Chances are you’ve driven past it before. You might have even taken the time to notice its relatively small stature in comparison to its neighbors. However, there are few who know the actual story of the Bethany Beach’s Whippoorwill, and even fewer who have called it home.
Development throughout the area has undoubtedly brought changes to residences and businesses over time. Most of the beach cottages of the past have either been remodeled to today’s styles or removed altogether in favor of larger, more expensive beach homes or for new communities.
The Whippoorwill house, however, has managed to keep its originality and authenticity since its start.
Back in the 1930s, Ralph and Francis Gates, a Philadelphia couple, had found a quiet summer retreat in the quaint, undeveloped town of Bethany Beach. Each summer season, they would take time with their family to relocate along the shore, escaping the suburbs and city life.
Warren’s, a large hotel that once stood on the Bethany boardwalk, had served as a summertime haven for the family in the early 1930’s. The family also frequented Sandy Landing campgrounds in the warm months, too. In 1947, they purchased a track of land just a short distance off the coast, for a mere $400.
The family hand-cleared the lot, manually, taking away shrubs and brush. By the next year, Ralph Gates (despite working with Ford) constructed a 20-by-24-foot house upon the land, along with an attached 8-by-20-foot porch.
“He was not a carpenter,” recalled Gates’ daughter, Anne Bartow, who now owns the house with her husband, Dennis, her sister Jeanne Sach and Jeanne’s husband, Fred.
The house inherited its name from the brush-dwelling bird that used to inhabit the surrounding area before development cleared away its natural habitat. In the evening, it wasn’t uncommon to hear the “whip-poor-will” call of the bird accompanying the setting sun.
“There were not a lot of houses in the area,” said Dennis Bartow, “even in the 1960’s. There were plenty of woods for the birds to live in.”
The surrounding area, up to the dunes, was all undeveloped woodland. The house had it all: the soothing sounds of nature, a warm climate with the inviting beach to the east, and the seclusion of the forest all around. All seemed to be perfect for the family — but their little paradisiacal getaway was about to get a wake-up call.
Roughly a decade after the house was erected, after it had been established as a comfortable summer home for the family, the state officials approached the Gateses with plans for a major roadway, set to pass directly through the site of the Whippoorwill home. This major road: Coastal Highway, Route 1.
The Whippoorwill home, in fact, was located in what was to become the northbound lane and the median of the present-day highway.
“When the highway was going through, the state told my father that he had to move the house, or they would remove it,” Anne Bartow said. “They cleared debris and put it on either side of the house, and said that if the house was not off there when it needed to be, they’d burn the brush and the house would go, too.”
Given very little time to act, the Gates family was forced to make a move — literally. Fortunately, the family found a mover, the Rev. Lowery, in the area. When the family called him on a Sunday, he noted that his moving business was traditionally closed on Sundays, but he agreed to help that Monday, given the tight situation.
The house was then set up on blocks and moved with I-beams so as not to obstruct the path of the soon-to-be Route 1.
“At the time, they weren’t selling any of the land on [the west] side of the road,” said Anne Bartow. “It was owned by Ruby Vale, a lawyer at the time.” Vale heard about the situation and agreed to sell the lot immediately behind the Gateses’ existing lot for the same $400 the family had originally paid for that lot. Compensation from the state helped pay that and the cost of moving the house.
Although the porch was destroyed in the move, the house still rests along Route 1 today at the corner of Wellington Parkway, where it has stood for nearly 60 years. With a new porch replacing the original as the only exception, Whippoorwill stands today just as it did when it was built.
“Even when the porch was made bigger, it was really neat, because our father built this. It made it really special for us,” recalled Jeanne Sach.
The true lumber from Holt’s Sawmill still supports the house. “When they got a one-inch board, it was milled to one inch,” said Dennis Bartow. “It wasn’t the 3/4-inch that you get today.” From the light fixtures in the bedrooms to the asbestos shingles outside, everything was kept as authentic and original as possible. Even the original “Whippoorwill” sign that Ralph Gates fashioned when he built the house still sits over the door, welcoming anyone who stops by.
Obviously, there are maintenance and upkeep issues of which the family must stay conscious today.
“There’s a small bridge that the children really enjoy,” added Sach. “That and the air conditioner are new, but all the trees have been there. The yard’s pretty much the same. We improved where we needed to keep it maintained and fixed up, but we didn’t want to change stuff. There are no bay windows or things like that,” she said with a laugh. “A lot of the families like the porch. They enjoy eating out there.”
“We would have a lot of family picnics here in the yard. The house has given us a lot of memories here at the beach,” said Sach.
Indoor plumbing has since replaced the original outdoor hand pump and well. An outside shower has been added for convenience for families renting the small cottage.
“I’ve had friends and relatives come down and ask ‘Why don’t you tear the roof off, or put a sunroof over here, or put an extension on?’ But it wouldn’t be the same if we did that,” said Sach.
“We want to maintain the house, as best as we can, in its original state,” Anne Bartow added.
Many offers have come the family’s way to purchase the property – especially in recent years. “We know what they’d do, though,” she continued. “They’d tear it down and put up some huge mansion. It’s a very different beach than it was 60 years ago.”
“We’re very sentimental about the house,” said Dennis Bartow. “It’s an original.”
Oftentimes, Ralph Gates would enjoy sitting on the porch, waving to vacationers who would pass by on their way down to the shore. “A lot of people knew him,” said Anne Bartow. “He was well-liked. People would honk to him and he’d wave back.”
The house serves as a timeless rental property now, providing vacationers with a historic look back at the way beach life used to be in Bethany. The family that helped bring the house together, and endured its eventful past, however, will always call the Whippoorwill home.
“This house has been in the family for four generations,” Anne Bartow said. “It’s a tradition. It’s where we always came to vacation, and we don’t want it to leave the family.”
Like the bird that once called this area home, the Whippoorwill house was forced to relocate. Fortunately, though, its story still lives on as one of the most historic tales in the Bethany area.