The remnants of old Belltown fall into the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it category of sites to see while visiting the Delaware beach resorts. The super-busy intersection that locals call Five Points will demand your full driving attention as you make your way just above Lewes along Route 1 or Route 9. Two big-box hardware stores dominate this intersection, but just beyond there, on westbound Route 9—don’t blink!—is a trio of much older buildings.
A home, a church, and a school: That trio speaks to pillars of community life. These structures date only to various points in the 1900s, but their roots go deeper. The beginnings of Belltown date to tumultuous times in the mid-1800s, and that part of the story has plot lines full of marvels, mysteries, and Satan-worshipping weirdness.
A REFUGE IN TROUBLED TIMES
Oral tradition says the town was named after Jacob “Jigger” Bell. That name first appears in the historical record in 1822, at which point Bell was a thirtysomething resident of Lewes. Not until the mid-1830s does his name pop up in a way that places him in the town that would one day bear his name.
This was slavery times, of course. Bell was a “free” black man. The quotes around that word are meant to convey a sad measure of complexity—“free” blacks may have been regarded by the law as something more than mere pieces of property, but they were also regarded as less than fully human. “Free” blacks didn’t enjoy the rights and freedoms of white men, not even close.
Belltown is a place where those free blacks banded together to try and beat the odds by creating a self-sufficient community of their own. The Delmarva Peninsula is dotted with other enclaves that came into existence like this, as free-black havens in a hostile world. Think Polktown in Delaware City, Del.; The Hill in Easton, Md.; Pine Street in Cambridge, Md.; Scott’s Point in Chestertown, Md.; and San Domingo in Wicomico County, Md., among others.
These were tumultuous times in Delaware, where the free black population was on the rise during Bell’s lifetime. In the broader area historians call the “Lewes and Rehoboth Hundred,” the black population changed from a 50/50 split in 1800 (230 free blacks, 239 slaves) to a 75/25 split in 1840 (305 free, 111 slaves). By 1860, 68 slaves showed up on “property” listings for white farmers within a three-mile radius of Belltown. Fully half of those were listed as “fugitives,” so a good number of those slaves had probably set out in search of freedom along the Underground Railroad.
Some of this free-black population growth happened through manumission, a legal process by which white slave owners could see slaves free. Some owners took this step out of religious conviction—the notion that slavery was morally wrong was gaining steam through the 1800s, particularly among Methodists and Quakers. Others had more selfish motives, as changing economic conditions made slave-owning less profitable. In still other cases, enslaved blacks earned their freedom—“self-liberation” is the term academic types use—by figuring out ways to make enough money to buy themselves and their family members out of bondage.
The legend of Belltown’s founding paints Jacob Bell as a bold businessman, buying up land and dividing it into smaller parcels that he then sold to others drawn to a free-black haven. Bell has been referred to as the first black real estate developer in Delaware.
He might have been exactly that, but rock-solid proof is lacking. Land records from those decades are incomplete, especially where it concerns free blacks. What we know for sure is that in 1840 Bell owned a house and small lot in a fledgling town that numbered 16 homes. Most homes there were owned by free blacks, but no documentation has been turned up to date showing that it was Bell who put all those lots on the market.
Despite that mystery, the remnants of Belltown offer plenty of fuel for the imagination. Historians think most residents worked as farmers, either growing their own crops or working on white-owned farms. Many presumably did both. There are hints in the historical record of how hard it was for free black farm laborers to make ends meet and support their families. Some small homes were packed with relatives across three or more generations of a family. Others homes show up in census records as being shared by unrelated couples.
Here is one scene to put in your mind’s eye. The description comes from much later, in the 1930s, but the scene unfolded along the same lines in the 1800s:
In the mornings, most of the adult population leaves on foot … for work in Lewes or in the nearby apple and peach orchards. At night, files of Negroes, sometimes singing, plod home to Belltown—a procession that is a century-old ritual.
