With all of the attention recently on “International Women’s Day,” as well as female-dominated causes, protests and other events, we thought we’d take a few minutes here on theoldfathergroup.com to tell you about some of the women who helped put our very own Rehoboth Beach on the map, if you will.
It happened more than 100 years ago right here on the Delaware coast, though Rehoboth in 1909 was nothing like what it is today. Still, plenty of people lived near the ocean even in the first decade of the 20th century, and it wouldn’t be long before Rehoboth began booming.
It was a man’s world in those days, to be sure, and it would be many years before that really changed. But a group of 50 of so pioneering women got together that year to form the Village Improvement Association (VIA), a group that's still around today in the “nation’s summer capital.”
The goals and programs of the VIA have certainly changed over the years, but the basic concept remains the same – it’s a women’s group that looks out for their own best interests, as well as those of the city of Rehoboth Beach.
But in those early years, it was really all about addressing some of the needs that they felt were being overlooked by the men of the city. They wanted to do something about these deeply personal issues, and they certainly did.
The ladies of the VIA have a long and proven track record of spearheading community projects ― the Rehoboth Beach Public Library and the Rehoboth Art League are two of their success stories. But when the group began just after the turn of the 20th century, their goals were not nearly so idealistic.
They were simply looking out for themselves when it seemed no one else was.
Better sidewalks and the installation of a safety line out into the ocean ― when wool swimsuits of the day got wet, they got heavy and women often had a hard time making it back to shore unassisted ― were two of the group’s first accomplishments.
You can see the safety line in this undated photo from the Delaware Public Archives.
The ladies of the VIA have always been an eclectic bunch. Many members have grown up in and around coastal Delaware, but others are transplants who moved to the beach full-time later in life.
When the group was founded in 1909, it was actually more than 10 years before women were even granted the right to vote in the United States. They really had no say in the daily goings-on around town, but they came together en masse so their voices had a better chance of being heard.
While much has changed in the century-plus since the VIA's founding, one thing that hasn’t is the group’s long-time clubhouse at Grenoble Place.
Surrounded by hotels and beachfront properties that are many times its size, the tiny structure has remained in the same spot for nearly 100 years. And it’s not going anywhere, as long as the VIA remains in operation.
Carrying a price tag of $3,000, the structure was built in 1926 on a plot of land next to one that had long been leased by the railroad.
It’s unclear how the ladies accomplished the feat, but the desirable piece of real estate was deeded to the VIA and guaranteed to stay in its possession for as long as it remained a viable organization.
At the time, town leaders had no way of foreseeing the rapid rise in property values that would soon occur. They later tried to correct their error by offering the group another plot of land shortly after the destructive nor’easter of 1962.
VIA leadership quickly rejected the offer, however, perfectly content to remain in the building they had called home for decades.
And to this day, they continue to be involved in the betterment of Rehoboth Beach whenever possible. In addition to the public library and the Art League, other notable accomplishments include the Cape Henlopen Senior Center, the installation of drinking fountains and benches on the boardwalk and the children’s fishing pier on the west side of Lake Gerar, among many others.
In short, they always have been and will continue to, as Mrs. Frederick A. Ross wrote in 1912, “make Rehoboth Beach a pleasant place in which to live year-round and as delightful to our visitors as Delaware’s only seashore resort should be.”
In other words, they’re simply out to “improve the village.”
Below are some of the current members of Rehoboth Beach's Village Improvement Association (VIA).
We hope you enjoyed reading this latest in our historical blog series as much as we enjoyed researching and writing it.
Have a great day everyone!
Writers Note: Some information in this story was obtained from the book "Remembering Sussex County: From Zwaanendael to King Chicken," published by the History Press.