Fenwick thrives as a multi-generational respite and year-round home

Date Published: 
September 2013
This Fenwick Island sign welcomes visitors to the beach resort.

Present-day Fenwick Island in the summer boasts the hustle and bustle of a resort beach town, much like surrounding northern towns of Bethany Beach and South Bethany and Ocean City, Md., to the south.

Visitors and guests come in the summer months and fill the single-family houses for a week or two and second-homeowner families come for weeks at a time, a weekend here or there or possibly the whole summer.

There are plenty of restaurants and specialty shops for the burgeoning summer population to have everything they need within walking distance, all in a 17-block radius. And while it slows down significantly after Labor Day each year, it is not quite the immediate drop-off it once was.

Of the 764 houses, 201 are occupied full-time year-round, for an occupancy rate of 26 percent according to the U.S. Census Factfinder. As of 2010, the year-round population was 379, up only 37 people from 2000. A bigger hike was seen in the years between 1990 and 2000; then, they grew from 186 full-time residents to 342.

While growth has slowed in the past decade for full-time residents, and short of annexing in acres of unincorporated Sussex County, the town is pretty much built out, Fenwick Island is still changing with the times.

“I came in 1969 as an 8-year-old, and it is a lot different, that’s for sure,” said John Kleinstuber of John F. Kleinstuber Real Estate in Fenwick Island. “When Labor Day came, people practically rolled up the sidewalks.

“The day after Labor Day, we would go back to school, and I remember walking up the beach after school on Dagsboro Street and there would not be a soul in sight — when just 24 hours before it was wall-to-wall people. It’s not like it is today, where people come down on weekends. It was a desolate town.”

Kleinstuber said the process of the summer season lengthening was a slow one, much like in neighboring towns.

“I can’t put a date on it, really, maybe the mid- to late ’80s. I can’t really say, but you used to literally be able to lie down on the two-lane highway and you would be perfectly fine taking a nap out there,” he joked. “There just weren’t any cars.”

Not a desolate town anymore, the town leadership has noticed and appreciated the fact that they must do their part to be stewards of the environment, with more and more people finding them and coming to visit. The townsfolk and their businesses seem to have been at the forefront of the “green” movement that has picked up in recent years, especially when state rebates made renewable investments particularly worthwhile.

Just outside town limits, Nantucket’s restaurant has a very visible windmill and solar panels and several homeowners in town have ventured into solar panels on their roofs. Also, Warren’s Station and the Seaside Country Store have installed solar panels on their businesses, albeit not without a few snags along the way.

The Town itself has had an environmental committee for several years and, in recent years, has adjusted their height limit to accommodate an extra three feet of space for solar panel placement and wind-power generation. The town has also had town-wide recycling in place for years and has used and offered rain barrels for others to use.

This year, they managed their first summer of a “no smoking” ordinance on the beaches, something Town Manager Merritt Burke IV said went well, with little, if any, complaints.

In addition, the town saw a few changes recently, with concessions at the beach and Steen’s coming in to rent chairs and umbrellas to beachgoers. They also tried out advertising on the lifeguard stands for a new revenue source — something they said has worked out well. This past summer, the town dealt with beach replenishment — something a few people took issue with because it was in the middle of the season, but they pressed on to completion.

Asked what sets Fenwick Island apart, Kleinstuber said the town has relatively low density compared to other towns and is largely composed of single-family residences. There are townhouses in the unincorporated portion of the town, but for the most part it is single-family residences, not the high-rises of Ocean City to the south.

“There is a different feel to it in Fenwick Island,” said Kleinstuber. “We have nice restaurants, but no real nightclubs. It keeps it quiet. It is one of the few places you can still have a bonfire on the beach. It is kind of a throwback, like in the early days.”

Scott Fornwalt, owner of Fenwick Crab House, which has been a staple in Fenwick Island for 50 years, also mentioned the bonfires — which require only a permit from town hall — as a thing that sets the town apart. He also said being so different from the city many people come from has its perks.

“You don’t have to watch your back here,” he said. “It’s safe.”

As for the changing times, Fornwalt said it is not that different from the Fenwick Island of yesteryear.

“You can still get an ice cream at Dairy Queen — you could then and you can now!” he said. “I grew up in the suburbs of Philadelphia but always ended up in Fenwick Island. The whole idea of Fenwick Island hasn’t changed that much, other than adding a few houses.”

Longtime homeowner Bob Clark described the town as “our own little paradise. The sunsets… Well, every night it is different. It’s a secluded community with all the amenities. Of course, on a rainy day, traffic gets backed up, but you have everything you need right here. If I had an inkling of what heaven would be like, this could be it.”

Clark said his family has been in the town for four generations. Before retiring, his wife, Sue, was a teacher, so she and the kids would spend most of their summers in Fenwick Island. Both are involved in the Fenwick Island Yacht Club and were instrumental in starting up the Fenwick Island boat parade — something the community does each summer for fun.

