Fenwick Island was easy-going from the beginning

Date Published: 
September 2013
1907 postcard provided by Beth Tollson.

Unlike many towns in the U.S., Fenwick Island didn’t grow out of necessity. Far from the whirl of cities, trade ports and railroads, Fenwick Island was a beach town that grew because people loved it.

For a long time, Fenwick strayed from the beaten path of development and led people to a quiet, peaceful respite, so secluded that even its namesake never saw it.

According to the late local historian Mary Pat Kyle’s 1995 book “Fenwick Island: Ice Age to Jet Age,” in 1682, Lord Baltimore granted Fenwick Island to Thomas Fenwick, a wealthy York planter. The Englishman never visited, although he lived in Maryland and Sussex County.

However, two families did call dibs on the land: the Penns of Pennsylvania and Calverts of Maryland. Each had their own claim, but could not specify exactly where the boundary was, thanks in part to a Dutch navigator in 1613.

According to Kyle, Cornelius May (or Mey) mistakenly called the island a cape (“Hindlopen,” in fact). When it was discovered that it was just a bulge in the land, mapmakers moved “Cape Henlopen” 20 miles north to its present-day location.

In 1730, when the king of England granted the Delaware counties north of Cape Henlopen to the Penns, the Calvert maps mislabeled the “false” cape as Henlopen. So the Penns got an additional 20 miles of southern Calvert land.

Finally, the Maryland-Delaware border was surveyed in 1750 and 1751, culminating in the placement of a marker called, unromantically, the Transpeninsular Line, which designated the line between the two colonies, from Fenwick to Delmar, which was where the Mason-Dixon line would officially begin in 1760.

A stone was placed as the easternmost marker, emblazoned on the south side with Lord Baltimore’s Calvert family coat-of-arms and on the north side with the Penn family coat-of-arms and “three lower counties” of Delaware.

The old monument still stands at the base of Fenwick Island Lighthouse, serving as a practical solution at the time and, today, a reminder of Fenwick’s questionable claim.

Grand plans for development of the town began and ended in the 1890s with the Fenwick Island Land Company, which envisioned a boardwalk, hunting preserve and oceanfront property. But the roads were rough and Fenwick was never connected to the west by railroad (unlike her popular neighbor, Ocean City, Md.) or even by boat (as was the case in Bethany Beach to the north, where train passengers finished their trip on the Loop Canal). So no master could claim her, and development was slow.

Religious camp meetings bring summer population to the island

But a few people made it to Fenwick in the 1880s, for the religious camp meetings, and organized resort plans took a back seat to Fenwick’s new purpose.

With the lighthouse overlooking their camp to the north, nearly 50 families built “tents” in a circle around their tabernacle in 1898, according to a reprinted 1930 map by D.J. Long. A central road led northwest to the Fenwick ditch, while the Eastern path would become 141st Street to the beach.

The “tents” had three solid walls and a canvas flap people lifted to get some of that delicious sea air.

The retreat revolved around three religious services daily, including sermon, prayers and hymns. That didn’t stop younger members from delighting in the vacation atmosphere, including resident Kimberly Grimes’ cousin, Ruth, who enjoyed the nightly youth walk, in which boys walked around in a circle and girls walked around them the opposite way.

Fenwick Island was paradise. And there’s a reason vacationers kept coming back.

Despite dreadful roads and infrastructure, more and more people found their way to Fenwick, especially from the western corridor of Williamsville, Roxana and Selbyville, and Bishopville, Md.

Businessman T. Coleman DuPont’s dream of a central state highway (now Route 113) was completed in the 1920s, but travel was still an effort. Locals crossed the original wooden bridge over the Fenwick Ditch, built between the locations of modern-day restaurants Papa Grandé’s and Harpoon Hanna’s.

Distant visitors came so far to get to Fenwick that it had a “Pittsburgh Beach” (along with “Delaware Beach” and “Maryland Beach”). A six-hour trip by modern standards, the 400-mile journey from Pittsburgh took several days. A train got people to Rehoboth Beach. From there, the inland boat dropped travellers at Bethany Beach’s Loop Canal. The dedicated adventurers hired a horse and cart to complete the sandy, marshy trip.

“They packed trunks, not suitcases. It was an investment to come here and stay,” said Grimes.

Squatters’ cottages foretell a future residential community

Cottages sprang up along the coast, deftly built by squatters who paid for nothing but building materials and food. They escaped the hot farms and coalmines inland to revel for a day, a week, an entire season, at the beach — even though swimming wasn’t regarded as a recreational activity until the 1900s.

Because Ocean City, Md., hadn’t yet crept so far north, Fenwick Island reached down into Maryland instead, so some postcards from the era even said “Fenwick Island, Md.”

Amy Vickers of the Seaside Country Store said her grandfather and his friends gambled for property because nobody wanted it.

