag in Cape May, New Jersey. The so-called “Race at the Cape” was a reenactment (with a contemporary twist) of a historic beach race between Henry Ford and Louis Chevrolet in Cape May in 1905. For Ford and Chevrolet, speed was the object. For Saturday’s “racers,” raising awareness about energy efficiency was a greater goal.

The “Line Up,” Ormond-Daytona Beach, Fla. Dpc9141, Detroit Publishing Co., Curt Teich Postcard Archives, Lake County Discovery Museum.

Race at the Cape kicks off the 2012 program of the Cape May Forum, “Running on Empty? The Future of Energy” (June 2-3). Founded in 2010 in the spirit of the longstanding Chautauqua Institution in western New York, the Cape May Forum creates a similar venue for intellectual tourism (albeit much less extensive than Chautauqua’s full season of offerings) in a colorful, Chautauqua-like setting of Victorian architecture.

Cape May, the Jersey Shore’s oldest beach resort community, is one of the oldest seaside resorts in North America. Although it attracted beachcombers several decades before the Victorian era, Cape May is known today for its uniformly Victorian cityscape – the product of extensive rebuilding after a devastating fire in 1878 and, eventually, avid historic preservation.

The appearance of the Cape May Forum may seem rather novel, but it is rooted in a long history, as American Tourism contributor Andrew C. Rieser argues. Indeed, the original Chautauqua produced a flurry of imitators all over the United States in the early 20th century, many of them nothing more than a large tent for public lectures or concerts. And yet now is a fitting time for starting such as program. As the event’s organizers point out, baby boomers are entering retirement, and many of them have time, money, and interest to pursue the mental enrichment and civic engagement that such programs foster.

Using the beach to make an environmental statement would have been unthinkable a century ago when the auto barons staged their Cape May race. In the early 20th century, plenty of races were held on the smooth, packed sand of American beaches, nowhere more than Daytona Beach, Florida. As soon as cars came within reach of the finances of everyday Americans, plenty of the horseless carriages found their way onto beaches. Few beaches today still welcome cars, and most are places whose promoters embrace or at least tolerate beach conservation as, at bottom, making good business sense.

The town on the southern tip of New Jersey also seems a fitting place to introduce a modern, Chautauqua-like program on sustainability. After all, in its careful preservation of hundreds of Victorian houses and buildings, Cape May has been gentle on the environment when seen alongside plenty of other beach towns.

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Some of the more than 600 Victorian houses in Cape May. Photo by Allie_Caulfield on Flickr