Georgetown: From forgotten field to center of everything
Georgetown’s story begins with the founding of Sussex County.
When Henry Hudson sailed up the Delaware Bay in 1609, he glanced at what would later become Sussex County, claimed it for the Netherlands and kept moving.
The Dutch tried to stake a more permanent claim in present-day Lewes, with the 1630 Zwaanendael trading post and 1659’s Hoerenkil (also Horekill or Whorekill) settlement.
But England helped themselves to the settlement during the Anglo-Dutch Wars, and around 1681, William Penn of Pennsylvania was granted the “Three Lower Colonies” from his future king, the Duke of York.
But a mapping error led Lord Baltimore (Cecil Calvert) to challenge Penn’s claim over the future Sussex County. The Penns took advantage of the faulty map to claim at least 700 more square miles south of Lewes, which is the bulk of Sussex County today. Otherwise, today’s Georgetown would have been in Calvert’s Maryland, assuming the town would even have been founded.
But for Sussex Countians, governance from Philadelphia wasn’t ideal, especially when the Quaker government did little to protect the colonists when pirates attacked downstate. Finally, the three lower counties were allowed to separate from Pennsylvania in 1704 and form an autonomous colony of Delaware (under English rule).
The original Sussex County seat, the oceanside town of Lewes, is located at least 35 miles from some corners of the county. Delegates could only travel by horse and buggy so often before the time and cost of the multi-day work trips caught up with them. According to the Town, Sussex Countians filled two petitions, with 979 signatures, begging the General Assembly for a more centralized center for its government.
The State Legislature passed an act on Jan. 29, 1791, approving the moving of the county seat from Lewes to a new site at “James Pettyjohn’s old field,” near the undeveloped center of the county. There, 10 commissioners were instructed to purchase 100 acres and build a new courthouse and jail.
That spring, they negotiated the purchase of 50 acres from Abraham Harris, 25 acres from Rowland Bevins and an acre from Joshua Pepper. With those 76 acres ready to go, Rhoads Shankland began planning the town’s center square that very day.
On Oct. 26, 1791, the seat of justice was officially dedicated, and the area was named “Georgetown,” for commissioner George Mitchell, who was instrumental in the town’s founding.
The public square soon became The Circle, and people began buying lots across the town.
Although it was a county seat, the new town needed authority for its own sake, such as improving the park, sidewalks, sanitation and police regulations.
Originally, the Broad Kiln (now, Broadkill) Hundred (“hundreds” are a British subdivision of land) was split in half in 1833 to create the Georgetown Hundred. Governmental powers were granted, expanded and then flummoxed. Finally, in 1863, the original 1833 act was revived to allow the Georgetown Hundred to act as an official separate political entity.
The Town of Georgetown was officially incorporated on March 2, 1869, and town council members have been leading the town ever since.
The center of justice
Town planners didn’t think outside the box when it came to building a new Sussex County Courthouse on The Circle. It was “designed to meet the exact dimensions of the former courthouse in Lewes,” and the new court house was completed by 1793, according to Delaware’s Division of Historical & Cultural Affairs.
After about 40 years, the old wooden courthouse was deemed too small and too flammable for the modern day. So a lottery was held to fundraise for a replacement building made of brick.
The “new” 1839 courthouse is still used today. The upstairs served as a court, while the downstairs housed County offices until 1996, when the new Sussex County Administrative Office building opened next door in the old post office.
Not to be forgotten, that old wooden courthouse was moved to S. Bedford Street, to become a private residence and printing shop. It was transferred to the State and restored for the 1976 Bicentennial. It’s now administered by the Georgetown Historical Society.
The original landlords
But the Georgetown area’s history doesn’t begin only when it became the new county seat. Just a few miles north of Georgetown, archaeologists have found proof that prehistoric people had been on the move there.
