Coastal Delaware exerts a strong pull on area natives whose careers took them elsewhere
By Bill Newcott
Photograph by Carolyn Watson
From the June 2022 issue
Walking across the stage for her 1995 graduation from Cape Henlopen High School, Ingrid Hopkins knew one thing for sure: She was getting out of here.
Not that she had been unhappy with her childhood on a dairy farm, her family or her friends. But the world outside coastal Delaware was beckoning, and she was answering the call: The following fall she began a life journey that took her to veterinary nursing school at Pennsylvania’s Delaware Valley University, then to a couple of horse farms — first in Indiana, then in Florida.
“I was down there for about five years,” Hopkins says. “And then I started getting this itch. This itch to come back home.”
It’s an itch that seems to have inflicted itself on more than a few coastal Delaware expats. In homes, offices, and small businesses up and down the beach, I found a seemingly endless parade of people who thought they’d left behind the slower pace, the intimate scale of the place where they grew up — only to find themselves drawn, irresistibly, back home.
Hopkins and I are sitting at the long wooden table in the dining room of her renovated 200-year-old farmhouse on Fisher Road near Lewes. Five generations ago, Hopkins’s great-great-grandfather built the place, establishing one of the area’s oldest family farms.
Were this not early in the week, we would have had to meet somewhere else. Fridays through Sundays, this house is bustling with wedding parties of up to 10 people. Hopkins Heartland, as she’s named the place, is a one-stop nuptial nexus: The happy couple can rehearsal-dine here, wed here, take photos on the covered bridge here and, for a night or two, honeymoon here.
With her long veterinary experience, Hopkins could have returned to Lewes and gone to work in a large-animal practice. But sitting there in Florida about 10 years ago, her heart drifting to home, she saw a new direction for herself. She kept thinking about this centuries-old house, now sitting on a lonely corner of the Hopkins Dairy Farm, literally falling down.
“This house was listing to one side,” she recalls. “It wasn’t safe. No one could live here. But I had this idea of making it into a bed-and-breakfast. So I flew up here from Florida and presented my dad with a business plan — the cost of restoring the house, of upgrading the facilities, of how long it would take to pay it all off.”
Also included in the plan: During construction, Hopkins would, at age 40, move back in with her father.
“Before I was even through my presentation,” she says, “he interrupted me and said, ‘Sold!’”
The guest house opened a year later (“I was literally reading ‘Bed and Breakfasts for Dummies’”), and soon couples were asking if they could have weddings on the property. That inspired the expansion of the business into the old dairy farm buildings on the property — and now Hopkins hosts weekend-long wedding events 35 times a year.
Of course, there are lots of old farms in Florida and Indiana where Hopkins could have set up shop. But she says those locales never even occurred to her.
“Sometimes I think about what really brought me back here,” she says, the flames in the dining room fireplace flickering behind her. “Every time I smelled a pine tree, I couldn’t help but think about the Cape. And when I rode a bike, I’d think about how up here I could safely ride from this farm all the way to Rehoboth Beach and back.
“Yeah, Florida was warm. But you don’t know your neighbors like you do here. And Indiana has restaurants — but they’re all called Olive Garden or Applebee’s. Where else but here will you find off-the-charts dining experiences around every corner?
“I’ll tell you: No place.”
IF GEOFF WAGNER WERE to place a pen to a globe and trace his travels, the line would form a spiderweb of voyages, crisscrossing the seas and nearly every continent with stops in some 50 countries.
Also, that line would begin — and end — in coastal Delaware.
After graduating from Milford High School in 1996, the restless son of a physician attended the Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point, N.Y. Then he was off to sea, ferrying cars, oil, and containers worldwide. Transitioning to the oil business, he spent years in foreign capitals from Paris to Budapest, and also traveling extensively throughout Africa.
Finally — or so he thought — Wagner and his wife, Jennifer, settled down in Houston, where their daughter was born. Every year the family returned to southern Delaware to visit. And every year the couple would look around, think about it, and resolve that someday they would return here for good.
