What’s Up With...Being a Delawarean?
So just who is a Delawarean? Well, consider Joseph Robinette Biden, Jr. Beginning in 1972 Joe Biden was elected seven times to represent Delaware in the United States Senate. He cast more than 10,000 votes from the Capitol floor representing the State of Dela- ware. When he surrendered his seat to assume the responsibilities as the 47th Vice-President of
the United States he was the first politician from Dela- ware to advance so far onto the national stage. Surely Joe Biden is a Delawarean, right? Not everyone thinks so. Joe Biden was born in Scranton, Pennsylvania and did not not come to Delaware until he was ten years old. Don’t wor- ry, you can start calling your- self a Delawarean any time you want. No one will hold it against you. But you will never be able to slap a “Dela- ware Native” bumper sticker on your car.
So who do we know who can call themselves “Delawareans?” Well, Valerie Bertinelli for one. Before she became America’s Sweetheart as Bonnie Franklin’s youngest daughter on the TV series One Day at a Time Valerie was born in Wilmington and spent a few years growing up in Claymont. Elisabeth Shue, who bewitched Ralph Macchio in The Karate Kid and was everyone’s dream babysitter in Adventures in Babysitting, is another actress who was born in Wilmington but left early. Ditto for Judge Reinhold who anchored two of the best movies of the 1980s - Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Beverly Hills Cop. Ryan Phillippe, movie actor and one-time Mr. Reese Witherspoon, is one movie star who was born in Delaware and stayed through high school. Deadpan-actress Aubrey Plaza of the television series Parks and Recreation is another.
Delaware’s greatest contribution to the world of rock music is George Thorogood and his Delaware Destroyers. Wilmington-born George was smitten with baseball at Brandywine High School and his first shows were performed in the dorms on the University of Delaware campus in the early 1970s. By 1981 the American blues stylings of the Destroyers had earned them a gig opening for the Rolling Stones. Delaware also earned an oft-repeated footnote in the lore of popular music history. Global reggae legend Bob Marley spent time in the state in the 1960s when his mother lived in Wilmington. Marley had yet to sprout his trademark dreadlocks or em- brace the Rastafarians as he toiled on the assembly line putting together Chrysler au- tomobiles in Newark.
Two Super Bowl quarterbacks, one winning (Joe Flacco) and one losing (Rich Gannon), are products of the University of Delaware. But Flacco was born in New Jersey and Gan- non in Philadelphia. There are three Delawareans in baseball’s Hall of Fame but the only one born in the state was Bill McGowan, an um- pire. The players, Negro Leagues star Judy Johnson and turn-of-the- 20th century pitcher Vic Willis, were both born in Maryland. John- son and Willis honed their skills on Delaware diamonds as young players and lived out their lives in the First State after their careers to cement their Delaware bonafides despite being non-natives. The most famous Delaware basketball player is a woman - Elena Delle Donne who set national records as a First State high schooler and star forward at the University of Delaware. Delle Donne was the second player selected in the 2013 WNBA draft and went on to win the Rookie of the Year award with the Chicago Sky.
What’s Up With...That Arc?
If you look at a map of the United States you see there is only one state boundary that features an arc - the top of Delaware forming the border with Pennsylvania. Its official name is the Twelve-Mile Circle and it was created in 1701 at the directive of William Penn himself. The center of the circle is the cupola atop the courthouse in New Castle and its purpose was to define the southern portion of Penn’s vast land holdings, then known as the “Lower Counties on the Dela- ware.”
As you can imagine, a circle living in a world of straight lines and right angles isbound to cause problems. Onits western edge, where the arc collides with the orderly intersection of Pennsylvania and Maryland, the arc creatEd a triangular swath of land
outside the borders of all three
states. Ownership of “The Wedge” was disputed until 1921 when it was finally given to Delaware. Ever since the residents of Mechan- icsville have been Delawareans existing outside the original Twelve- Mile Circle.
To the east, the imaginary Twelve-Mile Circle does not grind to a halt at the banks of the Delaware River. Instead, it continues merrily along to the low-tide mark on the New Jersey side of the river. This means that all the islands in the river below Clay- mont belong to Delaware and not New Jersey. Delaware’s land even in- cludes scruffy marshland on the New Jersey mainland. You can drive to this chunk of Delaware land through the Garden State but it is little more than a fenced-in landfill so it is not really worth seeking out.
