None of the members of the Bear Trap Historical Committee grew up in the area. Most of them haven’t even worked much locally. They bought houses in the Bear Trap Dunes community to retire. But since moving there, they have shown a keen interest in the area, its people and its history.
On Sunday, they displayed that interest with an opening ceremony for the “Bear Trap: Then and Now” historical exhibit, which the eight-member force has been working on since 2000 and which is now hanging in a Bear Trap clubhouse hallway.
“We wanted to do something for the community,” said Mary Van Scoyoc, the chairwoman of the historical committee. “We wanted to absorb the roots that were already here.”
The committee’s members used artifacts found during a 1998 excavation of a portion of Bear Trap’s property to assemble the now-finished exhibit. They matched small pieces of plates found on the property to replicas in existence and mounted them side-by-side on the hallway wall. They did the same with pieces of glass bottles, and had them framed next to old-time photos and maps of the area. All of the displays now form an exhibit down a spot-lit hallway, allowing residents of the community and others marvel at its history.
“The volunteers of the Bear Trap Historical Committee merit a tremendous credit,” said Edward McWilliams, the curator of exhibits for the Delaware Historical and Cultural Affairs division who advised the committee during the process. “The volunteers did an impressive job.”
Dr. Heather Wholey, an archaeologist who headed the 1998 excavation that was completed in 2000, spoke at the opening ceremony on Sunday. Wholey said she came on the project after its inception, when construction had already started. Her team was then limited in the lands they could use for excavation. Some land had already been impacted by development and other land would not be impacted at all, so they weren’t allowed to excavate there. She and her team were bound by a set of fences.
“I do think that if we were able to go outside of the fences, we would have found more,” Wholey said. “But we found a substantial amount.”
Wholey started the excavation process by having farmers plow the land to bring artifacts to the surface. Since the artifacts would mostly move vertically, she could tell by their positioning where she could find the most historical remains with a dig.
After that process, Wholey mapped the area.
“The maps directed us,” Wholey said. “It gave us short cuts on where to dig. You come up with a high-probability area.”
Upon further excavation, Wholey and her team located late-19th century properties of former local residents, including a black sharecropper named Jinkins Miller and a white farmer named Luke Barnett.
On the Barnett property, the crew found bottle glass, canning jars, porcelain figurines and ceramics, on what proved to be the most productive site for finding artifacts. But the Jinkins Miller residence might have been the most interesting.
Although there weren’t many artifacts found on the property, Wholey noted: “This is an interesting time to be a black sharecropper in Southern Delaware.”
In an 1870 Census Bureau study, Jinkins Miller is shown owning no real estate but having more personal property wealth than the Barnetts and another nearby family.
Concluding from the excavation, Wholey found that most of the findings indicate a farm-based, agricultural style life in changing times.
Despite that fact, the community was ethically and socio-economically diverse in times when mariner was also a popular occupation in the coastal area.
“Taking all of that information and putting it to the public can be difficult,” McWilliams said. “You have to edit out some information but still tell the whole story.”
He is convinced, though — as were most others who toured the hallways on Sunday — that the committee successfully completed that task, despite their still relative unfamiliarity with the area.
“We depended on the officials,” Van Scoyoc said. “We depended heavily on them to educate us. We are very, very pleased.”