Odessa, Delaware: A Town, a Tavern, and a Dream
On September 9, 2017, nearly 2,000 people converged on the tiny town of Odessa, Delaware, for the fourth annual Historic Odessa Brewfest. As the name suggests, the brews are always the stars of the show. Visitors enjoy craft beers from more than 60 companies, from local microbreweries to nationally recognized brands such as Samuel Adams. Live musicians perform on each of the festival’s two stages, and Colonial reenactors can be found brewing beer on site using 18th-century methods and ingredients.
But the carefree festival atmosphere belies the importance of the event to the Historic Odessa Foundation (HOF), which works to preserve the many historic properties in town. Beside the obvious goal of raising funds for the organization, the Odessa Brewfest also benefits the HOF in less tangible ways. Profits aren’t the only point of the Brewfest—people are, too.“It’s not just a fundraising event, it’s a friend-raising event,” Debbie Buckson, the executive director of the Historic Odessa Foundation, explains. Indeed, the Brewfest does appeal to an audience that wouldn’t necessarily gravitate towards historic places. It’s an essential part of HOF’s entire strategic plan, a plan that’s already brought Odessa’s historic buildings back from the brink of destruction.
Odessa thrived throughout the 18th century as an English port town, located just off the Delaware River on the Appoquinimink River. Sea trade and agriculture were its primary industries; about 400,000 bushels of red winter wheat, which made for a great pastry flour, left Odessa’s ports every year.
However, things took a turn for the worse around 1855, when a railroad was built through the town of Middletown, just a few miles west of Odessa. This diverted a significant amount of business away from the town, dealing a severe blow to Odessa’s shipping industry. Combined with a peach tree blight in the 1890s, the railroad’s arrival sent Odessa’s economy into a slow spiral downward from which it would never fully recover.
It was amid this downward spiral that a man named H. Rodney Sharp discovered Odessa. Sharp had just graduated from Delaware College (now the University of Delaware), and came to the town in 1900 to teach at the local school. He rented a room with the Corbits, one of Odessa’s most deeply rooted families. Sharp would eventually leave for Wilmington, Delaware, in 1903, but not before falling in love with the town’s Colonial charm.
When Sharp heard in 1938 that the Corbits wanted to sell their 22-room Georgian house, he returned to Odessa and purchased the house, keeping the historic property out of indiscriminate hands. But he didn’t stop there—over the next 20 years, Sharp would perform restoration work on 19 houses in Odessa, the Corbit House included. Today, the renamed Corbit-Sharp House is recognized as a National Historic Landmark, and Odessa’s historic district as a whole is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.“Sharp is really responsible for the preservation of [Odessa],” Buckson says. "You had this beautiful little town that was just sitting there, going to wrack and ruin, and he saved it."
Sharp’s family donated the Corbit-Sharp House and many other Odessa buildings to the Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library starting in 1958, along with a $1.2 million endowment for maintenance. However, the town’s historic properties eventually became too costly to maintain. Winterthur shut down Odessa in 2003, and the town once again appeared postmarked for oblivion.
But Sharp’s descendants were able to reclaim the site in 2005, and after establishing Odessa as a 501(c)(3) organization and creating a Board of Directors, the Historic Odessa Foundation was born.
Debbie Buckson was an obvious choice to lead the Board of Directors, having spent 18 years working for Winterthur as Odessa’s curator of education. While she was familiar with Odessa’s problems and well-equipped to address them, the first years of the HOF were extremely challenging.
“We had no money to speak of, and there had been a lot of deferred maintenance,” recounts Buckson. “The first thing we did was a site assessment. We took a long look at where our problems were, and then began, with our very small Board, a strategic planning process […] We prioritized everything, and we began raising money through grants.”
Grants were difficult to come by for a fledgling foundation like the HOF, but Buckson and the Board of Directors successfully secured $350,000 to get preservation efforts off the ground. Since then, they’ve done everything from repainting the buildings to replacing roofs, all in keeping with historical guidelines. And after finishing the repairs of the Corbit-Sharp House’s roof this past summer, the HOF officially checked off the final item on their initial list of preservation tasks, created all the way back in 2005.
For the first time in Odessa’s history, the question of “How do we save the town?” has been replaced by “How do we make all of this sustainable?” Fortunately, the HOF has found a solution in—what else—beer.
Cantwell’s Hotel and Tavern was built in 1822, serving as a much-needed respite for weary travelers passing through Odessa. It operated as such until the early 20th century, and was one of the buildings that Sharp purchased, restored, and passed along to Winterthur.
In 1979, Winterthur decided to renovate the tavern for adaptive reuse as an art gallery, installing walls to cover the original architecture while leaving it unchanged beneath. When the HOF received the property from Winterthur in 2003, they decided the tavern’s first purpose might be its best.
But first, the HOF had to gain town-wide approval for the project. Fortunately, Odessa’s 372 residents were more than happy to oblige.
“We could never have gotten Cantwell’s Tavern off the ground without the full support of the town. It required a zoning change in the residentially zoned historic district, as well as the approval of households living within a five-mile radius for a liquor license. Not one person objected at open meetings held by the mayor and [town] council,” says Buckson.
Today, the proceeds from Cantwell’s Tavern account for an impressive one-third of the HOF’s total operating budget. Combined with the Brewfest, which is run in tandem by the HOF and the third-party hospitality group that oversees the tavern’s day-to-day operations, Odessa appears to have discovered a formula for success. The tavern has cultivated a large group of dedicated patrons with its welcoming ambience and programs like the Tankard Club, which for $1,000 gives you a pewter tankard with your name engraved on it that sits in the tavern, awaiting your return.“We wanted the ‘Cheers’ effect—where everyone knows your name,” Buckson says.
It is fitting that both the success of both the tavern and the HOF have depended on the same key ingredient: community. Since the days of H. Rodney Sharp, the people of Odessa have been a driving force behind the grassroots effort to save their town.
“Town residents come to every event, and continue to support us through their patronage of Cantwell’s Tavern, individual financial contributions, museum membership, and volunteerism,” says Buckson. “We could not survive without town support.”
So what’s next for the HOF? According to Buckson, the next step is guaranteeing Odessa’s future, once and for all. “What so often happens is, you complete a project and nobody thinks about it for the next 25 years,” Buckson says. “We want to create a revolving preservation and maintenance program, so nothing ever goes back to the way it was before.”
Surrounded by uncertainty for so much of its history, the town of Odessa can finally put its past in the rearview mirror. And with the continued efforts of Buckson, the HOF, and Odessa’s residents themselves, the town’s future has never been brighter.