But this insult to its sovereignty has always stuck in New Jersey’s craw. Three times the Garden State has taken the issue to the Su- preme Court of the United States. Each time the justices sided with Delaware, going so far as to tell New Jersey in 1935 never to bring the matter up again. Even so chastised, New Jersey v. Delaware showed up on the docket again in 2007. And again Jerseyites went home the loser - thwarted by the crazy arc.
What’s Up With...The “First State?”
Delaware wears its nickname the First State as a badge of honor. It earned the title honestly back in 1787 when its legislators became the first of the 13 original British colonies to ratify the new United States Constitution. It was never a foregone conclusion that the new government would be approved. The framers had just endured five years of a failed government under the Articles of Confederation and bitter debate was sure to surround this new attempt. Nine of the 13 states were required to OK the Constitution and it would take ten months to wrangle the necessary approvals.
But at the Delaware convention the new government was quickly affirmed with a unanimous vote, 30-0 (no shock since the Constitu- tion provided he tiny state with almost as much federal power as its bigger neighbors). Delaware’s action caught the Pennsylvania delega- tion by surprise since it was expecting to be the first to ratify as a way of making Philadelphia the permanent national capital. As it is you never hear Pennsylvania brag about being “The Second State.”
When Japanese Navy Type 99 Carrier Bombers laid waste to the United States naval fleet in Pearl Harbor in 1941 on the morning of December 7, it became the “date that will live in infamy.” But to Delawareans December 7 has always been Delaware Day (at least since 1933 when it was first proclaimed) because that is the date the Constitution was ratified. Don’t waste your time looking for celebra- tions of Delaware Day on December 7, however; it is rarely given any recognition outside of grade schools.
Another “holiday” unique to Delaware is Separation Day, which remembers the time on June 15, 1776 when the The Three Lower Counties of New Castle, Kent and Sussex-upon-Delaware officially broke away from Great Britain and Pennsylvania to become its own colony. There is a celebration for Delaware’s birthday each year and it takes place in New Castle on the second Saturday in June, which, oddly, never includes June 15.
What’s Up With...The License Plates?
In Delaware license plates are a big deal. Well, maybe not a big deal, but bigger than no deal, which is the case just about anywhere else. It is not the license plates themselves that are prized - the design with the gold numbers on a dark blue background sandwiched between “THE FIRST STATE” and “DELAWARE” has been virtually un- changed since 1962, save for the addition of a gold border. No, the status is in the numbers, not the plates.
Delaware, with a population in the 700,000s, has never needed to issue license plates with letters. It has always been numbers only - and the lower the number the more cachet on First State roads. Number
One goes to the governor, Number Two to the lieutenant governor and Number Three to the secretary of state. After that, the numbers are on the open market. Literally. Other low-population states have numbers-only license plates but there ownership can only be trans- ferred within families. Delaware is the only state to allow private citi- zens to transfer state-issued plates among each other. On the very rare occasion when a single-digit plate comes on the market speculation of auction prices of a million dollars are bandied about. Seriously.
Delaware began issuing tags in 1909 and the state did not need to break into the five digits until eight years later. Until 1946 the plates were crafted of black porcelain with white numerals. You will still see black porcelain plates on Delaware vehicles but most of these are le- galized reproductions (the highest original porcelain tag number was 86999 so anything above that is certainly a reproduction). It is when low numbers are found on original porcelain plates that Delaware status seekers begin to salivate and prices skyrocket. Even four- and five-digit plates have value on the Delaware tag market. Numbers are handed out sequentially as they come up at the Department of Mo- tor Vehicles so it is possible to still score a valuable plate by chance.
By the way, the blue and gold on Delaware license plates are not quite the state colors. The official colors are colonial blue and buff - muted versions of the ubiquitous blue and gold. The colors blue and gold come from the Swedish flag, Sweden having set up the first per- manent settlements on the Delaware River in 1638. The University of Delaware first started using blue and gold back in 1889. Speaking of the University of Delaware...
What’s Up With...The Blue Hen?
