If there is a town that oozes history, it’s New Castle. From the top of the Emmanuel Episcopal Church steeple to the lumpy brick sidewalks, painstakingly maintained buildings provide a view of life in Colonial times.
And what a story they have to tell. About 350 years ago New Castle got caught in a tug-of-war between Dutch and Swedish settlers jockeying for this prime location along the Delaware River. In 1664, the English seized Fort Casimir from the Dutch and renamed the area New Castle. When King Charles II deeded the lands that now make up Pennsylvania to William Penn in 1682 to repay a debt to Penn’s father, the “three lower counties on the Delaware” were included to assure access to a prime waterway.
New Castle served as Delaware’s first capital when it broke from Pennsylvania in 1704. The event is celebrated every year as Separation Day with a parade, festival and fireworks near Battery Park. The display rivals the best in the state.
The local economy flourished until 1840, when rail lines bypassed the town in favor of Wilmington. That event had the fortuitous result of preventing many residents from making substantial structural changes to their homes. New Castle abounds with pristine examples of Dutch, Colonial and Federal architecture.
The main artery into Old New Castle is Delaware Street, which opens onto the historic Market Green. There you will find the Old Court House Museum, where the state’s Colonial assembly met from 1732 to 1777. The Dutch House (32 E. Third St.) and the Amstel House (2 E. Fourth St.) convey the day-to-day lifestyle of Colonial times. The Old Library Museum (40 E. Third St.), designed by famed architect Frank Furness, is a Victorian structure built in the shape of a hexagon. It features exhibits on New Castle’s history. The headstones in the cemetery of the Immanuel Episcopal Church also provide a fascinating glimpse into history.
What’s really great about New Castle, though, is its authenticity. It’s not a museum but a fully functioning town where 21st-century people just happen to live in Colonial houses. Hundreds gather for the Halloween parade on Delaware Street. The Lions Club’s open-air art show and sale is a tradition. The annual Wharf Dance next to the river, a new tradition, took off right out of the box. And weekly summer concerts at Battery Park bring out half the town.
Delaware Street offers a variety of unique shops. Hedge Apple Antiques and 2nd ACT Antiques offer diverse inventories. Local artisans show and sell their work at Penn’s Place Artisans’ Gallery. Oak Knoll Books carries 23,000 books about books. Family-owned Bridgewater Jewelers has served New Castle for more than 132 years. If you want to hoist one with the townies, Jessop’s Tavern conjures the spirit of Colonial times, and Nora Lee’s French Quarter Café’s slate of musicians often includes locals.
Little wonder history buffs love living in New Castle. But the town has lots to offer other buyers as well. “We have all different price ranges,” says sixth-generation New Castlean Chris Cashman, a Realtor with Patterson-Schwartz. “Whether you can afford a $200,000 house or a million-dollar house, there’s inventory available for you.” New residents get to know the neighbors quickly. They also soon discover that everyone knows everyone else’s business. And everyone has something to say about town business.
New Castle also attracts empty nesters looking to downsize. “There’s not as much grass to cut or maintenance,” says Timothy Scully of Curt Scully Real Estate in New Castle. “These are good houses. They’ve stood the test of time.”
Photo by Maria DeForrest
The tiny Sussex County towns of Bethel and Laurel are big on history. Bethel is a small (pop. 171) well-preserved 19th-century shipbuilding and trading community. Its historic district—known as Lewisville and Lewis’ Wharf—consists of four buildings representative of dwellings built by the villages’ skilled ship carpenters: the two Ship-Carpenter Houses; the Victorian Moore House and the Italianate 4 R’s Farm House.
The Bethel Museum features an exhibit that offers visuals of the town’s maritime history and another dedicated to the Nanticoke Indians, the first people who lived in Bethel.
Laurel is home to more historic buildings than any town in Delaware—800 on the National Historic Record. Founded in 1683, Laurel was considered one of the wealthiest communities in the state. Today the Laurel Heritage Museum features an extensive collection of documents and objects, including the one-of-a-kind Waller Photographic Collection that depicts life in the area during the early 20th century. The Laurel Historical Society is housed in the Cook House Museum.
“You can certainly close your eyes and stand on Main Street and you basically can step back in time,” says Mayor Kathleen Harvey. “The streetscape is very much the same as it was 100 years ago.”
The town prospered as an agricultural port well into the 19th century. Traces of that past are visible everywhere. The grain trade collapsed in 1855, when the railroad was built through Middletown three miles to the west. Town officials changed its name to Odessa in the hope that it would flourish like its Russian namesake. The town enjoyed a slight boom during the Civil War, but never fully regained its former prosperity.
That proved to be a blessing in disguise. Thanks to the intervention of preservationist H. Rodney Sharp, Odessa now boasts one of the finest collections of late 18th- and early 19th-century architecture in the Mid-Atlantic. The grandest is the Corbit-Sharp House (1774), a five-bay 22-room mansion built by young tannery owner William Tanner. This beautiful example of Georgian architecture contains many fine antiques from the state of Delaware and original furnishings that belonged to the Corbit family. A formal garden and herb garden adjoin the mansion.
Another Georgian home, the Wilson Warner House (1769), which houses pieces from the Wilson family, including a silver tea set owned by builder Tom Wilson’s first wife, as well as some of her needlepoint. The third museum is the Brick Hotel Gallery (1922), which displays Victorian furniture by John Henry Belter. The fourth museum is the gable-roofed Collins-Sharp House (1700), one of the oldest houses in Delaware and a fine example of an early 18th-century log-and-frame house.
History aside, Odessa gets high marks for its peaceful ambiance and sense of community. “It’s a slower pace,” says Harvey—even as Odessa experiences a rare turnover. Yet as older residents pass on, the younger generation is returning to raise their families in the town where they grew up.
“When you are a little kid, you want to get out to where all the action is,” says Harvey. “When you’re an adult, you all of a sudden realize what a sweet little town it was that they were living in.”