In Delaware -- a state that touts itself as a "small wonder" -- Odessa, a mere pinprick on the map, may well be the smallest and best wonder of them all. No more than 40 minutes from Wilmington and only two hours from Capitol Hill, Odessa remains in a time warp with an aura of yesteryear so palpable that visitors might well expect to see not just ghosts of Christmases past, but centuries past, gliding down the brick sidewalks.
Located on the banks of the Appoquinimink Creek, Odessa, with its collection of Georgian, Federal and early Victorian houses, is a colonial backwater,overlooked by time. But twice a year, Brigadoon fashion, Odessa comes alive when village residents play host to the outside world.
The first of this year's two events, the Spring Festival, is scheduled for Sunday, April 27, from noon until 5 p.m. The second, the Christmas in Odessa weekend, is held the first weekend in December. Both offer visitors an opportunity to savor the atmosphere of 18th- and 19th-century village life.
Odessa's private homes -- and most of its historic buildings -- are open to the public only during the special Yuletide weekend. But Spring Festival visitors can enjoy the bonus of pleasant late-April weather while attending craft exhibitions and viewing the exterior charm of numerous homes, including the 250-year-old Collins-Sharp House,the 1740 Frame and Log House and the 1780 Janvier House. These homes are just appetizers, however, for Odessa's main attraction: its two historic house museums, the Corbit-Sharp and Wilson-Warner Houses. Both are operated under the Historic Houses of Odessa program and both are open to the public for the Spring Festival, as well as throughout much of the year. (The properties are owned and administered by the Winterthur Museum and Gardens, located just outside of Wilmington. The museum's collection of American decorative arts and its famed gardens were put together by the late Henry Francis du Pont.)
The Corbit-Sharp House (1772-74) was built by William Corbit, a Quaker tanner, who erected the Georgian mansion on a bluff commanding a sweeping view of the creek and tidal marshes. The handsome brick house with its Chinese lattice fretwork railing on the roof, arched dormer windows, pedimented front door and exceptionally fine interior woodwork is the pride of Odessa. Today's visitors see the house much as it appeared in Corbit's lifetime. Many of the elegant furnishings were owned by the Corbit family or were made by Delaware craftsmen. The stately Wilson-Warner House with its elaborately carved cornice and stone lintels over large windows ranks as the second finest house in Odessa. The house is furnished as it was in the early 19th century. It, too, has elegant interior paneling and molding and equally elegant Queen Anne and Chippendale furniture. BAT10 The Spring Festival offers visitors two unique ways to see the town -- horse and carriage or hay rides -- but guided Walking Tours of Historic Odessa highlight the village's history and other attractions.
Some restored buildings of interest are the small brick Friends Meeting House (1783), a stop on the Underground Railroad for runaway slaves from the Delmarva area; the Old Academy (1844); and St. Paul's Methodist Church (1851), built by Samuel Sloan, the well-known Philadelphia architect.
*Experts in about 30 crafts will demonstrate skills that include painted floorcloth making (the treated canvas was a forerunner of linoleum), herb and dried flower arranging, blacksmithing, theorum painting (decorative painting on cloth), chair caning, oriental rug weaving, soapmaking, beekeeping and tinsmithing. Some of the crafts will be for sale. A quilt exhibition -- plus related materials such as signed textile blocks, stamps and stencils -- can be seen at the restored Brick Hotel (1822). the Corbit-Calloway Library on High Street will give a slide lecture on local history.
Brock and Co., Winterthur's and the Brandywine River Museum's caterer, will be selling regional food specialties including chicken salad, crab cakes and fried chicken, in booths along Odessa's tree-shaded Main Street. Sandwiches and cold drinks also will be available. Throw in a background of music supplied by the Newark Recorder Ensemble and the Juggernaut String Band vand you've got the makings of a nice picnic.
Odessa, once one of the leading commercial centers of the Delmarva Peninsula, was a Dutch settlement in the 1760s. The town subsequently became known as Cantwell's Bridge after Richard Cantwell who, in 1731, gave the village its start by building a toll bridge over the creek, thus opening the way for economic development.
In the 18th century, the meandering waterways intersecting Delaware's rich farmlands provided highways for transporting grain to distant harbors. The village became an important inland port, annually shipping 400,000 bushels of wheat northward via shallow drafted boats that traveled the five miles down the creek, into the Delaware River and then up to Philadelphia. Boats also provided an easy means for rural residents to travel up and down the peninsula.
The village prospered throughout the next century, even sprouting three hotels in its heyday. Carried away with grandiose dreaming, in the mid-1800s the town renamed itself Odessa in honor of the Ukrainian grain port it expected to rival. When the railroad was laid in Middletown, four miles west of Odessa, the farmers and merchants gradually deserted the port for this more economical transportation.
Gradually, Odessa sank into oblivion -- a circumstance that, oddly, would help preserve its intrinsic charm. 18th-century Odessa, located only 23 miles south of Wilmington and the booming industrial might of the Brandywine River Valley, slumbered peacefully through the decades.
In 1938, H. Rodney Sharp, brother-in-law of Pierre du Pont, heard the Corbit House might be sold and converted into apartments. As a youth, Sharp had been Odessa's schoolmaster for several years and frequently visited Daniel Corbit, William's last male descendant, in the Corbit home. Moving quickly, Sharp bought the house with the intention of restoring it. Thus began Odessa's renaissance.
His first priority was restoring the Corbit House to its original splendor. Once this was accomplished, Sharp expanded his goal to embrace much of Odessa as well. Buying, moving and restoring various buildings around town occupied the last 30 years of his life. In 1958, he deeded the Corbit House to Winterthur Museum, which renamed it the Corbit-Sharp House in his honor. He also deeded the Old Brick Hotel and the Collins-Sharp House to the museum.
Inspired by the rampant restoration around Odessa, the board of the Wilson-Warner House, many of whom were direct family descendants, initiated a program to furnish that house and restore it to its original appearance. In 1969, mission accomplished, the board of trustees gave the house and its endowment to Winterthur.
Thus, life in Odessa had come full circle; from a wealthy community, through years of neglect, to a town restored to its former architectural glory. Thanks to Odessa's Historic District Commission, tourists are forewarned that, unlike in many old towns, they will not find much here in the way of quaint gift shops. (Middletown and Chesapeake City, Md., are two nearby towns with more to offer shoppers.)
However, festival visitors need not necessarily go home empty-handed. Ronald Starnes,a skilled Odessa cabinetmaker, has recreated the famous Janvier child-size chest of drawers. John Janvier Sr., who later passed his skills on to his son, John Jr., fashioned the original chest sometime between 1770-1800 probably for one of his children. Appraised at $1,500, the reproduction, with its use of the same woods and fine dovetailing, is an exact copy of the original and will be raffled off during the festival. Tickets are $2 each or three for $5.
But win or lose, Odessa visitors at any season are certain to carry home memories of a village where small does mean beautiful and time is measured in centuries rather than years.