Dewey Beach: ‘A Way of Life’ for 40 years

One-mile long, two-block-wide town was incorporated in 1981
October 7, 2021

Seated behind the store counter of Vavala’s Beach Things wearing a faded Dewey Beach T-shirt, the town’s first mayor talks softly, smiles often and confirms the legend is true.

Just over 40 years ago, Bruce Vavala, then 28, was sworn in as Dewey’s first mayor at an evening beach bonfire with fellow first commissioners Dave Vaughn and Thelma Wilson. He went surfing the next day.

“There were good waves,” Vavala smiled. 

His wife spent that day fielding calls from national and international reporters in the era before cellphones.

“Finally she told them, ‘You can’t find him; he’s somewhere on the coast surfing.’” Vavala said. “So it became known that on his first day in office, the youngest mayor in the newest town in the country was out surfing.”

A way of life

An Act to Incorporate the Town of Dewey Beach was signed into law by Gov. Pete du Pont June 29, 1981, according to state records. 

Vavala, mayor from 1981-83 and from 1987-91, said residents worked to incorporate the town to have some rules and regulations, which before then didn’t exist.

“Back then it was almost like the Wild West,” he said. “People were going to the beach with kegs.”

The state police only had a certain number of officers to cover the entire county, Vavala said, so it was tough to respond in Dewey at times; community members sought a solution.

“Evidently I had too much to say, and Alice Walsh told me to get involved or shut up,” Vavala said. 

In the late 1970s, Walsh, who passed away in 2019, helped organize the Dewey Beach Citizens Association, which worked toward incorporation. 

Another reason residents united, said Thelma Wilson’s son Harry, was that Rehoboth Beach tried to annex Dewey. Harry said he created “Don’t Do It, Dewey” T-shirts; the move was voted down, he said.

Founders were dead set against a property tax, so they turned to parking permits as a revenue stream. Alex Pires, commissioner from 1985-93, said the town is likely one of only a handful in America to depend solely on transfer tax, parking permit, and meter and ticket revenue.

“And they’ve been paying the bills for 40 years,” Pires said. “It’s pretty amazing and really unusual the town has pulled this off. People would say we’ll run out of money, it’s a faulty concept. Now, 40 years later, the town has millions in the bank and the system still works. To the naysayers my answer will be: Living well is the best revenge, and everyone here is living well, including the town.”

Brooks Banta, in office from 1982-92, was a police commissioner. Early in his term, he said, excessive drinking on the beach became a problem. 

“It was a challenge,” Banta said. “The town was under a certain amount of duress on the weekends. Thousands of people would come to Dewey to have a good time, which is fine, and drink a tremendous amount of alcohol.”

After a particularly unruly beach party, Banta said he urged the mayor to proclaim a state of emergency.

“I couldn’t even see the sand for the beer cans,” Banta said.

The mayor issued an order prohibiting beer on the beach within a block of Swedes Street that Sunday, Banta said. “We turned them away and told them, not today,” Banta said.

Residents, including town historian Barbara Dougherty, whose father and grandfather built the first house on Swedes Street, led a charge calling for banning alcohol on the beach. 

Barbara passed away in 2015; her daughter Sarah Dougherty said many homeowners shared tales of finding drunk people damaging property, and sleeping and urinating in their yards or inside their homes.

“My dad caught someone using our outdoor shower and nailed the door shut until the police came,” Sarah smiled.

In September 1985, residents approved the ban by referendum, prohibiting alcohol on the beach from the Friday before Memorial Day to the Sunday after Labor Day. Afterward, the town quieted, Banta said. 

“It’s now somewhat of a paradise,” he said. “It’s good for Dewey; it used to be the party town. People can still party, but they do it respectfully.”

Banta said many people deserve credit for early efforts leading the one-mile long, two-block-wide town.

“It was a team effort,” Banta said. “We all worked together with the same common goal: the welfare of the people. I’m very proud of the town, and Dewey Beach can be proud of where it is today.”

