Bowers Beach Maritime Museum finishing $40,000 addition

Judy Martin, executive director of the Bowers Beach Maritime Museum, hopes a new two-story outbuilding on the museum grounds will be ready by Memorial Day’s Bowers Beach Buccaneer Bash. (Delaware State News photo by Marc Clery)

BOWERS BEACH — In late August, the Bowers Beach Maritime Museum completed construction of an addition — a 36-foot-by-28-foot, two-story outbuilding — that was about three years in the making.

Judy Martin, executive director of the museum, said there is work left to be done on the addition, but she’s hoping it’ll be ready for visitors by next Memorial Day, just in time for their premier event — the Bowers Beach Buccaneer Bash.

The project was an example of a “county/municipal” partnership. Kent County Levy Court granted $20,000 in funding for the addition and $5,000

The new Amish-built building will include added exhibit and storage space and an 80-inch screen for multi-media display. (Delaware State News photo by Marc Clery)

before that to refurbish the existing museum. The Delaware Preservation Fund granted an additional $1,500 for siding and structural repairs.

However, the museum has, and continues to raise, the lion’s share of its own funding for projects and operation. Levy Court Fourth District Commissioner Eric Buckson, who represents Bowers Beach, was behind the idea to fund the addition in part because the museum agreed to match funding.

“Any time we can partner with and support the municipalities that invest in their history and the things that make their town special, it’s worthwhile,” he said. “Bowers has a unique history and location. But, as with any project I promote, I made it a point to ask that they shared in the partnership. When they came in to ask for the grant, we made it clear they had to raise at least half of the funds on their own.”

For an addition that’s already cost over $40,000, raising their share of funds was no easy feat — especially for a museum as small and off the beaten path as the Bowers Beach Maritime Museum, Ms. Martin said. But, it seems the humble historical repository has blossomed under the leadership of Ms. Martin and her husband Jim, who started running it about 12 years ago.

“It originally started in 1976, and it’s run as a nonprofit corporation with a board,” said Ms. Martin. “When we came in, I guess you could say we ended up running it after a sort of coup.”

She explains that the board at the time was looking to make membership changes and invited Mr. Martin to join.

“At first, he wasn’t really interested in joining, but they convinced him,” said Ms. Martin. “Soon though, two board members left, then another and another. Before Jim knew it, he was the only one on the board. I couldn’t let him do it alone, so I joined.”

Making a full assessment of the museum, the duo found it to be in a bad state of repair and woefully in debt.

“It was troubled,” said Ms. Martin. “The roof was leaking, there was mold, some of the displays were destroyed and there was even a raccoon living in the building. It’s over 100 years old and it was in a terrible state of repair. It was also about $7,000 in arrears with sewer bills.”

Restoring the museum

Ms. Martin likes to joke that they kept the museum together with “chewing gum and string” at first as they tried to pay down its debt and restore it.

“The museum really didn’t have any money to sustain itself and every time we’d pay a little of the debt, most of it would go toward interest,” she added.

After repopulating the board, the Martins started pushing harder to amp up fundraising efforts. Over the past decade, they’ve built an almost year-long portfolio of events.

“We brought back the Big Thursday celebration that the town used to throw every year back in the 1800s. That event used to draw around 10,000 people in for camping, food and music,” said Ms. Martin.

The revived version of the celebration — held last Sunday — is smaller and usually includes a 5k run and other festivities.

The museum also hosts two “hot-dog days” per year and a spaghetti dinner. Ms. Martin says these events usually have a large draw and funds are raised through food, T-shirt and hat sales.

“People actually come out specifically for Jim’s special rippers,” she said of the hot dogs.

BowersBeachMuseum2Judy Martin is the Executive Director at the Bowers Beach Maritime Museum.Delaware State News/Marc Clery

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The biggest success story in terms of their special events though has been the Memorial Day weekend Bowers Beach Buccaneer Bash. For the past five years, the sleepy bayside town of about 320 residents becomes a pirate haven during Memorial Day weekend. The event brings entertainers, pirate-themed bands, encampment demonstrations and other workshops into town for visitors to enjoy. Ms. Martin said at their first event they had about 1,000 visitors, but this year, that number ballooned to 6,000.

“The first four years of the Bash, we actually didn’t make any money because there are so many costs of putting together an event like that,” she said. “But this year was great since it’s been growing so much. We made a few thousand dollars which helped out a lot at the museum.”

All the fundraising efforts combined helped the Martins pay down the building’s debt and make crucial repair while simultaneously keeping it running — an expense Ms. Martin says requires a few thousand dollars per year on its own.

With Kent County Levy Court’s first grant on $5,000 to refurbish the museum, received last year, the board was able to repaint it and do both flooring and electrical work in the existing display section.

Coming soon

The main reason for the new addition was the desire to serve larger groups, said Ms. Martin.

“We often have photography clubs or senior center groups come through and our space is sometimes too small for them,” she said.

The new Amish-built building will include added exhibit and storage space and an 80-inch screen for multimedia display.

“We’re also hoping to set up a station for people to come in and tell their stories about Bowers Beach so we can record them and have pictures,” she said. “We’re constantly having people who used to live in town or had some interesting interactions with the area come in and share their history with us. There’s a really great history here.”

Ms. Martin says the board is being as frugal as possible and making use of a lot of volunteer labor.

“The next project is to have everything wired for electricity, and someone has already volunteered to do insulation and wallboards,” she said. “We’ve also had volunteers come forward for the flooring as well. We’ll be working on signage and parking as well fairly soon. Our board now is great and very enthusiastic about improving the museum — folks in town have been so helpful too. Levy Court came through for us in a big way. There is absolutely no way we could have done this without their help.”

Although quick to share the credit for revitalizing the museum with the board and other town residents, Mr. Buckson said Ms. Martin’s efforts went a long way toward convincing Levy Court that the project was a worthwhile investment.

“Judy is one of the main drivers of why we think this partnership will ultimately be very successful,” he said. “She sees that value in the town’s history and she’s taken it upon herself to lift it up.”

The museum, open every weekend from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. Memorial Day to Labor Day, also shows its collection by appointment. It’s located at 3357 Main St. in Bowers Beach and can be contacted by calling (302) 335-1556 or emailing bowersbeachmaritimemuseum@hotmail.com. More information can be found on Facebook @BowersBeachMaritimeMuseum.

 

Reach staff writer Ian Gronau at igronau@newszap.com

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