Christmas in Historic Odessa, Delaware captures all of the charm and tradition of the holiday season. It’s not over-commercialized reindeer or cartoony men in red suits. It’s far more innocent and heartfelt. The town captures a yuletide feeling that hardly seems to exist anymore these days. The small town of historic homes put on its holiday finest each year to awe, inspire, celebrate and welcome visitors. My husband and I made a trip to Odessa, Delaware to experience the holiday cheer and the historic homes in person.
The History of Odessa, Delaware
With its spot along the Appoquinimink Creek, Odessa is no accident. The town came to prominence in the 1700s when its strategic location near Philadelphia and the Delaware River made it an important port. This was when the town was originally known by the name Cantwell’s Bridge.
Odessa’s Historic Houses
In the 1930s, H. Rodney Sharp decided to preserve and restore the historic charm of Odessa. Today, the Historic Odessa Foundation carries on his work and vision. The highlights of Historic Odessa are a handful of properties which the Foundation manages: the Corbit-Sharp House, the Wilson-Warner House, the Collins-Sharp House as well as Cantwell’s Tavern and the Odessa Bank. Today, the bank serves as the visitor center for Historic Odessa. Additionally there’s a pump house under the foundation’s care that currently houses Butler and Cook Antiques.
There are, of course, other historic homes throughout the town. Many of these properties are on the National Register of Historic Places. It’s a really pleasant and charming place to walk along the tree-lined residential streets.
Particularly notable is that the town served as a stop on the Underground Railroad! Hints of this can be seen throughout the properties in Odessa.
The history of the Collins-Sharp House, one of Delaware’s oldest structures, is particularly interesting. While the other historic houses and businesses in Odessa are original to the community, the Collins-Sharp House is not. The house was built in the 1700s some twenty miles away in Collins Beach, Delaware. In 1962, H. Rodney Sharp was offered the building for preservation and moved it to its current location. News clippings of the move can be seen inside the house and it’s quite interesting. Sharp chose to take only the core building from the 1700s, leaving later additions behind.
During our visit, a school group — clad in white colonial bonnets to help get them into the spirit of the historic visit — was helping to cook a meal in the home’s kitchen which features an open hearth. It goes to show that these aren’t merely time capsules of history but active reminders of the past.
It is difficult not to be impressed by the Corbit-Sharp House. While not completely over the top, the home isn’t as modest as you might expect for a Quaker family. Built around 1774, the home’s owner was William Corbit, a prominent Odessa citizen. The Philadelphia-Georgian architecture of the home is striking. From the white rails running the perimeter of the roof to the charming windows offering a lovely view onto the nearby creek, there’s a lot to admire.
Inside, the home is decorated to reflect the early 19th century. I found perhaps most impressive the Chinese handpainted wallpaper.
Constructed in 1769, the Wilson-Warner House is another house designed to impress. The brick home is of the Delaware-Georgian style and features plenty of richly painted wood paneling and classic details, such as the columns flanking the front door. A handsome stone barn sits offset from the house on the back of the property.
Inside, the large and stately home is curated to reflect the 1829 “List of Sale” when the family, sadly, went into bankruptcy.
Be sure to set aside time for Cantwell’s Tavern during your visit to Odessa, Delaware. (Or simply just to visit the restaurant!) Located just across the street from the visitor center, Cantwell’s Tavern is a thoroughly modern restaurant residing in the former Brick Hotel.
The building is from 1822 and has all the classic details that you would expect. But today you can relax and enjoy their food and drinks beside a roaring fire.
The menu is very contemporary with plenty of homemade touches. I recommend the crab cake sandwich. If you’re feeling really indulgent, I suggest splurging (calorie-wise) on the chocolate chip cookies. Served like a cheese board, the dessert features several cookies, small scoops of rich vanilla ice cream and a shot of malted milk. Santa would be envious!
Christmas in Historic Odessa
But it is at Christmas and the holidays that Historic Odessa really transforms. Since 1987, each year in mid-November the Foundation puts on its finest to spread some holiday cheer. This takes several forms. All of the homes and buildings are, of course, outfitted in wreaths and festive decorations. But inside the homes you will find several special treats!
A Visit From St. Nick
This year, the Wilson-Warner House has been transformed to celebrate Christmas with the classic story A Visit From St. Nick (also known as ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas). Each room of the stately home depicts a different passage from the 1822 story by Clement Clarke Moore.
The curators clearly had a good time with the task and it shows! Antique toys litter the floors, milk that Santa “spilt” puddles under a Christmas tree, a mouse (clearly not stirring, per the story) is tucked into a miniaturized bed and mannequins of Ma and Pa slumber in beds upstairs.
The tale is truly brought to life, especially as the tour guide reads each room’s accompanying passage as you take it all in.
The decorations in the home take on a distinctly patriotic (and somewhat unexpected) twist. Apparently it was a common style during the mid- to late-19th century. American flags top a Christmas tree that’s dressed in red, white and blue. Elsewhere a gingerbread house bearing the likeness of the Wilson-Warner House adds a sweet touch.
While the Wilson-Warner House has a unifying theme with its decorations, the Corbit-Sharp House takes a more fun and open interpretation of the holidays that embraces the community.
Throughout the home are Christmas trees that have been decorated by different groups in the community. Each tree uses a different storybook as inspiration. I spotted Curious George and Alice in Wonderland. The trees have a personal and heartfelt touch that really gets to the spirit of what the holiday season should be all about.
Visiting Historic Odessa
The Historic Odessa Foundation offers tours of the historic homes from March through December. Each tour offers a look inside the Foundation’s main properties.
For the holidays, tours are slightly different. The focus is less on the history of the homes and more on the holiday decorations. With that said, our tour guide Pearl was extremely well informed. She provided a lot of really good, interesting information and was able to answer all of our questions while still keeping to the special holiday exhibits.
Regardless of whether you’re visiting for the special holiday exhibits or for the historic homes, Odessa is a charming way to spend an afternoon. I highly recommend taking a tour, grabbing lunch and then wandering around the neighborhood. There are lots of small things to take in. And while we didn’t visit in spring, I bet the gardens look lovely once they’re blooming with fresh flowers and plants.
Odessa is halfway between the cities of Dover and Wilmington. Delaware Route 1 wraps around Odessa, making it easy to reach the small town.
Once in Historic Odessa, most of the historic homes of interest are along and around Main Street. You can find plenty of free parking along the street and the surrounding side streets. All of the historic homes open for tour are relatively close together. Wear comfortable shoes but you can really walk as much or as little as you want.
Thank you to the Greater Wilmington Convention & Visitors Bureau for hosting me! All opinions, as well as all photos, are my own.