Saltwater Portrait

Clifton's Sussex roots run deep

Family owned portion of Prime Hook refuge
Otis Clifton holds a framed, aerial photograph of the farm he grew up on. The farm was located where the offices and main parking lot for Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge currently sit. In the photograph, Clifton pointed out a 1957 Plymouth and a 1933 Chevrolet which belonged to neighbors who were duck hunting on the property when the picture was taken. BY NICK ROTH
January 10, 2012

Otis Clifton just sounds like a name rooted in the history of Sussex County.

And it is. Clifton, 79, is one of few people who can recall just what the county looked like before developers started building and millions of tourists invaded the beaches each summer.

“I can go back to a day when I could almost tell you every home from Route 16 south,” he said. “Now I go into Milton, and I don't know nobody. It was a different way of life.”

Clifton grew up on a farm located exactly where the offices of Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge currently sits. His mother died 18 months after he was born, so he was raised by his great aunt and uncle. His father remarried and took his two sisters with him.

Clifton eventually took over his family farm, which dated back to 1904, but he was forced to sell it to the federal government in 1966. In the early '60s, the federal government deemed the area appropriate for a refuge and started the process of purchasing the 15.6 square miles that make up the park.

“We had no choice,” he said. “You either sold it or they condemned it.”

He said he avoided selling the property for as long as he could, but he eventually gave in after receiving a 15-day notice from the government.

“Even though I was losing my home and would have to move off, I still, in the back of my head, thought it was a good thing,” he said. “And now I think it's completely the opposite. I ain't too sure it wasn't about the baddest thing that could've happened to us here in this community.”

He bought a 108-acre property just a few miles away where he still lives today. His home is so close to his childhood farm that it's bordered on three sides by the refuge.

“It's about two miles away as a crow flies,” he said.

Over the last few years, Clifton has been very outspoken about the decaying conditions of the refuge and the troubles his neighbors in Prime Hook Beach and Fowler Beach are dealing with. He said he's called his representatives, but so far it's been to no avail.

“It was one of the best fresh water marshes on the East Coast,” he said. “I don't think they want it corrected.”

And Clifton's knowledge of the refuge isn't limited to the 35 years he spent on the farm. He also spend 32 years working as a maintenance worker and law enforcement officer at the refuge.

“I got to go home every day,” he joked.

Growing up in Sussex County he knew everybody in the community, which is partly the reason why people joke about everybody being related, he said.

“The thing of it was, there were so few people here in Sussex County. There wasn't a lot of selections, so you probably wound up marrying the neighbor's daughter or something like that,” he said. “I went a little farther, I went to Georgetown.”

His wife died in July 2005. Together they had a daughter, Terri, who lives only a few miles away, and a grandson, Rhett.

Sussex County has changed quite a bit in Clifton's 79 years. What used to be fields along Route 1 from his Milton home to Rehoboth Beach has been transformed into outlet stores and large housing developments. He remembers when downtown Rehoboth wasn't nearly the hub it is today. However, the Boardwalk was always a popular hangout for the locals.

“Anybody from Milton that thought they were anybody was all sitting in there, all had their suits on like they were going to church,” he said. “I mean you dressed up to go to Rehoboth. You didn't go down there in a pair of Dungarees like you do today. You see a guy dressed up down there today, he's lost. He don't know where the hell he's at.”

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