Bill Wright, who passed away in 2007, was the first town attorney and swore in the original commissioners. His wife Pat Wright, commissioner from 1999-2002 and mayor from 2002-05, said people from the Washington, D.C. area rented group homes; one share was only a couple hundred bucks a summer.

“The only thing that was open in the winter when I bought my Dewey house in 1983 was the Rusty Rudder,” she said. “First time I ever saw a music video was there.” 

Pires began summering in Dewey in 1975, when renting a Dagsworthy Avenue beach house cost $1,300 a season split among five couples. He bought his first Dewey home in 1978.

Much like today, he said, the town had no fire department, no churches and no industry. Back then, about 40 people lived in Dewey year-round, and most made their living through motels and hotels, bars and restaurants, liquor stores and beach supply shops. 

The Bottle & Cork has served guests since the 1930s, Pires said, and people have flocked to The Starboard since 1960 and The Rusty Rudder since the late ‘70s. Since then, several new restaurants have enhanced the town’s dining scene.

Dewey has become wealthier and more diverse, Pires said, and its beaches are consistently recognized for high water quality. With a host of sports activities on the ocean and bay, free beach access, a thriving nightlife scene and simple, laid-back lifestyle, Dewey is a wonderful town in many ways, Pires said.

“Dewey has anything anyone else has and more, without the formality of a heavy government,” Pires said. “It’s almost perfect the way it is.” 

The frosting on the cake, Pires said, is that President Biden has a second home in nearby North Shores, just north of Rehoboth Beach.

“The most famous person in the world can go anywhere, and he comes here and says, this is cool,” Pires said. “He has given legitimacy to Rehoboth and Dewey Beach. I’ve been to all 50 states and traveled all over the world. It’s very rare when you find a place that has what this town has. It’s very, very unique.”

Harry Wilson not only established Dewey as the skimboard capital of the East Coast, he also coined and copyrighted the town tagline, “Dewey Beach - A Way of Life.”

Harry was in Malibu in the 1970s when he saw a car with a license plate that read “Malibu - A Way of Life.” All of Los Angeles, it seemed, emptied out on the weekend and headed to Malibu, much the same way Washington, D.C. residents flocked to Dewey. Once home, he started making bumper stickers.

“It’s a good motto, because everyone has a different idea about what the way is,” Harry said. “It’s whatever is near and dear to their hearts.”

Harry began skimming as a boy, and in 1972 he opened Dewey Beach Surf and Sport. When his California supplier stopped making skimboards, he purchased their equipment and shipped it to Dewey, and through trial and error, fashioned his own boards. 

Boards were much different then, Harry said. Made of wood, they wouldn’t float a rider.

“It was basic skimboarding,” Harry said. “Now, that’s where skimming starts. The sport has elevated as materials and boards have evolved, and athletes are able to do more. Team sports aren’t for everyone; this lets kids get involved in a different way.”

Harry launched Dewey’s first skimboarding contest in 1982 and started the Skim USA Tour. Son Jason now runs the Zap Pro/Am World Championships of Skimboarding. The sport is so integral to the town, it even holds a skimboarder drop, rather than a ball drop, on New Year’s Eve.

Dewey’s longest-serving mayor, Bob Frederick, was a commissioner from 1992-94 and mayor from 1994-2002. A major change during his term, Frederick said, was when restaurants were prohibited from removing tables and chairs to function just as bars, thus tripling and sometimes quadrupling their occupancy levels. 

“I’m proud of Dewey’s reputation as a fun town, but it reduced volume and capacity so as not to disturb neighbors,” he said.

After a couple bad nor’easters, Frederick said, the town overwhelmingly passed a referendum leading to a beach replenishment tax in 1992.

Frederick, who said he met his wife and raised his daughter in Dewey, said he now loves seeing multiple generations of families enjoying the town.

“My new granddaughter will be coming here,” he said.

Early history

In the book “Dewey Beach History & Tales,” Barbara Dougherty wrote that many residents believe the town was named for Spanish-American War hero Admiral George Dewey, but the name’s provenance is uncertain.