A campsite near Redden had been used repeatedly by prehistoric groups, as early as 6,500 B.C. Other Delaware sites back to 12,000 B.C. Paleoindians lived nearby at the end of the Pleistocene era, or Ice Age, through the start of the post-glacial period. Other Native Americans lived in the region through the Archaic and two Woodland periods, to see Europeans arrive in the 1600s.
But European contact was jarring, and unfamiliar diseases were ruinous. Over the centuries, Native Americans were subject to unfair land deals and harsh treatment, which led many to leave Delaware for the west or north. Delaware was home to the Lenni Lenape and the Nanticoke, the latter of whom are still based in nearby Oak Orchard.
A Southern spin on a Northern ally
Historically, white settlers had little regard for other cultures, and Delaware was a slave state heading into the Civil War. In 1861, the Delaware State Legislature boldly stated “as Delaware was the first to adopt, so will she be the last to abandon the Federal Constitution.”
But that doesn’t mean everyone was rooting for the Union.
Before the Civil War, Sussex County held more than half the state’s slave population, although Delaware’s overall slave population had definitely dropped — from about 9,000 in 1790 to less than 2,000 just before the war, according to historian Tom Ryan.
Sussex County was rural, agricultural and very cut off from Kent and New Castle.
“Culturally, it had a lot in common with the Deep South states, such as Alabama and Mississippi,” Ryan wrote.
But, being surrounded by Pennsylvania and Maryland, Delaware was somewhat at the mercy of its neighbors. Although Gov. William Burton didn’t feel secession was the best option, he was torn, fully recognizing Sussex County’s Southern sympathies.
Some people wholeheartedly supported secession, and left Delaware to join the Confederate Army. The federal government actually needed to actively keep a hold on Sussex, as local Southern sympathizers intended to derail the Union effort.
On the other hand, an editorial in the Georgetown Messenger newspaper suggested that secessionists be hanged to preserve the government and free institutions. Georgetown’s own A.T.A. Torbert served as a Union brigadier general in Gettysburg and was a major-general by the war’s end.
A gathering spot for Northern sympathizers, Georgetown’s Brick Hotel became nicknamed the “Union Hotel.” Meanwhile, across The Circle, Southern sympathizers were usually found at the Eagle Hotel, noted Ryan. Plenty of drunken brawls crossed the streets of Georgetown late at night.
But, mostly, it’s believed that the everyday Sussex Countian didn’t approve of a nation at war against itself, wherever their sympathies might lie.
Ultimately, in 1865, with the smoke cleared and the treaties signed, Georgetown rang the church bells signaling the end of civil war until they were heard 8 miles into the country.
Georgetown by road and rail
Unlike almost every other town in Sussex County, Georgetown wasn’t near any major body of water. (In fact, it’s perfectly situated at the corner of three different watersheds, leading east to the Delaware Bay and Atlantic Ocean, or west to the Chesapeake Bay.)
Georgetown might have been the center of everything, but not all roads led to the proverbial Rome. So, in 1796, the State began cutting through field and forest to build three new county roads, connecting Georgetown to Milford, Lewes, the southern state line and western Sussex County.
But the train whistle was coming. People in big cities dreamed of a railroad stretching across the length of Delaware, which was accomplished with the Delaware Railroad.
Although it was delayed by the Civil War, the Junction & Breakwater Railroad finally branched from Harrington to swing through Milford and Georgetown, en route to Lewes. By 1878, the rails were carrying passengers, mail and freight across 14 stations on the 44-mile line, from Harrington to Rehoboth. Other lines later connected Georgetown south to Frankford and Maryland.
When the railroad arrived in 1868, Georgetown’s industry reached out to meet it. Manufacturing became big business. The town had carpenters, blacksmiths, carriage-makers, mills for grinding bark into dye, brickyards, lumberyards, a foundry, hat makers, tanneries, canneries and much more.
When a Frankford wooden-wares company bought a Georgetown cannery in 1883, the C.H. Treat Manufacturing Company soon employed several hundred people in a plant several acres in size. Charles H. Treat also became president of the Sussex Manufacturing Company, which built baskets, barrels, casks, lumber and more.
