Old Town Makes Fine New Home

POSTMARK: GALENA

April 07, 1996|By Nancy Taylor Robson

To the uninitiated, Galena was once merely an irritating stoplight on Route 213 between the northern cities and the ocean resorts of Maryland and Delaware. Its main attractions were a service station, a couple of liquor stores and a grocery where people could stock up on munchies for the rest of the trip. Only the dogwood trees that dressed the town in gauzy pink and white for several weeks in May hinted at Galena's hidden attractions.

But that was 20 years ago. Today, this small town of 400 souls at the northern end of Kent County is undergoing a renaissance of sorts, both commercial and residential, moving itself into the 20th century without losing any of its 19th-century charm. Thanks to the enterprise of both long-timers and newcomers, that irritating stoplight is now a scheduled stop for antiquers from as far away as New York and Virginia.

Fed by the bimonthly auctions at Rudnick's Auctioneers in the center of town and by a growing number of antiques and collectibles shops along Main Street, Galena is becoming a mini version of New Market, the Frederick County town that calls itself the Antiques Capital of the World.

In addition, there is Samuel's, the incongruously upscale salon owned and run by ex-Wilmingtonian Sam Boyle. The shop draws women from five counties and two states. There also are Twinny's and Dixie Jo's, two diners that serve mammoth subs and bowls of chili along with gossip and local news; a pharmacy; a service station; two churches; two banks; a post office; a convenience store; a bed and breakfast; a video store; a fire company; a retirement complex; a woodworker's shop, and Jim's Boat Sales, which covers several acres of what was once a cornfield. But, most important, there is a sense of community, a cohesive neighborliness that connects the residents, both native-born and immigrant.

Originally called Downs' Crossroads, for Downs' Inn, a tavern that was built there in 1763, Galena was a convenient stop for George Washington on his travels between Mount Vernon and the governing seats of New York and Philadelphia. When the inn was sold in 1796, the town's name was changed to Georgetown Crossroads.

In 1860, the town was incorporated under the name Galena. The choice of name was double-edged: It was an excited nod to the small deposit of silver that had been discovered in the lead sulfide (galena) ore nearby; and it was a metaphor for the town's sterling character.

Although its incorporated boundaries were narrow, the Galena of old was a farming village. This meant that its emotional borders stretched for miles into the countryside. Farmers patronized the grocers in town, bought tools and feed there, visited the doctor, and sent their children to the town's schools. While some of those farms have been developed into little mock-suburban enclaves, there is still a sense today that the outer areas are a part of Galena, even if their residents can't vote in town elections.

At one time Galena's assets included three grocers, a physician and both a private and a public school, but by the mid-1900s, all but one grocery store, a hardware store and a public school of diminishing enrollment were gone. It took people's fears of an increasing urban crime rate and a renewed appreciation for the joys of country living to prompt the recent revival.

"It's a nice place to live," says Mayor Harry Pisapia, who moved to Galena from Anne Arundel County 18 years ago. "People look out for each other."

"It's a great place to raise kids," contends Sam Boyle, who 10 years ago moved his growing family away from the problems of urban life. For five years, Sam commuted to Wilmington to work before opening Samuel's on Main Street.

Twenty years ago, the majority of Galena's residents were natives. Today, the mix of native and newcomer is about 50-50.

Despite the inevitable minor feuds in a small town, there are personal touches to life in Galena that evoke the kindness of a bygone era. Assistant Postmaster Suzanne Robinson leaves congratulatory notes on postboxes to mark birthdays and other occasions. Josie and Horace Otwell, who own Otwell's Market, the grocery store that is also one of the town's informational hubs, act as an answering service for resident Jim Henry, who is nearly blind. Jim, who is in his 50s, supports himself and his elderly mother and stepfather by doing odd jobs around town.

There is also an interaction between generations that benefits everyone. The middle school houses the senior center. Young couples check on aging neighbors and look out for each others' children. Mark Otwell, who owns Take Two Videos, refuses to rent violent movies to youngsters when he knows the parents wouldn't approve. He tells the kids to have their parents call and OK the rental.

In 1988, Mark, the eldest son of Josie and Horace Otwell, moved back to his hometown after seven years in Los Angeles. As the manager of a hotel restaurant in L.A., he rubbed elbows with the likes of Bette Davis and Jimmy Stewart.

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