Once upon a time, western Sussex County in Delaware was remote, dark and forbidding to those who became the targets of the notorious Patty Cannon. “The Devil on the Nanticoke” headed a bloodthirsty gang of thieves, kidnappers and murderers. In the early 1800s, she lived on the border of Maryland and Delaware and thought nothing of kidnapping free African Americans and selling them farther south or killing someone who made trouble for her.
Times have changed. Patty’s long gone, of course. Towns such as Bethel, Seaford and Laurel have known boom times and bad times. Tiny Bethel was once the home of a shipyard where large schooners were built. Seaford was home to DuPont’s nylon plant, important during the Second World War. Laurel was home to four Delaware governors.
Tying them together is the nearly unspoiled Nanticoke River. It looks pretty much as it did when Captain John Smith brought his shallop up as far as Broad Creek when he surveyed the Chesapeake in 1608. (His trail is now part of the National Park System.) “Heaven and earth never agreed better to frame a place for man’s habitation,” Smith said during his travels. That is certainly true of the quiet waterway that traverses parts of Delaware and Maryland before emptying into the Chesapeake Bay.
Rushing across Delaware to the ocean beaches, we often miss Delaware’s little treasures. Places like Seaford, Laurel and Bethel remain friendly small towns with museums that offer intimate portraits of their history and scenic streetscapes that haven’t changed in a hundred years.
Quiet Bethel used to be quite a shipbuilding town. Big ships were built here: three-masted schooners up to 120 feet long that plied the waters of the Chesapeake and the Atlantic and during World War II, barges. They called these ships Sailing Rams. The memories are all that remain, but they have been preserved at the Bethel Museum. Housed in a former school, the museum exhibits old photographs, ship models, paintings and ship’s carpenter tools. The industry died after WWII and the town remains the way it looked all those years ago. It’s charming, quiet and worth a stroll. I didn’t check it out myself but I hear the sandwiches are worth a visit to the Bethel Store.
Laurel‘s history is preserved in a former train station built in 1911 and in the nearby Cook House, both run by the Laurel Historical Society. The train station’s exhibits are quite personal: wonderful portraits by a local photographer Albert Waller, yearbooks and family mementoes.
The Cook House recreates a look early settlers would feel comfortable in. There’s an exhibit of the bushel baskets made by a packing material factory that used to be a big employer here, and homey things like furniture, quilts, crockery and a rare turkey breast corner cabinet. Almost everything in the house was used or made in Laurel.
Seaford has remembered its history in one of the best small town museums I’ve ever seen. (And I make it my business to visit lots of small town museums.) The Seaford Museum, housed in an old post office, is imaginative in its presentations of local lore. Look for artifacts from Nanticoke Indian history, memories of the days when loyalties were split during the Revolutionary War, and tales of murderous Patty Cannon and abolitionist Harriet Tubman. Tubman came through Seaford while trying to save the life of a slave named Tilly.
But don’t just look for stuff sitting on shelves
with little labels. The staff here has created scenes to bring to life the stories of river bay pilots, the local barbershop, Patty Cannon and Harriet Tubman. A star-lit waterfront scene set at the turn of the 20th Century is particularly memorable. It brings together all of the local businesses that plied their trades by the water’s edge. Quite memorable. I’d be remiss if I failed to mention the Seaford Meteor. You’ll have to take a look at it yourself and read the contradicting stories. Let me know if you think it’s for real.
The Gov. Ross Plantation, also the work of the Seaford Historical Society, is not only a lovely Italianate mansion outside of town. The Civil War era house contains lots of family items, from bits of clothing to beds, cradles and toys. Although most of the furniture was auctioned off decades ago, it went to local residents who one by one are sending the pieces back to the mansion. A freight master’s chair from the train station recalls Ross’s efforts to get the train built through his town. In the governor’s suite a large lidded box contains a bath tub.
The house also recalls its sad history as the home of enslaved Americans. Delaware — I didn’t know this — was the last state to free its slaves, December 1865. An old house on the property was discovered to be built over an old log cabin, once the home of slaves who worked on the plantation.
Between the towns, if you look hard enough, you’ll find the Woodland Ferry that crosses Broad Creek outside of Seaford. With all the highways and big bridges in the area, it might be necessary — but riding it connects visitors to 200 years of history.
While all of this makes the area sound like a place time forgot that isn’t so. Local business leaders are hard at work on redeveloping Laurel’s creek front. The plan, which they call The Ramble, calls for an environment-friendly walkway with biking and hiking trails, canoe and kayak ramp, playground, a village green with gathering spaces and shops, and some housing. Already in place is Abbott’s Grill, a bright spot in the local culinary landscape.
Come now for the quiet and old-fashioned charm. All of these sites are part of the Nanticoke Heritage Byway, a route of small towns and rural landscapes. Later, once the redevelopment is complete, you’ll want to come see Laurel’s the pretty new Ramble.
One more thing: If you’re a fan of Christmas festivities, Seaford may be a good stop during the holiday season. The Seaford Museum puts up train gardens in November. The Governor Ross Plantation goes all out with its Christmas decorations. Check out their calendar.
(I got a request for reprints of this post. I’ve created a PDF you can download and print — Click Undiscovered Delaware, adayawaytravel.wordpress.com. I hope that helps. Thanks for asking. I’m honored.)
ⓒ Photos and text Mary K. Tilghman