Delaware’s association with the Blue Hen goes back to the Revolu- tionary War, although the sinuous connections are somewhat murky. What is known is that the Delaware Regiment that was comprised of eight companies distinguished itself on the battlefield from New Jer- sey to South Carolina. One of the companies from Kent County was led by Captain John Caldwell,
said to be an avid fancier of cockfights. Some of his fiercest avian warriors sported hand- some blue plumage and some- where along the line the repu- tations of Delaware’s soldiers and the Blue Hen chickens became entwined. It was even said that Caldwell would carry two of his best birds onto the battlefield with him.
For those who believe Caldwell would have been better served shouldering a musket and bayonet against the enemy rather than a pair of chickens, the nickname is believed to have sprung from the fact that the Delaware Regiment was one of the few to possess actual uniforms. When the Delawares paraded in their spiffy white breeches, blue coats and black shoes they appeared as sharp and col- orful as a flock of gamecocks. For those who would rather cling to the Captain Caldwell chicken-toting version he did die on the field at Princeton in January of 1777, early in the war.
As for that Revolutionary War, the fighting visited Delaware only once. The year was 1777 and the British were biding their time in New York City. George Washington and his Continentals knew they were going to attack the Colonial capital in Philadelphia. The only question was from where the assault would come - through New Jersey or up the Delaware River? British General William Howe chose door Number Three. He sailed around the Delmarva Penin- sula and up the Chesapeake Bay, landing near Elkton, Maryland and started marching overland through Delaware towards Philadelphia.
Their movements were monitored by a small corps of militia and Colonial regulars who staged an ambush just south of Newark where Cooch’s Bridge spanned the Christina River. Fighting was spirited during a day of skirmishing with each side losing a couple of dozen men. The Co- lonials continued to harass the British until the two armies clashed in force just across the Delaware line a week later at the Battle of Brandywine. It was another disaster for the Americans and the Brit- ish soon settled into cozy Philadelphia for the winter while Wash- ington’s troops shivered at Valley Forge. Cooch’s Bridge deteriorated shortly thereafter and the land remained in the Cooch family until 2003 when some of it along Old Baltimore Pike was purchased by the State to commemorate the battle. So Delaware emerged from the Revolution as the home of the
Fighting Blue Hens. The pugnacious poultry theme was revived in political campaigns and by a unit in the Civil War. The Delaware General Assembly recognized the Blue Hen Chicken as the official state bird in 1939. By that time the University of Delaware had been using the nickname “Fightin’ Blue Hens” for almost three decades. At the school’s College of Agriculture & Natural Resources you can see some Blue Hen breeders on the campus farm.
What’s Up With...Hundreds?
When you move to Delaware you will find that your neighbors sometimes don’t refer to the town or county in which they live but speak of hundreds. If you buy property in Delaware you will still see the name of your hundred pop up in real estate transactions. There are 33 of them in Delaware. What’s a hundred?
A hundred is an old English concept of dividing land that was smaller than a county. Each hundred would consist of ten freeholder families, assumed to contain ten family members. Hundreds have disappeared everywhere in America but in Delaware where they have been part of the geography since 1682. These unincorporated subdi- visions once had a meaningful role in allocating representation in the legislature but today they exist only for property tax assessments. So when you’re looking to pass as a Delawarean, be prepared to drop the name of your hundred at any time.
What’s Up With...Caesar Rodney?
The main square in downtown Wilmington is named after him. There is a high school that anchors an entire school district in central Delaware named after him. The oldest and most popular road race in the state is named after him. He is on the back of the Delaware State Quarter. Who is this Caesar Rodney fellow ?
Caesar Augustus Rodney was born the oldest of eight children onto a prosperous Delaware farm in 1728, worked by a platoon of slaves. In Colonial America he served in the militia during the French and Indian War, was elected Sheriff of Kent County and served on the Supreme Court in Delaware. If there was anything going on in Delaware politics in the 18th century chances are Rodney was in the middle of it. He was one of three members from Delaware sent to the Continental Con- gress in Philadelphia in 1776 to debate independence from Great Britain.
It was during those debates that another Delaware delegate, George Read, unexpectedly cast his vote against independence. Rodney, who was in Dover, was suddenly needed in Philadelphia to cast a tie-breaking vote in favor of independence from Delaware. Suffering from cancer and tasked with riding 80 miles through a dark and stormy night Rodney stopped only to change horses, or get into a carriage (the exact history is as muddy as the roads that night). Either way he made it to Philadelphia, caked in honest-to-goodness Delaware slop and went straight to Carpenter’s Hall without changing his riding breeches to cast Delaware’s lot with the rebels. And for that he is Delaware’s greatest hero.
