History by the Sea

With the settlement of Lewes only a few years after Jamestown, Virginia, Sussex County history is truly a reflection of America’s roots. Thankfully, there are many distinctive museums to help tell the region’s story. Following are some of the best.

Find fine examples of Chippendale and Rittenhouse furnishings at the Burton-Ingram House in Lewes.Burton-Ingram House
Second Street, Lewes, 645-7670
This 1785 gem of Federal architecture is nationally renowned for its lavish features. Filled with a portion of Burton heiress Leah Burton Paynter’s estate, visitors will find works of art by Ethel Pennewill Brown Leach, Jacob Eichholtz and Betty Harrington MacDonald. Also displayed are fine examples of Chippendale and Rittenhouse furnishings. It’s reported that the old house was once called “Bluebeard” because one of the later inhabitants had blue skin due to mercury intake. But there’s nothing off color about this exhibit.

Cannonball House and Maritime Museum
118 Front St., Lewes, 645-7670
Operated by the Lewes Historical Society, the Cannonball House still bears the scars of British assaults during the War of 1812—a hole in the foundation caused by a cannonball fired from a ship offshore. The Cannonball House Maritime Museum is located in Lewes.Within the historic home of 19th-century river pilots Gilbert McCracken and David Rowland, you can view artifacts from area lighthouses, river pilot homes and lifesaving stations, as well as historic documents from Delaware’s long relationship with the sea. It’s one of several houses the historical society bought and renovated to keep the city’s history alive.

DiscoverSea Shipwreck Museum
708 Ocean Highway, Fenwick Island, 539-9366
Dale Clifton Jr. started shipwreck salvaging after he found his first English half penny on a local beach. Since then he’s amassed thousands of artifacts from shipwrecks and colonial sites both locally and around the world. More than 11 years ago he opened the DiscoverSea museum above, of all places, a sea shell shop in Fenwick Island. For a donation, visitors can see 30 years’ worth of antiques and treasures Clifton has found, including coins, bottles, jewelry, dishware and even objects from the Titanic. It provides a fantastic cross-section of commerce in coastal Delaware.

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Fenwick Island Lighthouse
Off Del. 54, Fenwick Island, 436-810
Since 1858 this lighthouse has warned ships at sea away from the treacherous Fenwick shoals five miles offshore. Except for a brief time from 1978 to 1981, it has been lit almost continuously. With its original French Fresnel optic in place, it’s one of the few Delaware lighthouses open to the public, though climbing the lighthouse is prohibited. It also marks the line between Maryland and Delaware. Visitors can view a mini-museum at the base and enjoy browsing through the gift shop.

Page 2: History by the Sea, continues…


Indian River Lifesaving Station Museum
130 Coastal Highway, near Indian River Bridge, Rehoboth Beach, 227-0478
Though it’s not exactly in its original location, the restored Indian River Lifesaving Station provides a glimpse of the heroic lives of those famous rescuers of ill-fated sea travelers. Inside, you can view lifesaving apparatus, see how the guardians of the Delaware coast spent their days in the late 1800s, and hear stories of sunken ships, pirates and famous rescues.

Be sure to see the Lyle Gun at the Lewes Lifesaving Station Boathouse.Lewes Lifesaving Station Boathouse
Shipcarpenter Street, Lewes, 645-7670
Though the original Lewes station ended up as a VFW hangout in Rehoboth Beach, the boathouse is still downtown thanks to the Lewes Historical Society. This museum houses much of the original equipment used by 19th-century surfmen, including two Monomoy surfboats, a life-car, a beach cart and a Lyle Gun used to shoot ropes from shore to struggling shipwreck victims. There are also tons of photographs of life savers doing surf drills at the Lewes, Cape Henlopen and Rehoboth Beach stations.

Visitors examine a quilt at the Lydia Black Cannon Museum in Milton.Lydia Black Cannon Museum
210 Union St., Milton, 684-1010
Home to the Milton Historical Society, this restored 1857 Methodist church provides visitors with great revelations about life in the shipbuilding town. You can learn about agricultural traditions and the story of how a modest settlement at the head of the Broadkill River became one of the most active communities on the coast. Self-guided walking tours are available.