As a whole, the county had been slow to modernize its agriculture. They primarily stuck to “cereal crops,” such as corn and wheat. But without fertilizer or crop rotation, the fields were gasping for nourishment and wore out.
The railroad changed everything. Finally, a region so well-suited to growing berries and fruit could ship such delicacies quickly and without spoilage. It was said that a carload of peaches loaded at 5 p.m. in southern Delaware would arrive in time for the New York market the next morning.
There was some money to be made in dairy and livestock, but the focus was on small fruits. In 1900, Sussex County grew more than 9 million quarts of blackberries and strawberries. Farmers were picking the fruits of some 1.5 million peach trees.
With the railroad lending weight to Georgetown’s importance as a regional center, the town suddenly stood out as a political, shopping and social hub.
“Georgetown was quite a place in the late 1800s, early 1900s,” said lifelong resident Carlton Moore Sr., 89. “They built quite a train station.”
An 1868 directory offered a favorable, if blasé, description of the town: “The surrounding country is not so attractive as in the vicinity of many other towns in Delaware, and it has much less business than some of them, but there is a large number of professional and educated men here, the society is unusually good, it has a fair amount of general privileges, and now that the Railroad … has connected Georgetown with the rest of the world, it is a much more convenient and desirable place than some others.”
By 1888, Delaware historian J. Thomas Scharf was a bit more complimentary of the town’s two newspapers, two society halls, stores, park, hotels and more.
Although Georgetown was now a major player, it wasn’t the county superstar. It was only the fourth town to get electric lights (in 1905) and was generally the fourth-largest in population.
It made progress, though. It housed the county’s first newspaper, the Sussex Luminary & Peninsula Advertiser, printed in 1831. Georgetown was also a local banking hub, as rural farmers came to town to do business with the Farmers’ State Bank, which opened in 1807.
By World War I, streets were being paved, sidewalks installed, and water and sewer plants erected, according to historian Harold B. Hancock’s 1976 “The History of Sussex County, Delaware.”
Then, in the early 20th century, a wealthy engineer from a prominent family made an offer that seemed too good to be true: T. Coleman du Pont wanted to build a central highway that would link the entire state from north to south — and today, that road is Route 113, also known as DuPont Highway, in honor of its benefactor.
But in those days, such a scheme was unheard of. The roadway may be the first example of large-scale philanthropy that southern Delawareans had seen, and some even questioned du Pont’s motives.
Ground was broken for the project in Selbyville in 1911, and Gov. John G. Townsend Jr. jubilantly dedicated the first 20 miles of road in Georgetown in 1917. Coming from downstate, Townsend knew trucking would benefit local agriculture.
“No one thing, since the building of the railroad, has done so much for the development of this section of our commonwealth as the construction of this road,” he said. The road finally reached Wilmington in 1923.
In Sussex County, DuPont Boulevard was later dualized into four lanes and designated Route 113. It’s still a major gateway for much of southern Sussex County’s traffic.
But good roads were the railroad’s demise. The last rail passengers had their tickets punched in 1949, though some freight service continues on the line, and the station was revived into a museum in the 1990s.
The 200-year-old party
In the early days, all election ballots were cast in the county seat. That meant Georgetown was a hub of activity on Election Day — and two days later, on
Return Day, which came about because election results weren’t available instantaneously, or by TV, phone or radio. So Sussex County results were read two days later, from the courthouse window.
People flooded the streets in a festival, to hear the results and watch opposing political parties literally bury a ceremonial hatchet — a tradition that continues to this day. In that spirit, the Return Day parade also invites opponents to ride together in cars or carriages and to put a friendly end to election season.
In 1882, when Georgetown’s own Charles Stockley was elected governor, he was invited ride a float resembling “Old Ironsides,” the U.S.S. Constitution, which was decorated with Delaware’s Blue Hen, ribbons and a dried coonskin atop the mast, wrote historian Carol E. Hoffecker in 2000.
