History abounds in Southern Sussex County, made by visionaries, hard-working men and women with the will to succeed as they built a rich legacy.
Consider Cecile Long Steele. She was the first businesswoman to start mass-producing chickens ready for market, making her the founder of the broiler chicken industry.
“In 1923, nobody knew how to do that. Her husband, Wilmer, built her a chicken house,” explained Carol Psaros, who handles publicity for the Ocean View Historical Society, one recent morning, as she pointed to a large blue sign with gold lettering, erected beside the chicken house in the historical society’s Coastal Towns Historic Village on Central Avenue, near John West Park.
“Ocean View, Delaware: birthplace of the commercial broiler industry,” the sign states, explaining that Steele started a flock of 500 chicks. At 16 weeks, they weighed 2.25 pounds and sold for 62 cents per pound.
“By 1989, growers produce birds of twice the weight in half the time. Sussex County now leads the nation in broiler production, now a multi-billion-dollar industry,” it states.
Steele’s story of success is among many shared with those who tour the Historical Village — which also includes the Tunnell-West House, a historic home now set up to represent a typical Civil War-era home, the town’s old post office and the newly built replica Hall’s Store.
Bearing the name of its historical predecessor — which was also the name that the Ocean View area was known by until 1889, when the town was incorporated — Hall’s Store will feature a replica country store in the front and meeting room with galley kitchen in the back, suitable for historical society functions and educational programs, and available to be rented for weddings, parties and family reunions.
The building is expected to be open in time for the return of the Delmarva Chicken Festival, which will be hosted by the Ocean View Historical Society in June, picking up where the long-running Delmarva Poultry Industry-sponsored event left off when it ended in 2014, after 65 years of being hosted at various locations around the peninsula.
The new Hall’s Store building cost about $300,000 and was paid for by grants and donations. Bricks in memory of loved ones are also being sold.
“We have always had good community support,” Psaros said.
“We want to keep history alive, because this whole area was once called Hall’s Store. We feel it’s important to pass on history,” said Barbara Slavin, president of the historical society and a native of the area, whose roots reach back about 10 generations. The historical society has about 200 members and hundreds more people, from school children to groups who take tours, see the buildings, she said.
The 1889 post office building was Ocean View’s first post office and was in such a run-down condition that a tree was growing out of it. It was subsequently moved a few blocks to the little village, and now it holds inside photos of the first person to run it, Annie Betts, whose husband drowned in a shipwreck. She was the first postmistress in in the state, maybe the entire country.
The original postal counters are in the tiny building, along with the original wood stove used for heating, and hats in the back, since the postmistress had a millinery business in that section.
Located between the post office and Tunnell-West House is an outhouse with two seats, donated by the Archut family. Inside the Tunnell-West house are items donated from that time period, including tables, chairs, a bed, a chamber pot kept under the bed, dresses and a wind-up vintage Victrola record player.
Also part of the village and currently under construction is the Coastal Towns Museum, at 40 West Avenue.
The Historic Village is open from 1 to 3 p.m. on Wednesdays during the summer, and also by request and during town events.
Members of the Historical Society work to fulfill the mission statement “to preserve, interpret and collect the history of Ocean View and the surrounding Baltimore Hundred area, sharing our past with all communities that comprise the Ocean View area, visitors and locals; thereby building an identity that will enable us to wisely approach the challenges the future will bring to Delaware’s coastal towns.”
“You can’t know where you’re going unless you know where you come from,” Psaros said.
“I like that,” Anne Powell, vice president, said thoughtfully, as the women showed a guest around the inside of Hall’s Store.
“It’s important to hear multiple stories about why and how this area came to be,” Powell said.
“I’ve been here 17 years, and I think it’s fascinating to understand what used to go on here, how many changes have occurred, and how many more changes will occur to give us some power over our future,” she said.