That cancer, by the way, disfigured Rodney’s face and there are no known likenesses of him to survive. John Adams, no noted looker himself, described Rodney as “the oddest looking man in the world.” So the Image of Rodney on horseback is from sculptor James Edward Kelly’s imagi- nation. A statue of Caesar Rodney also represents Delaware in Statuary Hall in Washington, D.C. Visitors will be ex- cused for thinking he looks a heckuva lot like Thomas Jefferson there.
Another historic name you will encounter in Delaware is John Dickinson. He has a Delaware high school named for him, a dorm complex at the University of Delaware named for him (so does Cae- sar Rodney) and a college named for him in Pennsylvania. Dickin- son was known as the “Penman of the Revolution” for his passionate writings in support of separation from Great Britain and he served as President of Pennsylvania when there was such a thing. Dickinson was one of the wealthiest planters in the American colonies and he owned an expansive mansion south of Dover, which is open to the public today. But John Dickinson wasn’t a Delawarean. He wasn’t a Pennsylvanian either. He was born in Maryland.
One historic name you probably won’t hear often in the First State is Oliver Evans, who may well have been the most influential Dela- warean ever. With the proper press agent Evans might now be known as the Thomas Edison of the 18th century. He improved high-pres- sure steam engines, invented an automated flour mill with conveyor belts and Archimedean screws, and did pioneering work in refrigera- tion. In 1807 his Mars Iron Works constructed the world’s first steam river dredge and he predicted the coming of steam locomotives but couldn’t raise enough money to build his own. The Newport-born Evans did more than anyone else to kickstart mechanized Ameri- can industry before his death in 1819. Pity hardly anyone knows his name two hundred years later.
What’s Up With...the Most Haunted Places in Delaware?
Alarms raised by the War of 1812 sent barges laden with thousands of bricks to a marshy spit of land in the middle of the Delaware River called Pea Patch Island to build a defensive fort. Its name trips back to Colonial days when a boat hauling peas ran aground on the 178- acre mud flat spilling its cargo and inadvertently sowing a pea patch. Design flaws and fires and planning blunders delayed actual comple- tion until 1859, by which time any foreign threat to Philadelphia had long since passed.
Instead Fort Delaware, armed with 131 guns, became a prison during the Civil War. As prison camps went, it was far from noto- rious. But it was still overcrowded, dank and unsanitary with good food always in short supply. In its three years of operation some 33,000 enemy Confederates were detained inside its thick brick walls. About 3,000 died, mostly of disease, along with 109 Union soldiers and a few dozen civilians who worked in the camp.
Clearly this would be fer- tile ground for paranormal investigators. Most famously a female spirit dressed in a Civil War-era frock has been spotted am- bling through the walls in the Officer’s Kitchen. The Sci-Fi Channel’s Ghost Hunters series has combed Pea Patch Island twice and aired a live spook search at Fort Delaware on Halloween in 2008. Even Brit- ish television showed up to poke around the spooky dark brick cells (there is no electricity on the island) for their series, Most Haunted. You can pack up your EMF Meter, Full Spectrum Cams, EVP Re- corder, TriField Meter and Laser Grid to make your own supernatu- ral hunt on special Fort Delaware ghost tours scheduled during HalLoween season.
At the head of the list of Delaware’s haunted houses is the Gover- nor’s Mansion in Dover itself. Officially called Woodburn, the spiffy Georgian brick mansion was erected sometime around 1798. During the Antebellum era it was a known safe house on the Underground Railroad, harboring escaped slaves. Since 1965 it has done duty as the official residence of the Governor of Delaware.
Strange sightings and sounds have been reported in and around Woodburn since at least 1815 when a Methodist preacher was inter- rupted by a female apparition during a breakfast blessing. Governors and elected officials have reported ghostly goings-on over the years.
One of the ghoulish troublemakers could be Patty Cannon. Cannon (not a native Delawarean) is not only the state’s most notorious criminal from the 1800s but she was called “the wickedest woman in America.” She earned her unsavory sobriquet by supposedly leading a gang who kidnapped free blacks on the Delmarva Peninsula and sold them into slavery in the South. Cannon and her henchmen operated for years, partly due to enforcement indifference and partly due to her widespread reputation for cutthroat violence.
