Over the centuries Bethany Beach has always been a 'Quiet Resort'
Many think of Bethany Beach’s beginnings as stemming from the establishment of a summer camp for what is now known as the National City Christian Church by F.D. Powers in 1901.
“Bethany Beach didn’t start when the folks came from Pittsburgh and elsewhere,” said Gordon Wood, whose family has lived in the area for centuries. “People lived here, people had prospered. People had lived here for well over a hundred years.”
Wood said that on May 3, 1687, Matthew Scarborough, a member of the lower house of the Maryland Assembly, was essentially the first land speculator, as he patented 500 acres of North Petherton, which is today the eastern half of Bethany Beach. It was sold to Roger Thomas, who would later will the land to John Shockley and William Hall.
Before his family and others in the area settled the land, Wood said there were Indians who lived in what is now considered Bethany Beach.
“When I was a boy I was out in a cousin’s field, George Knox,” he recalled. “He reached into his pocket and said, ‘Here son, have this.’ It was a red flint arrowhead that he had just found. What does a 6-year-old kid do with an arrowhead? He eventually loses it.”
According to Wood, Shockley gave his 250 acres to Robert Johnson, and on Feb. 6, 1718, Johnson sold it to Wood’s seventh great-grandfather William Evans for 5,000 pounds of tobacco. Hall and his family lived on their land from 1708, if not before.
“Tobacco was the general currency at that time,” said Wood.
The families who lived on the land now known as Bethany were subsistence farmers, said Wood.
“They didn’t do anything other than exist. What was Bethany Beach like when they bought it? It was like on the road to the Indian River Inlet. You can imagine — there was nothing there. Just nothing. The land was not useful for much other than grazing cattle, sheep, whatever they grazed. The green grass on the marsh, they would cut that to feed their livestock.”
Wood said July 4 is an important date in Bethany Beach history, due to a boarder dispute between William Penn and George Calvert.
“Why should we celebrate July 4? There was a decision made on July 4 of a different year (1760) to establish a boundary line. If that boundary line had not been established, Bethany Beach would be part of Ocean City, [Md.],” he said.
Francis Asbury, the traveling Methodist preacher, visited Bethany Beach twice, in 1779 and 1796.
“He was here because of Sound Church in Williamsville,” said Wood. “He visited Solomon Evans… Religion was an important part of their life,” he said.
Wood said his family came to America from Wales for opportunity, as did many.
“They may have come here to work as indentured servant, in which case they worked for 4, 5, 6 years, whatever it was. When someone came to this part of the country, they got a piece of land, could be as much as 500 acres, which as long as they lived on it and farmed it they got to keep it.”
John Evans Sr., the son of William Evans, had nine slaves, according to an inventory of his will in 1795.
“There were slaves here. My family had slaves — the Halls had slaves, the Evanses had slaves. William’s son, John, lived in Cedar Neck and he had slaves as well.”
Wood said the town had a couple of one-room schoolhouses over the years. One was built in the 1700s and later on another school was located on Kent Avenue.
“There’s a picture in town hall that shows what once was the town’s school. Standing in front of the school include people like my mother, my aunt [and] Milton Cooper.”
In the early 20th century, Captain John Hall sold the land for the Bethany Beach Tabernacle. In 1904, the town’s first boardwalk was constructed, paving the way for what would later become a booming tourist industry, drawing visitors from all over the world.
Wood recalled his mother, Hilda, who was born in 1914, telling stories of visiting the beach when she was a girl in the mid-20s.
“She would go to Bethany Beach to spend the day on the beach. There would be a dozen and a half people on the beach and almost all of them would be relatives,” he said. “That’s why it’s so special to me. It really was a family place.”
In 1873, because of the numerous shipwrecks along the Delmarva Coast, the U.S. Government formed the U.S. Lifesaving Service, which was later merged with the Coast Guard.
According to the Lifesaving Station’s website, “The station was built in 1876 for use by the United States Lifesaving Service, a government organization created to respond to the alarming number of shipwrecks along the coastlines of the United States.”
The station itself was built in 1876, and was staffed the first week in January of 1877.
“It was built by the United States Life-Saving Service, which was a precursor to the U.S. Coast Guard. It started off as part of the United States Revenue Cutter Service,” site manager Jim Hall told the Coastal Point in 2010.
