Touring The Rehoboth Beach Museum

by Marilyn Buerkle

The Memorial Day weekend marks the unofficial start of summer, a time when Delmarva's beach towns are packed with people trying to soak up in a week what natives can enjoy year round. It's a cycle that has repeated for more than a century.

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The Rehoboth Beach Historical Society's museum has had a front row seat on Rehoboth Avenue, on the left just as you enter town, since 2007, in what locals call the old ice house. It's home to a collection of memorabilia that reminds us that history does, indeed, repeat itself. Executive director Nancy Alexander describes one of the many items in the collection that makes that point.

Nancy Alexander:
"Behind us is the engine from the train that ran outside at Funland. It had several cars behind it. The car that we have is the engine and the driver sat in that. We don't have the other three cars, but this is a bright orange and red engine that was outside for years and years and years at Funland and lots of people come in and remember it."

"What's fun is when someone comes in, points to their, points to that train, and says "I rode on that when I was a kid" and loves it. The memories come flooding back."

"I actually had one man come in and wanted to hug the train because he remembered coming down here with his kids and putting his kids on the train, and just having such a great time. You know it's, again, it's the past meeting present. Funland is still family owned by the family that bought it in 1962 from another local family, and kids are still going to Funland today."

The history of Rehoboth Beach predates Funland by nearly a hundred years. Two enterprising developers hoped to build a resort community, but the Civil War got in the way. Instead their investment in local property paid off when a minister brought the town to life.

Nancy Alexander:
"Rehoboth took off when Rev. Todd had gone to Oak Grove in New Jersey and saw that there was an ocean side religious retreat. And he replicated that here in Rehoboth."

"Rehoboth Avenue is wide and we think of it being wide because it has that median down the center with the trees and the lampposts and things. Originally it was wide because the railroad came right down Rehoboth Avenue to within a block of the boardwalk. So they laid out this religious retreat town, sold the lots and they did have camp meetings here for many years. There were several waves of camp meetings, but when that sort of faded, I like to say that they laid out a beautifully drawn town, a beautifully laid out town for religious camp meetings, and when the camp meetings ended they left a great resort for the rest of us sinners."

Many of the items in the museum's collection revolve around swimming. Some are easily recognizable for any beach goer-a wooden stand from which lifeguards watch out for us, the rescue floats that they'll use when someone is in trouble-but there are some pretty quirky items as well.

Nancy Alexander:
"I think one of the most unique items that we have here in the museum, and for me something that's a lot of fun to point out when people come in. We do have a pair of bathing shoes and they are navy blue with white trim, lots of laces, sort of like those old fashioned basketball shoes that you see. Lots of, lots of holes and laces going all the way up. They're lined with cork! They thought that would help people float better, and I think they're just a hoot to look at."
Nancy Alexander:
"We also have this crazy, three-foot-diameter, bright red metal ball, and that actually used to float out in the water, and it was attached to the pier that used to come out from the boardwalk, and when women and children were wearing heavy wool bathing suits and got knocked down by a wave, it was tough to get up. There was a line going from that float ball back on to the beach, and women and children held on to that, and we have a beautiful poster-sized black and white photo of the ladies and the little girls holding on to that rope to keep from, literally, drowning."

There's a vast collection of postcards for visitors to browse through. Apparently the "having a great time, wish you were here" message never gets old; nor does the stress relieving impact of a day at the beach.

Nancy Alexander:
"I just think for me when I see old tin-types, old photos of people, family members sitting on the beach or walking on the boardwalk, and I think they were just having fun like we were. You know, It might be 1912, but the mom's hair is windblown and the child looks like they're a little sun burnt on their nose, and everybody's got that been-at-the-beach look and had fun and is relaxed and having a good time."

A tradition that will continue again this summer. Today when you visit the beach town, stop by the Rehoboth Beach Museum where admission is by donation. From Memorial Day to Labor Day, it's open seven days a week. Currently they have an exhibit on display that highlights the contributions of the women of Rehoboth.

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