Cecile and Wilmer Steele lived in the house that is now the Café on 26 restaurant. Here they raised their four children and became a local “power couple” since Wilmer served as State Senator for the district. Raising chickens and trucking them to the lucrative markets in Philadelphia and New York City made the Steeles wealthy by Ocean View standards. Unfortunately, Cecile and Wilmer met an untimely death.
In 1940, they were entertaining friends on their yacht, “The Lure,” in the bay toward Ocean City when the motor exploded. Wilmer was blown overboard, and when Cecile jumped in to save him, they both perished. As was customary, prior to her burial, Cecile’s body was laid out in the sun porch to the left of the doorway to the main dining area. In recent years, Maria Fraser, owner of the Café on 26 attests to ghost-like apparitions of images and objects moving in the kitchen and throughout the house. She and her chefs have grown used to the movements and shadows that are a bit disconcerting, if not a reminder of Ocean View’s most famous resident.
In 1917, wives on Baltimore Hundred farms kept flocks of laying hens. Eggs not consumed by the families were sold to bolster family and farm finances. Broilers were simply a by-product of the egg market business. Two events changed that. First, the completion of DuPont Highway in 1924, the “most modern highway in the U.S.” connected Selbyville to Wilmington and soon after led to the development of trucking companies to transport perishables in less than half a day from lower Sussex to northern urban markets.
The second event happened in 1923 when an Ocean View woman, Cecile Steele, received a flock of 500 chickens rather than the 50 she had ordered. Instead of returning them, she had the novel idea to try to raise them to two pounds, keeping the little chicks warm in her piano box as they grew. When she and her husband, Wilmer, drove the birds upstate on the brand new highway, city markets paid 62 cents per pound ---- a hearty amount. The following year Cecile raised 1000 broilers in a chicken coop that local lumberman, Roland Beauchamp, built for her. An exact replica of this house can be seen today at the Historic Village in Ocean View, 39 Central Ave., adjacent to the John West Park. Cecile worked hard to grow the healthiest birds to earn premium prices. Her neighbors noticed. Sussex County had found its new “gold.”
By 1927, over 500 families in Sussex County grew chickens, and Cecile was growing 10,000. When the Depression hit, Sussex County families avoided considerable hardships thanks to the growing broiler industry. Jack Udell built the first local dressing plant in Frankford in 1938. Hatcheries sprung up, along with feed mills, feed houses, feed bag cleaners, vaccinating companies, and chicken equipment manufacturers like Mumford’s Sheet Metal in Selbyville that produced chicken feeders. By 1950, the industry was becoming streamlined as bigger companies controlled all aspects of chicken life from hatching to processing for market.
Written by: Dr. Carol K. Psaros, Author, Board Member of the Historic Village in Ocean View, and Historian
Delaware Chicken Association, 75 Years of Progress by William H. Williams, www.dpichicken.org
Chickens and Mosquitoes, The Art of Uncertain Times, by Dr. Carol K. Psaros, South Coastal Library, and local bookstores
Come visit us at the following locations. FREE admission when open.
Hall's Store Visitor's and Education Center | 1860 Tunnell-West House | 1889 Old Post Office | 1923 Chicken House Replica
39 Central Avenue | Ocean View, Delaware 19970
Coastal Towns Museum Complex
40 West Avenue | Ocean View, Delaware 19970
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