Tag Archives: Delaware

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

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Filed under Delmarva Geography, Maps, Sussex County

Jarrett Willey, Innholder at Broad Creek

In March of 1737, a man named Jarrett Willey petitioned the Somerset County Court for permission to keep “an Ordinary or house of Entertainment at his house at broad Creek in Somerset County for the Use and Conveniency of the Inhabitants Travellers and Strangers. . .”  The Court granted his request, under the condition that he would pay a yearly fee of fifty shillings, and keep an orderly establishment. Tippling, gaming, and “disorders or other Irregularities” were not to be tolerated.  Local planters Robert Givans and Allen Gray provided security; they would be fined if Willey failed to follow the rules.

Technically, an ordinary was a tavern or restaurant, but in this part of the colonies, the term was also used to refer to inns. In this case, the Court record specifically calls Willey an “Inholder” — that is, an innholder or innkeeper. His ordinary would have been one of the most important places at Broad Creek at the time; a place for travelers to stay overnight, and for locals to gather.

Willey’s name appears on the Somerset County tax lists for 1737-1740, but the spelling is inconsistent. For example, in 1740, it was Jerad Willy. Also in 1740, he petitioned the Court again; this record is nearly identical to the one from 1737, with Jonathan Shockley and Paris Chipman providing security.

The exact location of Willey’s establishment is unclear, but it seems to have been located at or near the community known as Broad Creek Bridge, near today’s Sandy Fork. In 1741, some of the residents of the easternmost reaches of Broad Creek petitioned for the creation of a new road leading from “Jarrad Wiley on broad Creek” into Wimbesocom Neck, a distance of several miles. This road may have been the basis of parts of today’s Route 24.

Willey makes another appearance, this time in the land records, in 1742. His first name is spelled Garrett. A triangular 50-acre tract was surveyed for him and described as being in the fork of two roads leading from Broad Creek Bridge to the Wicomico River and Wicomico forest, respectively. This certainly sounds like a good location for an ordinary, but it’s not clear how Willey used his new tract of land, which was patented to him in 1746.

The handful of references to Jarrett Willey, innholder at Broad Creek, offer us a better understanding of the early Broad Creek Bridge community, which we still know so little about.

– Chris Slavens

 

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Filed under Delaware history, Laurel, Maryland history, Sussex County

Laurel Historical Society dinner to feature historic photo sleuth

The Laurel Historical Society is pleased to welcome historic photograph expert John Fillmore—as well as all of our members, and the general public—to a dinner and presentation on Saturday, October 19th, at St. Philip’s Episcopal Church. Arrive at 5:30 pm for a reception with beer and wine available for purchase, to be followed by a buffet-style dinner provided by Southern Grill at 6:00. A fascinating presentation about photograph restoration and forensic photography, featuring examples from Laurel’s own Waller collection, will follow. The cost is $40 per person. Attendees are asked to register by October 11th; you can register online or print a registration form at the society’s events page.

John Fillmore has always been fascinated with old photographs. As a retired history teacher with a master’s degree in applied technology, he has taken his interest in historic images and developed it into a service in which he digitizes and restores old photos. Fillmore is a native Delawarean who has made multiple contributions to the image collection of the Delaware State Archives and provided digitizing services for several local historical societies.

Millions of photographs have been produced in the U.S. since the mid-19th century. Unfortunately, many of these images—including those of possible historical significance—remain unidentified. If we take the time to re-examine some of these images using the technologies of today, we are often able to identify the subject, time, and place. Fillmore’s presentation is about using a variety of resources to accomplish this task.

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Hoedown at Hitchens Homestead, June 8th

The Laurel Historical Society is staging a Hoedown at Hitchens Homestead on Saturday, June 8th, featuring live music, food trucks, beer and wine, and artisan exhibits. Located at 205 Willow Street, overlooking Records’ Pond, and commonly known as “the house on the hill,” the Hitchens Homestead is in the beginning stages of an extensive restoration project. The main house was built in 1878 by Emmanuel Twilley, one of the owners of the nearby mill. The event is a fundraiser for the restoration project; tickets are $10 per adult, or $5 per child under 16. Advance tickets will be mailed to society members, but they are also available at Laurel Pizzeria and Maxine’s Hair Happenings, as well as online.

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Historic Movie Theaters of Delaware

Grab some popcorn, silence your cell phone, and enjoy the show.

In Historic Movie Theaters of Delaware, published by the History Press, film buff and writer Michael J. Nazarewycz invites readers to take a deep dive into the history of 150 movie theaters in the First State, from the Middletown Opera House—where attendees enjoyed viewing still photographs projected via Sciopticon in the early 1870s—to the multiplex cinemas of today. This is a cleverly cinema-themed book, with punny section titles including Opening Credits, Closing Credits, Fade In, Fade Out, and Moving Pictures, all referring to the life and times of various theaters. Rather than trace the history of individual theaters from beginning to end, Nazarewycz tackles the statewide scene in chronological order, one era at a time. Thus we learn in “Take” or chapter four that T. J. Waller built the first Waller Theatre in Laurel in 1913, but its disastrous burning in 1940 and subsequent replacement are mentioned three chapters later. The Waller (or New Waller) closed permanently after its ceiling collapsed in 1967.

Of the 150 theaters covered, only 22 are open today, a mere “14 of which are full-time movie theaters,” making Historic Movie Theaters of Delaware a valuable and important history of a vanishing part of Delaware’s past.