“Houston’s nice,” says Wagner. “You can eat at great restaurants and go to sporting events — and that’s about it. You sure don’t go outside in the summer.
“We’d come here each summer and there would be the beach, and the trees, and the breezes. And the people — all these people we’ve known for years and years. My best friend was still here. Plus, Jennifer is an artist, and the art community in Lewes and Rehoboth Beach goes back forever.
“Every year we’d come back here and ask ourselves, ‘How could we make this place work for us?’ Finally, in 2019, we looked at each other and said, ‘You know, let’s just move there and figure out the rest.’”
The problem for Wagner, of course, was finding the right job. Oil company executives don’t quit their positions to fill cones at Kohr Bros. They might, however, find an unexpected home at a large poultry operation.
“I started studying Delaware companies,” he says, “and I soon realized that Mountaire is certainly a large enough company. Plus, the headquarters is here.”
He wasn’t positive he’d be a good fit there until one Sunday in 2019, attending services at The Crossing church near Milton, when he met someone from Mountaire.
“I had an interview the next week,” he says. “I started out in procurement; now I’m running sales. I love it. There’s fascinating robotics and engineering going on here.”
From the windows of their house in Lewes, Wagner and his family can see the Lewes-and-Rehoboth Canal. April through October, they’re on the beach or in their boat.
“I can tell you this,” he says. “I’m having more fun now than with most of the stuff I’ve done around the world.”
HEIDI LOWE HAD it all figured out. After graduating from Cape Henlopen High School in 1995, she would study art jewelry in New England, open her own gallery in Manhattan, and enter the whirl of New York art and fashion.
And it was all going according to plan. Lowe had even begun to establish herself in SoHo, working in a trendy gallery. But as she looked around, there came a growing realization. “No one was interested in a shop that specialized in jewelry as an art,” she tells me. “They wanted diamonds and gold and baubles. But I was more interested in, basically, art that you could wear. And that could mean something made out of wire, or paper. Art jewelry is about concepts: current events, or women’s issues, or line and color.”
In the summer of 2003, Lowe came back to Rehoboth to visit family. Walking along Rehoboth Avenue — where as a teenager she’d used her mother’s children’s store as a base for selling the earrings she created to local merchants — she stopped in front of a small house. Her parents had owned it for years. It was empty. And Lowe had an idea.
“I asked my parents if I could just borrow the house for a while,” she recalls. “They said yes, so I fixed it up and started selling my jewelry out of there.”
This time, the plan was to figure out the basics of running an art jewelry gallery, then move back to the big city. But as the months wore on, Lowe had yet another life-changing realization: Unlike the bling-hungry folks in New York City, the people wandering into her shop were fascinated with the whole notion of art jewelry.
“They got it,” she says. “The people who live here, and the people who visit here, they have what it takes to be able to say, ‘Well, this isn’t what I expected, but I’m willing to take a look at it.’”
Lowe is showing me around her gallery. The walls are lined with intricate, delicate works by her and other jewelry artists. She left the Rehoboth Avenue shop a year or so ago and now the Heidi Lowe Gallery occupies a larger space just off Route 9, west of Route 1. Here, she offers regular art jewelry classes — and a special program for engaged couples, who get the chance to design and cast their own wedding rings.
“There are only about four galleries in the country that specialize in art jewelry,” she says. “Most people would say you could never make a go of one here, but I say no, I can.”
Art and culture, she says, are in Rehoboth’s DNA: “The Rehoboth Art League has been here forever. And for crying out loud, there used to be a Man Ray hanging in the Blue Moon. People here, they just get it.”
MARY GREEN WAS living in what a lot of people would call paradise. Working for an Orange County, Calif., nonprofit, her home was steps from the ocean in Huntington Beach — “Surf City, U.S.A.” By day, Catalina Island floated on the Pacific horizon; by night, the sand was dotted with campfires surrounded by families making s’mores.
