Dedicated to George Donhauser and Mrs. Clara Wilson
DEL HAVEN COTTAGES AND HOTEL
Early ads for this landmark at the north edge of Bel Air at the intersection of Moore’s Mill Road and Hickory Avenue were short and to the point…
“Strictly AAA ….Modern…..Phones….
Open Year Round 23 Miles North Of Baltimore
U.S. Route 1 Bel Air, Maryland”
“DEL HAVEN HOTEL AND COTTAGES
23 Miles North of Baltimore, Md.
Bel Air on U.S. Route 1, Md.
Modern Steam Heated Rooms – Private Bath – Garages
Large Dining Room – Excellent Home Cooked Foods
DeLuxe Furnished Cottages, Steam Heated, Beauty Rest Mattresses, Running Water, and Community Kitchen.
AAA Large Shady Lawn
Private Swimming Pool, Free to Guests – Showers.
Handy to Churches and Amusements.
F.M. Irwin, Prop.”
As a kid, having just moved to a dairy farm outside town and on one of the many dirt roads in Harford county…I would ride my bike some two miles to have a Coke and pack of crackers at the counter in Del Haven. The waitress back then in 1953 was a dark haired beauty name of June Martin…and her beau, Mack Jones, would usually be sitting at the end of the counter sipping coffee.
To this 13 year old kid they were the perfect couple. After the Coke I would ride my bike around the hotel, past the little cabins and over near the swimming pool, before heading home to the farm.
My dad told me stories of dances on the roof top of Del Haven, with musicians serenading couples dancing under the moonlight. Some times folks would dance until the sun came up….then go downstairs for breakfast. Today, you’d be hard put to find a place as glamorous as the Del Haven Hotel and Cottages.
From an airplane it resembled a Christmas train layout, with little stone walls, paths and bridges over a stream and plenty of benches for folks to sit and take in the country air.
Maryanna Skowronski, the current director of the Historical Society of Harford County, lives a little south of where Del Haven was.
She writes, “When the Wilsons owned the store, my sister, brother and I used to collect soda bottles from around town and construction sites and we would haul them down to the store to return them for refunds. It was a great place to buy Popsicles. We used to explore Bynum Run, next to the store.
This was back in the day when parents could let their kids wander that far from home and not worry about them!”
None of these memories and reproductions of old post cards of Del Haven would have dug their way into my mind had it not been for George Donhauser, owner of Del Haven Service Center. In the past I have done photography for George and he asked me if ever there was a chance to locate some pictures of what once graced the corner directly across from where his service center now stands.
As the quest for photographs and images continued it made sense to me to learn as much from those who had direct dealings with the original Del Haven as possible.
An article in the Aegis newspaper, dated March 31, 1966, stated, “One of the oldest businesses in the county, Del Haven was built in 1923 by Felix Mack Irwin. In 1944, Mr. Irwin’s brother, Eldon E. Irwin, who was the owner at the time of the Del Haven Hotel in College Park, Maryland, purchased the Bel Air version and managed it until 1952.
“The second story ceiling, over the dining room, boasts 20-inch steel I-beams, with 8 plies of wood on top of that. This was done so dances could be held on the roof of the second story during spring and summer months.”
“The swimming pool coordinated well with the relaxing atmosphere of the quaint cabins and gravel pathways linking the entire complex together. There was a scale model of the hotel on the grounds and at one time ‘a mischievous monkey lived in the ‘little hotel’, near the pool.”
One such person who figured prominently in the history of Del Haven was Felix M. Irwin, and his grandson F.M. Irwin, III, who currently resides in the former Irwin home, about a mile north of Bel Air. With the help of the Irwin’s and another lady, Mrs. Clara Wilson, the piecing together of the story of Del Haven began to take shape.
Ironically it was Clara’s dad, William Martin Roberts, who, while living in the mountains of Ashe County, North Carolina, was approached by none other than Felix M. Irwin, who was touting Harford county ‘up north in Maryland’ as the place to go with your family and settle and do good.” Little did Clara realize that one day she and her husband, John W. Wilson, would give up their farm and purchase Del Haven.
Mr. Roberts listened carefully to Felix and pulled up stakes in 1927 and moved the family to Harford County where they purchased an 89 acre farm on Route 543, Ady road, a few miles north of Emory Church and south of Pylesville. Clara met her future husband while in the seventh grade at Highland School. She later attended University of Maryland School of nursing, graduating in 1943. She and John were married shortly after. A few years later, they bought the family ‘home place’ on Ady road and with 2,200 chickens started selling eggs and taking care of her dad. Meanwhile John, a natural-born mechanic, was working as a test-pilot and flight engineer for Glen L. Martin Company in Middle River.
A close brush with death on a test flight in 1949 left John and Clara with thoughts of starting their own business in Harford County. So it was again that Felix M. Irwin came into play when the Wilson’s agreed to purchase the already established Del Haven in 1952.
“Eggs were selling for $1 a dozen, and I loved the home place…I wasn’t that pleased when John suggested we sell my beloved home place and buy Del Haven. He was very convincing… every day by 5 o’clock in the afternoon, all 12 rooms were rented, and most of the seventeen cottages were occupied,” Clara pointed out.
“Del Haven was also one of the major ‘stopping off’ points for travelers between New York and Florida. It was really a bustling business for both of us sitting on a little over 2 acres…there were fifteen employees, including three cooks, a handy-man, gardeners, five waitresses, and three maids for the cottages. A lot to take care of,” she added.