But before the beach houses came, the handmade cottages held used furniture.

“Just clapboard — anything that old that you didn’t mind getting washed out to sea,” said Grimes. “You never brought anything good here. This is a sandbar … they understood that. We always took the silverware home.”

Even today, she said, “We’re living on borrowed time.” Every day, she said, she and her husband, Marc, wake up are thankful they’re still there. “If the State didn’t start dumping sand when they did, we’d be gone. Most people don’t know how precarious we are.”

In 1941, the State ordered the squatters out.

“The State wanted to kick everyone out. This was a barrier island,” said Grimes. “Security was getting out of control. People were building everywhere.”

Fenwick Island was an outlaw town that never learned to be bad. First populated by Protestant vacationers and squatted upon with charming cottages, Fenwick Island let people desert their dusty shoes for bare feet on warm sand. An ocean breeze kept tempers cool, the people prevailed, and, in the end, the State didn’t send constables to keep the peace — they sent mapmakers to divide lots.

The Fenwick Islanders didn’t have to leave, but they did have to pay if they wanted to remain.

Oceanfront property cost $250 per lot, while ocean block was $100, and a few bayside lots cost $50 each for a location among the marshlands.

“My grandfather was a squatter by the lighthouse. They told him that he had to move it because he didn’t own that land,” said Jeff Mumford, whose grandfather paid for an oceanfront lot on the current 137th Street.

Many cottages were built or just moved into place. They might have simple pilings, but no major foundation.

“We say the most modern thing in it is the coffee maker,” said Grimes of her grandparents’ cottage, joking that she won’t install a microwave for the now-rental cottage for fear that it’ll blow out the electricity.

The modernized cottage had a front living room, narrow strip of kitchen and tiny bathroom in the back and two tiny upstairs bedrooms.

Indoor plumbing would eventually replace memories of hand-pumped wells. Grimes recalled a 50-gallon drum that collected water from her grandparents’ roof, leading to a hose used for showers.

By the 1950s, “Everyone had to get rid of the outhouses,” Grimes said. The land underneath became County-owned tax ditches in the 1970s.

Before electricity was a luxury afforded to the cottages, people used the original iceboxes. Each day, Jimmy Clark delivered ice blocks to people from a Keenwik store.

“Somehow, it didn’t melt very quickly,” said Grimes, describing a dual box that held ice in the back and food in front.

James Ellis and his family fished on the beach. Later, they dug holes to bury garbage because there was no formal garbage collection or central dump for the town.

Apart from a few small shops, Jeff Mumford recalled, “The only place you could buy a loaf a bread was in Rehoboth or Selbyville.”

In later years, James Cooper would visit Hocker’s in Ocean View or Clarksville.

James Ellis recalled riding horses across the beach as a 13-year-old. Only supposed to trot, he and his friends instead removed the horses’ blankets and saddles, then raced bareback, like demons, down the beach. Then they replaced the saddles and walked the horses back to the farmer near the lighthouse.

Later, during World War II, there was a noticeable military presence in Delaware, with concern about possible Nazi incursions from the sea, but Ellis was not overly concerned. The Dewey Beach towers guarded the Delaware Bay 24 hours a day.

“The guards were up there on those towers, and they had checkpoints,” Ellis said. “They’d ask you where you were going and how long you were going to be.”

Another guard patrolled the beach on horseback with a Doberman pinscher, instructing those in oceanfront homes to cover their lights or close the blinds at night.

Ellis said he and his friends sometimes found remnants of torpedoed ships.

“My buddy and I were walking on the beach and found a board washed up” from a package belonging to a member of the local Carey family, Ellis recalled. “There was a box that his mother had sent to him overseas, and his name on the board.”

Community transitions to town, with full-time residents

Ellis and his family moved permanently to the beach in the 1950s. He also recalled that going to the Ocean City boardwalk was a big deal. People dressed up and walked the boardwalk or sat and watched the people stroll by.

Fenwick Island was governed by a kind of homeowners association, like other nearby beach communities. Many of those leaders later helped run the Town of Fenwick Island once it was incorporated in 1953.

Though it had once stretched into Maryland, Fenwick’s official town limits stopped just two blocks short of the Maryland line on the bay side of current Route 1. But it ends six blocks farther north on the ocean side, at Atlantic Street.

In terms diversity, Fenwick historically mostly attracted white Protestants.

Grimes recalled that three black women worked in the Libby’s restaurant kitchen, with amazing “efficiency,” breezing through the dinner shift as easily as the 12 boys on the morning shift.

Grimes was a young employee at Libby’s when she invited one of their daughters — a fellow pantry girl — to visit the beach with her.

“It wasn’t against the law for African-Americans to go to the beach, but people understood” that blacks didn’t go to the beach, Grimes learned. They could swim at the bayside.