“Most commerce going on at that time was going on on the water. Quite a bit of lives lost because of shipwrecks. The federal government said we really have to address this to keep peoples confidence in the economy as a world-player after the civil war,” he noted.
The station was staffed during the stormy months from September through April. The men would be paid $1 a day for their exceptional work.
“Two people would leave the station at sundown — one heading north, one heading south — to patrol the shorelines for ships in distress, or ships in too close to the coast,” said Hall.
In 1915, the Organic Act was passed in Congress, which combined the Revenue Cutter Service with the Life-Saving Service to become the U.S. Coast Guard. From 1876 on, the station was active as a life-saving station.
“Our station stayed an active duty life-saving station until the big Ash Wednesday storm in 1962. When that storm occurred, the station was over-washed by the ocean. The bottom floor filled up with sand and water,” said Hall. “The Coast Guard crew that was there was evacuated, and the following day it was decommissioned.”
Wood said those who lived in the area were hardworking folks, who did farming, such as harvesting pumpkins and shucking corn, without the help of industrial machinery.
“Everyone was either a farmer or a waterman. On the water, there were a lot of clams, fish, turtles, which they would catch and ship. They would catch eels and ship them to Holland,” said Wood. “We didn’t know what we had. We had people that cared, a beautiful place to live and an ocean. Didn’t everybody have an ocean? Didn’t everybody have places to hunt, places to fish, wide open spaces?”
Wood said a pastime for many locals was playing on their town’s softball team.
“There was a team called the Bethany Beach Beachcombers. My dad was the first baseman in 1948. It was part of a league with teams from all the other towns. That was a special part of the town growing up.”
Farming was a big part of the area’s economy. Roger Knox, a fourth generation Bethany Beach resident grew up on a chick farm near today’s Sea Colony.
“My father owned 6 acres on Pennsylvania Avenue, where the Holiday Inn Express is. That’s where I grew up. It was a chicken farm back in the ’40s and ’50s. My dad was a poultry farmer and poultry broker. We had 17,000 [chickens]. That’s small compared to today’s standards but it was large back then,” he recalled. “The tourists didn’t care for the smell when the wind was right sometimes... They were smelling money.”
Bethany was so small in the early days that the homes in town didn’t have numbers, they just had names. “Krawen” (“Newark” spelled backward) was the name of the cottage with the garage where Bob Parsons, a former mayor of Bethany Beach, spent his first few summers. There was the Gray Goose, Sea Shell-ter, Journey’s End, Drexler Cottage and more.
When my parents built on their lot they put up two homes,” recalled Parsons. “They named the front house ‘the T-Bob’ for Ted and Bob,” he said. Noting that down the street the cottage “Seven C” was owned by Mr. and Mrs. Carmindy and their five children.
Former town councilwoman Margaret Young grew up in Philadelphia, Penn., and has been vacationing in the town her whole life.
“My parents bought a cottage in 1949 and we spent all summer here,” she recalled, noting their first residence was 111 Second Street. “Going to the beach was a really big treat. It was something. When we outgrew the cottage, we got a house in Bethany West in 1983. Once my husband retired, we moved there permanently in 1997.
“When we first came, there were a few big houses like the Addy Sea. Then there was the big hotel, the Seaside Inn at the north end of the boardwalk on Second Street, which went out in the Storm of ‘62,” said Young.
The small cottages, said Young, had no heat or air, which made most families only reside in the town during the summer months.
“Right in Bethany, there were very few fulltime residents. Back then all the houses were all summer houses. That means they didn’t have any heat. If you don’t have any heat, you have to turn off the water in the winter otherwise the pipes freeze and break. So, if you don’t have any heat you can’t come in the winter because you don’t have any water.”
The Seaside Inn, originally built in 1901, serving as one of the town’s early hotels. On Second Street, there was also the Addy Cottage, built in 1901 by John Addy, and later turned into the Williams Inn, which rented rooms to visitors from the 1930s to 1975. Then the inn changed hands and became the Addy Sea, a bed and breakfast inn.
“At 12 o’clock or quarter to twelve, someone would ring a handheld bell on the front porch that would signal that lunch was about to be served. To go in you’d wash off the sand and put on clothes. None of this eating in your bathing suit because the dining room will have none of that, I can tell you. They would do the same for dinner,” said Parsons, who has spent time in Bethany Beach during every summer of his life.
“If I was good in church, I would be allowed to ride in grandfather’s pick-up truck when he would deliver a tub of ice cream to the Addy Sea. They would buy it from my grandfather’s store. He would keep it in our freezer and then take it down to them. It was a big deal.”
