Coastal historical societies have made heritage a community focal point — and a tourist attraction

By Pam George Photograph by Scott Nathan
From the April 2017 issue

historicalsocieties Preserving the Past  - Delaware Beach LifeWhen Mike DiPaolo became the executive director of the Lewes Historical Society in 2001, he was the nonprofit’s first and only employee. The annual operating budget was just under $80,000 a year. “It was a labor of love,” says DiPaolo, who has an undergraduate degree in archeology and a master’s in library and information science. Today the society has eight employees and a $500,000 operating budget. “It’s very gratifying to see the growth of the organization,” he says.

The evolution extends to the society’s physical presence, which includes vintage buildings on Shipcarpenter Street and four others sprinkled throughout the town’s historic district. By July 4, the society plans to open the Lewes History Museum in the old Lewes Public Library, now the Margaret H. Rollins Community Center on Savannah Road.

The Rehoboth Beach Historical Society is also on an upward path. The group’s Rehoboth Beach Museum is raising funds for a second-story exhibit space. To the south, the Ocean View Historical Society, formed in 2008 to restore the Tunnell-West House, this month is scheduled to take possession of the Evans-West House and its distinctive barn, which were donated to the organization.

These groups play important roles in resort towns. “History and heritage is a growing year-round tourism niche in Southern Delaware,” says Tina Coleman, media manager for Southern Delaware Tourism. As the coastal area faces continual development, the societies serve as cultural touchstones that preserve each town’s heritage.

But it’s not easy. Historical societies of all sizes still encounter challenges, including, in some cases, shoestring budgets and a volunteer base that fluctuates with the seasons.

The history of historical societies

A historical society preserves, collects, researches and interprets historical information, items and/or buildings. Some focus on a town (consider the Lewes and Rehoboth Beach organizations). The Ocean View Historical Society includes neighboring communities, such as Millville and Clarksville. The Milton Historical Society covers Broadkill Hundred, which extends beyond Milton proper. Others focus on a particular structure. The Milford Historical Society, for instance, maintains the Parson Thorne Mansion.

In the United States, such groups date back to 1791 with the founding of the Massachusetts Historical Society. Delaware’s coastal historical societies, however, were formed in the mid- to late-20th century at a time before the development and tourism boom and as landmarks were falling into disrepair.

“Delaware’s local historical societies are on the front line of preservation efforts, especially in our coastal communities,” says Tim Slavin, director of the state’s Division of Historical and Cultural Affairs. “Through their sites, artifacts and programs, they instill the sense of place that is oftentimes fading.”

The Lewes Historical Society, for instance, was founded in 1962 by residents who were appalled at the state of the Cannonball House, named for the projectile that struck its foundation in 1813, during the British bombardment of Lewes. The house had lost so many shingles that the brick nogging, which fills the space between wall studs, was visible.

The fledgling group wasted no time in purchasing buildings and moving some to what’s now the organization’s complex on Shipcarpenter Street. The society now has 13 significant structures throughout the historic district, along with smaller outbuildings.

The Milford Historical Society was newly formed in 1962 when James R. Draper donated the Parson Thorne Mansion, which dates back to 1725.

Several historical societies were born in the 1970s, when America’s bicentennial ignited patriotism for one’s hometown. Lydia Black Cannon, a longtime Milton resident, founded the Milton Historical Society in 1970. She also purchased a United Methodist church and donated it to the society for use as a museum.

The memorabilia amassed by the Rehoboth Beach Bicentennial Collection seeded the Rehoboth Beach Historical Society, which was founded in 1975. That organization first displayed items in the Anna Hazzard Tent House, a wooden structure built in 1895 for attendees of religious camp meetings. The house was donated to the city in 1975 for the society’s use. It is too tiny, however, to showcase much of the collection, and society members dreamed big. The Rehoboth Beach Museum opened in 2007 in a 1925 building that was originally an icehouse.

The Ocean View Historical Society, a newcomer on the scene, arose from the need to save the Tunnell-West House. The town, which owned the property, considered the building an eyesore and slated it for demolition. Dr. Richard Nippes, a retired educator who sat on the Town Council, convinced his peers that it could be saved. Leased for $1, the structure has undergone more than $100,000 in renovations. The society furnished it and decorated it with donated artifacts.


