Visit to the area’s past goes ‘Barefoot in Fenwick Island’

The Fenwick Island Lighthouse has stood as a landmark in the beach town for more than a century — built in 1858 and first lit a year later. Today, it is surrounded by mobile homes and beach-related businesses.

But according to Kimberly Grimes, anthropology professor, the lighthouse was once surrounded by pigs.

In its early days, Grimes said, the lighthouse-keepers’ lives were all about “subsistence farming and keeping the lighthouse lit.”

“They were pretty isolated,” she said.

Trips to Selbyville, or Williamsville, or Roxana for supplies took an entire day.

The lighthouse was built as a result of multiple shipwrecks, caused by shoals off the coast, she said. At first, it was kept lit with whale oil. The separate house was built in the 1880s, Grimes said, guessing that keepers’ growing families brought the need for more living space. One early keeper, she said, had 18 children.

Grimes began a talk titled “Barefoot in Fenwick Island,” with a brief summary of the dispute between the families of Lord Baltimore and the family of William Penn that began in the 1600s and continued for 100 years.

Her Jan. 22 presentation was sponsored by the Ocean View Historical Society, and Ocean View Town Hall was filled to capacity with folks wanting to hear her tales of Fenwick Island.

In addition to the lighthouse, Grimes said, lightships became another way to warn of the dangerous shallows just off the coast.

“These were some really dedicated, strong people to be able to do that and keep others safe as they traveled up and down the coast,” she said.

The last lightship to be commissioned in Fenwick, in the 1930s, is what is now the Chesapeake, moored at Baltimore’s Inner Harbor.

While the Indian River Life-Saving Station south of Dewey Beach is the last such station remaining in its original spot, Grimes said there once was a station in Fenwick Island, on the spot where the Bethany-Fenwick Chamber of Commerce building now stands.

Grimes said her own grandparents bought one of the station’s two-room barracks when the station was decommissioned in the 1930s, for the grand sum of $80. They moved the structure to King Street, she said, and “fixed it up, and they would rent it to tourists.”

Fenwick as a community, Grimes said, had its roots in religion, not unlike the neighboring towns of Bethany Beach and Rehoboth Beach, which were founded by church groups from other states wishing to set up retreats where churchgoers could come and enjoy time at the beach while attending church events.

Unlike those other towns, however, Fenwick Island was also a haven for residents of inland towns near the beach. Across the country after the Civil War, Grimes said, there was a wave of spiritual revival.

“Camp meetings started popping up all over the place,” including on Delmarva. One notable site, she said, was the Blackwater School in Clarksville.

Residents of Roxana, Selbyville, Williamsville and other small towns, as well as towns in neighboring Maryland, would gather at a camp meeting in Williamsville on the Assawoman Bay.

“And all I can think about,” Grimes said, “in August, is mosquitoes.”

“So they got smart and they decided, ‘Hey, let’s take it on down to the beach,’” in the 1890s, she said. At first, the campers stayed in tents that they hauled on horse-drawn carts. They crossed the “Fenwick Ditch,” dug years earlier as a way to keep cattle from wandering off the “island” which was actually a peninsula, Grimes said.

She recalled a conversation about the camp meetings that she had with a relative, who lived to be 104. The cousin, Grimes said, told her, “Yes, we went there. It was our Methodist religious revival, and we sang hymns and all that… but it was so much more.”

“Families loved coming down” to the beach, the cousin said. “They fished, they clammed, they crabbed, they socialized,” Grimes said.

“In the evenings, the girls and the guys would walk in a circle around the tabernacle,” she said. Walking in concentric circles — girls in one direction and boys in the other… And Grimes said her cousin told her “a little tiny wink, or a tiny touch of the finger might mean marriage in a few years.”

The original tents became cottages, and several of those are still standing, on what is now 141st Street, she said.

Over the years, the cottages grew into larger homes, and businesses came to the town — mostly small and catering to the tourists at first. The first post office in Fenwick Island was in the back of the Sea View Beach Shoppe.

Grimes said she feels fortunate to have grown up spending much of her summers in Fenwick Island.

“Everybody was outside all the time,” and neighbors gathered to eat together and enjoy the beach life. “I felt like I had the best life of any child,” she said.


By Kerin Magill
Staff Reporter