Marvel remembers Sussex past

George “Bun” Marvel remembers things most people never knew. At 90, Marvel’s memory remains crystal clear, and his account of a truly “slower, lower” Sussex County illustrates what a difference a few generations can make.

Marvel was born in the village of Stockley (north Millsboro) in 1915 — literally in the village, as opposed to in a hospital — and remembers the days of his youth at the Stockley School. There was no kindergarten in those days, and the other eight grades combined accounted for fewer than 50 kids.

The gang walked down to N.W. (Nehemiah Washington) Prettyman’s general store at lunchtime — “10 peppermint lozenges for a dime,” Marvel recalled.

And they’d watch the cars going by on DuPont Highway (more commonly known as Route 113 these days), and hold competitions based on how many different models they could guess.

There were plenty of Ford Model T’s, of course, but Marvel remembers Pierce-Arrows, Studebakers, Packards and cars with Durant Motors and Maxwell-Briscoe nameplates.

DuPont Highway was a single lane in either direction in those days, with a total width of no more than 20 feet wide, by Marvel’s recollection. “Well, the cars weren’t very wide then, either,” he pointed out.

Regular television broadcasts were still a few years away, but in the meantime he developed the first stages of what would become a lifelong infatuation with radio.

Marvel would later debate the merits of the 12-tube RCA versus the Zenith model with “64 tone controls.” (The Majestic, Mighty Monarch of the Air, received an honorable mention.)

He came out strong for Zenith, but he remembers listening to the Gene Tunney-Jack Dempsey bout on a Philco back in 1927. That was before radios came with speakers. Marvel listened to that famous “long count” fight using headphones.

After Stockley, he went to high school in Georgetown, graduating in 1934. Marvel remembers one highlight in particular from those days — his triumph in a poultry-judging contest.

Marvel admits he was more of a practical sort than an academic.

“I knew my books, but when I found out where, when and why, I quit reading,” he pointed out.

However, when it came to chickens, he wasn’t about to let any of the boys from town tell him anything. But even Marvel had some studying to do for the competition. He knew his layers, pullets, cockerels and roosters, but sent away to Mankato, Kansas, for a booklet covering 26 different breeds.

“I read that, and re-read it,” he remembered. And then he unleashed his store of descriptive adjectives on the judges.

Months passed, and Marvel asked his teacher, Thaddeus Warrington, if he’d heard any results — no, nothing yet. But finally, his number appeared in the evening journal out of Laurel, and he knew he’d won. There was a column about the contest in the newspaper the next day.

Marvel entered the workforce as a farmhand, picking tomatoes for 8 cents per bushel, and then joined the state’s Delaware Colony — “cultivating, plowing or whatever came up,” he noted.

Six days a week, 10 hours a day, and every two weeks he’d bring down an $18 paycheck. Tough times, but he remembers working alongside people who had families of their own, so all things being relative, he was pretty well off.

He even found time to pursue his lovely wife-to-be, Althea Pepper. It took a while, but Marvel said persistence had finally paid off in 1935.

One of the gang had a car (a Studebaker Rockne, so named for the famous Notre Dame football coach), and they would drive the countryside, or the Ocean City strip — and take young ladies along for the ride whenever possible.

Althea declined to accompany them on numerous occasions, but finally relented. Thus began their long romance, and they married in 1940.

By that time, he had a car of his own — a Plymouth.

“I always wanted a Ford, but Plymouth was the cheaper of the two,” he pointed out.

He’d left the farming business, and after a brief stint building chicken houses (with solid oak sills), started delivering bottled gas for Collins & Ryan.

Collins & Ryan offered everything from horse collars and harnesses to appliances, furniture and groceries. Before long, Marvel became a salesman and worked his way up to the grand salary of $18 per week.

It still wasn’t much to start a family with, but Althea’s father eventually sat Marvel down at the Sunday breakfast table (where they discussed all such topics of gravity) and said, “Son, you’re a married man now, and a married man needs a house.”

He sent the kids to find a model they liked and they discovering a lovely layout in Milford. Carpenters from Selbyville took measurements for a replica and broke ground near the family farm west of Fenwick Island.

They moved into their new home in August of 1940 and never moved again.

The area had begun to flourish, what with Selbyville being the strawberry capital of the world (until the blight of the mid-1940s) and a booming poultry industry. A few months later, at another breakfast-table discussion, his father-in-law offered to bring him into the family business. (They had 22,000 chickens at that time.)

He received a third of the profits from the first year’s poultry sales and used that stake to come in to the business as a 50-50 partner. The in-laws worked side by side until 1964, when Marvel took over the business, and he remembers it as a marvelous partnership.

“I never had one minute’s trouble with my mother-in-law, or my father-in-law,” he recalled. “They treated me as well as if I was their own son.”

After a few years in the business, the Marvels bought some acreage across the way, plus an island out in the Little Assawoman Bay — “Point of Cedar,” as Marvel called it — where he’d go duck hunting from time to time.

Before long, there were three, with the arrival of their daughter, Imogene.

From then until the early 1980s, Marvel’s life continued much as it ever had been. He finally retired in 1983, when his wife took ill. The business passed to his son-in-law, who continued to work the farm until a sheaf of new regulations nudged him out of chicken houses.

Thus ended a prodigious career in agriculture. “I don’t know how many chicken’s I’ve raised in my lifetime,” Marvel reflected.

Riding along the country lanes crossing his property in recent days, he waved an arm at the three family homes here and there amid the soybeans, pointed to where the chicken houses once stood and peered over the reeds to glimpse the waters of the Little Assawoman Bay.

Someone coming from the opposite direction stopped to back up his car — there being but one lane. Parked side-by-side in a clearing moments later, he came around to the passenger’s side and hunkered down with Marvel to share a bit of news.

Back at the house, Marvel’s daughter reiterated her desire to keep the acreage intact, rather than subdivide. The two of them brought out some old pictures from the Stockley School and some from his wife’s old Selbyville High School reunions.

Althea died earlier this year, but Marvel seems at peace with her passing.

“We had our life together,” he pointed out. “The Lord has been good to me — extra good. No one could ask for better parents, better in-laws, for better people to surround them than I’ve had.”