I had a sense of déjà vu in talking with Oliver Cropper of Fenwick Island, a feeling that I was sitting across from my own grandfather, asking him about his childhood and how things have changed since then. Cropper is well-known in the Selbyville-Fenwick Island area and has been involved with the Fenwick Island Lighthouse for many of his 88 years.
I asked about when he went to war. Did things change in the four years he was away?
“Of course things changed. Things change in four years. We were just country hicks, rednecks, some of whom had never been to Philadelphia before or anything like that.”
Asked if he always had the entrepreneurial spirit, he nodded. By the time he was drafted, at the age of 20, he had already had a lucrative business raising broiler chickens and selling eggs. “I raised 9,000. That’s nothing today, but back then that was something.”
After the service, he worked a stint at H&H Poultry as a foreman, sold home furnishings and then went on to start his own business once again — Community Home Furnishings — and ran that for 27 years before getting interested in real estate.
He bought the trailer park that sits behind and around the Fenwick Island Lighthouse in 1964 or 1965 — “I don’t remember dates, you know…”
The lighthouse interested him, and he started to cut the grass around it.
“I had people that worked for me, and they would go under the fence to cut the grass around it, and when the Coast Guard found that out, they gave me the key. And I’ve had the key ever since.”
Cropper was vice president to President Paul Pepper of the Friends of the Fenwick Island Lighthouse, an informal group that ran on donations from interested parties. In 1990 or 1992 he became president of the group and kept that title until this year.
“We had it running six days a week. Membership was $10 a year, but some would pay one year and not the next. It was very informal. Membership changed. It was different people every year. It was always interesting, revolving.”
A native Delawarean, Cropper was raised around the area that is now considered Fenwick Island. When asked how he first got involved or came to know about the lighthouse in Fenwick Island, he remembered playing as a boy with the children that lived around it. “There was woods there,” he said, pointing across the street, which is now filled with homes. “Sometimes deer would even walk across the street.”
He is one of a distinct bunch of locals that remain in the area, the people that actually remember what life was like in coastal Delaware before electricity, running water and Route 1, people who were there to see the storm of 1962 and its aftermath on their beloved coastal communities — the people who are becoming less and less visible as the area’s communities and population grow each year
Fond memories of the lighthouse were in abundance in our conversation.
“There was something every year. One year there was a write up in Southern Living. People were always painting it. There was a play about it at the Lincoln Center. The lighthouse was on the hunting license stamp one time. There was always something going on,” he recalled.
He laughed when I asked him what’s next for him, now that he’s leaving his guardianship of the lighthouse behind.
“What’s next? What do you mean? I get my coffee every moming. I can travel. That place was work! If you were out someplace, you might have to drive 20 miles to be back by 5 to lock it up. That’s just one of the many little things.”
“I always had an office,” he said. “So I still get up and go to the office every day. It’s habit. My son runs the park, he’s always in and out running around. So I stay here and answer the phones and shoot the breeze with anybody who might come in.”
He is proud of his recent write-up in the book “When Life Was a Day at the Beach” by James D. Meehan, a collection of answers to some of the very questions I had asked him: What was the beach like? What was it like in the winter? He is quoted on several pages, relating many of the same stories I had heard today.
Cropper was given lifetime membership at both the VFW and the Lion’s Club. He also mentioned that he was active at Salem United Methodist Church until his wife died.
The honors Oliver Cropper has received for tending to the lighthouse were capped recently by the awarding of a plaque to him, naming a point of land at the “western terminus of Summers End Road in Fenwick” as “Oliver’s Point.” The Delaware General Assembly approved a joint resolution to officially name the site, commending him for his many years of service to the lighthouse and its preservation.
In leaving, I again feel as if my own grandfather is here with me. He, too, was a man who went to his office until at age 89, “by habit,” until he could no longer make the trek.
I realize again the importance of hearing these stories, and telling them over and over. These stories deserve, like the lighthouse, to live on, so that future generations can know the rich history in the population that was born and raised here, the population that is getting older and scarcer every day.