Longtime Lewes Historical Society Executive Director Mike DiPaolo champions an effort to not only bring the past to the present but also to show that in many ways, we’re not so different today
Mike DiPaolo is giving a tour of the Lewes History Museum when he stops at an oversized black-and-white photo hanging from a wall. It’s a candid portrait featuring a few uniformed members of a girl’s high school basketball team. DiPaolo, the museum’s curator, points out that the photo is from 1915. Then he goes deep. “We wanted a lot of faces looking back at you, so you realize you’re part of a continuum of life here in Lewes,” he said. “That was, what, almost 102 years ago? They probably had similar hopes and dreams. They thought that someone was cute, thought: What do I do next? They were just like you.”
As the longtime executive director of the Lewes Historical Society, DiPaolo seems to be guided and inspired by a notion many of us may overlook: that what we call history was the present-day for an earlier iteration of our collective selves. That we not only have the privilege to look back upon that history but, well, here we all are, already a part of it in the present. That one day, there will be a new face standing here, perhaps in this very museum, talking about us.
So, for a town with a 386-year timeline, and only so much space to tell all those stories, the challenge is in the curating. There’s the early Dutch settlement that helped shape Colonial America. There’s the hardscrabble small town, firmly rooted in working on the water. Which events on the timeline get plucked from the continuum and placed under Plexiglas is DiPaolo’s decision, and it’snot easy to choose. “There’s a lot to see here,” he said. “A lot of different themes and a lot of different ideas we’re trying to get across. We’re trying to give the full picture of Lewes.”
The old Lewes Public Library closed in 2015 when the town built a new one next door. DiPaolo said the old library had been an iconic community building, so city leaders wanted to ensure it would still be utilized in a public manner. They decided to solicit bids from interested parties to lease the space. The Historical Society’s pitch for a museum bested four other applicants, and after opening their doors on July 3, the community is now rallying around what DiPaolo calls a new “cultural campus,” one that includes a children’s learning garden and the head of the Junction & Breakwater Trail. “It was an amazing opportunity,” DiPaolo said. “It was a real need for the society, to have space for our materials. And it’s been fun to see it grow. When I was hired 16 years ago, I was the only employee. To be able to see the growth in an institution, to be able to do what this place has done, it’s very satisfying.” Officially, it’s the Lewes History Museum at the Margaret H. Rollins Community Center; a $500,000 lead gift from Rollins of helped to jump-start the museum from idea to reality in just nine months.
A $3 million capital campaign is on track to be fulfilled by the end of this year, DiPaolo noted. The society invested about $800,000 on exhibits and renovations. Visitors certainly will notice the high level of presentation here. Lighting, displays, interactive exhibits all are all of a metropolitan quality, lending an instant authority to each display.
INSIDE THE MUSEUM
Exhibits begin with prehistory and a robust Native American presence. You’ll also see presentations on themes like maritime history, education, the Civil War, Beebe Hospital, and the agricultural history of Lewes. The museum explores the town’s earliest days, in the 1630s, as the Dutch settlement of Swanendael, a precursor to what later became the first town in The First State. When Lewes was formally surveyed in 1672, founders placed four stone monuments to mark each of the four corners of the new town. One such marker has survived the centuries (even after it broke into pieces when someone hit it with their car), and it’s on display here at the museum, where it sits out in the open; you can run your fingers across its ashen ridges.
During America’s Colonial period, Lewes was a very important waypoint between New York, Philadelphia and Norfolk, during a time when travel was dominated by water. There was international intrigue afoot in Lewes when General George Washington sent Alexander Hamilton on a secret mission to meet here with a French count. By the 1980s, with the local economy struggling, Lewes was at a crossroads. Changes to fisheries meant fewer commercial fishing jobs. There was talk of installing a coal port on Cape Shores. The chamber of commerce even placed want ads seeking manufacturers who might be willing to relocate here.
“This was the last throes of Lewes trying to hold on to its industrial past,” DiPaolo said. “If it had decided to become a coal port, we wouldn’t be here. This would be a very different place. The tourism economy really can’t coexist with heavy industry.” Slavery is a topic this museum tackles, too, in an unvarnished way. Part of the museum collection is a receipt from the sale of a slave boy and girl in 1830. “It was unfortunately a part of life here, and we wanted people to know that,” DiPaolo said. “Part of presenting history like this is confronting that. The best thing for us is to put this out here so people can have conversations about it. That’s what any good museum ought to strive for, is getting people to talk and think.”
Some of the artifacts on display have been in the Historical Society’s collection for quite some time, including a 600-year-old Native American dugout canoe, first unearthed in southeastern Sussex County, near Vines Creek. It also includes the museum’s most popular display to date: the town’s first jail cell. Cleverly mounted allowing visitors to walk behind its cast-iron bars, the exhibit is a magnet for smartphone selfies.
Coming in early 2018, the museum will open a kid’s discovery center in what used to be the former children’s wing of the library. DiPaolo said this section will be aimed at youths in the 3–11 age range. “I don’t want to set the bar too high,” he said, his voice echoing off the bare concrete floors and walls, “but think the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia. Real hands-on interactives for kids. There’s really nothing like this south of Wilmington. To have something like this for the beaches is remarkable.”
DiPaolo also credited the community’s true embrace of its deep history with the founding of the Lewes Historical Society in 1964. “It’s easy to look back now and see the seeds of this forming. The society, from the 1960s and ’70s into the ’80s, it was constantly beating that drum. And by the time Lewes was ready, the society was ready, and heritage tourism really became a part of Lewes,” he said. It’s challenging enough to tell the story of Lewes as it is, but the task would be nearly impossible to pull off without objects or images for display. For that reason, the museum actively encourages people to share what belongings they can.
“I firmly believe that organizations like this are the community’s memory, and we can’t do it without their help,” DiPaolo said. “Nobody wants to come in and read a giant wall of text. They want to see things. Whether they want to donate or lend, it would be wonderful to share with the community.”
The Lewes History Museum, located at 101 Adams Avenue, is open daily from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Admission is free.
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