No one knows when Return Day became such an official event, but it was possibly in 1792, right after the town was founded. From there, it grew into a well-documented festival by the mid-1800s.
“People from all parts of the county, and even from Maryland, may be seen coming to the county-seat, some walking, others on horseback, and still others in wagons and carts, drawn by one or more oxen,” wrote Scharf.
People added to the fun by dressing in motley or decorating their carts.
“Booths, stalls and stands are erected near the courthouse, where all kinds of edibles, such as opossum and rabbit meat, fish and oysters, can be procured.”
Band concerts, cockfights and fun followed into the afternoon.
Crime, punishment and custody
Georgetown’s founding fathers wouldn’t build a new town without a few jail cells. The prison was built immediately on the new Market Street and expanded and replaced over time. In those days, crime and punishment weren’t just fines or jail time. Whipping was common, too.
“Each county had a post in the yard of the county jail … used on a regular basis for a variety of crimes,” according to the Delaware State Archives.
Delaware made whipping posts legal in 1717, about 60 years before the Declaration of Independence. And when Georgetown became the county seat, the General Assembly specifically reminded them to bring the whipping post and pillory from Lewes.
Although the pillory was abolished in 1905, the First State was the last state to still use the whipping post, and 1,600 people were whipped between 1900 and 1945. The last recorded whipping was in 1952, and the law allowing that form of punishment was abolished in 1972.
As a regular prison, Sussex Correctional Institution (SCI) opened in 1931 along du Pont’s new road. It is now one of Delaware’s oldest correctional facilities.
In the 1800s, anyone in jail thought to be a “lunatic” or insane could also be moved to the county poorhouse, later called the “almshouse.”
In 1917, the Delaware General Assembly created a commission (women could only be three of the nine members) to build a home for people with developmental disabilities. South of Georgetown, the Stockley Center has provided training, healthcare, family services and residential services for nearly a century. Over the years, it’s been called “Delaware Colony for the Feeble Minded at Stockley” and “Hospital for the Mentally Retarded at Stockley.”
Growing up on a nearby farm, Rosalie Walls, 83, said her father sometimes hired a few residents of the facility to help with the crops.
Fire protection in Georgetown stretches back to 1831, when the town’s first fire apparatus was purchased. But with Georgetown’s thriving industry, businesspeople wanted an actual fire company to help protect their businesses and lower their insurance rates in the midst of many ruinous fires.
A volunteer fire company was formed in 1903. The first firehouse was built on South Race Street, behind the old jail. Before automobiles were common, horses or humans had to carry fire equipment. First, the company got a 20-year-old hand-drawn ladder wagon. Later, the volunteers must have been delighted to see their first 1922 American LaFrance Type 75 Pumper delivered by railroad.
The Georgetown Fire Company formally incorporated in 1922. In 1926, they moved into a large brick building on The Circle’s east side, then expanded again in 1966 to their current building on S. Bedford Street.
For a long time, Delaware schools were a patchwork solution to the state’s educational needs. It seemed that a little wooden schoolhouse popped up on every corner or at every crossroads, each with an independent board and teacher for just a handful of kids.
By 1905, national newspapers mourned the state of Delaware’s public education: Delaware’s hodgepodge of 265 tiny schoolhouses was disjointed, between their own isolation and the students’ irregular attendance schedules (after all, they had to help with harvesting).
The Georgetown Academy had made its way into the world in 1812 — a private school attracting pupils from across the county, sharing a beautiful building with the Masons’ Franklin Lodge No. 12 in 1842.
Other than that, the Georgetown region alone had at least 20 tiny country schoolhouses. Concerned, the State consolidated the districts several times, building toward the Georgetown Special School District’s family of schools.
Born in 1934, Walls went to the little Stockley School, about a mile from her house: “I only had three other students in my class for the first six grades,” she said. She attended the comparatively massive Georgetown School after aging out of the local schoolhouse.
