Where Nowhere Is
The waterman’s ways may be yielding to those of newcomers, but even they don’t want things to change too much—at least not for now.
“It was beautiful,” says Burke, drawing out the sentence in a baritone as deep as Delaware Bay. “It was wild. It was nowhere, really.”
To be sure, the place still feels a bit like nowhere, an archetypal boondocks surrounded by marsh. That area is Slaughter Beach, but one town in a string that stretches from Lewes to Port Mahon. With the others—Broadkill Beach to the south, the fishing hamlets of South Bowers and Bowers beaches, Little Creek and Leipsic to the north—it maintains a rustic feel. No town’s population crests the low hundreds. Houses number in only the dozens.
“It was no man’s land. In some ways it still is, really,” says Burke, 66. “Places like Slaughter Beach and Broadkill, they were just little fishing villages, places where people built cottages they used in the summertime. They hunted muskrats. They tracked the dirt in and out of their houses—built most of them on rocks. Nobody gave a damn if the bay rose up and the water was all around them. It was expected, in fact.”
But these places are changing. And the transformation is bittersweet for Burke, as it is for so many people who have a history here. Having spent many years as a young man happily wandering the no man’s land, Burke has another connection to the region. His wife’s grandfather was one of the developers of Broadkill Beach, which at the time of its settlement in the late 19th century, was nothing more than a seven-mile stretch of uninhabited coast.
In addition to his pedigree by marriage, Burke is a former owner of the Mispillion Lighthouse. Built in Slaughter Beach in 1831, the light’s 65-foot tower once overlooked the Mispillion River and Cedar Creek. It was the only wooden frame lighthouse still standing in the state when Burke and his wife purchased it in 2000. Two years later the structure was severely damaged by lightning. It was later sold and moved to Lewes, the town Burke now calls home.
Another piece of the place disappeared—and another person.
“There are some spots down here that still feel the same,” says Burke. “But most of it has more or less changed completely. It’s happening everywhere.”
Burke’s nostalgia—for the wilderness, the once flourishing fishing industry, the few aging locals who recall simpler times—is not so sad as his statements might imply. Burke isn’t one to suffer wistfulness. This transformation is just another cog in the wheel of time’s unstoppable turning. He just wishes that a bit of it could remain the way it was.
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“Yeah, it’s changed an awful lot,” says Burke. “And I have mixed feelings about it. The state’s coming in and buying up all the property, which is nice because that means the land’s being preserved for future generations. But the downside is that all the crazy local yokels who made this place what it is are being displaced.”
And who does he see taking their place? Eventually, says Burke, towns like Slaughter, Broadkill and Bowers will become home to wealthy transplants from northern Delaware and surrounding states—transplants who are going to want million dollar homes, sewer systems and all of the bureaucracy that comes with them. Mud doesn’t get dragged through nice houses. The wilderness doesn’t always survive.
“The only important point about all this is the same point that’s happening all over America,” says Burke. “More people means more regulation and people sticking their noses in your business. And there’s nothing we can do about it. It’s called progress.”
For many, the drive down S.R. 1 is no more than a means to an end, a trail of asphalt and manicured medians that speeds them to better-known (and more crowded) summer destinations on the ocean’s shore. But in the distance to the east, where yawning farm fields stretch into the distance and hawks soar and dive through skies high above, a much quieter seduction lies. Out there, beyond the fields and woods and marshes—out on the bay—some fishermen can smell thunderstorms being born and tell time by the sun.
But most drivers miss this. It blurs as they speed by—unless one stops to take a closer look.
On the lower bay in Sussex sit Broadkill Beach and Slaughter Beach, strips of modest summer houses that kiss the edge of the bay at the shoreline. The mouths of their namesake rivers—Slaughter Neck and the Broadkill—define both villages. There’s one road in and one road out of each.
Then there are the others. All of the bay towns have unique histories and characters. Each is separated from the others by small nuances of history and complicated bloodlines. But they all share the same basic evolution and, right now, the same struggle with change.
Frank Draper spent his summers as a child in Slaughter Beach, back when commercial and recreational fishing were the region’s lifeblood. Today he’s the mayor going on six years, and though he acknowledges that things have changed, he says there’s still a ubiquitous appreciation for the quietude. New homes are a little bigger than old ones, the new residents less countrified than the old-timers, but no one, he says, has any desire to see the place become the next Rehoboth Beach.
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“Things are changing, sure. They have changed. Considerably. The fishing’s not what it used to be,” says Draper. “But we’re still just a small little place, and I think that the sentiment of the majority of the people here is that we like it small and quiet. I don’t think there are that many people who regret the fact that we don’t have any Ferris wheels or merry-go-rounds or miniature golf courses to attract people from the outside. The people here are here for peace and quiet.”
