250 years of service

Prince George’s Chapel in Dagsboro, perhaps the oldest building with any surviving features in this part of the county, is about to turn 250.
Coastal Point • SAM HARVEY: The chapel retains much of its charm, 250 years after its origins.Coastal Point • SAM HARVEY:
The chapel retains much of its charm, 250 years after its origins.

Despite the unassuming exterior, architectural restorations inside the church have refreshed its quiet, yet stunning, beauty. The ceilings, all unfinished knotty pine, sweep upward in graceful curves to the second-story peak, with an octagonal pulpit perched in the middle distance, between the box pews and upper balconies.

The chapel has become a very popular spot for weddings, christenings and funerals over the years, and while there aren’t regular Sunday services, the Friends of Prince George’s Chapel do host two a year — one on Easter, the other on Old Christmas (Jan. 6).

Historical threads twine all throughout the building, and into the surrounding community — and it all started back in 1755.

The Episcopal Church had its main parish out near Berlin (Old St. Martin’s) at that time, and the Worcester Parish (Worcester County, Md.) encompassed what is now Dagsboro. In fact, Worcester County itself encompassed Dagsboro at that time.

According to information from the Delaware Public Archives (www.state.de.us/sos/dpa), surveyors set the Middle Point stone at Delaware’s southwest corner in 1751, and a 1760 agreement finalized the borders. Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon mapped them out between 1763 and 1767.

Before the settlement of that boundary dispute, the area was still part of Maryland. (For another decade or so, Delaware was considered part of Pennsylvania, instead.)

Anyway, back in what’s now Dagsboro, at the northern end of the Worcester Parish, the Episcopal Church eventually pressed for a “Chapel of Ease,” to save some of the parishioners a long, bumpy buggy ride.

Again from the Delaware Public Archives (DPA), the Church of England petitioned the Maryland Assembly, and that legislature approved the project on July 5, 1755.

In the meantime, the St. Martin’s vestry had already scouted a possible location. According to records under glass, arranged around the Prince George’s upper balcony, they met and agreed to build “at Black Foot Town on the South Side of Pepper’s Creek.”

They purchased two acres from Walter Evans later in July and James Johnson bid the work — his price, 39,200 pounds of tobacco (worth just more than £105).

The vestry paid another 45 pounds of tobacco to record the deed, hired Dan’l Hull to put in the flooring, wainscoting, stairs and “one pew for Straingers.”

Apparently, there weren’t as many newcomers wandering about in those days.

By 1757, after a bit of last minute wrangling over the contract, the work was finished, and renamed the “Prince George’s Chapell” on June 30, in honor of the prince who would become Prince George III.

There were more than 40 pew holders by April of 1758. Among the early supporters of the church was Gen. John Dagworthy, the town’s namesake.

A framed article about Dagworthy, by the late, great Delawarean journalist William P. Frank is also on display in the upper balcony. According to Frank, Dagworthy was a brave soldier for the British in the French and Indian War (1754). However, got into some oneupmanship with then-Col. George Washington as to who had the higher rank in 1755 (Dagworthy being a royally commissioned captain at the time).

Perhaps not coincidentally, although Dagworthy threw his support to the colonists when it came time for the revolution, Washington declined to enlist his support.

So, he never became a Revolutionary War hero, but shortly after his death in 1784, nearby community members renamed the town in his honor.

Friends member Sandy Gerken said there wasn’t much of Dagsboro that had survived the 18th century, despite the fact that the town had been a rather thriving place during that time period. She reviewed a bit of the history surrounding the town’s early heyday.

“There was a library, a post office, which isn’t something every town had, three hotels and two livery stables,” Gerken said. “It was a busy place because of Sandy Landing. With a port so close by, everyone would land here before taking their goods and supplies overland to the other towns.”

Attendance at Prince George’s Chapel had dwindled over the years, and the building had begun to fall into disrepair – by 1850, it was strictly a historic site, according to the DPA.

The Sussex County Laymen’s League restored the building in 1928, and the State of Delaware took ownership in 1967.

As the state has done with other local landmarks (the Fenwick Island Lighthouse, for instance), preservation duties passed to the citizenry. The Friends of Prince George’s Chapel has kept things going ever since.

Gerken said they had about 150 members, some locals, but some out-of-towners who’d come to Dagsboro for their wedding ceremonies, and signed up as supporters then.

They also hold a pair of fundraisers every summer — an ice cream festival and a dinner. “We’re always interested in members, and we could use some new blood to keep this thing going,” Gerken pointed out.

Starting in July (and running through October), they’ll once again host weekly tours, every Sunday from 1 to 4 p.m.

For more information, or to support the Friends of Prince George’s Chapel, contact Margaret Morris, at 732-3551.