Walking and historical tours all the rage in coastal beach towns
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Southern Delaware is a region steeped in history. It is, after all, a part of the first state in the union.
Indeed, some of the oldest landmarks in the first state can be found in Sussex County.
And that includes a dwelling that is considered to be the oldest house in Delaware, dating to 1665.
Not surprisingly, a number of local historical societies offer tours for a nominal fee that showcase that rich history. Some of those tours are in buses and others are in boats — including kayaks.
But the most popular may be walking tours, which combine a local history lesson with a little exercise.
"It's one thing to look at photos but it is better to ride or walk around to see where things really are," said Nancy Alexander, director of the Rehoboth Beach Historical Society and Museum.
Though some historic tours are offered all year, a number of them are only available in warmer weather — at the height of the tourist season.
"A lot of the interest (in tours) comes from visitors," said Marcos Salaverria, education director at the Lewes Historical Society.
Others offering historic tours agree that a lot of the participation comes from tourists.
"I usually have a few locals on each tour but most of the participants are visitors," said Jean Brolund, a Rehoboth Beach Historical Society volunteer who leads historic walking tours.
Hope Lavachia, a historical society volunteer who guides a Rehoboth Beach tour aboard the Jolley Trolley, agreed.
"Almost every tour I have been on has included folks who live here," she said.
In Milton, local historical society tours do attract visitors — or newly arrived residents.
"Most of the people on the tour who are local have come from other places," said Mary White, a volunteer who leads a Milton Historical Society walking tour of the community.
Milton offers two walking events, but, on a recent summer Saturday morning, White was the guide on a tour called "Boats! Buttons! Beans! Beer!"
The tour began and ended at the Dogfish Head Brewery in Milton. Along the way, White highlighted the law office of David Hazzard, one of five Delaware governors from Milton. Hazzard was elected in 1829.
"My favorite part of the tour is that little house that was the law office of Gov. Hazzard," White said.
As the tour ended at Dogfish, White mention that the brewery was the former home of the King Cole Cannery where local beans were packaged for resale.
The tour also showed where Milton's button factories were located in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
Button making was once a major local industry with Milton, at one time hosting as many as eight manufacturing shops and a number of smaller operations.
The largest was the Lippincott factory, in a building now occupied by the Milton Public Library. Milton also was home to the Excelsior Pearl Button Works, Richards & Tyndall Pearl Button Co., Nelson Rogers Button Shop and others.
The last of the button shops closed in the 1960s.
The Milton Historical Society also offers a walking tour that highlights the architecture of the quaint, historic town.
"These walking tours offer a great opportunity to see homes and businesses in Milton and learn about their history," said Kim Fabbri, historical society executive director.
Perhaps the most ambitious of the historic tour schedules is that of the Lewes Historical Society.
The Lewes society may have been one of the first to offer tours, walking or otherwise.
Now, the offerings are eclectic and extensive.
"While enjoying all that historic Lewes has to offer, tour groups can learn about our lighthouses, World War II bunkers and observation towers, cemeteries, historic architecture, maritime monuments, and more," said the historical society website.
Said Salaverria: "After all, we are the first town in the first state."
Currently, the Lewes offerings include:
"Life in Lewes Tour," an hourlong walk that highlights historic buildings, including the Ryves Holt House, built by Dutch settlers in 1665. It is the oldest surviving house in Delaware. The tour is offered three days a week from April through October.
"Maritime Walking Tour," which explores the saga of pirates who sailed in local waters. Some of them killed in shipwrecks are buried in a Lewes cemetery. The tour also includes the Lewes Life-Saving Station, which rescued victims from "perilous shipwrecks." The tour is offered two or three times a week from April through October.
"Lewes Legends Tour" is a tour that touches on some of the paranormal tales about Lewes. The tour includes an unknown sailors' cemetery and several dwellings rumored to be haunted, including the structure now known as the Cannonball House.
It is the only tour not recommended for children under 8.
"It is one of our most popular tours," Salaverria said.
"Architecture Tour" is a weekly walking tour highlighting different architectural styles and eras in Lewes, including the Zwaanendael Museum, a historic structure built in 1931 to commemorate Delaware's first European colony, in 1631. It is modeled after the city hall in Hoorn, the Netherlands.
And they have two that involve boats.
"History Happened Here: Cape Water Tours Cruise" is a trip along Lewes waterways and historic landmarks. The cruises, led by Salaverria, are offered Mondays, 3 p.m., from June through September.
"Kayak Tour" may be one of the most unique offerings. The tour of Lewes waterways is led by Michael Di Paolo, executive director the historical society, an avid kayak enthusiast.
"As you paddle along you get a lot of history," he said.
Other than the two waterborne excursions in Lewes that are run by staff, most local historical societies rely on volunteers to conduct the tours.
"They are all incredible," said Alexander.
And Salaverria said the tours are an excellent way to highlight the history of the region, reminding visitors that coastal Delaware is more than a place to swim and sunbathe.
"We've always said, Lewes is not just a beach town," he said. "It is a town with history that happens to have a beach."