Camp meetings, “Chief Little Owl,” John M. Clayton, the “Giant Dead Boy” of Frankford, the 1948 collapse of the bridge over the Indian River Inlet, the 1787 Sussex County election riots. Scrapple.
All of these have been the subject of Sandie Gerken’s estimable research and writing skills in recent years, and now they are part of a book, “Storied Sussex,” which arrived from the publisher last week.
The book is a compilation of columns written by Gerken, a Dagsboro resident, over a three-year period for the High Tide News. As a whole, they present a colorful patchwork quilt of the history of Delaware’s southernmost county — stories of grand schemes and brilliant minds, alongside tales of murder and mayhem.
When the newspaper stopped publication last year, its publisher, Judy Layman, offered to publish a book of Gerken’s writings, and Gerken jumped at the chance.
“Storied Sussex” is actually Gerken’s second book. She previously wrote “Memories of the Clayton Theatre” about the Dagsboro landmark, as a fundraiser to help the Clayton purchase digital projection equipment. Gerken is not only Dagsboro’s “unofficial historian,” she is also uniquely qualified to pen a history of the theater, since it was once owned by members of her own family.
It’s not the only local story to which Gerken has a personal connection. One of the more popular “tall tales” to come from Sussex County is that of the Swamp Monster, a mysterious “creature” that turned out to be a marketing ploy by Ralph Grapperhaus, editor of the Delmarva News. The actual human underneath the Swamp Monster costume turned out to be none other than Selbyville’s Freddie Stevens — Gerken’s third cousin.
“I had no idea,” she said — until the secret was revealed 20-some years after Swamp Monster hysteria swept the area.
Her newest book contains 42 of her columns, as well as two fictional tales, which are ghost stories she told her two sons when they were younger. The stories, she said, were a way to make long car trips go faster. They are now preserved for the ages — at the end of the book, with the tantalizing titles “Mungs’t Ya, Better Mind Mung’ums!” and “Up the Back Staircase.”
The other pieces in the book, Gerken said, are “stories about people, lost industries, such as button-making and holly wreath-making, and sea captains,” as well as stories of local landmarks, including the Indian River Inlet Bridge and Route 113.
Gerken said she loves the research involved in telling the stories of Sussex County.
“I call it my ‘secret sauce,’” she said.
Her love of history was formed, Gerken said, “by osmosis.” As a child, her family would spend hours riding back roads, looking for connections to family history in old cemeteries.
“To this day, I’m very comfortable in cemeteries,” she said.
At John M. Clayton High School in the 1960s, Gerken was editor of the school newspaper and thought she might like to be a newspaper reporter.
“But I was discouraged,” she said. “People said that was ‘a man’s job.’” When the opportunity came to write her history columns for High Tide, Gerken said, she found an outlet for her passions for writing and research.
In the process of diving into the stories of Sussex County, Gerken said, “I amassed all these files. Files and files…When I research something, I research it to death,” she said with a chuckle.
She found herself spending hours and hours in libraries, looking at old newspapers, as well as “in people’s houses,” hearing first-person stories, and doing some research online.
When the paper ceased publication, she said, “I kind of felt like crying,” — at least at first. “People said, ‘Don’t stop writing,’” she said, and they assured her that another outlet for her stories would present itself. Although ending the regular column was sad, Gerken said one thing she didn’t miss was the deadline pressure a newspaper column presented, and the limitation of 1,200 words in which to tell her beloved stories.
Sure enough, another platform did present itself, in the form of Layman’s book offer. Now that the book is off the presses and is being distributed to area bookstores and other shops, sitting down for an interview at South Coastal Library earlier this week, Gerken sighed.
“It’s overwhelming!” she said of the challenges that come with being a published author.
Challenges aside, Gerken said she is already thinking about the possibility of a second volume.
“If this one is successful, there will be another book,” she said.
When she’s not researching Sussex County history, Gerken enjoys painting — lately, roosters and chickens are a favorite subject. Though she realizes her paintings could probably fetch a decent price, she said she hasn’t sold any because then people might want commissioned pieces and “then I’d have to make it what someone else wanted.”
She also remains involved in the TOPSoccer program for children with disabilities, which she started at River Soccer with her husband, longtime local soccer coach and teacher Howard Gerken. Since 1980, Gerken has also served as caretaker and docent at the historic Prince George’s Chapel in Dagsboro.
So far, 250 copies of “Storied Sussex” have been printed. Gerken said one of the advantages of self-publishing is that she doesn’t have to do large printings, which keeps the cost down and allows her to be able to print subsequent batches in whatever quantity she needs.
“Storied Sussex” is available for $19.99 at several local businesses, including the Clayton Theatre and Jayne’s Reliable in Dagsboro and at McCabe’s Gourmet Market in South Bethany, as well as at the Bethany-Fenwick Area Chamber of Commerce in Fenwick Island. The book is also available online at www.storiedsussex.com, or by calling Gerken directly at (302) 732-6835. Information on the book is also available on Facebook under “Storied Sussex.”