Before I tell you about Herbert Koerber and the incredible gay paradise he created, I should explain how we got to this point in the first place. What was it about the Delaware beach area that initially attracted the LGBTQ+ community, and why did Herbert pick this exact building and location?
We have to go back several decades for the answer.
It started in the 1930s with some internationally famous gay women who had homes in the Rehoboth/Dewey Beach area. A Dupont Heiress named Louisa d’Andelot Carpenter was known to often have extravagant parties. She was one of the first female pilots, a very skilled hunter, and most importantly a badass lesbian. Her guests included movie stars, famous Broadway actors, singers, and many LGBTQ+ friends from the entertainment industry. Slowly, the word spread about the Delaware beach area among the gay community.
However, it would be inaccurate to describe Rehoboth as gay friendly during these early years. Instead, for the most part, the gay scene was very carefully hidden away behind closed doors. Private house parties and gatherings with like-minded people were one of the few safe ways to actually meet other gay people.
In the 1930s through the 1950s, only a few gay bars existed in the whole country. They were hidden down alleys, in dangerous neighborhoods, with boarded up windows and locked entrances. The abandoned, run-down surroundings served as camouflage. Getting to these bars—and departing from them—was nothing short of terrifying. Men who would brave the opportunity would risk lasting emotional and physical abuse for just a single moment of happiness.
In the 1950s, the Pink Pony, in downtown Rehoboth, was known to sometimes tolerate gay men during certain happy hours, but it was not a gay bar. In the 1960s, the Nomad Village opened in the Bethany Beach area, becoming the Delaware beach area’s very first gay bar. However, it wasn’t advertised as such. It was a fishing bait and tackle/convenience store in the front; only by going through a back door would you find the gay bar.
Then, the Boathouse opened in the Dewey Beach area in 1976. This bar was much more open about what it was, and who its clientele was. Which may well be why it was burned to the ground a suspiciously high number of times.
There also was Mrs. Gray, who was happily hosting gay men in her Inn since at least the early 70s—but likely earlier since her ownership goes back to at least the early 40s. It is believed Woody Swarmer and Edward Henley probably found the inn when they stayed with Mrs. Gray on vacation. It is confirmed that after purchasing the inn from Mrs. Gray, Woody and Edward continued to provide a safe place for gay men to stay when their original plans to convert it into a school—a compliment to the Center for Handicapped Development, which Woody owned in Washington, DC—didn’t work out.
We know Herbert Koerber seemed to frequent the same places as Woody and Edward. It is my guess that he stayed with the boys when they owned the inn and purchased it directly from them when things didn’t work out as hoped for the school.
Estranged from his family in Germany due to being gay, Herbert had come to America determined to live his life as he believed gay men should. He was decades ahead of his time and didn’t care what anyone thought about it. He was known as a charmer, he was good looking, and he was an experienced, very smart businessman.
He bought the gay-friendly inn in the winter of 1978-79 and converted it into an exclusive one-of-a-kind complex just for gay men. It was the first of its kind in Delaware, and the first gay-owned, gay-operated, gay business for gay men in Rehoboth. He didn’t concern himself with the local community and what they would think. Instead, he focused on a single goal: providing a safe place where gay men could meet—an experience many had dreamed about but never thought possible.
After their time in Herbert’s Paradise, these men would go back to their (fake) straight lives and their roles as dads, husbands, teachers, politicians, and even priests, ministers, and pastors. They’d found a safe place to be themselves: outing someone else would mean outing yourself, creating a sacred, unspoken rule your life depended on. And which all would follow.
However, there was a problem. Rehoboth Beach was mainly a Methodist religious summer retreat and campground. The Methodists were quiet, private, and mostly peaceful people. They had no idea that all these seeds had been planted. Paradise Guest House was the last seed planted in the 1970s, and Rehoboth Beach’s rainbows were about to sprout. They were going to have a very prominent bloom. ▼
Tom Kelch is the innkeeper and property manager of the Rehoboth Guest House.