As some of you may recall from a News Journal column that I penned a few years back, my wife and I bought a second home in Bethel, Delaware, in 2008. The town was a thriving shipbuilding center on the banks of the Broad Creek in the late 19th century, but its focus has changed over time. Bethel is in a predominantly agricultural area: corn, melons, strawberries, asparagus – all Sussex County staples. The population is under 200, including the core historic part of the town and the newer homes on the outskirts. And that’s fine with us. It’s a little piece of heaven – although it can be hotter than Hades in the summertime — about ten minutes from Laurel.
Bethel’s hub has to be the Bethel Store, located at the corner of Main and Vine: outstanding scrapple, delicious deli sandwiches, Friday night suppers, and good conversation. If you go in early and talk to Mark and his crew (most of whom are his family members), it seems like the whole neighborhood passes through by noon. Then you can drive up Main Street to Jeff’s Greenhouses and stock up on hanging baskets, mulch, and all your gardening needs. (Do I sound like a WBOC commercial?) We also have an excellent town museum and a community center that used to be a church. But the most appealing thing to us about Bethel is the people, and how they get involved in their community.
Without intending a partisan brouhaha, it’s fair to call Bethel a conservative town. Most of its resident families have been there a long time, and most of them wish to keep the town more or less the same. The Town Council has five members and, although we know each of them by name, I couldn’t tell you the party affiliation (if any) of any of them. For that matter, we attend the same church as the mayor of Laurel, a devoted public servant and local businessman named John Shwed, and we don’t know his political allegiance either. He was just re-elected for a fifth term by a landslide, so he must be doing something right.
The Bethel Town Council meets on the first Tuesday of each month at the community center. Two of the five members were newly elected this year. As you might expect in a small town, “all politics is local,” and land use issues top the agenda most months. Some of the most controversial meetings have involved the desire of local farmers to subdivide their properties for residential development. A core group of residents attends each month, and some discussions have been quite heated. It’s not quite your classic New England town meeting, but it’s as close to participatory democracy as you’ll get in Delaware.
In nearby Laurel, about three weeks ago, there was a hotly contested school board election that pitted a longtime incumbent, Calvin Musser, against a young Georgetown attorney named Patrick Vanderslice, who has strong family ties to Bethel. The election was actually a referendum on a vote taken by the school board a few months earlier not to renew the contract of the school superintendent, who had taken numerous steps to improve the academic standing and the physical plant of the Laurel schools. Mr. Musser, who was among the 3-2 majority on the controversial vote to oust the superintendent, lost to Mr. Vanderslice by a wide margin.
Beyond the politics, however, we are attracted to the vibrant civic spirit of the area – which is not wealthy. Bethel has sponsored summer picnics and spring yard sales each year. We have a Christmas house tour, and we see scores of trick-or-treaters every Halloween. In Laurel, my wife worked hard this spring on the Strawberry Festival, which benefited three local charities, and we attended a packed benefit auction at the Fire Hall to support the Hope House. Also, if you haven’t been to a Laurel July Fourth parade, you’ve really missed something! It attracts gladhanding statewide politicians, but we enjoy it nevertheless. Come on down!