Georgetown Public School was a beauty of a downtown building, erected in 1929 and expanded in 1934, among the wave of new two-story brick schools opened during that period. Caucasian children enjoyed the full facilities: classrooms, cafeteria, auditorium, offices and gymnasium. The mascot was the Golden Knight.
“The first day of school, I couldn’t find the school buses [to go home], because it was the largest building I had been used to seeing,” said Walls, who needed a friend to help her.
Starting in 1961, high-schoolers could also get workforce training at Sussex County Vocational & Technical School. Originally just a part-time program in Georgetown, administrators got tired of scheduling conflicts with all the other districts. So in 1991, it became a fulltime choice school, today called Sussex Technical High School.
Between the schools, white children received a free education through 12th grade.
Richard Allen School
In the 1940s, Georgetown’s “Colored School” was valued at a fraction of the white public school. It was a two-room brick building with electricity, but heat was furnished by drum stoves. Named for a former slave and minister who had served in the Revolutionary War, the Richard Allen School was a center of hope and learning in the African-American community.
The building was one of Delaware’s many public schools built in the 1920s by philanthropist Pierre S. du Pont. At the time, Delaware schools were already among the nation’s worst, but African-American schools were even worse.
The Richard Allen School served black children until segregation ended.
It later became the alternative school for the Indian River School District. Having been officially relieved of duty, the decommissioned school building lives on in the care of the Richard Allen Coalition, a nonprofit group that is seeking to restore the school as a community center and museum.
The Jason School
For a long time, Sussex County’s black students had small segregated country schools, but no real high-school opportunity. If they were lucky, they attended tuition-based high schools farther north, such as Delaware State University.
Georgetown became a center of opportunity for them in 1950, when the all-black William C. Jason Comprehensive High School opened.
Before the U.S. Supreme Court decided in 1954 that the “separate-but-equal” policy “has no place,” the Jason school had been built to be a “new state-of-the-art school designed to withstand any plaintiff’s contention that lower Delaware’s schools for blacks were separate but unequal,” wrote Hoffecker.
“It amazed me that we seemed to have the better buildings. It was a lot more than I expected, coming from a two-room school,” said Kevan Gaines, who graduated in the school’s final class, in 1967. He had grown up attending a segregated country schoolhouse near Delmar.
The new school was named for Dr. William C. Jason Sr., a black Methodist preacher and the second president of Delaware State University. Philanthropist H. Fletcher Brown had set aside $250,000 to help build this “Negro high school” downstate.
The Jason school was special for many reasons. Not only did students have a new building closer to home (despite getting stuck with old books and materials), but they enjoyed a community with teachers and role models.
“My biggest fear was that it would be towns against other towns. But … you got to mix with different groups,” said Gaines, whose graduating class exceeded 100 students.
“Back then, we got to meet people from all over the county, and for me that was a thrill, because you get very narrow-minded if you only talk to people in your neighborhood,” said Gaines. “It broadened my hopes and dreams and aspirations, because you got to see what other people were doing.”
The school opened with grades nine through 12, but added seventh and eighth grades in 1953. Some students spent a long time on the bus, since they were travelling from all corners of the county.
“I left in the dark and came home in the dark. It made it difficult if you wanted to do extracurricular activities,” said Gaines, who was able to run track in his senior year only by carpooling halfway home then walking the rest of the way on foot. “I would never let a child do that in today’s world.”
But other schools in Sussex County wouldn’t compete against the Jason School on the athletic field. They might agree to scrimmage against the Pioneers, but during the regular season, Jason athletic teams drove long distances to compete, from Wilmington to Accomack County, Va. It might be inconvenient and the result of closed-mindedness, but there was a silver thread toward enlightenment: the students got to travel beyond Sussex County.
“I met kids all over the Eastern Shore,” Gaines said.
High schools usually offered two educational tracks: college prep or vocational.
“I went to [Delaware State University] after senior year, and then I got drafted. But back in those days you couldn’t get a deferment — I couldn’t get a deferment,” Gaines said. “If a white guy was in college, he could get deferment or go into the National Guard.”