Happily hoarding history

When it comes to objects, the value is in the eye of the beholder. Items in the Lewes Historical Society’s collection range from the Fresnel lens that once flashed a lighthouse beacon to a wooden leg. “We think of our collection as Lewes’s memories,” DiPaolo says. And there are a lot of them. The society has a 4,000-volume library, 300,000 document pages and 10,000 artifacts, including furniture and artworks. Keep in mind, however, that an artifact might include more than one item, such as a grouping of three photographs or a 10-page missive written by a 19th-century vacationer about his tour of the Lewes-and-Rehoboth Canal.

Most items are donated. “You train yourself just to say yes,” says Nancy Alexander, executive director of the Reho­both Beach Historical Society. She accepted a donation of old vacation photos in the hopes that some would date back to the 1940s and not the 1990s. They were from 1895. “They were amazing,” she says. One of them showed a significantly larger Lake Gerar.

A woman who’d just moved into an assisted-living facility sent the society a porcelain dish with a picture of Horn’s Pavilion, a Rehoboth boardwalk entertainment venue that was demolished by a storm in 1914. “You never know what you’re going to get when you walk in the door,” Alexander says. “I love it. ... I’ve gone out for a walk and come back to find a pair of Rehoboth High School gym shorts on my desk.”

On occasion, a historical society might buy an item. Last year, the LHS purchased a painting of the Delaware Breakwater that came up for auction in Maine. Donors have often made up the difference if an object was out of the society’s price range.

Between the donations — which might include boxes of a club’s meeting minutes — and the purchases, the collection adds up. The Lewes organization now has so many artifacts that boxes upon boxes occupy every available corner of the Hiram Rodney Burton House, the society’s headquarters. They also line the hallways.

DiPaolo and his team have been busy going through the items that will be moved to the Lewes History Museum. He’s encountered artifacts that he’d forgotten about. Consider a transcript of a radio show about Delaware River pilots that aired on WHAT in Philadelphia in the 1930s. DiPaolo, who had a newspaper advertisement for the show, had looked long and hard for a transcript on the Internet. His search was fruitless. One day, he opened up a donated book, and the transcript fell unexpectedly onto the desk. A few months ago, he came upon it again. He contacted the Ad Hoc Touring Co., an affiliate of the Possum Point Players, which reads aloud radio plays. The actors hope to perform the show during the LHS’s Chautauqua Tent Show in June.

When the society finds an artifact related to another town’s history, it goes to the relevant organization. The practice is common. A Rehoboth Historical Society intern this winter went through a donated scrapbook full of postcards and sorted them by town. Those featuring Pocomoke, for instance, will go to the Worcester County (Md.) Historical Society, and so forth. “We all do that for one another,” Alexander says.


Bringing the past to the present

It’s not enough for a historical society to preserve objects or buildings. The goal is to share them with a broad audience, from residents to visitors and from children to retirees, in increasingly creative ways.

Bill Hicks, a Lewes Historical Society volunteer, conducts tours of the Cannonball House in 18th-century garb. Children often ask if he’s a pirate. No, Hicks tells them. He is Gilbert McCracken, a Delaware River and Bay pilot. (The Cannonball House is McCracken’s former home.) While in character, the tour guide tells his young audience that being a pilot today is very much like it was in the 1700s and 1800s. When a ship enters Delaware Bay, the pilot boards the vessel to guide it through the waterway’s treacherous channels.

Hicks also regales them with tales of the obstinate Capt. James Drew of the DeBraak, who refused to listen to a pilot’s advice regarding the British warship’s sails. As a result, the top-heavy vessel capsized on May 25, 1798, off the coast of Cape Henlopen during a squall. “You can see them getting excited,” says Hicks, a former elementary school teacher. “When you add the backstory, history comes alive.”

When it comes to sharing history, costumes are colorful, but they’re not required. The Ocean View Historical Society organizes about four lectures a year. “They’re probably our biggest outreach,” says Barbara Slavin, who will become president on April 20. (She is not related to Tim Slavin of the state’s Division of Historical and Cultural Affairs.) Topics have included Sussex County during World War II and the Civil War’s impact on the county. Lifelong residents share their stories from the 1930s and 1940s. The events, held in the Old Town Hall in John West Park, average from 60 to 100 attendees.

The larger Lewes Historical Society has a year-round speaker series and monthly lunch-and-learn presentations given by experts and history buffs. Hicks and his wife, Jill, a fiction writer, in October presented “Three Love Stories of Lewes.” The tales were interwoven with Lewes history. “We’re history geeks,” says Hicks of his fellow volunteers and presenters.