The story is much the same in Bowers Beach. Of all the bay towns, Bowers has perhaps realized the greatest transformation. One can see it in the manicured municipal park, the recreational center, and the ever-present flirtation with a vibe more suburban than maritime. All of this has brought new residents—seasonal and permanent—from nearby Dover, Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Mayor Ron Hunsicker acknowledges that some of those folks may not have the same appreciation for the waterman’s history and culture, yet they still love it.
“Fishing was everything,” says Hunsicker, who first bought property in Bowers in 1982. “There used to be 14 [recreation fishing] headboats in town. Now we’re down to three. But I would say most people are still very enthusiastic about the changes here. Our regular town meetings now have 30 or 40 people attending every time. There didn’t used to be that much participation, and we’re expanding on that. We want to make this town even more attractive so it becomes an attraction and not just some other town.”
The townofbowersbeach.org homepage speaks to this desire to capitalize on the region’s charm. Remember when walking the beach filled your whole day... Scott Thomas, executive director of Southern Delaware Tourism, says that kind of serenity marketing isn’t such a bad thing—for the towns, nor Delaware on the whole.
“As you can imagine, about three-fourths of the calls we get here in our tourism office are from people who want to know more about Lewes or Rehoboth or Fenwick Island,” says Thomas. “But down by the bay is such a beautiful stretch of land, and it’s still very private. From a tourism standpoint, there’s a lot of good things that have taken place, and will take place, down there.”
One of those good things is the DuPont Nature Center, which opened in Slaughter Beach in 2007. Capitalizing on the national trend of eco-tourism, DuPont quickly earned a reputation for offering visitors an exhaustive history of the area, as well as glimpses of migratory waterfowl, the Delaware Estuary and those world-famous horseshoe crabs.
“It’s all about nature down here,” says Dawn Webb, curator of the center. “And there’s a beautiful mix going on right now between us and our waterman neighbors.”
For folks like Hunsicker, this push for recognition—be it of an ecological, historical or cultural nature—is not about abandoning the past or transforming the fundamental character of the region.
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“We recognize that in order for us to grow and realize the kind of funding we need for growth, this has to be attractive to everyone in Delaware. But I think the character will remain the same,” says Hunsicker. “We don’t have much property to expand into. We’re restricted on the north and south by the St. Jones and Murderkill rivers. So, no, we’re not looking to annex a whole bunch of property in order to become a huge place. That’s not what this is about.”
When she was a girl, Helen Hegnan and her friends knew the names of every boat and every captain in Little Creek. They used to wile away summer afternoons playing on oyster boats, splashing in the local tributaries and, occasionally, going on muskrat hunts.
At 86, Hegnan is the eldest resident of Little Creek, one of the few who can still recall the old ways. Her father was a waterman who worked an oyster boat in the winter and captained a party fishing boat in the summer. It was all the business he needed. The cars that carried his passengers lined both sides of Bayside Drive, Little Creek’s main drag. The men would go out at three in the morning, then return when the sun had set. Life was good.
There aren’t many fishermen left. There are no restaurants. Through decades of neglect, the creek that once fed so many fishing and oyster boats into the bay has clogged with sediment and the remnants of rotted wharves. The engine that once kept the town running has slowed to a barely discernible sputter.
“It’s very quiet now compared to when I was a kid,” says Hegnan. “There’s more traffic because there are more cars. But there’s nothing here except a little corner deli.”
“I’m the oldest woman in town. Most of the people my age who used to live here have died. There’s a lot of people here I don’t know anymore, lots of people who come and rent houses. Here today, gone tomorrow. No one really remembers what it used to be.”
One should be careful not to confuse her nostalgia for bitterness. She remains cheerful and optimistic. And like most locals, Hegnan—whose former schoolhouse is now the town’s post office—doesn’t do much handwringing. She is more or less resigned to the change, so long as the younger generations make sure to preserve the history.
“The people who are here now, the ones who never saw this place the way it used to be, they don’t listen,” says Hegnan. “But I listen. I know.”
Laurie Bronstein also listens. A resident of Broadkill since 1998, the village is her passion. “I don’t think there’s that same level of tension that once was,” she says. “The big shift has happened, and I think people have just kind of adjusted with it. And for all the nostalgia toward the past and everything, newcomers really are very welcomed. It’s pretty much an open arms type of community down here. That has been my experience, anyway.”
On the bayshore, there are no conclusions to draw, no grand plans to be made. For all the complexities and opinions, there is still the call of the wild, that uniquely American draw toward anything resembling no man’s land.
Whenever he’s asked about these things, Draper delivers one of his favorite anecdotes.
“There’s a retired Army colonel who lives down here, and my favorite story is one that he tells about a time he was packing his bags to come down for the summer. A friend of his asked him, ‘So, where ya headed?’ And he says, ‘Slaughter Beach.’ Well, his friend just laughed and said, ‘Slaughter Beach? Where the hell is Slaughter Beach?’ And the colonel said, ‘It’s absolutely nowhere. And that’s how we like it.’”