There Ain’t No Such Place as West Fenwick: Rewriting the Geography of Sussex County

In 2007, I worked for a company which dealt with many new homeowners in the ritzy Bayside community, located just east of Williamsville, Delaware. Though their zip code was that of neighboring Selbyville, our work orders and bills said their location address was in Williamsville, while their billing address was in Selbyville. This was factually correct, as well as practical; secretaries used the location addresses to schedule jobs in a particular neighborhood. Frequently this resulted in a new client—perhaps a wealthy retiree from D.C. or New York, or an out-of-state resident who wanted a second (or third, or fourth…) home near the beach—politely mentioning that we’d gotten their address wrong. “This says Williamsville. Shouldn’t it be Selbyville?” At this point, a brief geography and history lesson was offered. “No, technically this community is considered Williamsville. After its post office was closed, the mail started going through Selbyville. So your zip code is 19975—Selbyville—but you’ve just bought a house in Williamsville.”

Typically, the client reacted to this revelation with confusion or disbelief. Sometimes they scribbled out Williamsville on their bill anyway.

The situation became even more confusing when an assisted living facility was built directly across the road, and misleadingly named “Brandywine Living at Fenwick Island.” This occurred during a period of time when many hundreds of new homes were being built along Route 54 between Williamsville and Fenwick Island. (As of 2019, this building boom continues, and shows no signs of slowing anytime soon.) The Williamsville-Selbyville debate began to look insignificant compared to a much more flagrant geographical error: The neighborhood was marketed to would-be homebuyers as Fenwick Island, even though Fenwick’s boundary was miles away. This became a source of great amusement to my coworkers and I, as it was not unusual for us to meet new clients who truly didn’t know where they lived.

The local business community, desiring to be associated with the beach, created the fictitious location of “West Fenwick,” erasing references to not only Williamsville—which was somewhat understandable, since it was a bit of a stretch to apply that name to the area east of Route 20—but also nearby Bayville, which I found to be rather puzzling, since that name already had a waterfront, beachy connotation. It survives in names like Bayville Shores and the Bayville Package Store, but it seems doubtful that any local resident under the age of 70 would say that they live in Bayville, particularly if they moved there in the last 10-15 years.

Meanwhile, the company I worked for stopped using the name Williamsville in location addresses. It stuck around on many of the older accounts, but new ones used Selbyville. I suspect that today, many of the current residents of the community in question have never heard the name Williamsville.

This shift in local place-names—due partly to ignorance and partly to clever commercial rebranding—is only one example of the rapid and ongoing rewriting of Sussex County’s geography, and to an extent, its history.

Another example is found a few miles north, where, several years ago, a developer bought up hundreds of acres of farmland in the eastern reaches of the Frankford zip code and began building a gigantic community named Millville-by-the-Sea. At the time, my coworkers and I thought it was hilarious. It wasn’t in Millville, nor was it by the sea! However, it seems that the developer had the last laugh; within a few years, the boundaries of Millville were officially expanded to include the new Frankford development, though its location relative to the distant sea appears to be unchanged.

Just a couple of miles away, there is a new subdivision called “The Woodlands at Bethany.” Not only is the development in Frankford instead of Bethany, but in an ironic twist which was surely unintentional, the developer cleared most of the woodlands there before building.

The Frankford zip code was already bizarrely large considering the small size of the town in which the post office is located, encompassing communities like Omar (formerly Baltimore), part of Clarksville (formerly Blackwater), Roxana (formerly Centerville, presumably because it is in the center of Baltimore Hundred), Bayard, and Miller’s Neck. To the west, Frankford stretches far across 113 and through the swamp into what is rightly known as Gumboro. Speaking of which. . .

In 2009, I rented a home in Gumboro. This is probably one of the most poorly understood place-names in Sussex County, used for both Gumboro Hundred and the unincorporated community (practically, but not officially, a town with its own churches, stores, and fire department) at its heart. A nearby branch of the Pocomoke River has been known as Gum Branch since at least the 1750s, and is probably the source of the name. Most of the folks in Gumboro have Millsboro mailing addresses, but unlike the come-heres in the beachy resort communities of eastern Sussex, they’re not confused about where they live. They know they live in Gumboro, and they say so with pride. My house on King’s Crossing Road was located closer to Lowe’s Crossroads (another former post office site) than to the old town of Gumborough, but well within the boundaries of Gumboro Hundred. When my electric bill came, it said Millsboro. Today, when I click on the location on Google Maps, it says Frankford.

Who knows?

