Getting A Feel For Lewes

The coastal community strives to maintain its small-town charm even as it embraces a flurry of newcomers


February 23, 2003|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,SUN STAFF

Just off a stretch of Route 1 in Delaware, where summer beach traffic often grinds to a halt, a billboard featuring a wholesome young guy greets visitors: "Welcome to Lewes," it says. The sign raises a question that recurred often during my weekend visit last month: Which Lewes? Arriving on a frigid Saturday afternoon, I would soon discover that, for a small town, Lewes has a passel of identities: Colonial treasure, maritime and military gold mine, working-class stronghold, seaside diamond-in-the-rough polished by an influx of residents and businesses.

So far, these identities have managed to co-exist, but as this community on the Delaware Bay becomes a magnet for vacationers and year-round residents, it must grapple with a classic quandary: How does such a place preserve its home-town charm even as its rougher edges vanish with gentrification?

Tucked among the beach resorts that dot the New Jersey, Delaware and Maryland coastline, Lewes, perhaps best known for its ferry terminal, bears no resemblance to its livelier neighbors. For one thing, the city rests not on the ocean but on the bay, which seems to have a general calming effect. At nearby Wildwood and Rehoboth, where the boardwalks teem with summer revelers, the Atlantic incites a certain wantonness alien to Lewes.

The town with an often mispronounced name (it's Lewis, not lose) has a sedate feel. It's a place more geared toward collectors of Hummel figurines and "home accents" than Grateful Dead-themed tattoos and tasteless T-shirts.

"The thing about Lewes is that it's always been a town with a beach, but not a beach town," says E. Michael Di Paolo, executive director of the Lewes Historical Society.

While never a "beach town," Lewes, in recent memory, was no bastion of gentility either. Once a smelly industrial port, it was sustained by canneries as well as clam and menhaden processing plants, and many of its businesses catered to a rough-and-tumble work force.

As its factories foundered in the 1960s, Lewes managed to preserve its integrity through a growing tourism industry. "There's more of a permanent feel to Lewes," says Di Paolo, who discovered the town as a child coming from Ohio for summer vacations. "I just got to know it, got to appreciate it. It just sucked me in."

Scouting the town

January was a good time to visit. Lewes doesn't shut down in winter, with the exception of the Dairy Queen and King's Homemade Ice Cream shop. What's more, you can better see the bones of a place like Lewes this time of year. It's not plastered with tourists. Colors are muted, and the beach gleams with shells, sea glass, pebbles and other weathered trinkets churned up by winter tides.

As a friend and I wandered through antiques shops, sipped locally brewed Dogfish Head beer at the Rose & Crown on Second Street, trudged around nearby Cape Henlopen where the Delaware Bay meets the Atlantic Ocean, we became beachcombers ourselves, finding clues, like so many trinkets, to Lewes' present and perhaps its future.

The town's idiosyncrasies are made clear by its architecture, a potpourri of sprawling Victorians (some with price tags of $600,000), tidy saltboxes, bungalows, ranch houses, colonials, nondescript motels and brick storefronts. Just beyond Lewes' central commercial district, historic homes marked with plaques line the streets.

A five-minute walk from central Lewes, Shipcarpenter Square is a development of restored 18th- and 19th-century homes, including the former Dewey-Rehoboth Life Saving Station, all moved from other locations to face a tidy common. Most of these houses were rescued from dereliction by two resourceful Lewes builders.

Across the Lewes-Rehoboth canal bridge, chockablock summer homes snuggle in the sand. In growing numbers, these cottages, once the domain of factory workers, are being razed and replaced with more deluxe, winterized homes.

In greater Lewes, not far from the Cape May-Lewes ferry landing, new bayside homes and McMansion colonies stretch along flat country roads. To the north, the homes on Pilottown Road, from which Lewes' legendary bay and river pilots would spot incoming schooners, still stand, often paired with whimsical canal-side boathouses.

While the commercial district, brimming with galleries and antiques shops, has retooled to appeal to tourists, the town was not planned originally with tourism in mind.

In a scenic but slightly homely jumble, the Lewes Little League field abuts the canal in sight of a historic floating lighthouse and moored charter fishing boats. Around the corner is the Dairy Queen (a popular gathering spot in summer), a generic strip mall and motel.

Favorite of retirees

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