Escapes: Odessa, Del., is tiny in size, but big in history


The silver tea set in the parlor of the Warner-Wilson House belonged to Ann Wilson, the first wife of David Wilson Jr., the son of the house’s builder. (James F. Lee/For The Washington Post)
September 14, 2012

Tucked into a corner of the wall above a stairway leading to the third floor of the Corbit-Sharp House in Odessa, Del., is a tiny doorway. In 1845, the cubby hole behind this door sheltered a runaway slave named Sam. When the local sheriff came looking for the runaway, the lady of the house, Mary Corbit, led him right up to the stairway. As she had hoped, the sheriff couldn’t imagine that the space behind the door was large enough to shelter a human being, so he turned away to continue his search throughout the rest of the house. Corbit’s daughter, Mary Warner, recalled years later that her mother said that her heart was beating so loudly, she feared that it would give her secret away.

Details, Odessa, Del.

Today the door stands open, and we look inside to see a lifelike model wrapped in blankets, with small pieces of fruit to sustain him during his ordeal of waiting.

The Corbit-Sharp House is one of five historic buildings in tiny Odessa that are open to the public and operated by the Historic Odessa Foundation. Odessa, originally called Cantwell’s Bridge, prospered in the 18th century thanks to its location on the Appoquinimink River and a vibrant trade with nearby Philadelphia. When the railroad bypassed it in the mid-19th century, the town faded, its name changed and time pretty much forgot the place. That proved to be a blessing in disguise. Today, after years of avoiding the developers’ gaze, coupled with the timely intervention of preservationist H. Rodney Sharp in the 1930s, who bought and restored two houses, the town is left with several outstanding historical buildings furnished in precise period detail.

“You don’t often get a streetscape that looks today exactly as it did when it was an 18th-century port,” said Deborah Buckson, executive director of the Historic Odessa Foundation.

During our recent visit, guide Carmen Gulnac shepherded my wife and me across busy Main Street as she led us on a tour of three historic houses. The grandest is the Corbit-Sharp House, a National Historic Landmark, built in 1774 by William Corbit, who made his fortune as a tanner. Although Corbit was a Quaker, he decorated his imposing brick mansion in a playful Queen Anne and Rococo style. Gulnac pointed out the elaborate crown molding in the front hallway, inlaid with hand-carved miniature ornamental brackets called mutule blocks. A large parlor upstairs contains a 1790 piano and a lovely marble fireplace. The house has a schoolroom in the basement, with several wooden benches, where girls and boys were taught together.

My favorite room was the guest bedroom, which is painted in an unusual verdigris pigment, a copper-based paint made in France that in this case has a distinctive teal color. “This expensive paint was a way of showing their wealth,” Gulnac told us.

Next door to the Corbit-Sharp House, the Warner-Wilson House, built in 1769, is a fine example of Georgian architecture. It was built by David Wilson Sr., who married William Corbit’s sister. The rooms have been painstakingly furnished to reflect the 1820s; some of the pieces are from the Wilson family, but most are from other sources. The Wilson family fell on hard times and filed for bankruptcy in 1829, itemizing their possessions down to the minutest detail. That list still exists, giving restorers a precise blueprint of the house’s contents.

In the colorful parlor, Gulnac pointed out family items, including a marvelous silver tea set owned by David Wilson Jr.’s first wife, Ann, and some of her needlepoint, displayed on the wall. In the dining room, two unusual china cabinets, the shelves shaped like butterfly wings, are built into the wall. Gulnac led us behind the kitchen hearth and showed us two beehive ovens. One member of our group remarked that they looked like pizza ovens. “In those days, it was unusual to have two such ovens,” Gulnac said.

The last house on the tour, the Collins-Sharp house, was built around 1700 and is one of the oldest houses in Delaware. Originally built at Taylors Bridge on the Delaware River, it was moved to Odessa in 1962. It’s a fine example of a very early 18th-century log-and-frame house. Gulnac pointed out the original wallpaper in the entrance that was found beneath layers of paint. I was impressed by the deep rich color of the Queen Anne-style pine molding. Cooking demonstrations over the hearth and dining are offered.

The remaining houses open to the public include the 1855 bank building that houses the headquarters of Historic Odessa, where we saw an informative introductory film about the town. Across the street, we ate lunch at Cantwell’s Tavern (1822), a very popular dining spot and pub offering lunch and dinner in an early 19th-century setting.

Down Main Street from the five Odessa houses is the tiny brick Friends Meeting House (1785) built by David Wilson Sr. Though it’s not part of the Historic Odessa Foundation, it’s well worth a visit, which can be arranged through the Friends Meeting in Wilmington or through Historic Odessa. Downstairs, the simple, plain building with white-washed walls contains three or four rows of wooden benches and a raised area with two more benches. Deborah Buckson explained that this part of Delaware was a main thoroughfare on the Underground Railroad and that oral tradition suggests that runaway slaves were hidden in the meeting house loft. She invited me to take a look.

I climbed a very narrow staircase leading to a trap door in the ceiling and carefully lifted the door. Poking my head through, I saw a small room with a table and a few chairs where women members conducted business meetings after services. A straight-backed bench ran along one wall. It’s believed that a panel between the bench and the wall was removable, and that runaway slaves could be hidden in the small space thus created.

The Friends still hold services in this venerable building, one of the smallest houses of worship in the country, which in a way is a metaphor for Odessa and Delaware. Only a few slaves at a time could be hidden in the loft, or in the cubby hole in the Corbit-Sharp House, but the small steps taken in the great work of freedom were important regardless of the numbers.

Details, Odessa, Del.

Lee teaches journalism at Bucknell University.

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