The Laurel Historical Society welcomes Michael J. Nazarewycz to St. Philip’s Episcopal Church on Saturday, March 16th, for a film-themed dinner, presentation, and book signing.

– Chris Slavens

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Filed under Books, Delaware, Delaware history, Events, Laurel, Laurel Historical Society, Sussex County

Editing the Laurel Historical Society’s newsletter

I joined the Laurel Historical Society about three years ago, primarily because I appreciated the society’s newsletters and wanted to support it. Ned and Norma Jean Fowler promptly tracked me down and encouraged me to get involved. Since then, I’ve contributed a few short articles to the newsletter, most of which are also available on this site. Recently I’ve gotten more involved in LHS, and am now its newsletter editor, as well as a board member.

The Winter 2019 issue of the newsletter was printed in early January and mailed to members, and it will be available online in the near future, along with previous newsletters. I’ll also post my article, “Parramore’s Plantation at Whaley’s Crossroads,” on this blog. Editing this issue was a learning experience, and although I’m pleased with the final product, I have a few ideas for improvements which I’ll try with the Spring 2019 issue.

One of the things I’m hoping to accomplish with the newsletter is to preserve older locals’ memories in writing. There are many people in our community who know things that everybody else has forgotten, and their knowledge will die with them if we don’t talk to them and document what they have to say. I find that the handful of local residents in their 90’s, in particular, remember a Sussex County that the rest of us have never known. For example, I’ve asked many people if they’ve ever heard of the local roofed grave custom, and I even ran an ad in the Guide last year in the hopes of turning up new leads, but so far only two local men in their 90’s have recalled hearing about roofed graves — and even then, neither had actually seen them. Yet these mysterious grave shelters were supposedly quite common in the area between Laurel, Gumboro, and Salisbury in the mid- to late 1800s. What else has been forgotten by the Baby Boomers, Gen Xers, and millennials of Laurel? I think there are a lot of interesting stories out there, and I’d like to publish them.

So I’d like to sincerely invite anyone to contact me with any leads of interest. Photos, memories, suggestions, questions, etc. Possible future topics include the history of Scouting in Laurel (which dates back to 1912, just two years after the Boy Scouts were founded), the lost community near Sandy Fork known as Old Forge or Broad Creek Bridge, and wooden grave markers around Laurel. I’d also like to invite anyone who enjoys this blog to consider joining the society. Membership is only $30 for an individual, $50 for a family, or $100 for a business, and includes a print copy of each newsletter.

The Spring 2019 issue comes out in May; at the moment, it’s a dozen blank pages.

– Chris Slavens

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Residents of Lowe’s Crossroads, 1899

From the second volume of the Biographical and Genealogical History of the State of Delaware, published in 1899:

LOWE’S CROSS ROADS, a village whose population is 200 or more, is situated in the midst of a level and partly wooded country, whose dark, loamy soil is productive of corn, vegetables and fruits. The place is about 14 miles from Georgetown, and is in the northern part of Gumboro hundred. Churches and schools are convenient.

Among the citizens of the town and its vicinity are the following:

Mrs. Sarah W. Brittingham

Wm. A. Cannon

Lemerson Collins

Mrs. Nancy S. Collins

Mrs. Mary Downs

Stephen H. Downs

Philip E. English

Peter B. Gordy

W. T. Gray

Chas. S. Gumby

George H. Harrison

N. Washington Jones

Benj. S. King

C. E. King

George E. King

Lorenzo King

John S. Lecates

Minos B. Lingo

Stansbury C. Matthews

Levin H. Moore

Amelia G. Parsons

Elijah C. Short

Elijah W. Short

James N. Short

Willard Stephens

Wm. B. Truitt

John S. Baker

Gibson Boyce

James B. Brown

Joseph M. Cannon

Elijah W. Collins

Jacob P. Collins

Ora J. Collins

Elijah R. Downs

James F. Downs

Jesse T. Downs

Joseph M. Downs

P. O. Downs

Stephen H. Downs

Thomas H. Downs

Wm. Easham

James M. Foskey

Aaron I. Gordy

Benton H. Gordy

Frank W. Gordy

John H. Gordy

John L. Gordy

Peter B. Gordy

Levi J. Gray

Wm. T. Gray

Stephen P. Gumby

Lemuel Hadden

Elijah Hudson

George F. Hudson

Benjamin M. Jones

Elijah W. Jones

George W. Jones

Isaac S. Jones

Jacob S. Jones

Joseph B. Jones

Matthew R. King

Wm. C. King

John S. Lecates

Joseph H. Lecates

Wm. Lecates

Minos B. Lingo

James H. Littleton

Henry C. Matthews

Stansbury Matthews

Elijah J. Mitchell

Ebenezer H. Parsons

James S. Parsons

Matthias Pennell

Edward C. Pusey

George W. Pusey

William S. Pusey

John Savage

Elijah C. Short

James N. Short

Edward Spicer

Reuben Stephens

Willard Stephens

Burton P. Truitt

Cornelius W. West

John H. West

John T. West

Joseph P. West

Rufus W. West

William J. West

William H. Wooten

Note: The list of names is printed in paragraph form in the book; I’ve presented them this way for the sake of convenience. There are a few duplicates. Although I’m not certain how much territory this section covers, names like William J. West, John S. Lecates, Henry C. Matthews, and Benton H. Gordy indicate that the area around Whaley’s Crossroads and Terrapin Hill is included.

– Chris Slavens

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Filed under Delaware, Delaware history, Sussex County