To go along with the cottages’ unique identifying names, were three-digit telephone numbers.
“People marvel at our telephone numbers. The phone number at the store, when it was a payphone was Dickenson 910,” he said. “Then when we got our own house phone our number was 216. My aunt’s number was 317. A couple of my buddies from school, one was 555, 689. You could tell I was a new kid because down at the beach at my father’s house the number was 7480 — four digits. You could tell I was a newcomer right there.”
In 1927, acreage on the west side of Bethany Beach was purchased by the Delaware National Guard to be used as a summer training site.
According to the Bethany Beach Landowners Association’s book, “Bethany Beach, Delaware: A Walk Through History,” “The camp at that time included barracks, tent sites, hangers, flying field, and a parade ground. Delaware had swapped a lovely stretch of beach, later to become Sussex Shores, for the low and somewhat marshy camp site, and made use of the deserted beach across the road for training of its artillery and associated anti-aircraft units. Training by day and night attracted hundreds of onlookers, when giant searchlights sought out enemy aircraft targets towed by National Guard planes.”
During a history lecture in 2013, Jane McCabe, whose family owned the town’s bowling alley, recalled living in the town during World War II.
“Living on the boardwalk, we had to black everything out during the war,” remembered McCabe. “My father found a red parachute on the beach, and mother made my twin sister and I dresses out of it, and they never wore out.”
Carol Psaros, who grew up in Seaford, would spend the summer in north Bethany, close to National Guard camp in the 50’s.
“The National Guard played a big part here definitely in the ‘40s because of WWII and the coastal defenses. I remember every summer on Sunday we would jump out of bed for cannon and ‘Reveille,’ then
try to fall asleep again and they immediately played ‘Star Spangled Banner’,”she recalled, which would be followed by calisthenics and marching around the camp. “That ceremony went on every morning… So that was how we woke up every morning. And truly the western wind you felt like you could hear every word they were saying.
“The National Guard during the day, particularly north and south of town, they would fire at drones [as target practice]. It wasn’t uncommon to find casings from the guns … exploded ordinances on the beach.”
Psaros said the soldiers mostly stayed on the training site but would occasionally leave to swim.
“They were very respectful to townspeople,” she said.
If Psaros and her sister weren’t awakened at 5:30 a.m. courtesy of the Guard, she said they would be roused by a mosquito plane.
“The DDT, the mosquito spray would come right in the window,” she said. “Mosquito control began in the early ’30s. Volunteers drained the marshes and ditches.”
Family-fun a big focus
In 1931, the Wilgus Bowling Alley was built between First and Second Streets, right on the boardwalk.
“That was really the social center for the kids. That’s where everybody met in the evening and hung out. All the guys would check out the girls that would come for the weekend. That’s where you would go in the evenings to meet all your friends,” said Young.
“I think it only had six lanes. Off to the side there was a soda fountain, where they sold ice cream, soda, hot dogs, and some little snacks. They had some benches where you could sit in the bowling alley. Most of us kids didn’t really go there to bowl. We went there to see all of our friends and hang out. The bowling alley was set back from the boardwalk a bit. There was this area in front of it before you got to the boardwalk. There was plenty of room to sit around outside.”
As a parent, Young said she would take her children to a book mobile to check out books, as the South Coastal Library wasn’t constructed until 1994.
“We had a book mobile that came every week or every other week and it would park on Garfield Parkway. Usually it was only there for a couple hours but you knew what day and what hours so you could go down. They didn’t have an awful lot of books but we’d go down and get some storybooks.”
For the most part, Young said families frequented the beach, the boardwalk, and spent time at home playing games like cards or Monopoly.
“Maybe once in a great while everyone would get together and go to the movies in Rehoboth. That was a big deal. It was really a lot of fun,” she said. “Most of the cottages had big backyards because the cottages weren’t big. Kids played in the backyard. When my kids were little we had a badminton net set up in the backyard and stayed up all summer. People down the street had a baseball diamond. That’s when kids played outside instead of doing all their electronic stuff.”
Young said that area merchants would drive into town to sell their goods, rather than open up a shop.
“The local farmers would come around on their pickup trucks selling fruit and whatnot. One guy came around selling seafood, another sold vegetables and fruit and also beautiful flowers. They would come, each of them, maybe two times a week.”
