Laurel, at the head of navigation on the Broad Creek and a part of Maryland, was founded in 1683 and incorporated as a Delaware town 200 years later on April 13, 1883. In the interim it grew to 2,500 residents and wasconsidered one of the wealthiest towns in the state, with 2,500 residents.
Barkley Townsend, a wealthy Maryland landowner, arrived in1802 and laid out the town, soon selling off lots to merchants and tradesmen. Soon almost 50 businesses were lining Broad Creek and ships, canned goods, lumber, fertilizer and grains were floating out of Laurel en route to Eastern markets via the Nanticoke River and Chesapeake Bay. In the years before the Civil War, four Laurel me would serve as Governor of Delaware.
In the summer of 1899 an overturned kerosene lamp ignited the Great Fire of 1899. Before the flames were extinguished, entire blocks of downtown Laurel burned; 90% of the businesses gone. Many rebuilt but the town’s busiest days were not in its future. In the 1930s when the DuPont Company went searching for a downstate location for its new nylon plant - promising more jobs than any Sussex County town had residents - Laurel was apparently their first choice. But town officials proved less than enthusiastic and the plant with 4,600 new jobs landed up the road in Seaford.
The town experienced a steady decline of its business community. Nineteenth century industries became obsolete and retailers departed to chase new development along Route 13 to the east. Today you have to work hard to spend a dollar in downtown Laurel. Life as a bedroom community has its upside, however. Laurel is home to more historic buildings than any town in Delaware with 800 on the National Historic Record.
Our walking tour will start in Market Square Park, where crumbling commercial buildings have been replaced with a peaceful greenspace...
Market Square Park
Market Street between Delaware Street and Central Street
In the summer of 1899 a lighted kerosene lamp was overturned in a stairway near Central Avenue and Market Street. Without fire-fighting apparatus, the entire section of the north side of Market Street was destroyed. Sixty-two of the 68 stores in town were destroyed. Today this landscaped greenspace features a Victorian-style gazebo, fountain and bandstand.
WALK NORTH ON CENTRAL AVENUE.
Laurel Senior Center
113 North Central Avenue
This former movie theater has been refitted into the town senior activity center.
TURN RIGHT ON FRONT STREET AND WALK TO THE END AT DELAWARE AVENUE. TURN LEFT, CROSS BROAD CREEK AND WLAK UP TO THE HOUSE ON THE HILL, SETBACK FROM THE STREET.
121 Delaware Avenue
Although changed often over 250 years, this frame house built by James Mitchell was one of the first Georgian-style buildings in Sussex County when it rose above the Broad Creek around 1763. Nathaniel Mitchell, 10 years old when this house was built, was captain of a Delaware company during the American Revolution. He fought in the Battle of Brandywine and wintered in Valley Forge. Mitchell was captured in Virginia in 1781 and held prisoner until after the Battle of Yorktown. Following the war Mitchell served as Delaware’s delegate to the Continental Congress during its last two years. Back in Sussex County, he was one of the founders of Georgetown in 1791 and lived there until 1808. During that time, Mitchell, a member of the Federalist Party, ran for governor in 1801 but was defeated by David Hall, who he had served under during the Revolution. Three years later, in 1804 he was successful, beating Joseph Haslet, the Democratic-Republican candidate. Mitchell served as Governor of Delaware from January 15, 1805 until January 19, 1808. Afterwards he returned to this house where he died in 1815.
RETRACE YOUR STEPS ON DELAWARE AVENUE, RE-CROSSING BROAD CREEK.
Delaware Avenue at Broad Creek
Here was Laurel’s ancient “Wading Place,” a ford for early travelers that could be crossed by foot, horseback and wagon. Broad Creek crosses this fall in its flow to the Nanticoke River and Chesapeake Bay. In 1725, while this area was still part of Maryland, 3,000 acres were set aside as a reservation for the Nanticoke Indians. As the pressure of English settlement continued to increase, many of the Nanticokes migrated up the Susquehanna River to live under the protection of the Iroquois Confederation. The reservation lands were formally abandoned in 1768. The Wading Place is the center of today’s Broad Creek Greenway from Trap Pond to the Nanticoke River.
People’s National Bank
southeast corner of Market Street and Delaware Avenue
This Neoclassical building was constructed in 1923 as the Peoples National Bank. To make way for the bank the Caleb Ross home was demolished. Governor William H. Ross (1851-1855) was born in that house on July 2, 1814.
TURN LEFT ON MARKET STREET. TURN LEFT ON EAST 4TH STREET.
230 East 4th Street
This shingled house from the late 1800s, listed on the National Register, is typical of the unique homes found in the Laurel Historic District.
502 East 4th Street
The Cook House is home to the Laurel Historical Society and is open Sunday afternoons, displaying relics of Laurel’s past.
RETRACE YOUR STEPS, WALKING WEST ON 4TH STREET TOWARDS THE TOWN CENTER.
Benjamin Fooks House
302 Fourth Street
This five-bay, two-story house originally sported a simple flat tin roof. In 1888 when Benjamin Fooks, one of Laurel’s wealthiest denizens purchased it and spruced it p with a gable roof and flared eaves.
