For the Lovers and the Sniffers

When asked how I come up with story topics each month, I like to talk about how I fabricate them late at night while under the influence of way too much bourbon or gin. C’mon, you know we southerners believe the truth should never get in the way of a good story.

Seriously, though, ideas aren’t hard to come by. I find inspiration in the things I read and see. A song, a photo, or a friend’s suggestion are often enough to set my mind racing. No matter how crazy or silly the thought, I dutifully record each one in a snazzy chartreuse leather notebook from Bergdorf Goodman.

What’s more challenging is to turn an idea into a thousand-word story that meets my standards for this column. You say you’re surprised to learn that I have standards? Of course, I do. It just depends on how you define “standards.” I search for what’s interesting, eccentric, flamboyant, fun, and tawdry about Rehoboth. I strive to to mix travel with history and social commentary in order to provide a perspective you certainly won’t find in travel guides or hear from the Chamber of Commerce. Personal or prescriptive, affable or prickly, I seldom know in advance exactly how they’re going to turn out, and that’s the fun of it.

So I was poking around one morning in the library looking for nothing in particular but hoping for something inspirational. Well, wouldn’t you know, I stumbled upon a four-part series on the life of none other than Mrs. H.B. Thompson. It was written from her memoirs and it appeared in the late 70’s in Delaware History, the only scholarly journal devoted to the history of Delaware. I’ve written about Mrs. H.B. Thompson in several columns over the past three years. She was the Wilmington socialite who felt that ridding Rehoboth of its mosquitoes was more important than giving women the right to vote. She thought it uncouth to wear lipstick but had no problem gardening with her arms and legs wrapped in newspaper to keep the bugs at bay. Her son Jim Thompson was known as the Thai Silk King before his mysterious death in 1967.

She’s sort of minor obsession of mine, and I’m pleased to share with you three excerpts from the series. The words are Mrs. H.B. Thompson talking about Rehoboth. The titles are my creation.

First Visit — 1872

In the year 1872, my grandmother and grandfather thought it would be very pleasant to spend the summer in Lewes. One day, the family decided to drive over to the seashore. So two wagons with four horses were ordered, and the whole family started to take the long drive. I have recollections of forests of pines, shadowy ponds covered with water lilies and finally a gorgeous white beach. It was one great expanse of sea coast. The only inhabitant there was a man named Trednick who had a small cottage with several rooms in it which he used to rent out to hunters who wanted to have some sport shooting wild ducks and geese and fishing. There we have lunch, most of which we brought with us, finally repeating the long drive of the morning.

Author’s footnote: The drive covered eight miles from Lewes to the ocean beach and Louis Trednick’s combination summer hotel and autumn duck hunting camp, opened in 1870. This was at what later became Dewey Beach at the northeast corner of Rehoboth Bay. Rehoboth was founded in1872.

The Vulgarity of an Ocean Front Cottage – 1920’s

Some of my friends thought I should have built my house on the beach, but I didn’t for several reasons: the glare of the sun; the incessant noise of the waves; the dampness, the mists and the wind constantly blowing from the ocean, so that it is an impossibility to enjoy sitting on the porch. My home is thoroughly screened, and the air blows from every direction through French doors. Enormous porches on all sides with plenty of chairs, chaise lounge and hammock make an ideal resting place. Returning from the beach, where you can enjoy sun as well as sea baths, and entering my garden, a sense of peace and shadowy coolness pervades all, and the tall pines cast their perfume in the air. The ground is covered with pine needles and the blue fence surrounding the property is overgrown with roses in continual bloom.

Mosquito Eradication – 1930’s

The sand dunes had been piled with rubbish for generations; even old automobiles had been run down and left on the sand. It cost $600 to clean up this rubbish alone. We cleaned Silver Lake, spraying the upper end with kerosene. We reconstructed Lake Comegys, a small lake lying south of Silver Lake. This was simply a marsh full of stagnant water from which thousands of mosquitoes swarmed every spring. This was cleaned up by hiring ten strong Negroes to come and pry out the roots of cattails which had grown, one upon another, for years. This work took two weeks and cost $500. The lake has remained a beautiful small body of water on which wild geese and ducks float about. The problem of Lake Gerar, a large fresh-water lake in the center of the village, was handled by Mr. Irenee du Pont. His contractor cleaned out all roots, stagnant and dead leaves and muck, cut a perfect edge and stocked it with fish. This job, including a concrete bridge, cost $80,000, which he paid personally.

A Washington Post writer back in the 50’s said of Rehoboth that those who love it, love it madly, and those who don’t know it, sniff a little. I keep this in mind when I write. To the lovers, I hope my stories remind you why you love Rehoboth. To the sniffers, may they show you a side of Rehoboth you didn’t know.