Ocean City’s Lady Entrepreneurs

by Dana Kester-McCabe

It has long been said that Ocean City's success as a resort can be greatly credited to women entrepreneurs.

One of the first recorded was Zipporah "Zippy" Lewis who surely knew how to make something out of nothing. In 1845 her husband, a sailor named Jonathan, was tragically lost at sea. Zippy walked up and down the beach combing the ocean horizon on the chance that she might see her long lost love return. Eventually she turned her daily grieving into a source of income to support herself and her five children. She scoured the beaches of what is now Ocean City for the refuse of sunken ships that washed ashore. This was not necessarily treasures of gold and jewels, though she may have occasionally found them. More likely it was brass fittings and other hardware for boats that could be reused; or household items from shipping crates.

For many years she could be seen pushing an ox cart filled with her pickings which she took inland to sell. She earned enough money to buy two lots on the island and build a house, which she left in her will to her daughters. Her tenacity and ability to prevail became a part of the mythology of the town. The story so inspired Thelma Conner, one of the city's most successful business women, that a portrait was painted of the valiant widow and hung in the "Zippy Lewis" lounge of Thelma's hotel, The Dunes Manor, which you can still see today.

The prevalence of women hotel owners began during the economic boom following the Civil War. Prosperity inspired a number of emerging fads which had a direct impact on the future of this slim stretch of land along the Atlantic Ocean. Caviar, the roe or eggs of sturgeon, became the quintessential delicacy for the nouveau riche. The waters off Delmarva's coast were thick with them, so commercial fishermen flocked to the region to meet the demand. Fishing and hunting became favorite leisure pastimes particularly for Civil War veterans who wanted to spend time with their former comrades at arms, away from the constraints of gentile society. A common remedy for hay fever and other maladies borne out of confined city living was the fresh air experienced on a seaside retreat. And taking the family on a vacation itself became very popular among the growing middle class.

But in Ocean City it really began with all those fishermen. And, they needed places to stay. Naturally, enterprising individuals, many who were women, realized that rustic housing would only attract those who really enjoyed roughing it. Accommodations that would be suitable for wives and children would guarantee a return visit. Most people would want a good bed with clean linens, and substantial meals with well prepared food. At the time that was definitely 'women's work'.

The town grew up on an island which had previously been used mostly for grazing livestock. On the southern end of town were the cottages of the men who worked in the fishing fleet. Northward a number of boarding houses were built in the early 1870's including the Rhode Island Inn and Massey's Boarding House. In 1875 a handful of locals along with a few Baltimore businessmen opened the Atlantic Hotel on the beach nearby. New Yorkers named Stephen and Rosetta Taber purchased a plot of land north of them. They called their property The Ladies Resort To The Ocean. They in turn deeded 50 acres of what was then called Sinepuxent Beach to a group of 105 investors called the Atlantic Hotel Corporation.

The new deed allowed for streets, subdivisions and individual lots. Among the investors were men and women whose families still have businesses here today. The Wicomico and Pocomoke Railroad Company also bought stock in the venture. They were planning an extension of their rail line to the new community. It was completed not long after, thus connecting Baltimore and Washington to the new resort which was now being called Ocean City.

Many scoffed at the development scheme but Ocean City's first building boom was off and running. This created a great opportunity for budding hoteliers many of who were women. If you think about this as a division of labor, this totally makes sense. In a given family moving to the region many a husband was planning to make his fortune fishing. While he was doing this not only did the wife have to fend for herself and her children, but she had to find ways to make money when the fishing was slow or affected by bad weather. Fishing was also dangerous work leaving a number of women widows, forcing them to go into business not unlike Zippy Lewis.

Rosalie Tighlman Shreve was one such widow. She had lost her husband in the Civil War. She began renting out rooms in her home out of financial necessity. Rosalie was so successful that she earned enough to buy and run a second property: a rental cottage. In 1890 she used her profits built the Plimhimmon Hotel, with 48 rooms sitting on two lots. It was named for her family's plantation estate in Oxford, Maryland on the other side of the peninsula.