“I remember the iceman coming, because we had an ice box for refrigeration,” said Parsons. “I remember the mobile farmers market. Most of them came in a pick up truck. There was a guy that came in a horse-drawn wagon.”
In 1955, Kathy Dryden’s father Alfred James “Tut” Lawson of Crisfield, Md., decided to open a second grocery store location, and settled on Bethany Beach.
“A produce salesman told him about a small grocery store for sale here in Bethany. He came down and looked at it and purchased it,” said Dryden of Lawson’s Sav-A-Stop, which occupied the storefront that is now operating as Baja Beach Grill. The family’s grocery store is now known as Shore Foods. “We moved down here every summer and worked down here all summer. My mom stayed in Crisfield and ran that store, and dad ran this one. We lived overtop the store.”
On Friday nights, many teens would gather at the Bethany Beach fire hall for a weekly dance.
“We didn’t have a deejay as we have today; we had recorded music on 45 rpm records, with the latest and greatest hits. That was a good time,” said Parsons, adding it was perfectly acceptable to show up stag. “You would show up and ask somebody to dance, ask the next one to dance, and maybe come back to the first one to dance. If the dancing went well, in those days, the music was played soft enough you could actually have a conversation while the music was playing. If the chitchat went well, that might be your special person for the next two or three weeks. Sometime even four weeks.”
“My wife [Tempe] was a beach romance. Her sister came up to me one day,” said Ron Steen, of an encounter with his future sister-in-law on the beach in 1966… Two weeks later we went out. One year later we were married.”
The beach was the ultimate attraction for locals and visitors, who spent as much time in or around the water as they could.
“I just remember playing in the ocean — playing, playing, and playing in the water. That’s where I wanted to be,” said Parsons. “In those days I don’t know what happened to children, but they must’ve gotten a lot more hardy since I was a kid because my mother said we would not swim for a whole hour after eating lunch. That drove every kid on the block crazy.”
A favorite water activity was rafting, which Parsons said he enjoyed beginning in sixth grade.
“They didn’t have boogie boards. They had rubber rafts that had a canvas covering and filled with air. We would ride the waves on those. That was just a big deal. If you could ride a wave in on your knees on one of those rafts you were pretty confident,” he said. “That’s how we spent our time all afternoon. When I was a kid I played in the water all afternoon. Sometimes even after my father got home from work, which was a no-no.”
Young said that the draw to the ocean didn’t change as she grew up, and eventually married and had children. There were few other activities people wanted to do while in town.
“Basically it was the beach — you went to the beach. You hung out on the boardwalk, you walked on the boardwalk. Not many people had TV because reception was terrible until cable came,” she said. We had a TV. Most of the houses that were rental houses did not have a TV — It’s not like today where no one would rent a house without one.”
In 1974, after President Richard Nixon was caught in the infamous Watergate scandal, Young recalls sharing a moment in history with many summertime neighbors.
“The night that Nixon resigned it was on TV. We had all kinds of people on the street asking if they could come in and watch it on our television. It was like wall-to-wall people in our living room. I met people I never saw before.”
The Storm of ‘62
On March 5, 1962, a low–pressure system developed off the Atlantic coast and moved north. The Town of Bethany Beach was hit hard with five tidal cycles over the course of three-days.
“We had three high tides. Massive waves… Biggest waves I can remember.
“We didn’t know it was coming. We didn’t have the technology we have today. We knew it was a nor’easter, but it was a three-day job with a full moon and high winds,” said Knox.
Knox said he stayed on the family farm with his father to weather the storm, while his mother and three sisters evacuated their home and went inland.
“We moved some of the chickens out from the lower house up to the upper house to try to save them.”
“We as children and my parents, in the little grocery store, we went in and put all of our equipment up on milk crates and pallets,” said Dryden, of her family preparing their store for the storm.
Dryden’s family grocery was not damaged in the storm — save for a little water and sand. However, Knox said all 17,000 of his family’s chickens drowned in the storm.
“We had an old WWII watch tower just south of Sea Colony. I climbed that with a pair of binoculars and all you could see on the beach was wood, refrigerators, dishwashers, bathtubs right on the beach. Just massive piles of wood,” recalled Knox who was 15-years-old at the time.
Psaros returned to her family’s beach home days after the storm passed.
“Our house was still there, but we were oceanfront. Everything in front of us was either smashed in or gone. We had a piece of house in our backyard and front yard.