But African-Americans couldn’t serve in the National Guard, and the recruiter was unsympathetic (and a bit unkind, Gaines said), so Gaines went to Vietnam. He served in the military for about 24 years, then another 25 years at Delmarva Power & Electric.
Delaware took its time integrating and didn’t phase out the Jason School until 1966. But Gaines preferred to finish at Jason. “To be frank with you, in ’67, things weren’t very nice, and I’m just not sure I would have fit in” at the local high school, he said.
At that time, just about everything else was segregated, too.
“There were no race relations. You didn’t talk about race relations,” said Carlton Moore Sr. People of different colors had separate churches, schools and movie theater entrances. “Never the twain shall meet.”
Moore said that history can’t be avoided.
“It’s not a pretty story, but if you know anything about history, you know back to man’s earlier times, man had slaves.” That doesn’t make it right, he said, but it happened.
Sussex County has always mirrored the deeper South, especially in political, economic and racial matters. That includes segregation of community spaces. To this day, Gaines won’t dine at the restaurants that refused to offer a table to minority customers. He remembers having to order restaurant meals from the back kitchen entrance, or being forbidden from the boardwalk and beach at Ocean City, Md.
“When I went to Germany, I was about the happiest person you ever knew,” Gaines said of his time with the military. “It was the first time in my life that I was just a man, and for me, coming from where I came from, that was life-changing. It really was.”
Now happily retired with homes in Georgetown and Salisbury, Md., Gaines said he feels “fortunate in the way my life turned out, so I can’t complain. But most of that was because of Jason. It really was. They actually cared about you getting an education. … They would teach you the way of the world and what to expect if you were to survive in the world. … Those days, they had the time to teach you that.”
The first community college
As Jason’s final buses drove into the sunset, the building was already turning toward its future.
Delawareans needed easily accessible higher education and career training, so the doors opened to Delaware Technical Community College in September of 1967.
The college was delighted that 367 students would enroll “in the first year, encouraged by the slogan, ‘A job for every graduate, a graduate for every job.’ Enrollment doubled in the second year, and it soon became necessary to begin construction to house more laboratories and classrooms at the ‘Southern Campus.’”
The campus was renamed the Owens Campus in 1995, for its first campus director, Jack F. Owens.
The main building is still named after Jason.
A modern school district
In the 1960s, the Indian River School District pulled together five major schools to form the biggest regular school district in the state.
Consolidation began in 1968, in the south, to form Indian River High School. Georgetown and Millsboro schools joined the district for the 1969-1970 school year. They formed Sussex Central High School, which took over Georgetown’s brick building and mascot for decades.
In fall of 2004, SCHS left Georgetown for a brand-new building south of Millsboro, near the Stockley Center. (Today, Georgetown Middle and Elementary schools share the old brick building on W. Market Street with Georgetown Kindergarten Center.)
Were people upset about consolidation? It wasn’t easy, but life went on. Families were possibly more upset about the lack of athletic opportunities. For example, the students had fielded multiple football teams when they attended multiple high schools, but now there was only one. More intramural games had to be organized so everyone could play.
Finding its way forward
Local agriculture took a turn in 1923, when Ocean View’s Cecile Steele took advantage of a shipping error to raise and sell 500 broiler chickens. With that income, she led Sussex County to become a national leader in the broiler chicken industry.
Moore’s father had several ventures, including a candy and tobacco store; selling headstones at the marble yards; and raising chickens. Back then, poultry houses were smaller, more like sheds than today’s long, extended structures.
Moore was given his own house to manage and profit from.
When the chickens were ready, the growers called a few friendly buyers until someone agreed to come see them, make an offer and carry the lot away.
With so many chickens and produce sold on the Delmarva Peninsula, there was a good industry in manufacturing wooden crates.
The Great Depression certainly didn’t help anyone, although the most rural parts of Sussex County weren’t hit as hard, simply because they were already growing their own food, but they never had much money to begin with.
