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Historic Odessa Is a Journey to the Past in the First State

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Photos Courtesy of Historic Odessa Foundation

Historic Odessa secured an endowment to sustain many historic sites and future programs including tours and school field trips.

Tucked just a few minutes from the hustle of Middletown lies a town preserved in time. Odessa, located in southern New Castle County, is named after the Ukrainian port city of the same name. The name was changed in the 19th century. Previously the town was known as Cantwell’s Bridge. 

Odessa is one of the most pristine colonial townscapes with many of the original houses being expertly preserved and open for tours through the Historic Odessa Foundation. 

Back in its heyday, Odessa was a busy grain shipping port on the banks of the Appoquinimink River. People regularly traveled from Philadelphia and other urban areas to Odessa. It is likely because of this connection with urban areas that many of the houses and buildings constructed in Odessa are architecturally similar to Philadelphia homes and businesses. 

Debbie Buckson, Historic Odessa Foundation’s executive director, says the historic sites were nearly lost during the economic downturn. The sites were under the governance of Winterthur, however in 2003, the organization voted to separate the two organizations. 

“It came so close to disappearing as a museum,” Buckson recalls. “But then I got a call from Donnan and she says she wants to save Odessa and asked if I would help. Here we are 17 years later.” 

Former Historic Odessa Foundation board president and granddaughter of prominent Delaware preservationist H. Rodney Sharp, H. Donnan Sharp, is proud to continue her family’s tradition of preservation in Odessa. Rodney Sharp fell in love with the town and, starting in 1938, worked to restore and preserve many of the historic homes here, even moving whole houses to save them. 

In December 2021, the Historic Odessa Foundation announced it had reached and exceeded its endowment goal of $3 million. The endowment will allow them to permanently sustain the preservation of six historic museum properties and the 72-acre site, which includes a collection of more than 7,000 decorative art objects, a living history educational program and plans for its future growth. 

“The endowment will enable us to grow into the future,” Buckson says. 

During a tour of the Corbit-Sharp House, Buckson notes prominent pieces that are included in detailed logs kept by William Corbit. The house is a National Historic Landmark and is considered the finest Georgian house in Delaware, she says. 

Odessa lies on the shortest land distance from the Chesapeake to the Delaware Bay, which is why it was a thriving town in the 18th and 19th centuries. When H. Rodney Sharp first came to Odessa as a schoolteacher from 1900 until 1903, the town had been bypassed by the railroad; by 1938, when he returned, the town was starting to fall apart. 

Today, the town looks much as it did during its prime and has about the same number of residents, holding steady at about 370. 

“People here were clockmakers, craftsmen and artisans,” Buckson says. “Some of the finest clocks and furniture were made right here. And many of those pieces are on display in our properties.” 

The foundation is working on a large-scale project to catalog and photograph all of its historic items. This cataloging will allow anyone to search the collection, which includes many pieces originally owned by the families living here. The catalog will be turned into a book sharing the history of the pieces and the family. 

“This collection is one of the best documented collections of furniture, paintings, textiles and metals, much of it inventoried by the original families so we know the furnishings were in these homes,” Buckson says. 

Future Programs

a community gathering at Historic Odessa

Historic Odessa is not just for adult history buffs. The foundation hosts a wide variety of tours and educational programming aimed at youth. 

The school tour program, sponsored by Wilmington Trust, and homeschool workshops are a big draw for youth, says Buckson. Here, students get to participate in an 18th century schoolroom using quills, slates and chalk. Or, they learn about cooking over a hearth. Other opportunities include going shopping in a time-period store and learning about apprenticeships in carpentry, pottery and tanning.  

In past years, school children from Delaware, Pennsylvania, Maryland and New Jersey have participated. 

Buckson is excited to bring back this type of programming to the historic sites, which were closed or limited during the pandemic.  

children learning history at Historic Odessa

 

One big draw for both adults and youth is the upstairs room of the Corbit-Sharp House where previous residents hid a runaway slave. Tours highlight the tight space above the stairs where quick-thinking Mary Corbit hid a fugitive named Sam. 

“Children enjoy hearing the story of Sam and seeing the place where he hid,” Buckson says. “It’s a real treat to be able to share this story and hear the questions from the kids. They become more interested in history and that’s a win-win.” 

Visit historicodessa.org to learn more and plan your visit.

Related: Historic Shipwrecks Along Delaware’s Coast Reveal Secrets Under the Sea

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