While it was incorporated 40 years ago, Dewey has been inhabited for thousands of years, first by Native Americans, the book states. The original tract of land comprising Dewey was awarded to John Roades in 1680, and pirates plundered the barrier island located between the Atlantic Ocean and Rehoboth Bay.

In the book, Jean Abplanalp says early development happened in stages. In August 1855, plans show the area was named Rehoboth City. In 1871, other investors formed Rehoboth Association.

Rehoboth by the Sea formed in 1925. Jack Redefer, whose ancestors helped create the community, said his father, former Mayor TJ Redefer, found an original Rehoboth City map in his grandfather’s jacket pocket. It now hangs framed in Jack’s office at Rehoboth Bay Realty.

Squatters’ homes occupied the dunes early in the 1900s, said Bronie Zolper, whose son Bill is now town manager. In the early 1920s, she said, her grandfather bought 15 lots on the ocean block of Dickinson Street, stretching from the dunes to the main road, for $25 a lot.

“My grandmother said buying them was the biggest waste of money, but he said eventually, people will want to go to Dewey Beach,” she said.

At the time, Bronie said, there was no bridge over Silver Lake, so her grandfather would dip rags in coal oil to keep mosquitos away and wade from Rehoboth through the lake to fish in Dewey. A timber bridge was erected in 1928 and replaced in 1939, according to Delaware Department of Transportation records.

After his death, her grandmother would sell a lot at a time, Bronie said, and she finally bought a cottage on New Orleans Street for $2,500 and had it moved to a remaining lot. A squatter’s house sat across the street.

“I still have the turkey roaster that was in the house when it was moved,” Bronie said. “I use it to cook corn and crabs.”

Kids back then crabbed on the bay using a rented fish head from the marina. “If you could return the fish head, you got your nickel back!” she said.

In 1954, Redefer said, investors started leasing Rehoboth by the Sea lots because the land wouldn’t sell; most development happened after the storm of March 1962, one of the most destructive storms to ever batter the East Coast.

After the storm, Bronie said, squatters’ rights were recognized by the state, giving them legal right to own the land through application.

Bronie met husband Bill on Piney Island, a now-gone piece of land in Rehoboth Bay. Bill would take his boat to Rosedale Beach, a resort and dance hall on Indian River where famous Black musicians including Ella Fitzgerald, Count Basie, Ray Charles and Miles Davis thrilled crowds.

Later, Washington Redskins football players would hold parties on the street in Dewey with a DJ and free beer, Bronie said. Players would arrive in a Cadillac limo with a steer horn on the hood and a helmet on the roof.

“The kids used to throw the football around with Art Monk,” Bronie said.

Later years to today

Jim Lavelle, mayor from 1991-94, said in early days there were no street lights or sidewalks, and no house had air conditioning or heat. Before sewers, residents relied on septic systems and “selective toilet flushing.” 

“As soon as we got sewer and water in 1979, it was like a gold rush,” Lavelle said. People started tearing down old cottages, and building homes with washers and dryers.

Dewey had a reputation as a party town because rentals were cheap and college kids didn’t mind living in them, Lavelle said. When old homes were torn down and luxury rentals built, kids couldn’t afford the rent, so there went the nightly parties, he said.

“Dewey is now truly a family town, a quiet town,” Lavelle said. “I’m sitting on my deck and it’s so quiet all I can hear is cicadas.”

Diane Hanson, mayor from 2010-16, said much work was done to modernize utilities and create a family-friendly culture. Town leaders worked to implement unified trash collection, eliminate litter, beautify the landscape, ensure clean streets and control noisy houses.

“And in the past few years, the results have been evident, with more young children than adults on the beach at times,” Hanson said.  

The Rehoboth Beach-Dewey Beach Chamber of Commerce provides summertime movies and bonfires on the beach, and town leaders encourage dog-friendly events and beach rules, she said.

Vavala, who has since traded his surfboard for golf clubs, said the town is still much freer than a lot of beach towns, with families enjoying its unique attributes and events put on by Dewey Business Partnership.

“I really think the town’s in a good place right now,” Vavala said. “It’s evolved into an even better place than it was years ago.”

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