When the federal government put people back to work in the New Deal programs, Georgetown hosted one of Delaware’s eight Civilian Conservation Corps camps. Although they sometimes struggled to keep the young men dedicated to the job, they succeeded in digging drainage ditches for mosquito control, planting trees, and building picnic and camping areas still used today, according to the Delaware State Archives.
Rural families knew the best way to stay fed was to grow their own food. They had big gardens full of peppers, tomatoes, string beans, cucumbers, squash, melons and anything else that would survive the Mid-Atlantic growing zone.
Half of their grocery list was grown in the garden, so grocery stores primarily filled the gaps. On bustling Saturday nights, Walls’ mother would “do the dealing” and trade farm-laid eggs for groceries at George W. Lynch’s store.
Besides farming, her father had a small barber chair and sink in the house, charging 50 cents for a haircut and shave.
“I can still see him sharpening that razor on that leather strap,” she said. “Very primitive, but we were probably just as happy as some millionaire.”
Farmers were busy all year, but Walls’ parents made time for the National Grange of the Order of Patrons of Husbandry (“The Grange”), an agricultural civic organization. Her father had helped build the clubhouse, while her mother helped with the monthly chicken dinners.
Not only did Walls love the Midland Grange, but she met her husband there.
“They happened to be having a square dance in Georgetown when I met my husband [Carl]. … I was just sitting there on the sidelines watching them square dance. He came over and asked if I would dance with him,” Walls said. “He didn’t even ask my name; he was so bashful. I think we were 13 or 14 — that’s how young we were.”
Carl had come with the Henlopen Grange but wasn’t old enough to drive. But they stayed in touch and married soon after high school graduation in 1952.
Actually, they eloped in Salisbury, Md. (“I strongly recommend you elope; it doesn’t cost near as much money,” she said.) Builder Melvin Joseph signed for them to buy a car: a Studebaker with a bullet front. They followed her telephone company job to Newark, but longed for Sussex County and came back to Georgetown.
Back then, phones were done on party lines. Several households shared a single line, so etiquette demanded each party only answer a specific ring, and everyone had to wait for the line to clear before placing a call.
In fact, when Walls went into labor with her second son, she politely (but agonizingly) waited until her neighbor hung up the party line before calling her own mother.
Her doctor came to the house, “took one look at me, said, ‘Oh no, we don’t have time for an ambulance,’ and he scooped me up put me in the front seat,” she said.
Growing up, children might join the 4-H club, play baseball, learn to hunt, play house, ride bikes and run around outside. But that’s only if they were done with their chores.
Many kids helped to pick crops, either earning money for a struggling family or as part of their regular unpaid chores on a family farm.
And forget about asking for payment for regular chores.
“I can’t even imagine asking my mom to pay me … to cut wood and pump water. … Those were just things you knew you need to do,” Gaines said.
World War II
World War II didn’t leave any corner of life untouched. While young men joined the service, women stepped up to get work done at home. There was an aerial lookout near Georgetown where civilians volunteered to patrol. Walls and her mother carefully watched the skies, keeping note of every airplane that flew by, its markings and direction.
“Everybody had to have their [car] headlights painted black,” so the lights wouldn’t reflect tellingly into eyes of potential enemy pilots, said Walls.
A small airfield was built in 1943, just east of the downtown. During the war, the U.S. Navy used it for training, young recruits practicing night-flying and dive-bombing.
On the ground, food was rationed, and families were given books of coupons and stamps that they could redeem for their allotment of items that had a limited supply, such as sugar. People were canning and picking vegetables with fervor to make the best use of their garden crops.
Because of the gasoline shortage, high school sports were often reduced to intramural games. Gasoline was too much of a luxury to drive back and forth to other schools, Moore said.
There was a military presence in town, as the W. Pine Street armory housed an encampment of soldiers during World War II. They played a baseball game against Georgetown High School, which was expected to be a slaughter. But Moore said the teenagers held their own, leading to a more respectable loss.