The all-volunteer South Bethany Historical Society in 2014 published “The Best Little Beach in Delaware,” which includes interviews with property owners and former mayors, as well as more than 300 photos, news clippings, postcards and other memorabilia.

Themed exhibits are also part of many societies’ offerings. The Milton organization in January unveiled “Paradise Frost: Milton’s Frozen History,” which runs through May 29. Artifacts include skates that touched the ice on Wagamons Pond, the original sign from King’s Homemade Ice Cream and a fridge that once held blocks of ice in the days before electricity.

The Rehoboth Beach Historical Society changes exhibits each summer. The most popular show thus far? “It’s a tie between the vintage bathing suits and the sand pails,” Alexander says. “No matter whether you grew up here or not, you can relate to them.” This summer’s exhibit, “Angry Water,” which explores area shipwrecks, will open over Memorial Day weekend.


Expanding the story

Since opening its museum in late 2007, the Rehoboth Beach Historical Society has nearly doubled its membership. The museum “definitely helps in terms of letting people see how the collection is used,” Alexander notes. “The museum is also a gathering space for the community and for people to come and share their happy memories.”

Tim Slavin of the state’s Division of Historical and Cultural Affairs would approve. “The true strength of local historical societies — providing citizens with safe harbors for civic engagement on a variety of issues — should not be undervalued. That role is now more important than ever before.”

The museum’s renovated second story will more than double its exhibit and public space. “We’re going to pull a lot more things out of storage that you don’t see now,” Alexander promises. “We have things from the beach patrol, flyswatters with hotel names on them — they’re hysterical — wonderful souvenir dishes. You put up an aerial [photograph] and people will stop and stare at it. ... It has such a meaning for people who are older and didn’t grow up with Google Earth.”

The society has a $1-a-year lease with the city, which owns the building, for 50 years. Fund are still being raised for the expansion, which will provide more storage, research and administration space, as well as room for exhibitions.

Similarly, the Lewes Historical Society has entered into a 20-year lease with the city for 14,000 square feet of space in the old library. (The city will retain a portion of the building as meeting space for Lewes-based nonprofits.)

Renovations include the removal of two walls — one downstairs to make the lobby larger and one on the second level for an enhanced storage space. The first floor will house permanent and temporary galleries and a children’s wing. There will also be a flexible meeting space. Research materials and the society’s library will move to the new location.

Most of the staff, however, will remain in the Hiram Rodney Burton House at the LHS complex. “The society has been here for the last 55 years, and we have a connection to downtown Lewes,” DiPaolo explains. “There are very few other resources that are more Lewes than Shipcarpenter Street; it’s a unique address.”

The Ocean View Historical Society has continually added to its collection of buildings since it renovated the Tunnell-West House, which in 2012 was entered into the National Register of Historic Places.

Like its Lewes counterpart, the society has created a complex in John West Park by adding the town’s original post office, which was once so dilapidated that a tree was growing out of it, recalls Barbara Slavin. There is an outhouse and a replica of Cecile Steele’s chicken house. (Steele, who lived in Ocean View, is widely credited with starting Sussex County’s broiler industry.) Even before the society took possession of the Evans-West House, members successfully lobbied to have the home listed in the national registry.

“We’re hoping to build a visitors’ center,” Slavin says. “That’s our next fundraising project.” The new building will look like an old store because the town traces its origins to Hall’s General Store. Built in 1820, it linked area residents to much-needed goods, delivered by flat-bottomed schooners. The store was such a fixture that the burgeoning community was called Hall’s Store. It became Ocean View in 1899. (At one time, some residents could indeed see the ocean from their homes’ second stories.)

When the Evans-West House joins the fold, it will also showcase the history of neighboring communities, such as Mill­ville, South Bethany, Fenwick Island and Bethany Beach.


Money and manpower

Slavin says funding for the all-volunteer Ocean View Historical Society’s projects, which has topped $200,000, mostly comes from membership dues and grants. “We’ve had to work for it,” she says. Lewes, which has a rich history, and Rehoboth have more full- and part-time residents and tourists. As a result, they have access to more — and more generous — sources of funding.

