An Explorer's Paradise in Delaware's First Town

By Tony Glaros
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, July 29, 2006; G01

LEWES, Del. -- If Rehoboth Beach is the self-styled "Nation's Summer Capital," then Lewes, five miles up Coastal Highway, past the tangle of tax-free, strip-mall outlet shopping, is well prepared to handle the overflow.

Lewes, where the Delaware Bay meets the Atlantic Ocean, about 120 miles due east of RFK Stadium, is attracting newcomers from Washington -- and they're showing up to do more than ride the well-known Cape May-Lewes Ferry.

In many cases, residents are moving to Lewes to flee the Washington area's traffic congestion and rising taxes. Lewes's seaside location is an explorer's paradise, with five miles of ocean beach, an 80-foot sand dune and a rare saltwater lagoon. At the same time, it's close enough to take in a show at Wolf Trap and return home the same night. The city has a year-round population of 3,000, which swells to 8,000 in the summer.

The seaside atmosphere drew Ron Massengill. In 2003, after more than 27 years as a federal worker, Massengill decided to fulfill his dream of living at the beach. So he took an early out from his job as a financial-management analyst at the Pentagon.

The rowhouse in the Shaw section of Northwest Washington for which he had paid $180,000 years earlier brought him $595,000 after he sold it.

"There's a peaceful, non-party atmosphere here," said Massengill, 50. "Dewey [Beach] is the party town. There are no chain stores. And you can drive on the beaches if you have a surf-fishing permit."

Although Massengill likes the ocean, he keeps close ties to Washington, returning a few times a month to a condominium he owns in Montgomery County. If he times his departures right, Route 404, the preferred way to and from the southern Delaware shore, is smooth sailing, he said.

The flip side, Massengill acknowledged, is that there are certain parts of life in Washington that can't be replicated. He misses browsing the Smithsonian museums and taking in the performing arts.

"That's what you're really lacking here," he said. But he said he can get his fill in Washington before he heads back over the Chesapeake Bay Bridge to his single-family house two miles from the Atlantic.

Lewes, which calls itself "the First Town in the First State," has been marking its 375th anniversary this year.

The centerpiece of the celebration is a sweeping, $3 million infrastructure-improvement project along Second Street, the city's main commercial zone. With its quaint smattering of boutiques, book stores and fine restaurants, Second Street resembles a miniature Georgetown.

The project, which took seven months, featured the installation and upgrade of underground utilities, said Tom Wontorek, the city's public works boss. In addition, he said, wider sidewalks were added to meet the requirements of the Americans With Disabilities Act. "And street lights, traffic-control signs, parking meters, trash receptacles are now all of the same design," he said. "The merchants were very supportive, knowing that there may be disruption."

The city's roots go back more than 375 years, according to the Lewes Historical Society. Henry Hudson, an Englishman working for the Dutch, discovered Delaware Bay in 1609. By the early 1620s, Dutch traders were thought to be the first Europeans to settle in the area, home to the Siconese Indians.

Later, representatives of the Dutch West India Co. "purchased" the area from the Siconese. In1631, colonists sailed from the Netherlands, arriving at what was then called Swanendael. That's the year being commemorated by the anniversary celebrations. A whaling business was set up. Not long after, the settlement was wiped out by the Siconese.

Eventually, William Penn, proprietor of Pennsylvania and what were then known as the Three Lower Counties (present-day Delaware), named the village Lewes and the county Sussex, after places in England.

For Carl Graber, working in a town so richly steeped in the past is what he enjoys most. On a recent afternoon, Graber, a professional fundraiser for James D. Klote & Associates in Falls Church, was walking the grounds of St. Peter's Episcopal Church, pointing out gravestones more than three centuries old. The church, founded in 1681, is one of the oldest congregations in Delaware.

Graber lives in the Midwest but is spending most of his summer in Lewes raising money for the church. He walked into the quiet sanctuary to discuss how the stained-glass images and aging roof could be upgraded.

"The first time I was here," he recalled, "I felt like I was walking through history. This is one of the churches that are so old, the community really embraces it."

Four years ago, Barbara Tobias bought a vintage house in the historic district for $300,000. According to a background search she did, the property was first sold at a public sale for $1,792 in 1902.

Tobias, 60, a retired nurse, said that she could now get twice what she paid for the three-bedroom, two-car-garage house. But she has other reasons to be satisfied about living in Lewes, she said.

"You can walk to everything. Every Fourth of July, we have a picnic in our backyard with our neighbors. Our yards are joined by a little flower bed. Last year, 60 people came. I like the water; we're close to the hospital, the pharmacy, the grocery store. And it's a great place to bicycle and fish."

A minute passed before a motor scooter puttered up to the house. The driver was her husband, Roy, 68. In cutoffs and a T-shirt, he looked the picture of relaxation. He said he understands why so many people from adjacent states are retiring in Delaware.

"My total taxes are less than $1,000 a year," he said. "In Mechanicsburg, Pa., my school tax alone was $3,800 a year."

Community involvement, he said, is important when you're new in town. By joining the Lewes Men's Chorus, he had the opportunity to connect with other residents.

Not everyone is a recent retiree, he pointed out. "The people in the back are in their 80s," he said. "And there are young people across the street. I wouldn't want to live in a neighborhood of all young people, and I wouldn't want to live in a neighborhood of people who are all 55 and over."

Downtown, at the Lewes Gourmet on West Market Street, you can buy lemon tea cookies, handcrafted soaps and jams and jellies. "There are a lot of Washington, D.C., weekenders here," said owner Lou Braithwaite, a North Carolina native and 14-year resident. "There are people here from everywhere. . . . They're well-traveled. They have a worldview, an open mind."

At the public library, where you can check out a book and read it in the quiet gazebo behind the building, Sandra Browning, the circulation chief and a 35-year resident, said many of her patrons are retirees from Washington. "They might be in their 60s, but they act young. They seem to come to the area and plunge into the community."

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