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Four generations have spent vacations at beach home on the bluff

East Lyme — Bruce Cantor was a champion crabber in the waters off Crescent Beach when he was a kid.

He would spend the entire low tide cycle catching green crabs with mussels tied onto a string. He'd sell them to a local bait shop for a few cents apiece, pocketing enough money to buy a comic book, candy or an ice cream cone.

Now, as a 47-year-old scientist from Carlsbad, Calif., he tracks dust storms and other weather events on Mars. But he still spends summer vacations at Crescent Beach in the house his grandfather, Gilbert “Gilbo” Kaplan, built in 1947.

Cantor’s 8-year-old son David, who with his cousins is a fourth-generation Crescent Beach kid, is on his way to becoming an expert crabber. One afternoon in late July, the father and son carefully climbed in their bare feet over a rocky outcrop slick with seaweed and dropped their lines, baited with frozen squid, into the water.

“Put it in the crevices around the rocks,” Bruce Cantor instructed.

Thirty seconds later, David had a crab on his line, and within 10 minutes the two had scooped about a dozen into a bucket. Now it was time for crab races. They walked over to the quarter-moon shaped main beach and released two crustaceans at a time onto the sand at water’s edge. A small group of beachgoers gathered to watch the crabs scuttle back to the water.

David Cantor said he loves the beach, the French toast at the snack bar called “The Stand,” playing mini golf and going kayaking. His favorite thing about summer trips to Niantic, though, is “getting spoiled by my grandma.” Bruce’s mother, Elsa Cantor of Fairfield, now owns the gray, waterfront Cape Cod-style home with her brother.

Their slice of paradise

Elsa Cantor and her husband, Don Lamberty, sat that morning under the yellow striped awning on their deck, watching a cormorant perch on “tide rock,” about 50 yards away and spread its wings to dry.

“They’re too heavy to fly when their wings are wet,” Cantor explained.

Both 76 and retired from teaching, the couple travels the world extensively, but returns each summer to their slice of paradise on Niantic Bay. They arrived at Crescent Beach in mid-July after Cantor’s brother departed. They’ll stay about eight weeks, hosting Bruce’s family and then another branch of kids and grandkids from Colorado Springs.

“One of the most wonderful things for us now is having a place for the grandkids,” Elsa Cantor said. 

While the cottage on the bluff is home base, the family ventures out often. They ride their bicycles to Black Point every day, a six-mile round trip. They go blueberry picking and kayaking and walk down to the “The Stand” for a snack or meal. They swim and take the occasional outing to a baseball game at Dodd Stadium or a performance at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre Center. They’re involved with the Crescent Beach Association, a community of 350 homes.  

Her father first came to Crescent Beach in 1908, Elsa Cantor said. In 1946, after World War II ended and there wasn’t a lot of money around, Gilbert and Anne Kaplan bought 12 building lots for a good price. The Kaplans and two family friends built identical Cape Cod-style homes on the waterfront lots. The Kaplans sold the other lots, except two that remain undeveloped, to friends. Some of the original families still own the homes.

“Our friends would come and like it and buy building lots and build houses,”  Elsa Cantor said. “We have friends at home, but what’s different here is we have friends whose grandparents, aunts and cousins we knew.”

Anne Kaplan and the children would stay all summer, while Gilbert went back to West Hartford, where he owned a furniture store, during the week. Gilbert Kaplan would host an annual clambake for many families, serving lobsters he and his friends pulled from their own pots offshore, Elsa Cantor said. He would stage a fireworks display. Her parents were excellent swimmers, she said, and sailing was a big deal for the family. 

Elsa Cantor said the pine-paneled interior of the three-bedroom cottage has remained much the same as it was when it was built. The walls are decorated with family photos, a watercolor painted by a neighbor and scenes stitched in needlepoint crafted by a relative. The kitchen is small, and the preferred gathering place is on the deck, where seating is comfortable and the scenery spectacular.

Elsa Cantor remembers when the Millstone Nuclear Power Station, which looms across the horseshoe-shaped bay to the east, was not part of the view.

“It was very upsetting when it was built,” she said. “We used to sail over there and have a picnic.”  

Sailing was her passion, and Elsa Cantor belonged to the Mariner Girl Scouts. When she was 13, she and a friend ran a camp for Crescent Beach kids to raise money for a sailing trip to Bermuda.

“I taught a lot of kids to swim and raised the money,” she said.

At 14, she and a friend bought and renovated their own sailboat, called “Double Trouble.” They used to walk to the three nearby stores or to Niantic, where Dairy Queen beckoned and there was a bowling alley in the basement of the movie theater.

“It was a very sleepy beach for a long time, with lots of tiny cottages and a few old Victorians,” she said.

Her son has his own set of Crescent Beach memories.

Bruce Cantor said the family would pack up the car the day after school let out and drive from Fairfield. He’d spend the summer swimming, biking to Black Point, and hanging out with whatever “summer friends” happened to be around.


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