In the colorful parlor, Gulnac pointed out family items, including a marvelous silver tea set owned by David Wilson Jr.’s first wife, Ann, and some of her needlepoint, displayed on the wall. In the dining room, two unusual china cabinets, the shelves shaped like butterfly wings, are built into the wall. Gulnac led us behind the kitchen hearth and showed us two beehive ovens. One member of our group remarked that they looked like pizza ovens. “In those days, it was unusual to have two such ovens,” Gulnac said.
The last house on the tour, the Collins-Sharp house, was built around 1700 and is one of the oldest houses in Delaware. Originally built at Taylors Bridge on the Delaware River, it was moved to Odessa in 1962. It’s a fine example of a very early 18th-century log-and-frame house. Gulnac pointed out the original wallpaper in the entrance that was found beneath layers of paint. I was impressed by the deep rich color of the Queen Anne-style pine molding. Cooking demonstrations over the hearth and dining are offered.
The remaining houses open to the public include the 1855 bank building that houses the headquarters of Historic Odessa, where we saw an informative introductory film about the town. Across the street, we ate lunch at Cantwell’s Tavern (1822), a very popular dining spot and pub offering lunch and dinner in an early 19th-century setting.
Down Main Street from the five Odessa houses is the tiny brick Friends Meeting House (1785) built by David Wilson Sr. Though it’s not part of the Historic Odessa Foundation, it’s well worth a visit, which can be arranged through the Friends Meeting in Wilmington or through Historic Odessa. Downstairs, the simple, plain building with white-washed walls contains three or four rows of wooden benches and a raised area with two more benches. Deborah Buckson explained that this part of Delaware was a main thoroughfare on the Underground Railroad and that oral tradition suggests that runaway slaves were hidden in the meeting house loft. She invited me to take a look.
I climbed a very narrow staircase leading to a trap door in the ceiling and carefully lifted the door. Poking my head through, I saw a small room with a table and a few chairs where women members conducted business meetings after services. A straight-backed bench ran along one wall. It’s believed that a panel between the bench and the wall was removable, and that runaway slaves could be hidden in the small space thus created.
The Friends still hold services in this venerable building, one of the smallest houses of worship in the country, which in a way is a metaphor for Odessa and Delaware. Only a few slaves at a time could be hidden in the loft, or in the cubby hole in the Corbit-Sharp House, but the small steps taken in the great work of freedom were important regardless of the numbers.
James F. Lee teaches journalism at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania.