Last week I described three of my favorite places in historic Lewes: the campus of the Lewes Historical Society, Shipcarpenter Square, and the Ryves Holt House, which is the oldest residential dwelling still standing in Delaware. This week I’m continuing the Tour of Attractions in Downtown Historic Lewes with three sites that blend history, beauty and remarkable civic involvement.
The Zwaanendael Museum
The first one is the most prominent Attractions in Downtown Historic Lewes. Located at the intersection of King’s Highway and Savannah Road, the Zwaanendael Museum proves that longtime Lewes residents are right when they talk about how much the town has always appreciated its history. It was built in 1931, well into the Great Depression. Despite the city and county’s undoubtedly low coffers, local leaders insisted on creating the majestic structure and its first exhibits to commemorate the 300th anniversary of Delaware’s first European settlers, who were from the Netherlands.
Inside there are all kinds of great attractions – including some that will fascinate your grandkids. There are several artifacts from the DeBraak, a British merchant ship that ran aground and sank right off Lewes Beach in 1798. There’s a scale model of the vessel, a fully intact bottle that once contained lemon extract to ward off scurvy. There’s also the cadaver of a creature that could have ended up in a circus sideshow. Dubbed “a merman,” in reference to the fantastical tales told by delirious sailors in ancient times, it’s comprised of a monkey’s head attached to a piece of artfully carved wood and the body of a fish, perfectly “preserved” just as it was when given to the museum by the family of a sea captain.
The Cannonball House
If you’re an architecture buff, you’ll appreciate its fully intact interior, with modestly grand rooms that reveal how people lived 200 years ago, and its handsome Federal style exterior. If you’ve been lured there by your love of history you’ll notice a small cannonball embedded in its foundation, commemorating the Bombardment of Lewes by the British Navy in April, 2013 during the War of 1812.
Inside you’ll find so many remarkable exhibits, including the lens of the Fourteen Foot Bank Lighthouse built in the Delaware Bay and first lit in 1886. It’s fascinating to look at, and a good reminder of how treacherous the Bay has always been to watercraft of all shapes and sizes given the vast and ever-shifting sandbars. For hundreds of years, highly trained pilots of lightships have guided commercial vessels through the Bay and the Delaware River en route to places such as the Port of Philadelphia, a journey that wouldn’t be possible without still-functioning lighthouses along the way.
This museum also contains many more exhibits charting the maritime history of the area, including the menhaden fishing industry. And upstairs, in one of the former bedrooms, you’ll find a genuine pirate’s chest!
Across Front Street and a block west, you’ll see Canalfront Park, which was built over a 10-year period thanks to significant donations by Lewes residents who wanted to create an historically-themed gathering place. Next to the Lewes Little League diamond is the Overfalls Lightship . It isn’t native to the town, since it came to Lewes from Boston after being used around Long Island and Martha’s Vineyard, but it’s indicative of the vessels that protected countless merchants and sailors who needed expert guidance to make their way up the treacherous Delaware Bay.
Thanks to the stewardship of the Overfalls Foundation, it’s in amazing condition and open for tours at various times during the year. You can also learn more about the vessel and take home a souvenir by visiting the adjacent Ship’s Store.