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Eastern Sussex County

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For the purposes of this book, Sussex County is divided in two by U.S. 113, which runs in a north-south direction. Historically, Sussex was quite southern in flavor, as befits its location, lying almost entirely below the latitude of Washington, D.C. It was rather isolated, though the deepwater port at Lewes linked the eastern part of the county to the larger world. In 1790, the population of Sussex County was slightly larger than that of Kent or New Castle counties, but in the coming decades it fell far behind. The gap is starting to close today, however, with an epic explosion of development. From 1989 to 2003, almost 23,000 building permits were issued for homes and apartments alone, and the population grew more than 40 percent.

Historically, Sussex was overwhelmingly agricultural, and for many years Lewes was the only established town. Architectural historians Gabrielle Lanier and Bernard Herman (1997) stress that building traditions in Sussex County were generally very different from those farther north, originating as they did on Maryland's Eastern Shore. Early houses showed little variation in plan, being usually one-room, and were often built without excavated foundations, allowing them to be moved. As Lanier and Herman say, “Framing traditions associated with the Chesapeake region, such as common rafter roofs, board false plates, and hewn L-shaped corner posts, were also more characteristic of this area.”

Lewes, on Delaware Bay near its confluence with the Atlantic, was founded in the early seventeenth century; the remainder of eastern Sussex County was settled much later as colonists slowly penetrated the dense forests and cypress swamps inland. Lower Coastal Plain deposits are sandy, and suitable clay for brickmaking is scarce. Brick houses were never common, and only a dozen or so eighteenth-century ones were found in Sussex in a survey of 1980. The historic architecture is overwhelmingly of wood, as described in Bernard Herman's investigation of an area east of Dagsboro, The Stolen House (1992). The Cypress Swamp west of Selbyville was famous for the export of bald cypress and white oak. Sawmilling (along with grain milling) was a major industry, and newcomers to Sussex County may be forgiven for confusing the towns of Milford, Millsboro, Millville, and Milton. Stone is almost entirely absent, but “bog iron” ore was dug and transported to Samuel G. Wright's Delaware Furnace, Millsboro (as well as to Pennsylvania and New Jersey). During its brief heyday (1821–1836), Delaware Furnace produced iron stoves, pipe, and railroad and fence rails, but also a variety of architectural items: steps, doors, window frames, and skylights. In 1831, architect John Haviland spurred this diversification by ordering 220 iron steps for his U.S. Naval Asylum in Norfolk, Virginia. Later came orders for Haviland's Eastern State Penitentiary and Thomas U. Walter's Moyamensing Prison—both in Philadelphia—as well as iron fittings for the Delaware Breakwater (ES25).

Population growth in Sussex County was stimulated by the coming of the railroad in the mid-nineteenth century, with several new towns established. A New Yorker laid out Lincoln on the railroad right-of-way in 1865, but he died suddenly and the community never grew to the metropolitan dimensions he expected. Today, houses are sparsely scattered about an enormous street grid. As in Kent County, the railroad fostered the development of crops that could be shipped to market in refrigerated cars. Chickens, strawberries, and sweet potatoes became predominant, and vernacular architecture evolved to suit new, specialized agricultural needs. The railroad also encouraged tourism to the scenic coast. Early tourism was religious, as Methodists attended camp meetings at Rehoboth Beach starting in the 1870s. Mosquitoes proved a deterrent to growth until the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) launched a massive drainage campaign; by late 1935, there were 240 men employed in six drainage projects in Sussex County, digging channels in lieu of using poison sprays. Over 44,000 acres were ultimately drained, encouraging a touristic boom. In the twenty-first century, new and dramatically better roads continue to bring huge summertime crowds, 160,000 visitors now converging on coastal Delaware in a single weekend—more people than inhabit the state's seven largest towns combined.

Writing Credits

Author: 
W. Barksdale Maynard

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