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 on the bay and not the ocean, 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
For transplants and natives alike, Lewes' appeal lies largely in its year-round status as a small town, with about 3,000 full-time residents. More people are relocating to Lewes, and locals often stick around. David McCarty, 36, moved to Lewes when he was 9. "All of my friends stayed in town," says the bar manager of the Rose & Crown, where blue-collar workers drink side by side with yuppies and affluent retirees.
Drawn by Delaware's modest property taxes, low insurance costs and lack of a sales tax, retirees from New Jersey, New York and Connecticut are increasingly settling in Lewes, says Betsy Reamer, executive director of the Lewes Chamber of Commerce and a former Baltimorean. The pattern appears to have changed from previous years, when Lewes' advantages persuaded Washington and Baltimore-area residents, often retired military or CIA personnel, to move there, Reamer says.
Keena Reed grew up in Lewes, left, returned and is raising three children there. "It used to be that you could walk into any store and any restaurant and you knew most of the people inside. Now," she says, "it's just the opposite."
For visitors like us, though, Lewes still felt like a small place knit together by old families and history.
After checking into the Inn at Canal Square, we began our tour at the Zwaanendael Museum, a quirky state institution housed in a 1931 replica of a 17th-century Dutch city hall.
We found a captivating hodgepodge of artifacts: a "beach combing collection, circa 1845 to 1917," kept by Theodore Burton, Cape Henlopen light keeper; 1795 store ledger; carved shore birds; and a large lens fragment from the Cape Henlopen lighthouse. The seven-story granite tower tumbled into the sea in 1926 after 161 years of use, but still looms large in Lewes lore.
I was also surprised to see what looked to be a "Feejee Mermaid" -- the fabricated remains of a hoax invented by P.T. Barnum. The "mermaid" is a favorite of school kids, said Elizabeth Lynch, a museum interpreter.
The Zwaanendael features an informative exhibit about the H.M.S. DeBraak, an escort ship that sank off the coast of Lewes in 1798 and was recovered from 1984 until 1986. Crockery, utensils and other remains are on display, but the ship itself is being preserved at a location closed to the public because of the state's limited budget.
The museum also chronicles Lewes' wobbly origins when 32 settlers arrived from the Dutch town of Hoorn in 1630. Probably misled by passing pods of migrating whales, they tried futilely to start a whaling enterprise on a bayside site they called Swanendael -- Valley of the Swans. The whales were a no-show. Before they could make other plans, the settlers were massacred by a Lenni Lenape Indian tribe as a result of what Beth Gott, also a museum interpreter, delicately calls "a cultural misunderstanding."
The short-lived settlement ultimately earned Delaware its status as a state, apart from Maryland and Pennsylvania. Because King James' patent to Lord Baltimore did not include land previously cultivated by white setters, "the courts held that the brief existence of Swanendael in 1631 excluded the Delaware River shores from Lord Baltimore's claim," Virginia Cullen writes in her history of Lewes.
The Dutch returned again in 1658 and waged a tug-of-war with the English for the land until 1673, when Lord Baltimore burned the town to the ground.
Then, William Penn and Lord Baltimore, followed by their descendants, spent a century haggling over rights to the land. The English courts ruled in the Penns' favor in 1775, but the American Revolution rendered the decision moot. A new nation was born. Delaware became the first state and Lewes its first town.
The deVries Memorial at Roosevelt Inlet marks the settlement's site with the engraved words: "Here was the cradling of a state."
Little Lewes was never too far from major historic events. During the Revolution, the town, home to both Tories and patriots, twice encountered the British man-of-war Roebuck with minor consequences. A two-day bombardment of Lewes during the War of 1812 resulted in minor casualties -- one dead chicken and a wounded pig.
From 1885 until 1926, Lewes was the site of a quarantine station for European immigrants.
In 1941, Fort Miles was constructed to protect the Delaware River and surrounding industrial centers, but its artillery was never put to use. In 1963, the Army returned most of the land to the state of Delaware, and Cape Henlopen State Park was established.
After visiting the museum, we meandered past several of Lewes' oldest homes. A fisherman's cottage on West Third Street, built around 1720, has served as a general store and doctor's office and is now a private home. The Ryves Holt House on Second Street, built around 1665, is said to be the oldest home in Delaware.
Around the corner on Park Avenue, we found the second St. George's AME Church. An earlier church, built by members influenced by Richard Allen, the first bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, is gone. But the old church cemetery, where black Civil War veterans are buried, remains at the corner of Ocean View and Pilottown roads. While Delaware was a Northern state, Lewes was home to slaves and free blacks.
Dusk descended, and soon Lewes' shops would close. We had barely scratched the surface. At Auntie M's Emporium, we were overwhelmed by antiques, garden items, Beanie Babies, jewelry, soaps and a first edition of The Catcher in the Rye for $19.
On Second Street, at Antique Corner, we found Beth Gott's father, Dick, who owns the shop with his wife, Jane. A former systems engineer for the Navy, Gott became enchanted with the town when his family of eight used to camp at Cape Henlopen. After retiring 24 years ago, the Gotts left Potomac and "bought the prettiest Victorian house in Lewes." Dick Gott quickly became involved with town affairs, serving on the city council for eight years.