But African-Americans often worked in Fenwick, even cleaning houses alongside the Grimes women.

Even at 6 years old, Grimes was scrubbing windows with newspaper and vinegar, with “Miss Francis and Miss Jane.”

“My grandma was pretty progressive. They ate with us — and the same food,” said Grimes.

The first big diversification in Fenwick’s population wasn’t with racial minorities, but Catholics coming from Wilmington, and, later, some Jewish arrivals, as well.

“This is Protestant land,” Grimes said of the Catholic influx. “I don’t think people did bad things to them, but [they] were wary of them. I never saw people treat people ugly.”

Despite being an ocean oasis, Fenwick Island is still rural Sussex County, so farming is ingrained in the culture.

Chickens were common in the town even in the last 100 years, but cattle roamed there in colonial times. In fact, the barrier islands were considered perfect for grazing, so the “Fenwick ditch” was dug (Route 54’s easternmost landmark before it reaches the island) to prevent the animals from escaping.

Tobacco crops were short-lived in Fenwick because the greedy plant, so used to sucking every nutrient from the soil, grew weary of sandy soil.

Fenwick Island was a little-known mineral hotspot in the late-1700s, when James and Jacob Brasure collected salt. According to Paul and Dorothy Pepper’s Delaware History article, the Brasures dug potholes on the back of the dunes, where the collected water was two times saltier than ocean water.

Two massive iron pots each held 125 gallons of water, suspended over an open flame. Two small pins (trunnions) attached the 500-pound pot to brick framework, so the contents could be easily poured out. After the salt boiled down, the Brasures packed it in wooden casks.

Over the years, more people got involved in the business, shipping salt to Millsboro, Kent County, Worcester County, Md., and Philadelphia, where it sold for $2 per bushel. The price increased to $3 during shortages, such as during the War of 1812.

By the 1870s, however, mining salt had become cheaper than the reduction method, and Fenwick’s salt industry faded away.

Nor’easter scours the coast, changes face of Fenwick

March of 1962 brought a Nor’easter that dramatically rearranged the face of Delmarva. After the three-day storm, Fenwick Island would be littered with the remnants of small cottages that had never had solid foundations.

A sea-swept house knocked the corner out of Tingle’s Motel (now the Sands Motel), said former owners Clarence “Bud” Tingle and Diane Tingle, who both have served on the Fenwick Island Town Council.

“I had water inside my house,” recalled resident James Ellis. “It was at ground level… We came down, and the National Guard was up here. We had to park where the motel is and walk down to the cottage.”

Afterward, he had the house razed. A lot of people were building and rebuilding.

“Sixty-two was a big game-changer,” said Scott Fornwalt, owner of the Fenwick Crab House. “A large number of homes have been here since the ’60s.”

Almost on a whim, resident James Cooper and his wife purchased a vacant, shrubby lot in 1970, halfway into a vacation with her brother and immediately after the “For Sale” sign was posted.

“Within an hour, I owned the lot,” Cooper said. “My wife mixed the mortar. We laid all the blocks. That was a collaborative effort. … We built the house from the ground up.”

He arrived late enough that he never saw outhouses in town, but he helped a friend install a new septic system after the ’62 storm.

But water was the center of life, and water enthusiasts — which was just about everyone — could swim on the beach or paddle out to Seal Island in the Little Assawoman Bay. People packed picnics, crab pots, chicken necks and string for a day of crabbing. They could tie up to a manmade dock. Seal Island also was a favorite spot for the Fenwick Island Yacht Club, founded in 1961.

Grimes and her sister, Rebecca, were sent into the bay to collect clams. At the time, the Fenwick bayside was a gradual slope into bay, not bulkheads like today. So they wandered down, mudfooted, with a rubber tire floating behind them, attached by string to their waist. In the tire floated their bucket of clams.

Surfing was also a big deal for some. Waves were long and smooth in the old days, said many wave riders.

“We would eat in Fenwick in our wetsuits,” said Hall. “Most athletic people that like the water surf. It’s a significant sport for people who love water.”

For supplies, surfers could rely on Bobby Steele’s surf shack, Da Shack. And cold weather didn’t stop everyone from pursuing the lure of the waves.

“We had wetsuits in winter,” said John Carey. “There were very few surfers. You had the waves all to yourself.”

The biggest change to surfing in Fenwick was beach replenishment, said Kenny Roughton, owner of another store, Fenwick Island Surf Shop, which had several iterations (Clear Light and New Wave surf shops) before he took over in 1983.

“The beach program has destroyed surfing and ruined the sand bar, which are crucial to the natural wave,” said Bill Hall, who has surfed since he was a young teen in the late 1960s.

