Saltwater Portrait

Barbara Dougherty captures the moment, year after year

Dewey resident preserves the present, brings the past to life
Dewey Beach Historian Barbara Dougherty displays a photograph of a house in Dewey Beach after the nor'easter of 1962. BY KARA NUZBACK
March 6, 2012

Sometime in the early 1960s, Barbara Quillen Dougherty was given an aerial photograph of Dewey Beach.  The black and white picture was taken in 1931, from the perspective of someone hovering over the Atlantic Ocean, facing the Rehoboth Bay.  There are only about 15 houses situated around the Life Saving Station, which looks almost identical to the building that stands today at the end of Dagsworthy Avenue.  “I wanted to know everything about every house,” Dougherty said.

When Dougherty is asked about Dewey Beach, she talks a-mile-a-minute.  It is clear her head is brimming with knowledge about the small town, and she is eager to pass it on.  It is also clear she finds something magical about the community.  “I just love the town; even before it was a town,” Dougherty said.

Dougherty met her husband in Dewey Beach.  Her father and mother met at the Life Saving Station in the 1920s.  Two of her three children met their spouses somewhere in town.  “It’s changed and grown, but it’s still a wonderful place,” she said.  “People are still meeting the people they want to spend the rest of their lives with here.”

Dougherty first came to Dewey Beach when she was 3 months old, about 10 years after her father, Fred Quillen, built a house on Swedes Street.  She spent every summer of her childhood in Dewey Beach.  “The same people were here every summer,” she said.

Dougherty still knows many of those people from years ago.  “They are my dear friends,” she said.  Bob Schnepfe, her boyfriend, is one of them.  “He’s a great guy, and he too spent all his summers in Dewey Beach,” Dougherty said.

But it was Dougherty’s late husband, Gerry Dougherty, who brought her to Dewey Beach full-time in 1996, after he had been diagnosed with terminal cancer. “He loved Dewey, and he wanted to die here in his own bed,” Dougherty said.

When Gerry passed away in October 1997, he left Dougherty bits of history that had interested him, including newspaper clippings and postcards he had collected over the years. “He had an extensive postcard collection,” she said.

Dougherty spends much of her free time filing clippings and preserving old photographs of Dewey Beach.  Her daughter, Sarah, who lives in Wilmington, often helps add to the cache.  “Perhaps combined with her love of Dewey Beach she will someday become the caretaker of my files and photos,” Dougherty said.

But Dewey Beach’s official historian did not intend to center her career around the days of yore.  She studied science at Arcadia University, which was then called Beaver College, north of Philadelphia.

After graduation, Dougherty said, one of her college friends had a job lined up as a historian.  But her friend decided to switch to social work, and Dougherty decided to take her place and try her hand at history.  She started work in at Hagley Library in Wilmington in 1963.  “It was a very lively place to work,” she said.  “I just loved it.”

At Hagley, Dougherty said she learned the ins and outs of historic preservation.  “You had to know the collection,” she said.

Dougherty’s combined love of history and Dewey Beach finally culminated in a book.  “Dewey Beach History and Tales” was published in 1996.  She said the book was a combined effort of the Dewey Beach book committee, which named her editor and compiler; Hal Dukes served as publisher.

The book is a collection of facts, stories and photographs from families whose Dewey Beach roots date back to the early 1900s.  Profits from the sale of the book were donated to the Life Saving Station.

In Chapter 25, “Storm without warning,” Dougherty writes about the storm of March 1962, which nearly wiped Dewey Beach off the map. She had just turned 21 and was away at college in Philadelphia when her cousin called her and said, “We have to get to Dewey.”

He picked her up the next day.  She said they arrived to find the National Guard trying to ward off visitors; when she saw the devastation, she realized why. “It looked like a giant had stepped on the front of the houses,” Dougherty said.  “Everybody was incredulous that this could’ve happened.”

Dougherty said she and her cousin picked up shovels and spent the next two days helping neighbors scoop sand out of their kitchens.  The Rehoboth Beach Fire Department brought fire hoses to help residents closer to the bay get the mud out of their houses.

But Dougherty said the small community pulled itself back together, and by the summer of 1962, much of the damage had been cleared.  “There was a great spirit of camaraderie with the National Guard,” she said.  “Everybody was helping everybody.”

This year, Dougherty will celebrate her 71st birthday at about the same time she helps the area commemorate the storm.  Dougherty will lead a discussion and slideshow for property owners about the aftermath of the storm Friday, March 9.  She said 70 people have already signed up to attended the reservation-only event.

In preparation, Dougherty has photographs and slides splayed across most of the flat surfaces in her Swedes Street home. Dougherty is an avid photographer.  She has worked as a professional and taken pictures as part of her efforts to preserve the present for future Dewey Beach historians.  “It really goes hand-in-hand,” she said.  “I just try to capture a moment wherever I go.”

On an average day, Dougherty’s home is a reflection of her love of the beach.  Her linens are different combinations of sunshine yellow and hues of blue that are as deep as the ocean or as pale as the sky.  Clear glass lamps and vases are homes for thousands of seashells, pieces of sea glass and fossils she found while beachcombing.

Dougherty loves the beach; fishing is one of her favorite hobbies.  You can find her surf fishing on the beach early in the morning, before the lifeguards set up their chairs for the day.  Beach Patrol Capt. Todd Fritchman often waves to her or stops to say “Hello” as he is riding by on the Beach Patrol’s ATV.

Fritchman is the person Dougherty said she most admires.  She said she nearly drowned on the beach at Bellevue Street at age 9, but she was saved by a lifeguard.  Every year, she gives Fritchman copies of her book to give to his staff, and she always thanks the on-duty lifeguard after a day at the beach with her grandchildren.

Although Dewey Beach has grown, Dougherty said, she loves that the town has maintained a certain intimacy among its residents.  “I just think we’re all connected here in some way or another,” she said.  “People know each other and help each other.”

Dewey Beach was incorporated in 1981; it is the youngest town in the state.  “Perhaps that’s why we, as a town, never seem to want to grow up,” Dougherty said.  She smiled, and with a flick of her wrist and a wave of her hand she said, “The more things change the more they stay the same.”

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