We were up on cinderblocks,” she said.
Young and her husband were not in town for the storm, and their eldest daughter was born right around that time.
“We lived outside of Philadelphia but my parents who lived in Wilmington came down after the storm,” she said. “We had 6 feet of water in our house. The National Guard was here to prevent looting. You could only get into town if you had your deed. There was 3 feet of water in the house but believe it or not, nothing was damaged. The only things that were damaged was the living room furniture, like the sofa and a couple chairs.
“Anything that was basic wood, they just washed off. They were fine. We were very lucky. That was a good place to be… That block was a good block to be in. The only other thing, we did lose one of the posts on the front porch because a lot of the debris washed down from the beachfront. Some kind of appliance hit one of the posts.”
Not everyone was so lucky. Many homes were destroyed or moved from their original location. Appliances were washed out of businesses and store merchandise was washed with salt water. Landmarks such as the Seaside Inn and the Wilgus Bowling Alley were destroyed in the storm and never rebuilt.
“Lewes Dairy lost all of their equipment. So they went to dad and said, ‘you want to buy? We’re out of here.’ That’s when dad purchased that,” said Dryden of the store’s current location. “He took a leap of faith after the storm. He’d be amazed now.”
The storm also changed the landscape of the beach — from how people built to how the ocean hit the sand.
“Just north of town, there was a very tall dune. Before the storm of ’62 we had to take 10 steps straight down to the beach and people said, ‘Oh the ocean will never cross that dune,’” recalled Psaros. Then the Storm happened.
“The March storm of ’62 took our beach away. Our waves broke out much farther. Now we just have shore break where they pumped in all the sand,” said Knox. “Back when we were lifeguarding you had to break through the surf then swim to get someone. Now when you jump in you’re practically over your head. The shore break is pretty bad…
“That [storm] cleared out the beach and then people started building on the beach. Before, most houses were on the west side of the dunes. Now they built over the dunes, some of these houses.”
Following the storm, residents and cottage owners began to rebuild the town.
“There was sand all over the place. A lot of Amish came down and helped clean up. It was a mess,” said Young. “Some of the houses were rebuilt. Rebuilt the boardwalk. By that summer everything was basically back to normal except for the beachfront.”
McCabe recalled that the new post office and boardwalk were built in 1963, following the destructive Storm of 1962, and the first bank was also opened in Bethany at that time.
“You could almost borrow money with a handshake,” she said. “In 1980, we had the real estate boom — the rest of the world was finally discovering our town. Sea Colony had come… Along with the tourists, came many changes.”
A town made of workers
Kids were industrious in the town of Bethany, with many having jobs or starting their own businesses.
“In third grade I had a business where I sold conch shells. There was a big storm and I don’t know why but we just got gobs and gobs, maybe 4- or 500 of conch shells. My father and I collected them, put them in the back of my grandfather’s pick up and took them home,” said Parsons. “My job was to clean them up so they would be ready for sale. I put them in an express wagon and go up and down the street. I’d go on the boardwalk and sell them. Ten cents a piece and 3 for a quarter. If you wanted a prickly pear cactus plant in one, that was a $1, thank you.”
Parsons also owned a pony, so he would sell pony rides to visitors during the summer months.
“The pony rides were more expensive because I had to buy horse feed. My grandfather had a barn on a piece of property he owned across the street from Church of Christ. I would get a ride with my dad or if my grandfather happened to be delivering groceries down at the beach that day, he’d bring me up,” he said. “Everyday was a new arrangement. Somehow I would get from Bethany Beach up to Ocean View and get the horse. I did most of my business on Ocean View Parkway and Third Street.”
Parsons said he would also fill in as a worker at the Wilgus family’s bowling alley, but not regularly.
“I worked there but mostly in the winter setting pins, and not often. I wasn’t fast like some of the other boys. They made very good tips; I didn’t make very good tips.”
In the summers of 1956 and 1957 Parsons worked at Robert’s Repair, on the northeast corner of Pennsylvania and Garfield. In 1958 it turned into a Texaco station, and he worked there for one last summer before joining the Bethany Beach Beach Patrol in 1959 as one of a handful of lifeguards.
“There were days when you would sit on the stand and would almost fall asleep out of boredom. The water was lake-calm. Then you would get water like we’ve had over the last couple of weeks, where the water was rough, riptide, high surf. Then you earned your money,” he said. “There was one day where I came home and reported that I had 12 people I had rescued that day. I was worn out and went right to bed. That was very unusual. You would always have to go out at night to see and be seen.”
