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A treasure hidden amid the apple trees

ron_macarthur
August 22, 2013

There are hidden historical treasures throughout Sussex County; one is smack dab in the middle of T.S. Smith & Sons apple and peach orchards in Bridgeville.

From the outside it's an unassuming, weather-worn building, but there is much more there than meets the eye. It could stand alone on the fact that it's a chicken house that has survived for nearly 70 years, but that's not the entire story.

The chicken house, complete with a small cottage built on top for the caretakers, was built by German POWs in 1944. According to owner and grower Charlie Smith, it's one of two houses still standing. The Smiths were in the chicken business until the late 1990s, using the POW-built house for chickens for about 50 years.

A family lived above the chicken house because in the early days of the poultry industry, all work was done by hand. “It took a family to raise a flock of chickens,” Smith said.

Just imagine living above a large house of noisy – and usually smelly – chickens.

Smith said only half of the chicken house remains, but there are no plans to demolish the rest. He said wheels are in motion to have the entire Smith family farm placed on the National Register of Historic Places. He said if that occurs, they will restore some of the chicken house as an interpretive center.

It's hard to believe that German and Italian POWs were in the area in the 1940s. Because they were so well treated, some returned to visit the area following the war. Smith said he has letters written to his father from POWs who worked on the farm thanking him for the treatment they received.

Not much is on record about German POWs in Delaware and Sussex County even though thousands were dispersed from Fort DuPont in Delaware City to camps all over the state, including Lewes, Fort Miles, Bethany Beach, Bridgeville and Georgetown.

Fort Saulsbury in Slaughter Beach served as camp for about 1,000 German POWs and a small number of Italian POWs. Prisoners did all sorts of work throughout the state; they even helped construct and repair portions of the Rehoboth Beach Boardwalk. They worked in factories and worked on farms.

They were not paid a wage but those who hired them paid a fee to the federal government for their labor. It's estimated that POWs did as much as $2.4 million worth of work in Delaware, which is about $32 million in today's dollars.

Fort DuPont was the state's clearing station for POWs, and as many as 3,000 stayed at the fort from June 1942 to June 1946. The crew of the German U-858 submarine that surrendered off the coast of Lewes was shipped to Fort DuPont.

Thanks to Delaware Military Heritage for information about POWs in Delaware.

 

 

  • Ron MacArthur has lived and worked in Sussex County all his life. As a journalist for more than 40 years, he has covered everything from county and town meetings to presidential visits. He also has a unique perspective having served as an elected official and lived on both sides of the county.

    Contact Ron at ronm@capegazette.com