In the census of 1850, Jacob Bell is listed as a 60-year-old minister. He and his wife, Nancy, had four children. He probably died in the late 1870s—a date that would have him nearing the ripe old age of 90, having lived a life that stretched from the presidency of George Washington through the War of 1812, the Civil War, and the emancipation of slaves.
A MEASURE OF PROSPERITY
By the 1870s Belltown was big enough to support two churches, both built on land donated by black property owners. The church building that stands in the shadow of those big-box hardware stores isn’t that old, but it was erected by a John Wesley United Methodist congregation that took shape in those post-Civil War years.
When that congregation celebrated its 125th anniversary in 1998, a reporter with the Wilmington News Journal asked 80-year-old Catherine Bundick how the church had survived for so long. “Hard work,” she said. “Plain hard work.” The congregation was down to just 22 members by then. It has since closed up. The building has been the subject of some controversy in recent years, thanks to one plan to turn it into a brewpub and another to turn it into a homeless shelter. As of this writing, it’s still empty.
The second of that dilapidated trio is an old school building that’s tied to another big piece of Delaware history. Belltown’s first school, a one-room wooden affair—opened during Reconstruction times, in 1867. By the 1920s that building had fallen into disrepair and landed on a list compiled by philanthropist Pierre DuPont of “Negro” schools in need of replacing. In an astonishing act of generosity, DuPont built more than 80 then-state-of-the-art school buildings to serve Delaware’s black children. (You can learn more about that project here.)
That Nassau School building stayed open through the mid-1960s. In 2020, the magazine Delmarva Beach Life spoke with some community elders about the days they spent in those old classrooms. This is what Sandra Neal had to say:
“The school was where we found our sanctuary, but it was part of a larger neighborhood where we all felt connected. The church was right across the street, and farther down was Al Wiltbank’s store where we got penny candy … and at the intersection of Route 1 was the Five Points Beer Garden, with a white side and a black side.”
The last building in that dilapidated trio is the Norwood House. Parts of the structure date to the late 1800s, with additions added in the early 1900s, but the story behind that property goes back to Belltown’s early days as a free-black haven. William D. Norwood was one of the town’s success stories, as he owned 78 acres of farmland during slavery times in the 1850s. Twenty-seven other single-family homes are included in the Belltown Historic District listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
The town’s heyday dates to the 1930s. According to a book from those years, Delaware: A Guide to the First State, Belltown’s population had grown to 300, with several small businesses up and running. Another Belltown legend pops up in this time frame. Supposedly, Belltown residents built up a good bit of wealth during the 1920s by selling moonshine during Prohibition times to white folks in Lewes and other nearby towns.
Nearly every family has a flock of chickens and a pig or two. The village has no governing body of its own, but the people sometimes gather in the schoolhouse to discuss a problem.
If I could pick one thing to travel back in time and see, it would be one of the nights when the people of Belltown gathered to put on a show that sounds kind of like “American Idol.”
A favorite form of entertainment is a ‘quartet contest’ held in church or school. … Groups take turns singing spirituals and other songs before judges. Tickets to the entertainment are often bought by white neighbors.
THAT SATAN-WORSHIPPING WEIRDNESS
Remember how Jacob “Jigger” Bell had landed in Belltown by 1840? Another name that pops up on property records from those days is Cyrus Maull. His surname would join the ranks of local legends thanks to a man who was most likely a relative, Arnsy Maull. From Delaware: A Guide to the First State:
The village, though supporting the church, soon became noted for its “Devil-Worshippers”—a sect led by Arnsy Maull whose voodoo art is still remembered and probably still followed to some extent; his clientele included whites as well as Negroes for miles around. His “conjures” had the required power, it is said, to cure a misery or kill an enemy. The Devil Worshippers had a prolonged initiation period: a neophyte had to spend seven Sundays in the woods in solitary communion with the Devil, who on the seventh Sunday took possession of his soul and gave him supernatural powers.