Knox was a guard on the beach in the late ’60s and early ’70s, and made $43 a week.
“I loved it. it was a great summer job… The biggest difference now is the way the beach is,” he said. “We had tourists back then but nothing like we have now. This place has really exploded. We had one guard per beach, now we have two per stand.”
Steen said when he was a guard the pay wasn’t too great, but that didn’t stop him from spending 10 years on the patrol.
“We had seven or nine guards. We each had our favorite stations, but rotated,” he said, noting a perk was watching girls walk down the beach. “It was a big responsibility. We had nine guards doing 1 mile of beach. I had a lot of rescues. There were a couple I was scared to death until I got in… Usually August is the rough surf because you got the winds from the northeast…then the riptides.
“Everybody knew everybody. I tell the guards now, ‘I’m 72 years old. When I was guard, 9 of us did what 36 of you do now.’”
It was during those years of service, in 1957, that Steen’s brother Marvin came up with the idea for what is now Steen’s Beach Service.
“My brother was 18 and people kept coming up to the lifeguard stand asking ‘where can I get an umbrella?’ So he went into the mayor’s office and said, ‘how about I rent umbrellas out here? People are hot,’” he said. “Believe me a long time ago, Bethany wasn’t as populated as it was now. The mayor said, ‘it takes a business license, which is 10 dollars.’”
Marvin Steen had Garfield Parkway, while Ron Steen had First Street in front of the bowling alley. They started with five umbrellas and now operate eight stands, with an undisclosed amount of umbrellas.
Dryden said once her family’s store was opened in Bethany her family never vacationed.
“We were the only ones that worked in there. As we got older, my brothers and I stood up on milk crates and ran the cash register,” she said. “We would leave Crisfield [Md.] the day we got out of school and go back the day before we went back to school. We never spent a day of summer in our hometown.”
Dryden’s father had originally opened a second grocery store in Bethany Beach after a larger store opened near his store in Crisfield, worrying that business would drop off at their only location.
“Around 1960, Lewes Dairy built a large market. Once again dad thought they were going to run him out of business,” she said. “The same year dad purchased property on Middlesex for our third store. At that time he had three grocery stores.”
Both of Dryden’s parents were butchers, and her father would even bring crabmeat down from Maryland and sell it at the stores.
“The family has always done very well around here,” she said.
In the ‘50s, when the Lawson family opened their store in Bethany, Dryden said the highway was only dirt.
“Route 1 was not there. It was just a 2-lane dirt road,” recalled Psaros.
“The paving on the streets was not all that good,” added Young. “When we lived on Second Street they decided to pave the streets somewhat better… they put this stuff on that was kind of like clay, which was fine unless it rained. When it rained it of melted and myself and the other kids around figured out you could make things out of this stuff… Ashtrays and figurines. That was fun. It would get hard but you couldn’t wash the things.”
While there were businesses on the north side of Garfield Parkway, like Lawson’s Sav-A-Stop, the south side was still mostly residential, with the exception of Rhodes 5&10.
“The ritual for everybody in Bethany was to go to Rhodes to buy the morning paper,” recalled Psaros, who also had fond memories of Shorty’s Wood Shop and the bake shop in the downstairs room of the boarding house on the boardwalk.
“After my sister and I had given up trying to sleep in bed, we would jump on our bikes,” she said. Adding they would buy a dozen sugar cinnamon doughnuts. “We ate half on the way home… If you didn’t get there real early, they were sold out.”
When the Lawsons summered in Bethany, there wasn’t much time for play, as the children lived and worked at the family store.
“We stayed over top the little one but when he bought this one we had rollaway cots and stayed in the back room of the grocery store. When the store opened in the morning we had to get out because of the business. If we weren’t on the shift, we went down and slept underneath the boardwalk until we had to work. That was my summers,” Dryden said. “I always wanted to be home. There weren’t that many children here.”
Dryden said that Lawson would always bring young kids from Crisfield to work at the grocery stores in the summers, and they too would stay in the stockroom of the stores.
“One of the children he brought down was Arnold Brown. He was a stock boy for my father. Arnold wanted a business. He was very energetic, very nice, very business-oriented. He always wanted his own business,” she said. “My father worked it out so Arnold could build a building here. It would have to be on a cement slab and dad would still own the land.”