Laurel Public Library
101 East Fourth Street
The women of the Laurel New Century Club began staffing a small library in 1909. From 1909 to 1924, the library was located in the Century Club rooms in the Masonic Hall. The growing library collection was then moved to the Community House across the street from its present site. The current library was built as a memorial to Mary Wootten Carpenter in 1951 by her husband, Walter Samuel Carpenter, Jr., the second non-family member to be president of the DuPont Company. Mary Wootten was born in 1888, and grew up in Laurel. As a young woman, she left Laurel for Wilmington to work as governess for the children of the duPont family.
TURN RIGHT ON CENTRAL AVENUE.
312 South Central Avenue
The brick frame of this small building withstood the conflagration that engulfed the two-block area surrounding it in 1899. The Sussex Trust Company was the only building not to be destroyed that day. When the vault was opened in the ashes, all the contents were in perfect condition. In the 1940s, the popular Bill North Restaurant occupied the building; a juke box and dance floor were set up in the back.
TURN AND WALK SOUTH ON CENTRAL AVENUE.
400 South Central Avenue
This was the home of Daniel Fooks, a prosperous land owner and first president of Sussex Trust, Title and Safe Deposit Company. Also a large fruit grower, Fooks built a cannery at the foot of Central Avenue in the 1890s. Among the outstanding features of this house is a jig-saw porch and delicate sawn bracket work.
403 South Central Avenue
This home was a wedding gift from William W. Dashiell to his daughter Marion, when she married Dr. Joshua Ellegood in 1884. Later owners included Thomas C. Horsey and A. Paul Robinson, both presidents of the Marvil Package Company. With the growth of the Sussex County peach orchards, Joshua Marvil started manufacturing basket and crate manufacturing in Laurel in 1870. During his first year he manufactured 600,000 baskets and by the 1880s Marvil was churning out two million baskets a year, said to be the most in the world, annually. One of his workers could make a basket in just two minutes. Marvil started Laurel’s first newspaper, the Gazette, in 1889 and, after twice refusing the Republican nomination for governor before acquiescing and entering the race in 1894. He won but served only three months before dying in office. This is one of the most elegant home in Town, featuring butterfly-carved front double doors and Queen Anne-style windows with colored glass panels. The original offices of Dr. Ellegood were on the northeast side and stone still outlines the driveway which led patients to the port-cochere, which provided shelter when debarking from carriages. In 1887, Ellegood began taking special courses in New York City in diseases of the eye, ear, nose and throat and by the early 1890s had relocated as a specialist to Wilmington.
504 South Central Avenue
The prosperity that visited Laurel in the 1800s is evidenced by this imposing five-bay residence topped by a truncated hip roof. Decorations on the facade include a cross gable and double-bracketed trim. After the Great Fire of 1899, the town Post Office operated from this house for a brief time.
509 South Central Avenue
The rear section of this house is known to have been standing by 1868. After the Great Fire of 1899 destroyed her house where Market Square Park is today, the widow of William W. Dashiell, once the largest landowner in Sussex County, bought the property and added the five-bay house.
Christ United Methodist Church
510 South Central Avenue
In the fall of 1831, Reverend Thomas Pearson came to Laurel to assist with the establishment of a Methodist Protestant congregation in the community. With its founding, the church became one of the first of this denomination in Delaware. Early meetings were held in a schoolhouse. A church was constructed on West Street in 1832, and a cemetery established nearby. Desiring a new house of worship, the congregation purchased property on Wheat Street - not Central Avenue, in 1866. A two-story frame church was completed the following year. This building was used until 1911, when the present stone structure was constructed. Additional land was acquired over the years and church facilities were expanded. Property adjoining the church was purchased in 2000 to accommodate a growing congregation.
St. Philip’s Episcopal Church
600 South Central Avenue
The construction of this church began in 1848 by the authority of the Vestry of Christ Church Broad Creek, the mother church of Western Sussex County. St. Philip’s was consecrated by the Rt. Reverend Alfred Lee after its completion in 1850; Lee served the Diocese of Delaware from 1841 to 1887 and was elected Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church in the United States. The original building was moved to Spruce Street and the present building was completed in 1870. At that time it faced Sixth Street, it has since been moved to face Central Avenue. Brick veneer was added to the building in 1924.
TURN RIGHT ON CARVEL AVENUE.
107 Carvel Street
Laurel’s most honored citizen was born in Shelter Island, New York and grew up on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. Elbert N. Carvel came to Town in his 26th year to operate a fertilizer business. In his first attempt at public office, Carvel was elected Lieutenant Governor in 1944. Four years later he won the election for Governor. “Big Bert,” as the 6’6” Carvel was known, lost a bid for the United States Senate in 1958 but won a second term as Governor two years later. Carvel died in 2005 at the age of 94 - no former Delaware governor ever lived as long. This house, in the middle of a short block or picturesque Victorians, once sported a turret on the east side but it was destroyed by fire.
TURN RIGHT ON POPLAR STREET. TURN RIGHT ON W SIXTH STREET AND WALK DOWN THE SOUTH SIDE OF THE STREET (RIGHT SIDE IN THIS DIRECTION).
