Sussex County Craftsmanship

My father showed up unexpectedly last week from North Carolina. He does this from time to time, usually when I least expect it. On this occasion, he claimed to be coming to help prep the Dewey Beach house for the upcoming rental season.

I didn’t believe him for a second, and as soon as I mentioned painting the porch floor he began back peddling. Never in 72 years had the old boy held a paint brush, much less applied paint to a surface. Not a problem, I said, you’re in Sussex County. No experience necessary. We were standing on the porch that some ingenious handyman at some point had attached to the house with a 7-inch galvanized zinc eye hook. Pre-FEMA hurricane insurance, no doubt.

Some of you out there know what I’m talking about. It’s called Sussex County craftsmanship and after two old home renovations I can spot it in an instant.

Light switches where up is off and down is on or nothing happens at all.

Backwards bathroom faucet handles.

Electrical outlets above the stove.

A spigot for a hose installed in a basement ceiling.

And my personal favorite: a huge air conditioner sitting in a window and propped up by a two-by-four piece of lumber resting on a cinder block.

Speaking of air conditioning, the compressor for the Dewey Beach house looks like it came off the roof of a Food Lion and could cool a small shopping center. Except it’s not on the roof, but on the back porch. The ductwork was installed under the house – below sea level. You know cold air doesn’t rise. And, get this, all the floor vents were installed beneath beds.

I’m not really complaining, because if you’re like me and you hate the thought of paying full retail, there’s always someone around with a clever solution and a good deal. Sometimes your roofer is really a plumber who dabbles as an electrician but really wants to be a carpenter.

It’s the Sussex County way, my friends, and it’s a long-standing tradition. Back in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, a great majority of the residents of lower Delaware were farmers. Isolated by bad roads, lacking ready cash, and unable to locate skilled labor, they became jacks-of-all-trades.

Old wills, deeds, and tax assessment lists bear this out. Consider the last will and testament of Mr. Olive Jump, who died in Sussex County in 1811. His will references carpenter’s tools, blacksmith tools, shoemaker’s tools, and spinning wheels, all of which certainly demonstrate the versatility and self-sufficiency of men like Olive Jump and their families back then.

The days of the independent craftsman supporting his family and supplying the needs of his community lingered longer in Sussex County than in the rest of the state. The Industrial Revolution and the subsequent rise of skilled labor classes didn’t have the same impact down south as up north. Railroads didn’t even reach the southern border of Delaware until 1859.

So the next time you’re amazed that your garden gate was hung upside down or that you can’t seem to roast a chicken while your Christmas lights are on, just smile and accept it. You’re in Sussex County, baby.

Now, back to my father. He weaseled out of painting the porch floor. Actually, rain and unseasonably cold springtime temperatures forced the cancellation of the job. He did however, show some amazing prowess with my Oreck Orbiter, a nifty machine that can clean carpets, polish floors, and sand floors. Despite having no experience with the tool – or any tool for that matter – he did a pretty good job getting the floor prepped for paint.

My father was now officially a Sussex County craftsman. I just won’t be hiring him anytime soon.


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