Smithsonian exhibit making its way to Sussex County

Thanks to a grant from the National Endowment of the Humanities, the Smithsonian traveling exhibit “The Way We Worked” will be coming to Ocean View town hall, in an event organized by a number of local historical societies.

“I knew it was going to come to Delaware, to a location in New Castle County, and currently it’s at the Delaware Air Force Base Museum. I wanted it to come down to Sussex County,” explained Dr. Kimberly Grimes, vice president of the Fenwick Island Historical Group and an appointee to the council of the Delaware Humanities Forum.

Grimes said that the Fenwick group joined together with the Bethany Beach, South Bethany and Ocean View historical groups and the Town of Millville to contribute to the exhibit.

“We decided that it would be great if we all worked on it together,” she said.

The free exhibit will run from May 18 to June 23, Fridays through Sundays, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. It explores the importance of work in American culture by tracing the many changes that 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.

The exhibit explores many aspects of work, from child labor and dangerous workplaces to the transition from a farming culture to today’s diverse workplace. Using large-format pictures, objects and interactive components, the exhibit will show how Americans identify with work, as individuals and as communities.

“It is actually photographs and some artifacts mainly from the Delaware Archives. The Smithsonian puts the exhibit together in six kiosks. We’ll set them up in the old town hall of Ocean View. It arrives all in the truck and these boxes, and we have instructions to put them together, so we don’t have to mount photographs.”

Along with their kiosks, the Smithsonian encourages those who host the exhibit to contribute to illustrating how their region worked during the last 150 years.

“That’s where the historical groups really come in. We’re putting together a local display to complement the Smithsonian exhibit, looking at early work history here at the beach,” said Grimes. “Fenwick Island is looking at life-saving, which was a big issue here, with the lighthouse and all the life-saving stations that were here on our coast.

“We’re also looking at salt panning. In the 19th century, that was a big job for people here. They would pan for salt behind the dunes and ship it to Philadelphia in barrels.”

The other participating towns will also put together displays focusing on work specific to their towns.

“Ocean View and Millville will be talking about our farming history, since Sussex County has always been a strong farming county, and, of course, with the Steeles, who were the ones that started the poultry industry right there in Ocean View,” said Grimes.

“South Bethany and Bethany will be working on before the Bay Bridge opened and after the Bay Bridge opened in 1952. Obviously, that changed our local work history here a lot. They’re both going to be doing exhibits about the growth of the tourist industry here.”

Grimes said that, along with old photographs, there will also be artifacts lent to the exhibit.

“We’ll have display boards, and what we’re doing is collecting our old photographs and captioning them to tell the story. Any kind of old artifact we can find to complement the photographs and the text, we’re going to do as well,” she said.

“Winnie Lewis, the president of the Fenwick group, has these old strawberry tickets. Selbyville was the largest producer of strawberries in the world in 1910, 1920. When people brought their strawberries in, they got these tickets and they took them to another place where people paid them for the strawberries they brought in.”

Docents will help run the exhibit while it’s open, to answer visitors’ questions and give a little insight into the history of the local displays.

Along with the exhibit, the groups will present two talks at the South Coastal Library to further discuss the history of the Sussex County workforce.

“On May 30, Millville, Ocean View and Fenwick will give a talk about agriculture in our area prior to real tourism,” explained Diane Dee, president of the Ocean View Historical Society. “On June 13, Bethany Beach and South Bethany will talk about how things changed in this area after the Bay Bridge was built — from real estate to development to tourism to banking.”

Both Dee and Grimes said that they are excited about exhibit and believe it shouldn’t be missed.

“It has been enthusiastically received by each of the town councils and the people they’ve spoken to,” said Dee. “Five of our towns are working together to put this together, which is kind of fun. It’s been really nice to get together and work together. It’s not just one town running it — we’re all working together. That’s always a good thing.”

“One of the things that has been the most fun for me is for all of our historical groups to get to know each other. That’s just been great,” added Grimes. “We just hope people will come, enjoy the exhibits, learn some stuff and share information, things they know about local work history — and really to have something that brings our communities all together.

“Everybody I’ve talked to is excited about it coming,” she said. “It’s nice for us to have something here, because a lot of times — because of space or because of the beach — we don’t really get traveling exhibits. I would just encourage people to come. I really hope people will come and take advantage of it while it’s here.”