Special events, such as the Christmas house tour, antiques shows and crafts fairs, have been reliable fundraisers for the Lewes Historical Society ever since DiPaolo became the executive director. They bring in about a third of the budget. The society also has a $1.2 million endowment. Membership dues, admission fees and gift shop proceeds are “the big pillars” of the society’s stability, he says.

Then, of course, there are the donations. An anonymous donor in December 2016 pledged to match every contribution received through Dec. 1, 2017 — up to $1 million — to fund the society’s new museum in the Margaret H. Rollins Community Center. An anonymous donor also is paying the $24,000 yearly rent.

Over the years, the society has received aid from the state for programming. Local officials recognize that the LHS’s holdings and events are tourist attractions with ripple-out effects, DiPaolo says.

As a result, the organization has added key positions including event coordinator, marketing coordinator and director of education. It’s not the only society that has employees. Milton now has three paid staff members, and Rehoboth has two part-timers in addition to Alexander, whose background is in art history.

Even so, volunteers remain the backbone of all the groups. “What I lack in number of paid staff I make up for with phenomenal volunteers — just phenomenal,” Alexander says. “Many are super smart. They’re a lively group. I think people who like history are people who like people.”

Kim Fabbri, who joined the Milton Historical Society as the executive director last summer, says volunteers greet guests and give tours, conduct research, collect data and set up or break down event equipment. “Volunteers are an integral piece of making the museum open and accessible to the community,” she says. “We are always looking for additional help.”

Volunteers also maintain the Milton society’s property and garden, tasks that could easily overwhelm the Lewes Historical Society. Just ask Rich Weissmann, a member of the self-proclaimed Rusty Nail Gang, a group of more than 15 volunteers who help restore and maintain the organization’s buildings.

“It’s been a massive amount of work,” says Weissmann, a retired CPA. The gang has scraped paint, replaced rotten boards and repainted. They’ve cleaned up the Cannonball House’s grounds and planted new gardens. The volunteers also made repairs to the Ryves Holt House after the gift shop moved to the Zwaanendael Club’s old headquarters. In the former clubhouse, they painted, repaired cracks and installed handmade shelving and tables. “It’s not only rewarding from a personal standpoint, but we’re able to contribute to the community and restore some of these old buildings and maintain them for the future,” he says.

In all, the Lewes Historical Society has nearly 350 volunteers. Many are retirees who live full time in the Lewes area. That’s not the case for the Rehoboth Beach society. “We have a different mix,” Alexander says. Many of her volunteers are only in town during the summer, or they move between homes in Delaware and the Carolinas or Florida.

The state’s southern beach resorts’ population still has a seasonal ebb and flow. Nevertheless, the Ocean View group has grown from eight members, who “had a lot of good ideas and a lot of energy,” to 160 members and 12 board members, Slavin says.

Slavin, who lives in the home built by her great-grandfather, joined in 2010 when she retired and moved to Ocean View. “One of the active members [at that time] was my cousin, and she said: ‘You are going to join the society.’” Although they have deep roots in the area, the women are anomalies, as the majority of members are new to the area.

Since the Bethany Beach area is seasonal, the society mainly holds events and opens the historic homes in the summer. “It’s kind of a Catch-22: We’re trying to get people who’ve never been here before, but we’re competing with the beach,” Slavin explains.

It is an issue that all the societies share. They’re also concerned about reaching the young people who might be tomorrow’s preservationists. Each year, students from H.O. Brittingham Elementary School and Milton Elementary School take field trips to the Milton museum. “It’s a great opportunity for children in town to learn more about their community,” Fabbri notes.

With the addition of Marcos Salaverria, LHS director of education, the Lewes society can “take outreach to a new level,” DiPaolo says. “We have a great relationship with the Cape Henlopen School District. Personally, I think every student in Delaware should be required to visit New Castle, Dover and Lewes at some point during their 12-year academic career.”

Despite its size, DiPaolo says the society can’t go it alone. Others agree. Fabbri regularly meets with DiPaolo, Alexander and Claudia Leister, the director of the Milford Museum. They exchange ideas and work on events together.

Collaboration extends beyond their peers. Southern Delaware Tourism recently formed a committee that includes reps from historical societies, museums and other history-related organizations. “We’re exploring creative ways of working together to promote the county’s historical assets as a whole to visitors and potential visitors,” says Coleman, the tourism group’s media manager. “When it comes to history in Sussex County, we’ve got a whole lot to work with.”

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