Groome Mansion and the heroics of Commodore Dewey

May 17, 2013

On May 1, 1898, Commodore George Dewey led a fleet of U.S. Navy vessels into Manila Bay in the Philippines and defeated a fleet of Spanish ships in the first major engagement of the Spanish-American War. Known as the Battle of Manila Bay, that victory gave the U.S. control of a natural harbor considered to be one of the finest in the world.

Dewey’s heroics led to his promotion to the ultimate naval rank of Admiral of the Navy, a nomination for the presidency of the U.S., and a variety of monuments, towns and streets placed and named in his honor. It is believed that Dewey Beach, designated on the 1868 Beers Atlas map as Rehoboth City, was renamed for the hero following the Manila Bay victory.

In Lewes, the memorializing took another historical step. In mid-1898, two new streets laid out in a residential development between Savannah Road (South Street at the time) and Kings Highway were named Dewey Avenue and Manila Avenue.

Those streets came to mind recently with the placement of For Sale signs on the historic Mary Birdella Galbraith property at the corner of Manila and Kings Highway. The property lies across the street from Lewes Public Library. In 1874, however, when Thomas Groom came to Lewes as superintendent of the Junction and Breakwater Railroad, the only structure on the land where the library stands today was the railroad station.

Hazel Brittingham wrote an article for the first volume of the Journal of the Lewes Historical Society in 1998, 100 years after the Battle of Manila Bay. Her article details the history of the Groom family in Lewes, including the fact that the name eventually had an e attached to its end. The railroad superintendent wasted no time in acquiring several acres of land across the street from the train station. In addition to running the railroad, he designed his family’s new home and outbuildings, and then lined up contractors to begin building what would eventually come to be known as the Groome Mansion. Groome chose the Victorian architecture style for his home, a style widely popular in England and the U.S. during the late 19th century reign of Queen Victoria in England. It’s a style that includes gabled roofs, gingerbread touches and, in this case, decorative arches along the graceful wrap-around front porch. The Groome family moved into their new home in 1883.

In the years following Groome’s death at 71 in 1891, his widow, Ann, went about dividing the original acreage into about 25 residential building lots necessitating creation of Dewey and Manila avenues. She sold one of those lots, at the corner of Dewey Avenue and Savannah Road, to a group intent on building there the Lewes Methodist Protestant Church.

According to Brittingham’s article, when Ann Groome died in 1905, her son Charles continued sale of the lots.

He reportedly offered an additional adjoining lot to the church group if they would agree to incorporate under the name Groome Memorial Methodist Protestant Church. They seized the opportunity. When the church’s cornerstone was placed it read, and still does: Groome Memorial M.P. Church 1907.

The Groome Mansion has been occupied by a number of families through the years, including, in recent decades, Mary Galbraith and her daughter, Birdie.

Now the property is for sale once again. The sale this time includes further subdivision of the current Groome Mansion tract into one lot with the house and three other unimproved lots. One of those lots fronts on Savannah Road and will need DelDOT approval for an entrance permit off the state-maintained Kings Highway.

Much has changed over a century, but the railroad continues to serve trains, Groome Church carries that family’s name forward, and Dewey and Manila avenues continue to honor the heroics of Commodore Dewey back in May 1898.

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