Preserving the Past
Coastal historical societies have made heritage a community focal point — and a tourist attraction
When 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.
Decorative trim spices up the area’s Victorian-style homes
From the Holiday 2016 issue
Ellen Passman doesn’t need to bake a gingerbread house for Christmas. She lives in one. Passman’s home is on Union Street in downtown Milton. The yellow clapboard structure has a wide front porch and is decorated from top to bottom with fancy scrollwork, commonly called gingerbread.
Along the edge of the roof on the main portion of the house, the gingerbread resembles waves; over the two-story bay window, it looks like a paper chain of hearts and bows.
On the front porch, circles with daisy-like cutouts are on either side of the six posts. The circles are connected to one another by two small boards that run parallel to each other and the roof; an inverted fleur-de-lis interrupts the boards at the center point between the posts.
“All of that gingerbread is definitely part of the home’s appeal,” says Passman, who bought the house in 2000. The structure was built in 1870, at the height of Victorian architecture’s popularity in the United States, and all of its decoration is original. When she moved there, some of the swirls and curves were broken off; an area craftsman was able to duplicate the designs and patch it up.
The Grape Escape
With his long hair and tweed sport coat, Larry O’Brien looked every inch the hip college professor. He stood before a class of 23 students, who gazed expectantly at the materials he’d placed on the tables in front of them. It didn’t take long before O’Brien was tossing out a string of similes and adjectives.
“This smells like a cigar,” he said. “But it’s not a good cigar, it’s a bad one, and it smells like it would if you touched the tobacco and it crumbled.” He followed up with descriptors like “silky,” “elegant,” “gorgeous” and “refined.” The smell of leather and cedar were all labeled enticing aromas.
O’Brien wasn’t teaching a creative writing class. Nor is he an English professor. He’s a master sommelier with Jackson Family Wines, which owns vineyards in six countries. On that October afternoon, O’Brien was leading the tasting of five wines at the Southern Delaware Wine, Food and Music Festival, held at Independence, a 55-plus community near Angola.