Off-season Rehoboth was largely deserted in the early 1970s, but steeped in a warm charm that would draw a Midwestern couple back
By Thomas Hoyer
From the Holiday 2018 issue
March weekends in Rehoboth Beach are brisk. The boardwalk businesses may be mostly shuttered for the off-season, but Rehoboth Avenue’s shops and restaurants tend to be open, and the readily available parking places make them even more attractive.
The town was a different place when my wife and I discovered it in late winter 1972. Rehoboth Avenue was deserted, the now defunct drug store and a High’s convenience store with gas pumps were operating, but the only open restaurant we saw was the Avenue (since replaced with today’s modern Avenue Inn & Spa). A bundled-up stroller could find himself alone on the boardwalk with the frigid, gray Atlantic on the one side and on the other, as if to taunt him with the memory of summer, the red, blue and yellow “Playland” sign hanging above the boarded up doors of the amusement arcade.
In 1972, Maureen and I are recent refugees from the Midwest. The Rehoboth Beach we discover on our first visit — the Rehoboth Beach with which we fall in love — is the winter one. A single Instamatic snapshot memorializes that first trip. Taken 45 years ago last March, it shows the two of us, impossibly young and thin, standing on the boardwalk with the Atlantic at our back. It is a color print but the season is black and white. The ocean behind us is vast and gray; the wind behind us feels as if it is saturated with ice water. Even so, the image captures the day Rehoboth enters our hearts.
We are new to the East Coast, having fled from Indiana to Baltimore in search of jobs. We have lived in our new one-bedroom apartment for only two months when Maureen remembers her cousin Ann is married to an airman stationed at Dover Air Force Base. We set out early on a cold March Saturday morning, driving northeast around the Chesapeake Bay and then south to Dover. The military installation is as intractably drab as any I’ve ever visited. Ann suggests that we all drive down to Rehoboth. It is a cute little town, she tells us.
The trip is just 40 miles south on Route 1. The town is a modern model of a fortified medieval village, compact and surrounded by a moat (the Lewes-and-Rehoboth Canal) whose drawbridge we clatter across. Rehoboth Avenue, the five-block main street, begins on the east side of that bridge. We cannot see the ocean yet, but the open horizon tells us it is there.
The street looks like a vacant movie set of a small town.
It is closed for the winter. Browseabout Books — the heart of Rehoboth Avenue today — does not exist at the time. Even so, enclosed by the bridged canal at the back and the Atlantic at the front, Rehoboth Beach has an alluring self-contained feel. I immediately like the sense of sanctuary it conveys.
We park in front of that lone open restaurant, the Avenue, and walk up to the boardwalk. The ocean alone is worth the drive. Neither Maureen nor I have ever seen the Atlantic. We’ve seen Puget Sound but not the Pacific. I look at those waves and try to fathom the fact that they’re at the lapping edge of an expanse of water more than 3,000 miles wide. I know I will be opening up my worn copy of “Moby-Dick” as soon as I get home.
Ann snaps a picture of us standing together, our backs to the beach. There aren’t any other people around. The chill soon drives us back to our car, a Laredo tan Rambler American that seems to shout out our Midwestern origins. We return our host to Dover and drive home. When Ann sends the photo of us with the Atlantic at our back, we prop it up on the hutch, the first souvenir of our life on the East Coast.
In 1973, at Thanksgiving, we decide to be locally lonely rather than make the 1,200-mile round trip for a family weekend in Indiana. But it turns out we don’t want to be lonely in our one-bedroom Baltimore apartment. On Thanksgiving morning we choose on a whim to return to Rehoboth Beach.
The trip gets off to a nervous start, with the Rambler American’s engine coughing and stuttering until I figure out that a few gallons of high test will counteract the bargain gas I fed it earlier. The engine is humming when we arrive, rattling over the drawbridge again at high noon. The temperature is in the high 40s. This time our walk on the boardwalk and along the beach is longer and more leisurely. The stores are still closed but it is warm enough for us to stroll on Rehoboth Avenue and peer into their windows. Eventually we stop at the Avenue, a family restaurant with a sign that announces
a Thanksgiving dinner with all the trimmings. Inside we find it filled with what to our 27-year-old eyes seem to be elderly diners. It is a scene that reminds us of small-town Indiana.
We haven’t planned to eat Thanksgiving dinner out, so I order soup and coffee, as usual paying more attention to my plans than to my feelings. Maureen, susceptible and much more flexible, orders the dinner. When it is served, the food is amazing — rich and plentiful and much more than she can eat. The atmosphere and the aromas seduce me and I dig in along with her, sharing a sense of intimacy as well as a meal. By the time I’ve finished Maureen’s pumpkin pie with my second cup of coffee, I am in the same post-dinner haze my grandmother’s Thanksgiving feasts once produced. It is a wonderful experience made even better because it is unexpected. We drive home full of happy memories. Even so, we do not return for 20 years. We take other trips, discover the Outer Banks and lose track of Rehoboth Beach.
It is my friend Joanne who revives my memories and our connection with the town. She and her partner, Margaret, are regulars there and they love it. In November 1994 Joanne suggests we join them in Rehoboth for a weekend and we agree. This time we take a room at the Admiral hotel at the head of Baltimore Avenue and spend two nights. Our room is on the fifth floor. Its picture window looks out over the buildings below along several blocks of Rehoboth Avenue as well as maybe a quarter of a mile of beach. I still think it is the best view in town. And this November, the town is awake.
The difference is amazing. There are more stores and restaurants open even though it is late autumn. The first morning, I look down Baltimore Avenue and see the hanging effigy of a coffee cup only a block away from the Admiral. It is the Dream Cafe, a wonderful little coffee shop run by two charming women who sell fresh pastries and make perfect lattes, which I purchase and carry back to our room. The sun is shining. The little square mile of a town — which I remember as a Sleeping Beauty or a slumbering Snow White — is now alert and bright.
We wander around with Joanne and Margaret. We walk the boardwalk. We stroll around the shores of Lake Gerar to observe the waterfowl. I see (for the first time) large Muscovy ducks with their red heads. The sun shines off the small body of water. We walk south to Silver Lake and look at the splashes of sunlight reflecting off the surface and the lovely white gazebos that dot the shore.
It is cold and we eventually retreat to Grotto Pizza to warm up with this local specialty. We discover Browseabout Books and Maureen loses herself in its extensive children’s section and greeting card selection while I marvel at the number of current mysteries they stock. I buy the loveliest card I can find and write a note to my mother about the experience, a custom that persists on future visits to The Admiral. There are plenty of people in the bookstore even though it is the off-season, and the newspaper racks in front include the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal and a host of other papers. This is a town whose people read.
The nights are alive, too. On the clear night, with the Dolle’s sign at our backs, we see lighted buoys and identify the Cape May lighthouse beam as it flashes across the water. On a foggy night we hear the fog horn even in our room. An air-raid siren doubles as a call for the volunteer fire department, and the sound of it reminds us that this is a real community.
The weekend refreshes our attraction to the town. In life, as in a fairy tale, we are attracted to the seasonal cycle; we love the princess while she sleeps, we love her too when she awakens. For half a dozen years we visit more and more regularly, feeling the same lift in our spirits each time our car clatters across that drawbridge. In 2002 we build a house just beyond the “moat.” I love the sound of the bell that rings when the bridge has been drawn up for a passing sailboat, a regular reminder that this is the setting for our own real-life fairy tale.
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