106 West Sixth Street
Built in 1880 by Orlando Wooten, a gentleman farmer and ship owner, the house has ornate fleur-de-lis trim and lancet upper windows. a 19th-century carriage house and a summer kitchen survive in the rear of the property. After only eight years of marriage, Wooten met tragedy int his house when his bride literally burned in the garden, having caught fire while burning trash.
104 West Sixth Street
The dominant feature of this house is its three-story Queen Anne tower with fish-scale shingles, applied bull’s eyes, curved window glass and witch’s cap finial. The porch features jigsawn bracework and decorative trim.
102 West Sixth Street
On June 23, 1800, a charter was issued by the Grand Lodge of Maryland for Lodge No. 31 in “Laurel Town.” The first Worshipful Master of the Lodge was Jesse Green. A Maryland native who moved to Delaware in the 1790s, he was a long-time member and leader of the General Assembly who served as Adjutant General of the State during the War of 1812. Green was the presiding officer when representatives of four Lodges gathered in Wilmington on June 6 and 7, 1806, to form the Grand Lodge of Delaware. At this historic meeting Lodge No. 31 was formally re-chartered as Hope Lodge No. 4. Elected to serve as Deputy Grand Master, Jesse Green later succeeded Gunning Bedford, Jr., becoming the second Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of Delaware. Hope Lodge No. 4 moved to Seaford in 1819 and returned to Laurel in 1847. The members of the Lodge have been meeting at this location since their return. The present building was constructed in 1894.
CROSS THE STREET AND WALK BACK DOWN THE NORTH SIDE OF W. SIXTH STREET.
105 West Sixth Street
Hermus Hastings, a local merchant, built this modified four-square house in Classical Revival style. Of not are a Palladian window with keystone in the attic, fish-scale shingles on the dormers, and the original screened front door. The yard is enclosed by one of Laurel’s numerous spear-design wrought iron fences.
The Davis House
200 West Sixth Street
This residence is one of two dated residences in Laurel. an ornate cornice and sunburst design highlight the 1880 date located at the top of the Sixth Street facade gable. Owner Harvey Marvil installed Laurel’s first elevator here.
TURN RIGHT ON POPLAR STREET.
321 Poplar Street
One of the Town’s oldest surviving structures, this Federal-style dwelling was originally built on Central Avenue. It was moved here to make way for larger, showier homes. What is now the garage was once attached to the house and was probably the kitchen.
TURN LEFT ON MECHANIC STREET AND WALK TOWARDS THE RAILROAD TRACKS.
201 Mechanic Street
This structure was built in 1937 for the town offices, jail and firehouse. The second floor was a social activity center. With expansion of services the fire department moved to Tenth Street and the building was renovated in 1993.
Laurel Train Station
201 Mechanic Street
This Colonial Revival passenger depot was constructed between 1908 and 1912; however, historic maps suggest the original passenger depot of the Delaware Railroad from when the railroad arrived in 1859 was actually located several blocks south, it was razed to make way for this existing structure. The building was the Laurel town hall for a time.
RETURN TO POPLAR STREET AND TURN LEFT.
Centenary United Methodist Church
southwest corner of Market Street and Poplar Street
In 1801 there was a great revival of religion among the residents of the area. The growing appeal of the Methodist movement resulted in hundreds of new members for the church. A class was formed in the Laurel area, and in 1802 a church was constructed at this location - Lot 31 of the 32 original lots laid out by Barkley Townsend. The church was formally incorporated as “Zion Meeting House” in 1809. After several decades of use, a new church was built on the site. It continued to serve the congregation until 1866, when a third church was constructed in its place. With the celebration of the centennial of Methodism approaching, the church was renamed “Centenary.” Desiring a larger and more modern facility for its growing congregation, members began construction of the present church in 1911. The building of Port Deposit, Maryland granite was formally dedicated on September 22, 1912. Centenary Church is known for its beautifulstained glass windows, some of which are signed “Wm. Reith Studios, Philadelphia, PA.” Reith was known for his “jewels,” a circle of Bohemian glass cut into many facets to reflect light and placed strategically in his designs.
TURN RIGHT ON MARKET STREET.
southeast corner of Market Street and Poplar Street
There was a private school on this corner as early as 1801 - the forerunner of the public school system in Laurel. The two-room building burned in 1888 when a boy who started a fire in the heater forgot to open the registers. The present building was erected after the 1899 fire. There were apartments upstairs and porches which at one time extended over the street. The iron bars on the windows on the Poplar Street side were added when the post office was located here prior to its move to Central Avenue.
southeast corner of Market Street and Central Street
The dated stone at the top of the building reads “Bacon’s Block 1899.” Occupants here included Long & Short Department Store, Peoples National Bank, the Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company and Bata Shoes. The second floor was known as Bacon’s Opera House which hosted musicals, dances and high school graduation ceremonies. According to Julius Cann’s Official Theatrical Guide 1904-1905, the theatre was 42 feet between side walls with 4 feet depth under the stage. There was illumination, electricity and a piano in the orchestra.
YOU HAVE NOW RETURNED TO THE TOUR STARTING POINT IN MARKET SQUARE PARK.