The Gotts' experience reflects that of numerous retirees who have settled in Lewes. "We have a lot of people who have retired that are very interested in shaping the future of their town," Reamer says.
For those who grew up there, Lewes' changing population is perceived as a mixed blessing. Growth can mean a greater source of support within a church community, for example, but it can also mean soaring real estate values that price Lewes natives out of the market.
At the same time, Lewes has always benefited from new blood, says longtime resident Reed. When she was young, she made lifelong friends with the family who owned a summer cottage near hers. Reed also got to know the children of military personnel, who brought tales of other places. "It gave us exposure to the outside and broadened our horizons."
Reamer speaks as well of Lewes' expanding cultural activities, including Coastal Concerts, a chamber music series that recently attracted an audience of 270 to a performance.
"The changes have been unbelievable, yet it's the same wonderful little town," says Barbara Vaughan, a board member of the Lewes Historical Society.
That evening, we opted for popular culture: a movie at a crowded multiplex on Route 1. Because the Buttery restaurant was booked until after 9 p.m. we had a late, exquisite dinner there: bouillabaisse, lobster tails, pate and excessive desserts. Even in winter, business is healthy, said proprietor John Donato as he seated guests and conducted his indulgent wait staff.
The winter beach
Sunday morning, we drove to Cape Henlopen State Park, where the cold had fashioned a startling landscape. Braving a strong wind, we picked our way among horseshoe crab shells and walked around the point, where the bay and ocean merge, and lapping gives way to waves. Close to shore, the brackish bay water had frozen, and chunks of ice had been thrust into strange, table-shaped formations. Beyond, ice floes traveled with the wind, and winter gulls, perched on the ice, chattered.
Hardy birders looking for loons, gulls and seabirds also braved the cold, as did photographers astonished by the Arctic vision.
In the distance, we could see the Breakwater Lighthouse, and further away the Harbor of Refuge Lighthouse. We walked on sand that had shifted improbably onto snow, and we fell in step with a beachcomber searching for sea glass, red pebbles, periwinkles and bones.
After rounding the point, we watched the Cape May-Lewes Ferry arrive. The point is closed to visitors from March 1 until Oct. 1 to protect nesting piping plovers. But Cape Henlopen offers many sublime opportunities for exploring, including Gordons Pond, the Great Dune, a nonpareil view from a World War II observation tower and year-round surf fishing and beach access to vehicles in designated areas.
At the park's nature center, we studied an enormous whale jawbone, an inviting touch tank and living displays illustrating park environments from tidal creeks and salt marshes to the open ocean. Then, it was time for a hefty brunch at the Blue Plate Diner, which bustled with an after-church crowd.
In warmer weather, Pilottown Road would be ideal for a leisurely bike ride, but we tooled slowly along the historic road, passing the home of Maj. Henry Fisher, the "pilot patriot" who raised a company of 100 men to defend the cape during the Revolution. We also passed the Maull House, where Napoleon Bonaparte's brother Jerome and his wife, Betsy, are said to have stopped while their ship was repaired in Lewes harbor.
Alas, the Lewes Dairy, a Pilottown Road business known for its eggnog and the high butterfat content of its products, was closed, since it was Sunday.
As we drove toward the University of Delaware College of Marine Studies, a fox darted onto the road, pirouetted and scurried back into the rustling beach grass. We spied him again on our return to town.
We made a last stop at St. Peter's Episcopal Church, where the earliest stone in the churchyard belongs to Margaret Hulling, born 1631.
Now that we knew a little bit of Lewes history, many names were familiar. We also noted that a surprising number of Lewes' townspeople, such as Hannah Parker, 97, lived lives that nearly straddled Colonial and modern times.
We left Lewes, our mission slightly incomplete. Both the Cannonball House Marine Museum (so named because it was struck by a cannonball in the War of 1812), and the Lewes Historical Society are closed in winter.
We did leave certain that Lewes is worth another visit, chiefly because there is so much more to do there and nearby. We had missed, for example, Broadkill, a shore community to the north where the fossil- and quartz-hunting are good, and the beach is a horseshoe crab sanctuary, thanks to a local environmental group. The Primehook National Wildlife Refuge, with canoe and hiking trails and phenomenal birding, is also a quick hop from Lewes.
On the way home, we stopped in Milton, a little town on the Broadkill River said to be "the next Lewes," where we puttered in a couple of antiques shops. Milton is also the future home of the country's first horseshoe crab museum and research center. That's reason alone to return to this part of the world.
When you go
Cross the Bay Bridge and continue on Route 50. Turn left on Route 404, which becomes Route 18 and finally Route 9. Cross through the Route 1 roundabout and continue on Route 9 (Savannah Road) into downtown Lewes.
Lewes has a lot to choose from -- inns, bed and breakfasts and motels -- and impressive off-season rates. For accommodations, contact the Lewes Chamber of Commerce & Visitors Bureau: 302-645-8073; www.leweschamber.com
Inn at Canal Square, 122 Market St., Lewes, DE 19958