Things will be great when you’re downtown
After a hard workweek, Saturdays were the night to get cleaned up, go out and see who was downtown.
“It was a very thriving town. There was a lot to do,” Moore said. “If you didn’t go into town Saturday night, you were ill.”
There were several grocery stores, and men’s and women’s clothing shops. Nightly entertainment was found at Short’s Pool Hall or the Ayers Theatre. The Chevrolet and Buick car dealerships tempted people with freedom on wheels.
Georgetown Antiques was the five-and-dime store, which sold pretty much any item people needed.
Families rarely travelled very far, for shopping or vacation. In fact, Walls doesn’t even remember shopping excursions to bigger towns, such as Milford, Dover or Salisbury, Md.
People took drastic measures to visit Georgetown on Saturday nights. Moore knew of two brothers who pushed their otherwise dead car into town every weekend, “So their mother could ride up in the truck on Saturday night, and sit and entertain,” Moore said. “I know they did this 52 weeks a year.
“But that’s how important it was. Saturday nights, everybody came to town.” (He later learned that the enterprising young men had lightened the load by removing the vehicle’s engine.)
Neighbors were close, and people seemed to know everyone. Kids knew what to expect if they acted out. Parents didn’t hesitate to scold their own children, or the children’s visiting playmates.
“‘Does your mom know you’re out here, acting like a fool?’” Gaines remembered hearing when he misbehaved. “I always wondered how it got home before I did … and we didn’t have no phone!”
In the St. John’s neighborhood just outside of town, Moore’s family was among the first with a telephone and electricity (a Delco-Light system requiring gasoline and a battery charge). Kids flocked to Moore’s home to hear radio shows, including “Dick Tracy” and “Little Orphan Annie.”
“The big thing would be for people to come down and listen to big prize fights. Joe Lewis was fighting at that time,” said Moore, whose father opened the windows during the fights so neighbors could hear the broadcast from the front yard.
Moore’s big brother kept a small barber shop in the back of the house, encouraging 13-year-old Moore to learn the skill. “When he found out he was getting ready to be drafted, I had to take that barber shop over,” which was somewhat exhausting for the high-schooler, Moore recalled.
Between his chicken house and barbering, Moore raised enough money to buy a 1940 Chevrolet. But alas, the World War II gasoline shortages caused Moore to thumb his way into town (you couldn’t miss a Saturday night).
“Anybody would stop to pick you up, because you knew everybody,” he said. “There wasn’t much traffic, so you might have to wait for 30 minutes for a car to pass, but the first car would stop.”
Before centralized trash collection, people might feed old food scraps to the hogs and burn the trash outdoors.
Downtown Georgetown may have gotten sewer service early, but rural homes were more likely to have outhouses longer into the 20th century. But the toilet paper was delivered to the house, in the form of Montgomery Ward and Sears & Roebuck catalogs.
“Once you roll it up, it was actually kind of soft,” Gaines recalled. “I just didn’t like going out because spiders didn’t appeal to me.”
Religion and church communities were important to people. In particular, Southern Delaware couldn’t get enough of Protestantism, and some of Georgetown’s churches have roots back to the 1700s. Churches built community, and people especially loved when their districts held summertime worship camps.
Community and friendships were also built around forms of entertainment. Anyone who felt the need for speed could enjoy the Georgetown Speedway, built by local legendary builder Melvin L. Joseph in 1949, a year after NASCAR was founded. And athletes were thrilled when Georgetown’s Little League was founded around 1957, then expanded over the years. Community theater got a big break with the Possum Point Players in 1973.
The thrills of community, plus the challenges of country life, have brought Georgetown together over the years. Sometimes it was forced, as with the integration of the schools, or even the founding of the town itself. And sometimes it happened naturally, when people met in The Circle, toiled in the factories or volunteered in the fire company together.
Just like those centuries-old bricks built the grand old homes, government buildings and train station, Georgetown’s history is the foundation leading up to its present. v
Story by Laura Walter