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Nanticoke Indian Museum
Del. 24 and del. 5, Millsboro, 945-3400
Housed in the original Harmon Schoolhouse attended by Nanticoke children until 1964, the tribe has assembled one of the finest collections of Native American artifacts on Delmarva. Arrow and spear heads, pottery, jewelry and beading crafts are all on display. The museum also includes a resource library to help people learn more about Nanticoke culture.

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A refurbished lightship Overfalls will return to Lewes later this year.Overfalls Maritime Museum
Lewes-Rehoboth Canalfront, Lewes, 644-8050
Only one of 17 remaining lightships, the Overfalls served the Coast Guard from its construction in 1938 to 1971. With the vessel docked in Lewes since it was decommissioned, tireless volunteers have worked years to restore the Overfalls to its former glory. It recently was towed to New Jersey for nearly $1.2 million in repairs to its hull. When Overfalls returns to Lewes later this year, you’ll see a prime example of a rare vessel.

The Seaford Museum tells the town’s story from its beginnings.Seaford Museum
203 High St., Seaford, 628-9828
It’s far from the beach, but Seaford’s museum gives visitors a real understanding of the importance this Nanticoke River city had in Delaware’s history. The stories of Seaford’s individuals and businesses reflect America’s own history throughout the 1800s, from the way slavery tore families apart to the advancement of the Machine Age. The museum has done its job so well that the Smithsonian, as part of its Museums on Main Street project, has chosen Seaford to host its traveling “Between Fences” exhibit from September to November. The exhibit explores the role of fences in American history, politics, industry and life. It’s worth driving to see.

Zwaanendael Museum
Savannah Road and Kings Highway, Lewes, 645-1148
One of the niftiest Sussex County Museums, the Zwaanendael is modeled after the historic  town hall in Hoorn, The Netherlands. It has beautiful exhibits showing artifacts from the turbulent history of Delaware’s first settlement. Glassware, ceramics and decorative arts spanning the 18th and 19th centuries reflect Dutch settlement, we well as the British attack and trade in Lewes. Along with items pertaining to the old Cape Henlopen Lighthouse and the shipwrecked  H.M.S. DeBraak, you can also see some of the myriad pieces recently retrieved from the 18th-century English cargo ship Severn that was discovered a few years ago during beach dredging.  

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Page 4: At Long Last, Rehoboth’s Very Own | The resort’s new museum gives a walk down memory lane.


A display of swimsuits from the 1890s through the 1970s at the Rehoboth Beach Museum.At Long Last, Rehoboth’s Very Own

The resort’s new museum gives a walk down memory lane.
In 1912, John A. Lingo, owner of Lingo’s Market and the Atlantic Canning Company in Rehoboth Beach, built a wooden one-story storage facility on Rehoboth Avenue to hold ice and preserve perishables. He later built a two-story brick structure with insulated cork walls on the site.

After Lingo’s death, the building was an ice-manufacturing plant from 1925 through the 1950s. In 1982 it became a liquor store, aptly named Old Ice House Liquors, which it remained until 1998.

Today the landmark is once again being used for preservation. Now, however, it is preserving the cultural heritage of Rehoboth, with exhibits detailing its evolution from a camp meeting to a resort.

The Rehoboth Beach Museum was the dream of Warren H. “Mac” MacDonald, founder of the Rehoboth Beach Historical Society, who spearheaded the project after the city bought the building in 1998. MacDonald died shortly after the museum’s opening in November.

“He was a great guy,” says Nancy Alexander, the museum’s executive director. “He fell in love with Rehoboth and did a lot of research.”

The Rehoboth Beach MuseumAlexander, formerly executive director of the Rehoboth Art League, is determined to fulfill the society’s mission. “We want to raise the rest of the money and have programs for all ages and abilities,” she says. The museum to date has raised close to $1 million. Alexander would like another $400,000.

The museum currently occupies the first floor. It opened with “Bathing Beauties: The Evolution of Swimwear in the 20th Century,” a display of swimsuits from the 1890s through the 1970s.

The suits belie the myth that turn-of-the-century swimmers primarily wore black or white, an idea enforced by black-and-white photography. “We have one from the 1930s that is orange and green,” Alexander says. “It’s wacky.”

The second exhibit focuses on Rehoboth’s history, from its start as a camp meeting up until the resort business began booming.

The museum is open Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Saturdays 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., and Sundays 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. Admission is $5 for adults, $3 for students, seniors and military personnel; and $2 for children ages 6-17.   —Pam George

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