Youthful population came to work and play

Young people made fun however they could. Children roamed freely from beach to bay. Teenagers cruised the beach in jalopies, recalled Diane Tingle.

“It was fun. There weren’t any rules. … My parents had no idea exactly where we were,” said Grimes, although someone’s parent was always nearby.

She also recalled scavenging for nightly bonfires, too.

“If you had something in your yard that was wooden and not tied down … it was going in.”

People would walk from bonfire to bonfire, the strumming of guitars heard over the crackle of old driftwood from the Storm of ’62.

“We never wore shoes,” said Grimes, despite the tar-and-chip roadway. Instead, kids poured lines of sand across the street to create a comfortable walkway (and inevitable speed bump).

Once, after discovering a mildewed sofa on the beach, Grimes and her friends dragged the furniture to beach bonfires, hiding the thing under a neighbor’s house whenever the park service drove up to remove the eyesore.

They also attached seashells to jewelry clasps from Ruth’s Shell Shop (now Sea Shell City) and “hawked ’em up and down the beach,” Grimes said. “And people bought them. I think people felt sorry for us.”

In the mid-1960s, Paula Mumford was a Seaford native who lived with five Libby’s coworkers in a beach house owned by one of their uncles.

“We partied, because we were a bunch of girls in a house. We came to attract a lot of attention!” said Paula Mumford. “Lifeguards would come over, and other employees.”

“We were chasing girls — same things they do now. Some things don’t change,” said Carey. “We used to go down into Ocean City. There was hardly anything to do.”

In the 1970s and ’80s, several restaurants also formed a volleyball league in which the workers would compete after work.

Teenagers looking to earn college money usually got restaurant jobs at the big three: Warren’s Station, Libby’s and the Fenwick Crab House.

“Back then it was very quiet. You really only operated Memorial Day to Labor Day — still do,” said Jeff Mumford, who married a coworker and bought Warren’s Station.

The old Dairy Queen is one of the only originals of the franchise, said Grimes, joking that when the state historical commission visited Fenwick, “They didn’t care about the cottages. All they cared about was the Dairy Queen!”

“We have a backwards lifestyle. The rest of the world plays in summertime and has weekends off,” said Bill Hall, longtime owner of Fisher’s Popcorn in Fenwick. “We don’t do anything [fun] in summer and [we] work weekends because we’re catering to people’s weekends.”

The beach patrol was a small but necessary business. Sonny Long, then 15, was the first lifeguard, in 1959. According to Kyle’s 2010 Beach Life article, Long was a known athlete and beachgoer, so the town council recruited him to patrol one mile of beach.

“He pulled a lot of people out, that’s for sure,” said later lifeguard Carey, who recalled that Long named his old patrol jeep “Nellybelle,” just like on Roy Rogers’ television show.

All three worked for the State in unincorporated areas near Fenwick.

“Back in those days, there weren’t many people here,” said Carey, who guarded in the 1960s and ’70s with his brothers Steve and Danny.

“I’m sure, compared to today, [lifesaving equipment] was ancient,” Carey said. “Floats were melted Mumford’s sheet metal. Now they’re plastic.”

The 10 or 12 lifeguards enjoyed the beach all day and simply took the equipment home each night.

“The best summer as a lifeguard was the summer that ‘Jaws’ came out. Nobody all summer went past their knees,” Carey said. “I don’t think we had any pull-ins.”

What was the movie’s effect on lifeguards?

“I loved it. It made our days easy. It was a great movie,” Carey said.

After their parents’ cottage washed away in the Storm of ’62, the Carey boys rented a beach cottage together each summer.

“When school started, we had to go home” to Frankford, said Carey. “It was heartbreaking every summer.”

“It was quicker than it is today, because there was no stoplights then,” said Jeff Mumford of the trip, recalling only a single stoplight at the intersection of Routes 1 and 54.

Year-round life takes root and grows

Fenwick Island slowly gained a small year-round population, sending its students to Selbyville High School and Indian River High School.

“When we moved here, there were 35 full-time residents, seven of them in our family,” said John Kleinstuber. “If a street light was out or something, blame it on Kleinstuber kids!”

But something has kept more and more people coming back. And even before the dual highway was built in the 1970s, “My grandparents thought the beach was too crowded,” Grimes joked.

“We loved it, for one thing,” said Paula Mumford. “All of us are from about the same era. We lived here, grew up here. … It’s just a small town. It couldn’t have been more beautiful.”

James Cooper would only offer one word to describe Fenwick Island: “Great.”

Residents have expanded their range to live along Route 54, including Scott Mumford, who took over Warren’s Station from his father, Jeff.

“I love it. I get to see the sunrise every morning. I’m one of the first on [the island] and last to leave,” said Scott Mumford. “There’s no other place I’d rather be. … I was born here and grew up here, and I’ll be here for a very long time.”