Nanticoke Heritage Byway
By Bob Tagert
When most of us think of Sussex County Delaware, our thoughts are of the Atlantic Ocean and the warmth of summer. Many northern Virginians take to the beaches of Delaware each summer and some have second homes there. The boardwalks of Rehoboth and Bethany beach provide restaurants, bars, saltwater taffy and summer clothing for our enjoyment, while Dewey Beach, along with the infamous Rusty Rudder, Starboard and Bottle & Cork, remains a residential community that has just gotten a little bigger.
The most popular travel route to the beaches of southern Delaware is Route 50 to Route 404 to the town of Bridgeville. Today there is a bypass around Bridgeville, but when I would make my annual pilgrimage to the beach I would have to pass through this quaint town with one main street and large beautiful old wooden houses. Bridgeville is the beginning of this months’ road trip as we set out on the Nanticoke Heritage Byway. The Nanticoke Heritage Byway moves through scenic farmlands, wooded areas and historic towns. From the Nanticoke Wildlife area to Trap Pond State Park, there are many recreational opportunities for hiking, biking and boating.
The Byway extends from Bridgeville to the exit for Route 20 on US 13, passing through Seaford, Bethel, Laurel and ending at Trap Pond State Park. The Byway also crosses its’ namesake, the beautiful Nanticoke River, at the historic Woodland Ferry. The three towns are all located on what was once a major inland shipping route and were all-important centers for trade and for shipbuilding into the mid-19th century. That lasted through the Colonial Period and up until the railroad arrived in 1856. Laurel and Seaford were both on that rail line and the towns began to see their shipping freight change more to agricultural and seafood with the increased ease of access to northern and western markets.
Our trip started with a visit to the T.S. Smith & Sons farm in Bridgeville. Small by comparison to some of the larger farms in Delaware, this 800 acre family-owned farm was started by Thomas Sterling Smith in 1907 and is run today by three fourth generation brothers. T.S. Smith & sons is the oldest apple, peach, and nectarine operation in Delaware. The farm raises just about anything else you may want including Asparagus.Strawberries and flowers in Spring. Summer brings out the Galas, Ginger Gold and Lodi Apples, Peaches, Nectarines, Zucchini, Squash, Strawberries, Cantaloupes, Watermelon, String Beans, Tomatoes and Okra. Fall brings eleven varieties of apples, Gourds, Broccoli, Cauliflower, Kale, Cabbage Apple Cider, Turnips Sweet Potatoes and Pears. The farm store is open until Christmas Eve.
Also located in Bridgeville is the Historic Sudler House. Built in 1750, it is the oldest structure in town. Today the Sudler House is a five bedroom B&B. The restoration of the home was completed in 2008, along with the construction of a modern wing which has enhanced the livability of the dwelling and strengthened both structures. One of the cool features on the property is the sweet potato house, which was relocated to the property a few years ago. Potato houses were typically two-story wood frame structures, of tall and narrow proportions heated in winter with a coal or wood stove. Potatoes were stored from October through February, requiring a constant temperature of 50 degrees Fahrenheit. Today the potato house is used as an extension of the B&B.
Traveling south we arrive at the town of Seaford, which lies along the Nanticoke River. Seaford is one of seven Main Street communities that participated in the Delaware Main Street Program, part of the national Main Street plan to revitalize commercial districts. In 1999-2000 Seaford’s historic downtown area along High Street underwent major renovations, preserving the city’s old fashioned charm with $1.5 million of landscaping, street paving, sidewalks, lamp posts, and utility upgrades. For a better understanding of Seaford a visit to the Seaford
Museum is in order. It is located in a former post office and serves as a repository for items of significance in the history of Seaford. Collections and exhibits highlight Seaford area history from Native Americans to present day. The original map of Seaford is on display.
Here at the museum you can learn about Patty Cannon and Harriet Tubman, two completely different women. Patty Cannon was a slave trader and the leader of the Cannon-Johnson Gang, which operated for a decade in the early 19th century kidnapping free blacks and refugee slaves to sell into slavery in the South. Harriet Tubman was an African-American abolitionist, humanitarian, and, during the American Civil War, a Union spy. Born into slavery, Tubman escaped and subsequently made thirteen missions to rescue approximately seventy enslaved family and friends, using the network of antislavery activists and safe houses known as the Underground Railroad. She later helped abolitionist John Brown recruit men for his raid on Harpers Ferry and in the post- era struggled for women’s suffrage.
The Nanticoke River runs through the heart of Seaford and begins a long and winding trip through the heart of the Delmarva Peninsula on its’ way to the Chesapeake Bay. In 1608 Captain John Smith discovered the Nanticoke and named it after the Native Americans who lived nearby. The Nanticoke is a relatively narrow river but is usually about 15 feet deep with very little development along the banks. The 75,000-acre Nanticoke watershed supports a wide variety of plant and animal species, including more rare plants than any other landscape on the Delmarva Peninsula. An estimated 20 percent of the watershed has been protected through the work of the Nature Conservancy and its partners.
Also located in Seaford is the Governor William H. Ross House, also known as The Ross Mansion. It was built in 1859, and is a two-story, brick mansion in three main connected blocks in an “H”-shape. It is in the Italianate style and features a three-story tower in the central space. The interior retains its original plaster moldings, its Victorian trim, doors, and original inside shutters. It was the home of Delaware Governor William H. Ross, who built the home along the railroad he helped to establish. Today the Seaford Historical Society owns the house and operated it as a pre-Civil War period historic museum. I understand that the Society puts on a fantastic Christmas event at the house…check it out.
Down the Nanticoke you will find the town of Woodland and the Woodland Ferry that crosses the Nanticoke. The ferry is one f the oldest, if not the oldest, ferries in continuous operation in the United States. In addition to its longevity, the Ferry is of historical importance as on f the locations where slave runner Patty Cannon embarked with kidnapped refugees slave and free blacks. She shipped them to Georgia where the free blacks were sold into slavery and refugee slaves returned to servitude. The ferry was established in the 1740’s by James Cannon and operated by his son Jacob after his death. In 1935 the Delaware Department of Transportation assumed responsibility for the operation of the ferry and has continued to operate it into the 21st century.
A few miles down the river where Broad Creek joins the river is Phillips Landing where in 2007 a monument was erected to celebrate he 400th anniversary of Captain John Smiths’ discovery of the Nanticoke and the establishment of an English Colony.
Near Broad Creek is the small town of Bethel…the town that ships built. The town was once a shipbuilding center and home to the Chesapeake Bay Schooner Rams, a three masted schooner, which worked in the cargo trade carrying “sawn lumber, grain, soft coal and fertilizer” throughout the bay. Though the boat building days are long gone, the town still survives as in days gone by and is home to the Bethel Heritage Museum.
Fall is a great time to take a trip to the towns of the Nanticoke Heritage Byway and explore their unique history. If it happens to be a warm weekend take a side trip to the beaches…it is there waiting just like it was 40 years ago.