Smithsonian speakers share memories, give insight on area's growth

The Smithsonian traveling exhibit “The Way We Worked” has been on display at Ocean View Town Hall for the past month, offering visitors an insight into the nation’s, and the area’s, work history throughout the years.

Coastal Point • R.Chris Clark: Jane McCabe entertains the audience with stories of how coastal Sussex County has changed since the Chesapeake Bay Bridge was built in 1952.Coastal Point • R.Chris Clark
Jane McCabe entertains the audience with stories of how coastal Sussex County has changed since the Chesapeake Bay Bridge was built in 1952.

The exhibit explores the importance of work in American culture by tracing the many changes that have affected the workforce and work environments over the past 150 years and gives visitors a chance to reflect on how changing technology and attitudes have shaped the American workforce.

To go along with the installation, organizers also held two talks regarding the area’s growth. Last week, local residents Joan Bogdan, Bob Parsons and Jane McCabe discussed how coastal Sussex has changed since the Chesapeake Bay Bridge was built in 1952.

McCabe was born and raised in Sussex County, and her family, the Wilguses, owned a six-lane bowling alley with a soda fountain on the Bethany Beach boardwalk, along with a family grocery store and an insurance company.

McCabe said that the building of the bridge helped expand tourism in the area.

“In 1952, the Bay Bridge was opened. It brought more people to the area. Our little town began to see changes,” she said, noting that small businesses and restaurants began opening. “Bethany Beach was growing as they found out what a great place it was to come for vacation.”

McCabe recalled that the new post office and boardwalk were built in 1963, following the destructive Storm of 1962, and the first bank was also opened in Bethany at that time.

“You could almost borrow money with a handshake,” she recalled. “In 1980, we had the real estate boom — the rest of the world was finally discovering our town. Sea Colony had come… Along with the tourists, came many changes.”

South Bethany resident Joan Bogdan said that, when she first started visiting the area, the Bay Bridge had already been built, but the Quiet Resorts had not yet seen its effects.

“In order to get here, there were no superhighways, and we had to come on two-lane roads through little towns,” she recalled. “The dunes were so large, my girlfriend and I would actually change our clothes in between the dunes, because they were so large no one could see you.”

Bogdan said that, in 1702, Walter and Mary Evans had purchased from Matthew and Hannah Scarborough a 438-acre tract of land called South Petherton, to be used as farmland. However, the land was far too marshy to actually farm.

In 1950, the Hall family purchased the property. They dug the canals, divided up the lots and put in the roads. In 1969, the land was incorporated as a town and became South Bethany.

After Bogdan’s marriage to her husband, Ben, they would camp near the Indian River Inlet, she recalled.

“We were in a little cloth tent… Grandpa lived with us, and our baby was in a port-a-crib in the station wagon,” she said, adding that the family would eat oysters and fish that they would catch themselves.

In 1968, the Bogdans purchased two lots in South Bethany, for $4,500, and built their home.

“Most items were shipped in or purchased in Selbyville,” she recalled of their building supplies. “There was very little opened here.”

She added that, for a long time, her family’s home did not have air conditioning, a telephone or washing machine.

“Life wasn’t as convenient as it is now, but it was wonderful,” said Bogdan.

Longtime Bethany resident Bob Parsons said his family moved to Bethany when he was in second grade, and through the years, he used his entrepreneurial prowess to earn money from the growing tourist population.

“In third grade, there was a big storm that came and washed great numbers of conch shells on the beach just north of Bethany. My father and I gathered them up and took back to the yard… I sold them in the summer — 10 cents apiece or three for a quarter. If one of them happened to have a prickly pear in it from Lewes Dairy, that would be a dollar, thank you.”

Two summers later, Parsons’ father purchased a horse that the family kept in a barn in Ocean View, where Parsons would charge people 25 cents for a short ride. He would also cut yards in Bethany for a whopping $2. He eventually became one of the town’s seven lifeguards. Today, Bethany has more than 30 guards.

Parsons said that Bethany was so small when he was young that the homes in town didn’t have numbers, they just had names.

Although the building of the Bay Bridge was authorized by Congress in 1937, the construction was put on hold due to World War II.

“Living on the boardwalk, we had to black everything out during the war,” recalled McCabe. “My father found a red parachute on the beach, and mother made my twin sister and I dresses out of it, and they never wore out.”

When it was finally erected in 1952, following three years of construction, the bridge was the third longest in the country. Today, the nearly 7-mile span sees more than 60,000 vehicles daily, many of which are bound for the Bethany Beach area.

“I’ve been blessed to have been born and raised in Bethany,” said McCabe. “I hope to live in Bethany Beach for many more years.”

“We came here to get away from everything,” added Bogdan. “It was a wonderful place to come to, and I think that’s why so many more people have come to our area. It’s really very special.”

The Smithsonian Traveling Exhibit, “The Way We Worked,” is open every Friday, Saturday and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. until June 23, at the Ocean View Town Hall on West Avenue.