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Nanticoke Heritage Byway: Phillips Landing and Laurel

December 3, 2017

Continuing last month's tour west of Bethel, the most recent stop on our armchair itinerary, set your GPS for Phillips Landing Recreation Area, and you'll soon find Phillips Landing and the Capt. John Smith Memorial. Between 1607 and 1609, Smith was the first English explorer to map the Chesapeake Bay area.

The area where the captain is believed to have set foot in what would become Delaware is located near the confluence of the Nanticoke River and Broad Creek. In May 2007 a monument was placed at Phillips Landing Recreation Area to commemorate his exploration of the Nanticoke River and his meeting with the Nanticoke Indian chiefs.

Phillips Landing is a popular picnic, fishing and recreation spot. It's also a popular spot for launching a canoe or kayak to follow the Nanticoke River Water Trail. This is also part of the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail, a series of water routes extending approximately 3,000 miles along the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries in Virginia, Maryland, Delaware and the District of Columbia. The historic routes trace Smith’s 1607-09 voyages to chart the lands and waterways of the Chesapeake. The adjacent Nanticoke Wildlife Area conserves landscapes that appear much as they did 400 years ago.

Next stop on the itinerary is Historic Laurel, which has the largest designated historic area in Delaware. From 1711 to 1769, it was also the site of an Indian Reservation which was set up by the Maryland Assembly. The Town of Laurel was founded in 1683 and incorporated as a town April 13, 1883. Laurel was considered one of the wealthiest towns in the state. Many of the structures in this town date back to the 19th century. Laurel has also been home to four Delaware governors.

The town has two museums. In the old Laurel train station is the Laurel Heritage Museum, which is open from 8 a.m. to noon,  Monday to Friday. The second museum is the Cook House, a historic home now owned by the Laurel Historical Society. The Cook House is open to the public from 1 to 4 p.m., Sundays, April to June. For more information, go to laureldehistoricalsociety.org.

St. Philip's Protestant Episcopal Church at 600 S. Central Ave. in Laurel claims 1843 as the date of its founding, but the journals of the diocese interchange the names St. Philip's and Christ Church for a number of years after that date. Christ Church, also worthy of a visit, is located a short distance outside town near Chipman's Pond and is another fascinating and finely preserved example of the region's Colonial past.

Construction of Christ Church, what was known then as a “chapel of ease,” began in 1770, at which time the area was claimed by the colony of Maryland. The relationship between the two churches is historically so close that St. Philip's would be justified in claiming 1771, the founding date of Christ Church Broad Creek, as its founding date. St. Philip's remains in operation with regular services and events including the Annual Strawberry Festival each May. Christ Church holds services on a limited schedule and for special occasions.

Also on Chipman's Pond are the remains of Chipman's Mill, listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The one-story mill, built by Joseph Chipman in 1884, functioned into the late 1940s before it fell into disuse. Chipman's Mill was powered solely by water. Small mills of this type existed during the19th century on virtually every stream throughout Sussex County. The wood frame was destroyed by fire in 1986, but the concrete foundation, concrete turbine, and other pieces remain.

When you're exploring Laurel, Trap Pond State Park is definitely a don't-miss. Freshwater wetlands once covered a large portion of southwestern Sussex County, and Trap Pond State Park retains a part of the swamp's original beauty and mystery, featuring the northernmost natural stand of bald cypress trees in the United States. The pond was created in the late 1700s to power a sawmill during the harvest of large bald cypress from the area. The federal government purchased the pond and surrounding farmland during the 1930s, and the Civilian Conservation Corps began to develop the area for recreation. Trap Pond became one of Delaware's first state parks in 1951 and is known for its beautiful trails as well as boating, paddling, camping, fishing and a wide range of programs and activities.

While in Laurel, be sure to enjoy lunch or dinner at Abbott's on Broad Creek. Serving American cuisine, Abbott's sources much of what it serves from local farms.

You may also want to visit:

  • Laurel Junction, at 10912 County Seat Highway, Laurel, is a 25-acre, indoor-outdoor flea market featuring full-time retail shops, antique shops, a convenience store and a full-service restaurant. 
  • Dutch Country Market, at 11233 Trussom Pond Road, Laurel, is a 5,700-square-foot market selling homemade food, baked goods and sandwiches based on Amish County recipes and flavors. The products come from Amish and Mennonite farmers and are either locally sourced or come from Lancaster County, Pa. 

For more information on things to see and do in Laurel, go to visitsoutherndelaware.com/our-towns.

As always, safe travels, and please watch your speed as you travel through our small towns. Speed limits are enforced. 

Hildegard W. Rieger is owner of Relaxing Tours LLC. Read more of her columns at beachpaper.com/tags/tourist-home.

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