“Our family just loves it,” he said of the town. “Water has a calming effect on you. Sometimes people complain because the water can come closer than you want it to, but you take all the precautions [of living at the beach]. You take a chance no matter where you go. Life is a gamble, but I wouldn’t want to do it anyplace other than Fenwick Island.”

Kimberly Grimes, another resident of Fenwick Island, offered similar sentiments. She said she and her husband, Marco, had multiple feet of water under their house after “Superstorm Sandy” in 2012, but like many people at the beach, felt like they were lucky it wasn’t worse. She said she came back to town in 1996 to be closer to her family and because it was hard to stay away.

“I always managed to weasel my way back here. I wanted to see the world, but Fenwick Island has a sense of place, and of course the beach is lovely.”

Her family vacationed in Fenwick Island when she was young and, in 1959, her mom started the Fenwick Sub Shop, which was where present-day Nantucket’s is located, just outside town limits on the ocean side of the highway.

“The dining area was our home, and the bar area was the sub shop,” she said. “It was two separate buildings.”

She said that, as a kid visiting in the summers, she never imagined Fenwick would grow to be what it is today.

“I am glad we have the retirees that live here year-round, so we have the possibility of having an income,” she said. She and her husband own an international cooperative retail store in nearby South Bethany, just north of Fenwick Island.

Grimes said the change she has seen in Fenwick includes the bigger homes that often replace the smaller, older cottages and knowing neighbors less — although she admitted it is more of a national change and not one specific to the town.

“I love the charm of the old cottages, but then people come and tear them down and build huge houses with big decks, and they are all fenced in — so we don’t really know people that much. There is not the families sitting out in the front yard anymore because the old cottages didn’t have air conditioning. So, we don’t have as much social interaction with our neighbors.”

On the other hand, there are things that haven’t really changed.

Fornwalt noted that one thing many Fenwick Islanders mention as something that sets them apart is the atmosphere of Bunting Avenue, which is a road that runs parallel to the ocean and Route 1.

“It’s a nice beach road where you can smell the salt air and the sand,” said Fornwalt. “There are always plenty of bikes and dogs. Nothing seems to have changed with that.”

Kleinstuber, Grimes and Clark also mentioned Bunting Avenue as something special that Fenwick Island offers.

“In the morning, it is like a thoroughfare,” said Kleinstuber. “If you are in a car, you are in the minority, and that helps keep a neighborhood feel to it.”

Another Fenwick Island icon, Warren’s Station, also just celebrated 50 years in the town. Paula Mumford, who just retired from running the restaurant with her husband, Jeff, said, “It has been a great life.” Their son Scott and his wife, Elise, run the operation now. She said that, while the town has changed and grown, there are some things that are very much the same.

“We don’t serve alcohol,” she noted. In 1971, when they bought the establishment, she said, “At the time, we were not allowed to. We have just been very fortunate. Our employees can begin at 14 and then can learn the menu and start at 16, waiting tables. And a lot of them come back year after year.”

Fornwalt, who owns the Fenwick Crab House, and Amy Vickers of Seaside Country Store both worked at Warren’s before branching out and running their own businesses in the town.

Fornwalt said he is fortunate in that respect, too, that many of his employees have been there for 10, 15 or 20 years.

And it is not only the employees who keep coming back. Many of the shop owners and restaurants said generations of families come to town to eat and shop.

“We have generation after generation coming in,” said Fornwalt, “and sometimes at the same table. We have vacationers that come and say, ‘We have been coming in for years. This is always our first stop!’”

Vickers said she wonders if the vacationers and shoppers know that many of the businesses are the same way, that many are family-run and now might have a new generation taking the reins.

She and her husband bought the store from her aunt and uncle 22 years ago, but she had worked in family businesses in town since she was a child.

“My aunt and uncle had businesses in the 1960s. My aunt and uncle had the Seaside Motel, now the Seaside Inn, and my grandfather had Pure Oil at the corner of Bayard, where Sea Shell City is now.”

Eventually, those businesses were sold and the family’s efforts were poured into the Seaside Country Store. They started selling antiques but got away from that and more into gifts and specialty items as the customers’ wants changed with the times.

“We really care about these people,” said Vickers of her customers. “And most of the businesses in Fenwick have been in business for generations and are family-run. I am not sure all the customers get to know that, but it is something that sets us apart. It is hard running a seasonal business. You try to do a year’s worth of business in three months, but we are just a bunch of locals trying to make it!”

And, like many of the business owners, many homeowners have been in town for generations, as well, and have seen their families grow up and around Fenwick Island. Clark reminisced that his son Chris, now a grown man, took his first steps on the beach in Fenwick Island and his older son Jon was a lifeguard captain in the town.

“Our lives have revolved around Fenwick Island,” he said. “It’s a beautiful place. I have enjoyed every minute of spending it down here,” he said.

But, as with anything one might love, there is a fine line between wanting to share its beauty with everyone and wanting to keep it all to yourself.

“I don’t like to brag about it too much, though,” concluded Clark, “because then other people perk up their ears and say, ‘Hey, we want to be there!’"