“I had one rule for the place,” Clara points out, “No shenanigans, no gambling.” Harford County at that time was a ‘dry county’ meaning no liquor sales at commercial establishments. No drinks with meals, or if you wanted that you went to the Kingsville Inn, over the county line.
Clara added, “ We were allowed to serve beer with our meals.”
Clara and John’s big Del Haven venture was rolling in high-gear for about three months, open all the time, every day…by dinner time the place was usually filled up…the “No Vacancy” sign lit.
Then the Delaware Memorial Bridge opened, and traffic north and southbound could make travel faster…and some of the hotels, like Del Haven slacked off in terms of volume. “The patrons thinned out after the bridge opened. Some nights only five rooms were rented…we had to buckle-down and cater more to the local people,” she says with a sigh.
Clara continued…“We had to let help go…I never dreamed I’d be waiting on the tables. One night a girl I went to nursing school with came in with her husband. Here I was, with an R.N. degree, and here she was with her ‘doctor’ husband. So, I said, “It’s o.k., we own the place…and that seemed to make things better,”…she adds.
Ultimately we had to close the kitchen, and just kept the lunch room open. John made a trip to Elkhart, Indiana, where mobile homes were being made, and drove back with one, set it up on the property and started selling them…at one time there were ten mobile homes for sale, brand new, and ready to go,” Mrs. Wilson recalls.
Del Haven went from an enchanted oasis and prosperous hotel and cottages, to a grocery store, gas station, mobile home sales and then, a used car lot. Around this time John started mapping out plans to demolish the buildings and build a shopping plaza. He and his sons, John Jr., then 20, and Stephen, 19, took a 1957 Ford front-end loader and a chain-saw and began dismantling the main structure in the Spring of 1966 and the end of Del Haven as many townspeople and nation-wide travelers knew it, came to an end.
“We took it down bit by bit. It took about a month, and we were allowed by the county to burn the wooden parts of the building, far away from the highway. No one got hurt either,” remarked John, Jr. from his home in Florida.
Dale Neeper, of Bel Air remembers…“As a small child, my recollections of Del Haven are rather skewed compared to people who are older. However, I do remember going to Del Haven to get ice cream. Their chocolate nut sundaes were the best. We also would buy “hand packed” ice cream to take home’ I remember my oldest brother playing the pinball machine while eating the ice cream that he would buy on a regular basis.
“We knew everyone who worked there and the folks at Del Haven knew just about everyone who came in to the store. My Dad would stop on Sunday afternoons to buy an El Producto cigar to smoke as we took our family Sunday ride. Del Haven was our ‘go-to place’ when we ran out of something like bread or milk.
“My brother Roy mentioned the pool. That is where he was on the day WWII ended in the European Theater (VE Day). I remember Roy being sent to Del Haven to pick up bread, ice cream and, sometimes, beer. The ride down Moores Mill Road in those days was very exciting. He loved to drive my Dad’s car to Del Haven sometimes squealing wheels and “hot rodding.” More often than not, he would also run into some of his friends who were also at Del Haven picking up needed items.”
Today, as you look across Hickory avenue, where it turns into Conowingo Road, you see Del Plaza Shopping Center…anchored by the 7-11 Store and eateries, a tailor and dry cleaning shop, a fitness center, florist and hair salon. At the time of the razing of the original buildings, Mr. Wilson had said, “I anticipate a drug store, laundromat, barber shop, beauty shoppe and a food market.” Giving way to the future, the Del Plaza property was sold by the Wilsons in February 2002. John, Sr. passed away March 31. 2008.
One of the first stores to open was a 7-11 market and a two-bay service station. Different proprietors and various establishments followed. One of the original cabins is still standing today, across Conowingo Road from the original location. At one time it served as a home for Coy Greek Irwin, a brother of the founding Irwin’s.
He was a barber and cut hair in the little cabin. I had heard that ‘Greek’ owned a Stradivarius violin and he often could be heard playing it on the little porch of the cabin. Family members know of him ‘playing the fiddle often but think the Stradivarius story is mythical.’
‘Greek’ was sometimes tormented by the kids who came to Reuben’s, a drive in restaurant adjacent to Del Haven. He was known at times to fire a shot from his .22 over the heads of hecklers hanging out at Reuben’s. and to shoot out floodlights on the parking lot at the popular drive-in.
Today, a little bit of the story survives in that little white frame cabin. Some of the cottages were of brick construction, others were wood frame. Felix M. Irwin, Jr., known as “Buddy Irwin” passed away in 2002, and his son is the current resident with his family north of Bel Air on the original home-place of the grandfather Felix Mack Irwin, who died in 1969. His body and some of his family are entombed in a large white marble crypt in Mount Zion cemetery near Fountain Green.
For those who recall the ‘good old days’…what was once a landmark is gone and like so many other landmarks the Del Haven Hotel and Cottages disappeared as the times, economy and demands changed. Its day is gone…but not forgotten. And with thanks to George Donhauser the name Del Haven carries on in the name of his service station on Conowingo Road.
Life is but all too fleeting, and as you walk and breathe in your own particular time the present is what’s real and your surroundings are what are vivid. A quick call to the take out shop, an even quicker stop at the 7-Eleven to pick up that something you have to have and time sure does move fast. These recollections may help slow the pace a bit and the snapshot of a simpler time…not easier by any means, just less baggage…may offer a glimpse into a time and place almost forgotten, but not just yet.
What started out as a simple, small project for a friend turned out to be one of much larger significance and understanding…of the way things were in Bel Air many years ago…for that opportunity I am grateful.