With a recorded history dating back to the early 17th century, southern Delaware is teeming with old buildings, museums, architectural wonders and grand stories dating back more than a century before the United States came into being.
It is the “First State,” after all, and Delaware’s story began humbly on a tiny strip of land on what is now Pilottown Road in historic Lewes.
We’ve written about several of our area’s wonderful historic sites in past blog entries, including the Indian River Inlet, the Cape Henlopen Lighthouse, Fort Miles, the Indian River Life-Saving Station and the original Swanendael settlement.
But today, we’re going to delve into some of the actual historic districts that make the storied history of southern Delaware such a unique treasure in the eastern United States.
We’re going to focus on four Sussex County towns, in particular, with historic districts that we feel best illustrate the history of our area. These are not writeups about the entire towns, but just about the concentrated historic districts located within their borders.
So, let’s get started…
Where else would we begin a feature on southern Delaware history than in the place where it all began? And that, of course, is Lewes.
Known today as the “First Town in the First State,” Lewes residents embrace this title enthusiastically. I mean what other town in the region has a special flag just for themselves?
The town flag's background was adapted from one used in the Zeeland Province in the Netherlands, where the original settles were from. The wavy blue and white background is meant to represent the sea and the seal of Lewes, England (the town’s namesake) has also been incorporated into the flag.
As we mentioned before, the history of Lewes dates back to 1631 when a group of explorers from Holland settled a whaling colony in the region. Named Swaanendael (and later changed to Zwaanandael by the British), the story of this colony is told every day at the nearby Zwaanendael Museum, probably Lewes’s most well-known landmark.
The museum rests on the corner of King’s Highway and Savannah Road and is directly across from the town’s main historic district, which runs up and down Second Street.
At the end of Second Street, on ShipCarpenter Street, you’ll also find the main campus of the Lewes Historical Society, a local treasure that sees a lot of activity during the warm weather months.
Other points of interest in historic downtown Lewes include the Lewes Life-Saving Station, the Lightship Overfalls, the Cannonball House, the Rhves Holt House (the oldest home in Delaware) and a large number of homes that used to belong to ship captains and other early Lewes residents.
If you want a historic district that gives the best glimpse into 18th century life, Lewes is a great place to start your journey.
Moving just a little bit west of Lewes, you’ll find the quaint Sussex County town of Milton and another of the area’s treasured historic districts.
Named for English poet John Milton, the town, as with many in the area, once boasted a thriving shipbuilding industry. But Milton really came known for the three Bs – Boats (as mentioned), Buttons (button shops) and Beans (the old Draper King Cole plant).
While all three industries are long gone, they are forever remembered at the Lydia B. Cannon Museum on historic Union Street downtown.
The downtown region of the sleepy little southern Delaware town, with the picturesque Broadkill River running through it, is really a look back to the town's early days.
With antique shops, one of the region’s nicest public libraries and lots of places to shop and eat, downtown Milton (comprised mainly of Union and Federal Streets) is a special place.
The best way to explore downtown Milton is on foot, so keep on the lookout for a nice day and have fun!
While not dating back as far as Lewes, the Sussex County Seat of Georgetown just screams local history.
The “historic district” in Georgetown is a bit different, however. Everything in “James Pettyjohn’s Old Field,” as it was called before Sussex County government relocated there in 1791, is centered around The Circle.
Originally named the “Town Square,” most of Sussex County’s government office buildings still ring The Circle, known by many tourists as the gateway to the Delaware beaches due to Routes 404 and 9 running through the heart of town.
The Sussex County Courthouse, the Sussex County Administration Building, Georgetown Town Hall and the Court of Chancery are all centered around The Circle.
Other buildings in Georgetown’s unique historic district include the fabulous Brick Hotel, built in 1836 and reopened as a hotel several years ago by former Mayor Ed Lester and his wife Lynn, and the original 18th century courthouse, which was moved just off The Circle and is open for tours at special times throughout the year.
The Circle in Georgetown was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1973.
Originally named Lewisville, the unique town of Bethel, in western Sussex County, is the only municipality in southern Delaware that's listed in its entirety on the National Register of Historic Places.
Due to this distinction, the historic district is – well, it’s the entire town.
Only 1.6 miles in size with a mere 200 year-round residents, tiny Bethel teems with Victorian and Italianate architecture. And, like many other towns in the area, it had its beginnings in shipbuilding.
In particular, Bethel really became famous for the development of a uniquely designed schooner made to pass through the locks of the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal, for use in the Chesapeake Bay.
Known as “sailing rams,” the final ships were built prior to World War I, but that long and storied history is still remembered today in a former schoolhouse turned local museum.
The Bethel Heritage Museum ― through its collection of ship models, paintings, furniture, china and records of shipbuilding enterprises ― preserves its history in a repository of the shipbuilding activity that gave it life.
Besides the artifacts the museum curates, the shipbuilding industry is evident throughout the town. The Historic Bethel Store, which sells sandwiches and some grocery items, uses salvaged masts from old sailing ships as pillars.
And in the town center is a monument to sailors and shipbuilders with a marker giving a brief history of Bethel's shipbuilding past.
A journey to historic Bethel makes for a fantastic day trip, especially if you enjoy southern Delaware history.
If you ever feel like doing a little history-based exploring in southern Delaware, these four towns and their unique historic districts are a great place to start.