In most cases the hospitality industry was a difficult life and the whole family had to pitch in. If you know anyone who grew up in the resort as late as the 1960's you will hear how a culture of hard work and sacrifice prevailed. Many a local will tell you stories of their first jobs as very small children changing sheets, cooking, and all manner of other chores for the family business. It was common place for all the kids to give up their beds for the paying guests and camp out sleeping on the floor somewhere else in the house throughout the summer season.

By 1926, 30 of the 32 hotels listed in a brochure advertising the resort, had women as proprietors. Many of the gals who ran Ocean City's early hotels simply grew into the job. Some were women who came to the resort on vacation and opportunity beckoned them to stay indefinitely.

One such woman was Ella Phillips Dennis. She and her husband came to visit the beach in 1890 because she had been in ill health. She improved quickly and fell in love with life along the shoreline. She built the Dennis Hotel and ran it for the rest of her life. The town's reputation for being run by the women was now well known and Ella is famously quoted in an interview with the Baltimore Sun saying: "Ocean City is seventy percent built by women, run by women and the men are all henpecked." During this era the leadership of the town was referred to as the "Petticoat Regime".

Margaret Campbell Buell was the daughter and wife of well connected Washington D.C. bureaucrats. She arrived in 1900 to build the Mount Pleasant Hotel which she promoted among the power brokers in our nation's capital until she retired to Florida and sold the hotel in 1919 to Susan Dickerson Mason. She had worked hard and established enough credit to buy the hotel for $10,000. It was only ten years earlier that she had left her home in Parksley, Virginia, to get a fresh start in Ocean City. Legend has it that Susan created quite a sensation arriving by boat with all her worldly goods which included her cow.

And there were others: Josephine Lewis Massey came from Baltimore in the 1890's. She took over the construction and running of the Hamilton Hotel. Susie Amanda Rounds and her husband George came in 1904 and worked their way up from renting rooms to owning a number of hotels. When he died in 1940 she kept on going and bought the Liberty Farms Hotel and renamed it the Majestic. Willye Jones came to the resort for work one summer around the turn of the century and stayed, marrying George Conners the owner of Conner's Restaurant which had been in operation since the 1880's. After he died she ran and eventually sold it which enabled her to own a number of other businesses, including building the one of the first motels in 1965 - the Santa Maria.

During the mid to late 20th century the sturgeon were long gone but the hospitality industry continued with a number of successful women at the helm including Thelma Conner, Anne Showell, and Eunice Sorin. This list does not include a host of other entrepreneurial ladies in real estate, retail, food service, and amusement businesses, among others. Certainly the men of Ocean City have done just as much to promote progress in the resort. This story just seemed timely with the recent achievement of a woman heading the ticket of a major party in a presidential election. The reality is that since its beginning women have been equal partners in the sweat equity required to build this country to what it is today. Ocean City and other towns like it are proof of that.


Ocean City History
The Petticoat Regime of 1890-1926
Ocean City Lifesaving Station Museum

The Mystique Of Zippy Lewis
Legend and Lore of Ocean City, Maryland
Ocean City Lifesaving Station Museum

Video - Rosalie Tilghman Shreve
Owner of the Plimhimmon Hotel

Video - Ella P. Dennis
Hotel Owner

Video - Sandra M. Quillin & Frances Mumford
Motel Owners

Wild Women of Maryland: Grit & Gumption in the Free State
By Lauren R. Silberman

City on the sand: Ocean City, Maryland, and the people who built it
Mary Corddry - 1991

Ocean City, Volume 1
By Nan DeVincent-Hayes, John E. Jacob
Arcadia Publishing 2001

The Leading Women Behind Ocean City, Md: OC's Role Models">The Spirit of Zippy Lewis Still Seen Combing the Beaches">Is Miss Thelma Still in Charge at the Dunes Manor?">Plimhimmon Hotel
Maryland Historical Society