Back in 1860, Mrs. Daniel Corbit, one of the important matrons of Odessa, Del., leaned from her bedroom window and gazed with disfavor at the noisy conviviality of the gentlemen gathered outside the bar of the Brick Hotel across the street. It was quite clear to her that they had been drinking and, being an influential Quaker lady, she eventually got the hotel liquor license revoked.
How pleased Mrs. Corbit would be now to be a neighbor of the Brick Hotel. Newly gathered under the prestigious mantle of the Winterthur museum, the hotel will reopen today as a gallery of American art, furniture and silver featuring the collection of Sewell C. Biggs. The Brick Hotel will thus join the 1774 home of Mrs. Corbit and the Wilson-Warner House next door as Winterthur in Odessa.
Odessa? Chances are you'll have to look it up on the map. Things might have been different, of course, if this small town of 547 people hadn't told the railroad to take its tracks elsewhere and leave their shipping trade alone. Odessa saw itself as an important grain port, failing to envision the coming railroad age. As a result, progress passed it by. Now it survives as a quiet town built largely along one street, a crossroads town living on its memories.
But what memories they are! Things were different here in the early 19th century when Odessa was a stagecoach stop between New Castle and Dover. The cashier of the Bank of Deleware lived on the second floor of the bank and kept handy a gun which he could point through a hole in the floor at any thief who threatened the safe below. Philadelphia was the mecca and quality folk went there as often as possible, a day-long journey in shallow draft boats launched on the navigable creek at the edges of town. The journey was rather fatiguing, complained William Corbit, the prosperous famer and tanner who built the Corbit-Sharp House.
Winterthur has done its usual elegant job of preserving the vanished pre-railroad life of Odessa, known before as Cantwell's Bridge. This is a nice old-fashioned town, with tree-lined streets and green lawns, and today it is giving a party for the opening of the Brick Hotel. Winterthur is the host and suitable amusements of an earlier era will abound. Visitors can ride in a carriage, have their profiles traced by a physionotrace machine, buy johnny cake and other snacks, listen to harpischord and banjo music, and watch craftsmen skilled in just about every art that has now been taken over by machines. They'll even meet "Daniel Corbit," an actor telling sad stories of the agricultural depression of the 1820s and deploring the resulting migration to the Middle West.
But you don't have to come today to enjoy yourself. All summer long, Winterthur in Odessa will be welcoming visitors. The old hotel makes an inviting museum, its barroom and bedrooms turned into galleries to display American portraits and landscapes which seem peculiarly right in this renovated building. On the third floor, where less affluent guests have to put up in the 19th century, drawings by 20th-century American impressionists hang. The emphasis throughout is on the paintings, but there are also choice antiques scattered about to remind you that portraits and landscapes were usually hung in a domestic setting.
The Corbit House across the street passed through the hands of successive members of the Corbit family until it was sold to H. Rodney Sharp, who renovated it and gave it to Winterthur. It was built in 1774 for a total cost of $1,386, as documnted by the bill framed near the stairwell, a handwritten accounting with scarcely faded ink. Meticulous care has gone into making this house reflect the life of the time. Especially touching are the small samplers done in 1823 by the little granddaughters of the house ad the strange hesitant tick of the 1780 Duncan Beard clock still running after all these years. But perhaps what brings the past closest is the moment when the guide opens the closet of Daniel Corbit's bedroom to display how peeling paint revealed his penciled accounting of the family fortunes on the inside of the door.
Close by on the same street stands the less grand, typical Delaware mansion of William Corbit's brother-in-law, David Wilson, a one-room-deep house now also belonging to Winterthur. Probably the oldest historic house museum in Delaware, the Wilson-Warner house was built in 1769. Wilson ran a general store in the building next door to his house, and the "furniture check" fabric on some of the chairs in the house is exactly the sort he measured out over his counter. Don't miss the book on copied poetry quotations on one of the desks upstairs.
Odessa has everything but a charming inn and a place to eat, but Delaware is so small that everything is close by and the Thomas England House is nearby Smyrna is a good place to know about. This attractive restaurant is an old mansion that has been rumored by turns to be a meeting place of rebel zealots during the Civil War, an important way station for the slave underground railroad and, perhaps because of the red glass inserts in the massive front door, a bordello.
Whatever it was, it is now a pleasant place to recoup from historic house-viewing and sample the catch of the bay. Colonial-costumed waitresses offer large trays of various breads (you cay buy loaves later to take home), followed by a nice selection of fish and other delights.
Some 10 miles south of Smyrna is Leipsic, a tiny town on the Leipsic River where the crabbers come in to sell their catch to Sambo's restaurant. Nothing fancy here -- newspapers for tablecloths, paper toweling for napkins and long tables overlooking the water, but the catch is right from net to table. Afterwards you can stroll out and engage the watermen themselves in conversation. Crabbing is going to be better this year than last, they said, and soft-shelled crabs aren't too far in the future.
Delaware Bay, which laps the edges of Kent County, has no sandy beaches but a certain wild charm of its own. Turning east off the main road at a sign for Port Mahon we arrived at a state-owned patch of land, much as nature made it except for a picturesque old abandoned Coast Guard station rotting offshore. Muskrats live in the marsh grasses here and egrets and blue herons stalk the life in the small inlets. Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge adjoins it.
Port Mahon is lonely, wild country, but Little Creek (say Crick), a mile or two inland, is bustling with small boats coming and going with the day's catch. Both the Coral Reef and the Village Inn here offer fresh seafood direct from these boats and thus that overworked word "fresh" takes on a new meaning. An acquaintance recently told me that, aftering ordering dinner, he had to wait 30 minutes before the oyster boats had run into bad weather and been delayed.
Best of all is taking a bit of the sea back with you at fishermen's prices. In between the two restaurants is Pittman's seafood store, right on Litle Creek itself and displaying everything native that swims. The fish laid out in the counters is fresher than fresh and the price will make your wallet smile. To give you an idea, medium clams were, in late April, just $2 a dozen. Take your cooler and schedule a real nice clambake when you get home.
Nothing is perfect -- there is no lovely old inn anywhere along the route. The motels of Dover are the best and closet bet.