Brown built what was known as the Beach Treat. It was a sandwich, sub and pizza shop, where Sandy Pawz now stands, and ran it for years with his wife before moving on to his next big venture.
“Arnold, being the entrepreneur that he was, opened the Holiday House. He’s the one that got the liquor license in Bethany ... Apparently he got a lawyer from the city and found a loophole in the Town Charter,” said Dryden.
Brown obtained the liquor license in 1982, changing Bethany from a dry town to a wet one.
“There were not many restaurants. It was a dry town,” recalled Steen, stating that alcohol became legal to serve in town in 1983. “Holiday House was first. They had to go to the [Delaware] Supreme Court to get it. It was a big deal… It was a religious community.”
Although it had previously been a dry town for over a century, there were instances of alcohol gracing the planks of Bethany Beach’s boardwalk.
Robert Brines, a cousin of Wood’s, has a picture of his grandmother Edith Evans Carey in the early 1930s rolling a barrel of beer on the boardwalk, which he said was sold in town during prohibition.
The growth of a quiet beach town
Following the construction of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge in 1952, coupled with the Storm of ’62, Bethany began to see a large influx of visitors.
“When they built the Bay Bridge, that really changed things around. It was noticeable, but not so much the first couple of years. But then it was an explosion,” said Knox.
“It wasn’t until the Bay Bridge that this place started to explode,” said Wood. “Before the Bay Bridge people came here across the Chesapeake Bay on a ferry, and it was mostly the people who visited came from the Washington area.”
Many people who visited the town were from the Washington, D.C. area, with prominent names coming to the small town to get away from city life.
“We had a lot of people from the diplomatic corps from Washington,” said Young. “We had a number of people in the government who were important. They wanted to come someplace that was quiet, where nobody knew them. They didn’t want it to be a spectacle; they wanted to get away from it all. Margaret Truman, the daughter of President Truman would come once in a while. Also Lucy Johnson, President Johnson’s youngest, would come every once in a while.”
“As a kid, I had chances to spend time talking with newspaper columnists, judges, a prosecutor at Nuremburg. Most of the conversations were in either the hardware store or fishing on the beach,” said Wood. “William Randolph Hearst, Jr.’s father-in-law had a house in Bethany Beach about two blocks south of Garfield and would come to visit. He and my father were fishing buddies. What did they have in common? Dad had a hardware store, he had a publishing empire, but they went fishing together.”
George Dixon, a famous newspaper columnist, would also spend time in the resort town.
“George came to Bethany Beach regularly. I used to cut his grass for $3. That was three times what I got for any other lawn that I cut,” said Wood. “In his book he talked about the Millville, Delaware hardware tycoon and his beautiful wife.
“As a kid, I got a chance to do things most kids didn’t get to do. I got the chance to meet people that most people didn’t get to meet. All through working at a hardware store. There still is a level of Washington orientation,” said Wood, adding that Vice President Joe Biden has vacationed in Bethany Beach.
A Loving Community
Psaros wrote a book about the town, “Come Back to Bethany,” which focuses on what went on in the town during three different centuries.
“I would love to have been here in 1681 when the Indians were here,” she said, noting that part of book is historical fiction imagining what life would be like. “The Victorian era would’ve been fun too… The third part of book is in 2004…
“Why do people keep coming back to Bethany Beach? It’s really the ocean, the draw to the ocean. The early settlers were connected to the maritime industry.”
Psaros said she fell in love with the town since the moment she started vacationing there years ago, and eventually retired there.
“Both my sister and I came back to Bethany, and I find that other families do to, because of all that Bethany means to them. It’s a place for family, and friends, and faith and fun,” she said, adding that what draws people to the town today is the same as it was in the 1900s. “They came to worship God in a peaceful setting and breathe the fresh air, and to an extent, I think Bethany’s the same way.”
Parsons said the beauty of the town is not solely based on the gorgeous beach landscape, but the people who built it and still reside there today.
“We — the people who live in our area — considered Bethany, Ocean View, Millville, Clarksville, yeah they were four different town names but it was all one community. It was a small town but it was wonderful,” he said. “One of our preachers said this a couple of years ago and it stuck with me — the difference between a small town and a larger town is, in both situations, almost everybody always knows your business. But in a small town the people care. That was a community of love-and take-care-of-one-another.” v
— Story by Maria Counts