Saltwater Portrait

Trip Wilkinson: Living history in Rehoboth Beach

September 5, 2017

When the Rehoboth Beach Museum decided to show the results of a 2012 oral history project featuring longtime Rehoboth residents, there was no question who should go first.

Cordie Lee "Trip" Wilkinson was born in Washington, D.C., June 24, 1931, and she was chosen largely for her humorous demeanor and colorful stories of Rehoboth's past. She first visited Rehoboth in 1941, when she and her family stayed in a shack a block from the beach. Every year after that, she said, her family would come back to Rehoboth. Wilkinson moved to Rehoboth permanently in 1953. As the third woman in her family named Cordie Lee Wilkinson, after her grandmother and mother, she got the nickname Trip.

Growing up, Wilkinson said she remembered bonfires on the beach. "Because I was born in June and my sister was born on Christmas Day, 10 years apart, my mother would have a bonfire on the beach for our birthday. My sister always had her birthday when she was half-a-year old," Wilkinson said.

"This place was a wonderful place to raise a family," she said of Rehoboth. "The people are very caring and in those days - my children were born in '58 and '61. It was safe. It was a small town. A small town that just happened to be on the beach."

Wilkinson said during World War II, the U.S. Army had hollowed out the dunes to monitor German submarines. But for her, it was a wonderful place to play.

"Because it was hot weather, the dunes were so cool," she said. "Every night the Coast Guard would come down to patrol the beach. We would look inside to see who was in there. Suppose there were some Germans inside, what would we have done then?" she said.

Wilkinson started her career as a teacher in Lewes, but then worked in the real estate business for several different firms, mainly Wilgus Associates for 25 years. Her husband was a boat pilot stationed in Lewes.

"We had a lady call in once. She was in an oceanfront apartment in Sea Colony. She said, 'I can't sleep. You've got to do something.' I said, 'What's wrong?' She said, 'You have got to come over here and turn off that darn ocean,'" Wilkinson said.

She said the biggest change she has seen to the Rehoboth area was the development of Route 1. "The outlets changed everything," Wilkinson said. "It was only a two-lane road then. They've changed that road so many times."

She said Rehoboth was a small town dominated by small cottages, but those cottages have now given way to what she called "mega-mansions."

Wilkinson said her favorite thing to do is volunteer. She has been a docent with the Rehoboth Art League and a member of the Village Improvement Association and All Saints' Episcopal Church. "My life is full," Wilkinson said. "I enjoy people. I enjoy talking to them and sharing our stories."

Wilkinson recalled the Storm of '62, which destroyed much of Rehoboth. She said she drove down with her daughter to the Henlopen Hotel parking lot. "The waves were just building and building. Angry sea coming in," she said. "Suddenly, the wave broke right in front of our car and splashed against the windshield. I said, 'I think we better get out of here.' The next day we read in the paper this big brown house, the Grier house, had been toppled over by the waves. That was my first taste of the fierceness of that ocean."

Wilkinson said she also went to Henlopen Acres to check on her in-laws' house. She said she had to get a typhoid shot and then get in a boat to row through the town. The water was knee-high but her in-laws' house was on a hill and had avoided damage. "We tied the boat to a pine tree and walked around the house. It's truly remarkable that it stopped at that hill," she said.

Wilkinson said she has enjoyed her years in Rehoboth. "It's a wonderful place to live," she said.

The museum is planning to edit down its oral histories into 25- to 30-minute films to show around town, but Wilkinson, who was surrounded by friends and family in a packed Anna Hazzard Museum, was thrilled to take part in a first trial run.

"I think it's fun. It's amazing to think of those things that I don't think about too often. And they're all true things," she said.