Fresh Air, Salt Water and God: I Explain Rehoboth’s Methodist Past to a British Dandy

In 1872, a group of Delaware Methodists purchased 400 acres in what is now Rehoboth Beach. Their purpose was to establish a resort to renew their spiritual and physical health, a place where they would gather and pray and then take to the sea in their heavy wool bathing suits. Rehoboth was one of many Christian leisure-by-the-sea retreats established in the late 1860s and 1870s as part of the wave of Methodist revivalism in America. Lots sold for $50 each.

In 2005, on an autumn Saturday night at the Blue Moon, I mention this history to a be-tweeded and cuff-linked British decorator visiting from Manhattan and he almost drops his cocktail, clutching his throat in disbelief.

“Chapel? You mean Rehoboth was founded by common Methodist chapel? Oh dear, such an ordinary beginning.”

The Brits disdainfully refer to denominations other than Church of England as “chapel.” By the cut of his waistcoat and the arc of his nose, this queen clearly believes that the C of E, the head of which is another Queen, would have conferred more social clout on Rehoboth.

The Methodists constructed their camp meeting houses – also called “tent houses” – around a tabernacle building near what is now the Rehoboth-Lewes Canal and Shaw Park. These original tent houses were built of local cypress and pine and were only one room (about 10×12) with a front porch and a sleeping loft. Kitchens were in tents out back.

I have the dandy’s attention, so I lean in, look him right in the eyes, and tell him that families shared communal meals and that front porches weren’t screened – they must have just been eaten alive by the mosquitoes. Heck, not even all of them built houses. Some pitched tents, purchased in Baltimore, Maryland, from the United States Tent Depot. The company advertised “white tents, cheap and quick.”

“Oh, it’s just too much,” shrieks the dandy. This time he spills his cocktail.

We order up fresh drinks, the dandy fends off a couple of amorous locals, and I continue the history lesson. The original Rehoboth Camp Meeting lost its steam as the resort grew and became more secular. Many say it was because the railroad brought in people with no affiliation to the camp meeting association. Drinkers. Card players. Sinners. It’s rumored that the women led the singing and praying on their front porches, while the men caroused behind the scenes and at hotels just outside of the city line where vice was not only legal, but an avocation.

“Looks like they still are,” says the dandy, cutting his eyes around the bar.

A second, short-lived Methodist camp revival took place in the 1890s, centered around Baltimore Avenue. Several camp houses from that era still remain.

Stumbling out of the Blue Moon, the dandy and I head across the street and over to look at the periwinkle-colored Seafood Shack. It’s an old camp house that over the years has been expanded and adapted for commercial use. But, you can easily see its bones. I remember dining inside when it was the original Dos Locos Tex-Mex restaurant. The house is owned by two women, one of whom told me she inherited it from a gay uncle who had run the place as a boarding house.

57 Baltimore is another camp house that has been adapted for commercial use. The current reiteration is the popular gay establishment Aqua. The kitchen and bar are in the original camp house. Matt, the owner of Aqua, knows the house’s history and is intent on preserving as much of its original character as he can.

The dandy asks about the small blue house at 571/2 Baltimore Avenue, just beside Aqua. It’s owned, I tell him, by two women. Several years ago, the gals tried to open an erotic boutique on the premises, but the city shut them down — something about not having a proper license.

The best preserved of all the remaining camp houses is the Anna Hazzard house, the official museum of the Rehoboth Beach Historical Society. It features pre-1891 photos, documents, and artifacts about old Rehoboth. Originally located on the corner of Baltimore Avenue and Second Street, the house was donated to the Historical Society and moved to its current location on Christian Street in 1975. Christian Street is the last of the “Christian” names still used. The 1873 city map shows Presbyterian, Baptist, Methodist, Quaker, Church and Episcopal Streets, now known as Kent, Sussex, Dover, and Cookman Streets.

Anna Hazzard was one of the camp house’s early owners and a pioneer in Rehoboth. She entered her family’s real estate business at the turn of the century and eventually became the first licensed female real estate agent in Delaware. She led the Village Improvement Association and the Rehoboth Art League. And, she never married. The dandy raises his eyebrows.

We don’t go see the Anna Hazzard house, heading instead towards the Pines for late night cocktails. We pay a visit to one of my neighbor’s who lives in an old hunting cottage built in the 20’s where sometimes late at night — if you’re lucky — the bats swoop down from the porch roof, the political discussions are heated, and the gin flows like tap water. On the way over, I point out the clever design of Rehoboth’s avenues that run east to west. The Methodists designed them wider at the east end, to pull in the breezes of the Atlantic.

Now I didn’t expect the dandy to know anything about Rehoboth’s history. He’d never even heard of Delaware until he arrived Friday night in an aqua Thunderbird convertible. A lot of people – guys who spend every summer here – have no idea about the city’s Methodist past or that the name “Rehoboth” has biblical connotations. Too many people visiting Rehoboth today seem more interested in discounted outlet wear than in history.

As for the dandy decorator, he’s back in Manhattan and planning a return trip to Rehoboth. He likes the fresh air, the trees, the quaintness, and the gayness of the town and says there’s nothing like it in England. He’s offered to help me do some redecorating in my cottage and has already sent some paint chips and a couple of fabric swatches for consideration. They look good — rich yet understated. Very Brideshead Revisited. But I’m not surprised. After all, the dandy did decorate Camilla Parker Bowles’ dining room.

And in my opinion, more tweed and less plastic is just what Rehoboth needs.

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