The Cottage has always been filled with family. In 1909 it was sold to Cornelius, a banker and cotton broker, and Cecille de Witt. With their 7 children, they departed the cobblestone streets of Norfolk for the ocean air of newly incorporated Virginia Beach. It was the understanding that this would be a summer home, but Cecille quickly fell in love with the property and refused to move back to Norfolk after the Summer season. Thus, making Cornelius and the children take daily train rides to Norfolk for work and school. Cornelius also purchased a block of land across the street (property formally occupied by the Raven Restaurant). There he kept 200 chickens and 2 cows, several horses and a mule, rabbit hutches, vegetable gardens, and wood piles.
3 children were born in the parlor of the house, which is currently our Gift Shop. Many relatives came to spend their summer vacation at the Cottage, enjoying the large wrap around balcony porch, cool ocean breees, a swing and rocking chairs.
The Hollands were instrumental in the development of the Virginia Beach oceanfront. Bernard operated the local hardware store. In 1909, he with a group of businessmen, filed with the State of Virginia to incorporate the town of Virginia Beach. Bernard was also the Mayor of the City of Virginia Beach, twice – 1909 and 1914. Emily operated the first lending library in Bernard’s hardware store. The library later expanded to the first free standing library operated by Emily Johns whose husband operated Johns Brothers Heating and Cooling. That library building now stands on the grounds of the de Witt Cottage. Emily also operated the dry goods section of the hardware store. She was quite the salesperson.
The de Witt family also contributed to the growing Virginia Beach community. All of the siblings were educated with most graduating from college. Julia, Katrine, Harriet, and Caroline all became teachers. Cornelius Jr., John, Paul and Peter volunteered for World War II. Cornelius, Paul and Peter also participated in the beach life guard service, with Peter being one of the first judges of the East Coast Surfing Championship. Many Virginia Beach schools, gardens, churches, and libraries have been influenced by a member of the de Witt family.
Wildfowling & Decoys
Bernard Peabody Holland was an avid duck hunter. He used the open cupola on the roof as an observatory for wildfowl on the lakes behind his house. Very few are aware that wildfowling was the first form of economic tourism for Virginia Beach, and the economic engine that saved the town. Farmers who were unable to plant and harvest in the winter looked for ways to support their families. They quickly learned that hunting wildfowl and shipping the meat to points North, created cash flow for them to support their families in the winter. This led to the development of marketing hunting. At the time, wooden decoys were used by market hunters to attract waterfowl birds for hunting. The farmers became so efficient with the hunting that they almost sent ducks to extinction. In 1914, the Federal Government stepped in with the Migratory Bird Act and made market hunting illegal. The wood decoys were of no real value until the 1960s when they became an accepted form of folk art and very collectible.
In February 1991, the Back Bay Wildfowl Guild won City Council approval to occupy the de Witt Cottage after renovation of the historic landmark was completed. In September 1995, the Atlantic Wildfowl Heritage Museum opened. Many of the antique decoys used by the early market hunters are sold for hundreds of thousands of dollars and displayed in the museum exhibits. The Museum also hosts the largest exhibit of Virginia Beach memorabilia and old Virginia Beach video.
In final, the de Witt sisters’ wish was achieved, and their beloved Cottage has been operating as a cultural and education center for the visitors and citizens of Virginia Beach for the past 25 years.