Green had grown up on the beaches of Lewes and Rehoboth, watching the sun rise over the Atlantic. She’d studied dietetics at the University of Delaware, but after moving to California in 2000 to be with her boyfriend, Frank — who’s now her husband — Green discovered that she loved coordinating events for charitable organizations. She was good at it, and there was more than enough work for her in Southern California.
Still, the call of the Delaware beaches echoed. Watching those Pacific sunsets beyond the broad expanse of sand, strolling through Huntington Beach’s small downtown and relatively modest residential area, she was often reminded of home. “It’s funny,” she says. “Looking back on it, of all the West Coast beach towns, Huntington is the one most like ours. And that is where I chose to live.”
Finally, Green says, she had to admit it to herself. “It was always on my mind to come back home.”
Mary and Frank got married. They decided to move back to Rehoboth Beach, where they both had family, to have children. Then they decided not to have children. Still, as the years go by, Green has become aware that returning home was always Plan A, even when she might not have been aware of it.
“It’s beautiful in California,” she says. “But I love the summers here. I love the fact that I live in a place people go to get away from it all. I love walking along the boardwalk and feeling the sand beneath my feet and going to Grotto Pizza.”
Ensconced in her office at Beebe Healthcare in Lewes, where she’s manager of communications, Green is as happy as anyone I’ve ever seen in a hospital. “People need to spread their wings and do their thing,” she says.
“I know I did. But ultimately, I think most of us who leave here want to come back.
“I know this isn’t such a small town anymore. It’s sure not the way it was when I grew up here. But here’s the thing about that: With all the growth, there’s more opportunity than ever before for people to come back here and find careers.”
Katelyn Vincent was in her fourth year of dental school in sunny, dry Phoenix. Sure, she’d always planned to return to her hometown of Dewey Beach when she was ready to hang out her shingle. But here it was, the dead of winter. Back in Dewey, her family and old friends from Cape Henlopen High School (Class of ’08) were bundling up against the wet rag of a wind that blows off the Atlantic in December.
“It was tempting to stay in Arizona,” Vincent confesses, sitting in the sunny waiting room of Maplewood Dental near Rehoboth, where she’s been practicing for a couple of years. “It’s warm. The sun always shines. But I’m a beach girl. I always have been. Just knowing you can walk a few blocks and watch the sun rise over the water — how can you beat that?”
She looks around. It’s the end of the day, and the waiting room is empty. On one wall hangs an enormous aerial photo of Cape Henlopen, jutting into the sea like a beckoning finger.
“You know,” she says, “I have two fillings from when I was little that were put in by the dentist who started this practice, back in the 1960s. His office was in a little yellow house that stood right here, before they built this place.”
Vincent is glad this area needs more dentists to care for the exploding population; glad that she’s needed here.
“I just hope,” she says wistfully, “that the people who come here will want to keep that feeling of a small town. You can still have that feeling, even when there are a lot of people. You just have to want it.”
I stand up to leave. Yet another satisfied customer, I’m thinking.
“By the way,” she calls after me, “I have a twin sister. Kristen. She’s an eye doctor here. If you think leaving Arizona would have been hard, she did a residency rotation in Hawaii. So, yeah, she had a real decision to make!”
And so, in addition to the folks who have been here all along and those who have more recently discovered coastal Delaware, there is another wave of people arriving: The prodigals who gave the rest of the world a shot and discovered it missed the mark.
So far, at least, there seems to be room for everybody.
“I don’t know what it is about this town,” says Ingrid Hopkins, who traded horse farms in Indiana and Florida for the place where she grew up, “but I don’t feel like I’ve run into any competitors — only mentors. There’s this sense of open-armed collaboration.
“I’m grateful to live in a town that is growing like this one; a town that can’t help but provide more and more opportunities for more and more generations to come back.”