There are two sides to Ocean City, the oceanside and the bayside. The sides are divided, physically, by the six-lane Coastal Highway, and emotionally, by preference.
Most visitors still tend to stay, and play, on the oceanside, crossing over only for the occasional miniature golf game or trip to the grocery store.
But the bayside has its many admirers, particularly among recreational boaters, year-round inhabitants and anyone who loves a beautiful sunset. Today, condominiums, trailer communities and sprawling mini-resorts are tucked between Coastal Highway and the bay waters — it's the Isle of Wight Bay on the south end and Assawoman Bay on the north end.
It wasn't like that back in 1975, when Baltimore native John Fager decided to build a bar on a 2-acre bayfront piece of property he had purchased several years before at 60th Street.
The original Fager's Island was a bar, a small one, just 70 by 70 feet. The bar, Fager said, was supposed to be a temporary maneuver as he waited for the real estate market to bounce back.
"I lived on the bay," Fager said, "I had an idea that a bar would present a good atmosphere, with the beautiful sunsets."
The business took off. From the start, Fager's had an aesthetic that was unlike those of the other bars in town, which tended to be dark, windowless jukebox joints. Fager's had its windows wide open, and a white-wood-and-fern aesthetic that Fager said was inspired by beachside bars he saw on travels in Mexico and California.
Fager wanted his bar to be a different kind of space for Ocean City. "We wanted a more sophisticated atmosphere than the typical gin mill," Fager said. "We wanted a little mature crowd."
Fager even went so far as to impose a minimum age of 21 for admission. The drinking age was then 18. That didn't go over too well, and Fager's changed its policy. "It made people mad," Fager said. "They took umbrage."
Patrons enjoyed the new bayside atmosphere and the small menu of sandwiches that Fager's sold in the summer of 1975. The bar did so well that first summer that the owner decided to keep the place open year round.
"Absolutely no one was open after Labor Day," Fager said. "We started experimenting with three or four entrees." It went well, and next summer, Fager's added a full restaurant annex.
Some of the fare from that first full year have proved to be enduringly popular: a crispy roast duckling, a prime rib served with fresh shaved horseradish, chicken livers and water chestnuts wrapped in bacon and served with a horseradish dipping sauce.
There will be a big party is June 16, when Fager's Island will celebrate with a pig roast and live entertainment. Some guests won't have far to travel for the event. Fager's Island is today a full resort with two hotels. The all-suites Lighthouse Club was built in 1978. The Edge, a designer hotel, opened in 2005.
Fager said the party is for all of the customers that Fager's Island has served over four decades, and for the men and women Fager's has employed over 40 summers. "It's for the thousands of people who worked here, worked their way through college and met their future husbands and wives here," Fager said.
Ian Shamosh is one of the Facebook page's founders. "It was a great place. We could have gone anywhere to work in O.C., but we wanted to be at Fager's."
Shamosh worked at Fager's year-round from age 15 until he turned 22. When he was 21, the Ocean City resident became friendly with one of the hostesses, a summer worker named Shannon.
The two later married and now live in Towson with their 3-year-old twins.
"There were a lot of memories made [at Fager's]," said Shamosh, who is now a restaurant manager in Baltimore.
Shamosh said Fager is the driving force behind the restaurant's success. "He's a great businessman," Shamosh said. "He takes care of everybody that works there."
Fager's contributions to the resort, especially his catalyzing of bayside life, have not gone unnoticed.
"He's been wonderful for Ocean City," said Lisa Challenger, director of Worcester County Tourism. "He's a maverick."
Challenger said Fager's success paved the way for bayside nightclubs like Seacrets and Macky's Bayside Bar & Grill.
Fager now lives in Bishopville, about 10 miles away, with his wife, Michelle. He said his three children have expressed some interest in following in his footsteps.
But for now he said he's looking forward to the 50th and 60th anniversaries. "Retirement's not in my vocabulary," said Fager, who declined to give his age.
"I just don't believe in the concept of age," he said. "One of our original logos was the 'eternal child." If you don't believe in age, you won't. We're going to be here? a long time."
As for the name, improvements to 60th Street have filled in the marshy gaps that once separated the property from the big island.
But when Fager bought it, it was indeed a little island. "From the time I made the first down payment back on the land in 1972, everyone joked, 'Fager bought an island!'¿"