Arnsy Maull on his death bed repudiated this dark religion, ordering his followers, so the story goes, to get long whips and lash the air so as to “drive off the Devil and let the Lord in!” This they did all night, accompanying the cracks of the blacksnake whips with prayers and exhortations. Arnsy’s son Silas, an old man, disclaims any belief in Devil Worship but [still] sells “charms” and “cures” made of herbs and other things.
When Silas “Si” Maull died in 1938 at the age of 79, the legends surrounding his father resurfaced in an obituary published by the Wilmington Morning News. That article says “Si” worked for 50 years managing the farm of a white woman, Lelia Lyons.
To the younger generation, the funeral … signified only the passing of a Negro long respected by the white population of this vicinity … They remember his philosophical counsel to visitors and his illimitable knowledge of local superstitions, and of charms and herb “cures.”
The article then moves on to memories of Si’s father, Arnsy, who was known to everyone around by the nickname of “Orange.”
The full population of Belltown stood in awe of him, the story goes. Clients from far and near came to him for cures, for help in obtaining lost money, removing spells, and for good luck charms. … They say his ‘customers’ included whites as well as Negroes.
Those who remember his death some 25 years ago say that trees about his house were uprooted and the whole house shook during a violent storm as he lay on his deathbed. They claim that ‘the debbil came after him and he didn’t want to go, so the debbil showed him who was boss.’
With his last breath he repudiated the dark religion of “Devil Worshippers” and ordered his followers, so the story goes, to get long whips and lash the air so as to ‘drive off the Devil and let the Long in!’ This they did all night, accompanying the cracks of the blacksnake whips with prayers and exhortations. …
Even at the time of the younger Si Maull’s death, there was a Belltown man who claimed to know everything about herbs and cures and curses that Arnsy Maull used to know. But Jim-Daniel Hargust offered reassurances in that newspaper article that he worked in a neutral, “lukewarm” way, accessing the powers of either God or the “black heart” depending on the situation and the wishes of his clientele. Then the newspaper added this tidbit:
He likes white clients “‘cause their pockets have somethin’ else besides holes in ‘em.’”
DOES BELLTOWN HAVE A FUTURE?
The first time I drove past that dilapidated trio on Route 9, I didn’t know the story of Belltown. My reaction was, “Hmm, why haven’t they gotten around to tearing those down yet?”
As I mentioned, the church has been the subject of recent development proposals that involved reusing the structure rather than tearing it down. Nothing has come of those proposals as of this writing.
The old Nassau School may have the best chance at gaining new life for the 21st century as a historic attraction. It was purchased in 2019 by the Delaware Department of Transportation, which has big plans to rework that busy intersection of Route 1 and Route 9. DelDOT then did some work to stabilize the structure, including roof repairs.
In 2020, the department held a workshop to get public input on plans for the property. Among the discussion points was whether a nonprofit might take the school over and run it as a tourist attraction and whether to keep the building in its current location or move it to a site near other historic attractions. Closing words from a summary of that workshop:
DelDOT is committed to the long-term preservation of the school and will continue to provide updates as information becomes available.
Only time will tell what the future holds.
–written and posted by Jim Duffy for Secrets of the Eastern Shore/Whimbrel Creations LLC in May 2022. All rights reserved.
I have several other posts on this website that touch on the stories of the other “free-black havens” on Delmarva.
• Here is one about the Pine Street community in Cambridge, Md.
• This one is about The Hill neighborhood in Easton, Md.
• Here is one about Unionville, Md., which doesn’t quite qualify as a free-black haven—it dates to just after the Civil War—but will still be of interest if you’re drawn to this topic.
If you ever find your way to Belltown, you may also want to run past Israel United Methodist Church at 20230 Plantation Road. There is a marker outside the church that dates the informal founding of that congregation to the 1840s and its formal incorporation to the 1870s. The building dates to 1916.
The photo up top here is used for illustration purposes only. It was not taken on Delmarva, but in Alabama in 1939. The photographer is Marion Wolcott. The image is in the collection of the Library of Congress.
Thanks for reading. If this piece or any others on the site spark your interest in the books I’ve written about travel, history, and culture on the Delmarva Peninsula, here is where to find more info about those books.