I live in neither Gumboro nor Millsboro nor Frankford today, but even though my Laurel mailing address on Laurel Road in the Laurel School District seems consistent enough, all of the older neighbors know we live at Whaley’s Crossroads. Previous generations got their mail through the post offices at Bull’s Mills or Lowe’s Crossroads, depending on the time period. Even earlier, the closest dot on the map was Terrapin Hill. Much, much earlier, the colonial settlers called the neighborhood Wimbesocom Neck—a name which was completely forgotten until recently. Once I asked a fellow in his 90s, who had grown up about a mile down the road, whether he would have said that he lived in Laurel back then. He shook his head adamantly: “I didn’t live in Laurel. That’s not Laurel. I lived at Trap Pond.”

Place-names in western Sussex evolve and change naturally, almost on their own, over decades or centuries, but names in eastern Sussex seem to be rewritten overnight, oftentimes by a developer who wants to link yet another inland community to the beach to bump up the price of tiny lots awaiting cookie-cutter homes and cookie-cutter homeowners of the Salt Life variety. Nowhere is this more evident than in the territory north of Indian River and east of Route 113. Lewes, for example, once a small yet important town just inland of Cape Henlopen and the Delaware Bay, has devoured nearby communities like Pilottown, Quakertown, Nassau, Belltown, Marshtown, and—bizarrely, since it’s not even close—the whole of Angola Neck, once home to its own post office. The name Angola doesn’t seem to be going anywhere, thanks to the presence of a number of older developments which were named before it became fashionable to name every new development after the beach or bay, and every new street after a seagull, but even so the local businesses cause confusion at times by claiming to be located in Lewes. Which they are. . . sort of. . . but not really.

By the way, there’s a newish community in Angola called “Bayfront at Rehoboth.” Its mailing address is Lewes.

If Angola Neck’s takeover by Lewes seems odd, the zip codes of the next two necks heading southwestward are nothing less than absurd. The first, a tiny neck accessible only from Route 24, is shared by Millsboro and distant Harbeson. How Harbeson, a small village surrounding the intersection of Routes 9 and 5, managed to claim this territory is a mystery. The second neck is Long Neck; its thousands of homes have Millsboro mailing addresses. Generally, however, its thousands of residents know they live in Long Neck and call it as such. Sometimes confusion arises when a chain of businesses has locations in both Millsboro proper and Long Neck; officially, both are in Millsboro. If any coastal community deserves to be the recipient of a new zip code, it’s Long Neck.

As if the sprawling Millsboro zip code hadn’t already devoured enough communities, it claims Oak Orchard, too. This area was once derogatively known as Down Sockum, supposedly because many of the residents were Sockums, with mixed Indian ancestry. The name has connections to the historical Nanticoke Indians at Broad Creek and Puckamee in western Sussex and western Wicomico, respectively. Though the Sockum surname is no longer found in Indian River Hundred, many of the members of the modern Nanticoke Indian Association have Sockum ancestors in their family trees.

Times change, and names change, sometimes with good reason, sometimes not. Perhaps in a not-so-distant future, long-established local place-names will be forgotten or butchered beyond recognition in our collective mad dash from agricultural community to oceanfront resort. The hundreds have already been forgotten by practically everyone except surveyors and historians. Perhaps Sussex County—a name with roots in England—will be renamed Schell County, its county seat Georgetown-by-the-Sea, each of its public roads officially renamed after various waterfowl. Surely Angola won’t survive, with its assumed connection to Africa and the slave trade. (Why, just a week or two ago, the Cape Gazette quoted an activist who pointed to the name Plantation Road as evidence of an alleged race problem in Lewes!) Selbyville might be swallowed whole by West Fenwick, while other Route 113 communities like Frankford and Dagsboro could be rebranded West Ocean View. Never mind that they don’t offer a view of the ocean; neither does Ocean View.

An alternative strategy would be to simply keep all of the existing place-names in Sussex, but tack on the word beach; i.e., Millsboro Beach, Milton Beach, Seaford Beach, Laurel Beach, etc. Current beach towns could get an extra beach, just to drive the point home: Rehoboth Beach Beach, Bethany Beach Beach, and so on. Each municipality will probably adopt “Life’s a Beach!” as its official motto.

Future generations, accustomed to such names, may find them to be perfectly logical. But I’d like to imagine that someone in lower Delaware’s bustling coastal metropolis, equipped with a knowledge of history and a taste for authentic local culture, will look back at the maps of the 19th and 20th centuries, and savor the quaint, exotic, archaic names we’re so hastily discarding.

– Chris Slavens

2 Comments

Filed under Delmarva Geography, Maps, Sussex County

2 responses to “There Ain’t No Such Place as West Fenwick: Rewriting the Geography of Sussex County

  1. Mary Matus

    Brilliant Kinda like Beverly Hills 90210. It’s what happens when marketers have zero sense of place.

  2. Peggy

    Very good! Imagine the life of a REALTOR watching this over a quarter of a century. All the communities sound the same as well as the streets! It is maddening!

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