By JANET DUDLEY-ESHBACH
My earliest memories include yearly treks from our family home in Wilmington to Fenwick Island. I was born in 1953, and I know from pictures that I spent my first days at Fenwick when I was about 6 months old, when the beach was wide and the sand dunes seemingly insurmountable.
Planning for our week or two of vacation began well in advance. In hindsight, I’m not sure these trips were any sort of vacation for my mother, who began the packing, shopping and cooking days ahead of time.
The process of packing the car with suitcases, food for the week, an inner tube and my bucket and shovel was a real challenge. I would go crazy, bugging my parents, saying “Come on, let’s go!” Finally, Dad would say the phrase I came to love, “To the beach!” — and off we’d go. Back then, it was about a three-and-a-half-hour trip.
The travel time seemed endless. I never quite understood why we chose Fenwick as our destination, as it was the farthest Delaware beach from Wilmington. As a child, once the road signs began to appear for Rehoboth, I got especially excited and wiggly. Those last miles through Dewey and Bethany were interminable! The reward? Mostly empty beaches and lower rental rates.
There were few restaurants, and no nightlife, in Fenwick in the ’50s and ’60s, except for maybe Libby’s and Warren’s. In any case, our family’s resources were tight, so we rarely splurged on dining out.
I loved buying penny candy, particularly Lik’ems, at the five-and-dime store. Today, old-fashioned candies can be bought at the Seaside Country Store, and Ruth’s Sea Shell City still does a good business, though it today is hardly the small shop it was in the ’60s. We had no television or computers, so evenings and on rainy days we read or joined in a card game, usually canasta.
My father recounts that in those early days a rental house in Fenwick went for $50 a week. Because that seemed like a lot of money, frequently we’d share a cottage with our neighbors, the Spencers, splitting the cost of the rental. “Uncle” Harry Spencer delighted in building things in the sand. No sandcastles for Uncle Harry, though; he and Dad would get down in the sand and build us kids elaborate cars and boats, big enough for us to sit in and pretend we could drive them out into the ocean and all the way to Europe or Africa.
I still remember the cottages where we most frequently stayed, and I occasionally drive by them. One is bayside at the end of Farmington Street, where the water in the canal behind the cottage was clean enough for a swim after a long, hot day at the beach. One year we even floated about the canal in a small, plastic boat (more akin to a large scrub basin). We kids stayed in the dormer-style attic room. I remember that I frightened my Mom and Aunt Dot once by lowering a plastic spider on a string through a knothole in the attic floor onto a plate of food on the kitchen counter just below. I was delighted to hear their shrieking upon seeing that large black spider on a dinner plate!
Another favorite cottage still stands oceanside on James Street. That place had a leaky roof, and I remember on rainy nights strategically placing kitchen pots under the holes and hearing the drip, drip, drip all night long. Until recently, the only water in Fenwick Island was well water. At the James Street cottage my father and Uncle Harry spent time each morning and evening in the sand-and-dirt-floor cellar priming the pump so we’d have water in the kitchen and bathroom. It eventually did flow, but it was hardly drinkable, tasting of iron and other minerals.
We actively enjoyed the beach — swimming, riding rafts, taking long walks, searching the seascape for dolphins, digging for sand (or mole) crabs and threatening to put one on our moms. Another favorite beach activity was tossing quoits, a game similar to horseshoes, only played with rubber rings. I’ve never seen another family play this game in the sand, yet over the years many have stopped to watch us. I only wish we had bought some extra sets of quoits, as today they are no longer available in the same form (seems the federal government has deemed them a hazard to children!), and our 30-year old set is now dry-rotting. My mother was a “mean” quoit-thrower, frequently showing the men a thing or two. She played into her 80s.
We had just two folding chairs for nine people. The adults took turns on the chairs, and most of us passed the time on a beach towel or, better, right on the sand — still my preference to this day. It’s hardly a day at the beach unless you have sand in your hair, ears and eyelids.
We went for the beach. You couldn’t get me out of the water, no matter what the weather conditions. Back then there was no suntan lotion, no SPF. Instead, we lathered Noxema skin cream all over our bodies. Later, we used Sea & Ski, one of the first brands of suntan lotion available, though there was no sunscreen in the product for years, so it did little more than moisturize our skin as we baked in the sun. My father insisted that we stay out of the sun between 11:30 a.m. and 2 p.m. This, of course, meant that we had to be the first to arrive on the beach at 8:30 or 9 a.m., and we were frequently the last to leave the beach at the end of the day. I could never get enough beach time, and still feel the same today.
Though as an adult I lived for a number of years in Mexico, with easy access to some of the world’s best palm-lined beaches, I’ve always returned each summer to Fenwick Island. When you have such wonderful memories associated with a place, it gets in your blood. After all those years of renting, my husband and I were fortunate in 1997, just before real estate prices went sky-high, to have a house of our own built in Fenwick. We have brought our children to Fenwick each summer of their lives, and now they, too, have Fenwick running through their veins. Both are now lifeguards, and strong ocean swimmers and surf-riders. I dream of one day taking my grandchildren to the beach, teaching them how to jump the waves, just as my parents did and their parents before them.
Though Coastal Highway is now congested and few undeveloped lots remain in Fenwick, much has remained unchanged. There is still no nightlife, there is never a problem finding a place to lay your towel on the beach, and for the most part, the people are still “small-town.” We still go for the beach. n
Janet Dudley-Eshbach is president of Salisbury University in Salisbury, Md. She has been vacationing in Fenwick Island for all of her 50 years. She and husband, Joe, have a home in Fenwick, and both their children (Caroline, 17, and Joe, 19) are members of the Fenwick Island Beach Patrol.