In 1829 a tenant farmer plowed up the remains of four bodies on land owned by Cannon in Sussex County. She was indicted for mur- der and thrown in jail. Then well into her sixties, Cannon died in her cell, either from natural causes or by intentionally ingesting poison. She was buried in the jailyard but the graves were moved in the early 1900s to clear room for a parking lot. Her head, however, didn’t make it to the new burial ground with the rest of her bones. Now infamous after the publication of pamphlets and books about her evil exploits, Patty Cannon’s skull was passed around for display before landing in the Dover Public Library in 1961 where it was stored in a crimson red hat box. That is bound to make any spirit restless.
What’s Up With..the Lighthouse in the Middle of the Neighborhood?
For a tiny state Delaware boasts 381 miles of shoreline - four times its cartographic length. At the water’s edge are sandy beaches, salty estuaries, reedy marshes and tidal flats. But no dramatic rocky coast to hang a rain-pelted lighthouse on to inspire a good Gothic ro- mance. That does not mean the First State is lacking in lively light- house lore.
Delaware’s first - and most spectacular - beacon was the Cape Hen- lopen Light. When stone sailed down from the Brandywine River in 1767 was assembled to create the tower at the mouth of Delaware Bay it was only the sixth lighthouse to be built in the American colo- nies. To better amplify its light the tower was perched 46 feet above sea level on Cape Henlopen’s Great Dune. As great as the dune was, however, it was shifting away from the sea at some five feet a year.
By the 1920s the Cape Hen- lopen Light was facing immi- nent destruction. The light- house was decommissioned in 1924 and photographers dutifully recorded the lethal encroaching erosion. The end after more than 150 years of service came in April of 1926 when the 69-foot tower col-
lapsed into the surf. Some of the old stone ended up on local houses as chimneys or fireplaces. When you drive into Rehoboth Beach that little lighthouse in the roundabout is a replica of the historic Cape Henlopen Light.
Many of the guiding beacons along the Delaware River are deliv- ered by range lights on shore that look like Oklahoma oil field der- ricks. The state’s most unusual range light, however, shines from a 100-foot high square concrete tower smack in the middle of Belle- fonte, a small residential town between Wilmington and Claymont. The Marcus Hook Range Light was erected in 1920 and today barely peeks above the trees in its leafy neighborhood.
The two-story brick American Foursquare house next door was the keeper’s quarters. It has been boarded up since the Coast Guard stopped using it in 2004 but before that it was mostly the home of longtime keeper Leslie Van Stavern Millar and his large family. An expert mechanical troubleshooter, Millar eventually was put in charge of all navigation between Philadelphia and the Delaware Bay. The continuous red light, computerized now, still shines day and night from the Marcus Hook Range Light. But when you go looking for it don’t expect to see the tower until you are standing right in front of it. Not that the range light is trying to hide - it resides on Lighthouse Road after all.
Out in Delaware Bay the state’s most prominent light is the Four- teen Foot Bank, erected on a metal caisson atop a submerged shoal in 1888. The lantern tower rests atop a two-story wooden keeper’s house. In 2007 the lighthouse was sold to a Carson City, Nevada lawyer named Michael Gabriel for $200,000. Gabriel eyed the lighthouse as the base for making the world’s first beer brewed with seawater, following an on-site desalination process. Gabriel also pur- chased Bloody Point Lighthouse in Maryland and was planning to establish a chain of lighthouse microbreweries along the East Coast but to date no suds have begun flowing from the old guardians of the shipping lanes.
You can see Delaware’s most classic existing shoreline lighthouse all the way at the bottom of the state on Fenwick Island, so close to Maryland its shadow falls across the state line. The 87-foot tower was constructed of two brick cylinders, one inside the other, in 1859 and designed to protect mariners from the tricky Fenwick Shoals six miles offshore. The Fenwick Island Lighthouse Station went dark in 1978 but locals and visitors alike raised such a ruckus that the Coast Guard gave the facility to the State of Delaware and a new electric light was turned on in 1982. Both the lighthouse and the Gothic-flavored keeper’s house are open for tours from May to September.
What’s Up With...The Canal?
You won’t be in Delaware long before you hear mention of “above the canal” and “below the canal.” That would be the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal, a 14-mile long, 450-foot wide ditch dredged to a depth of 35 feet that is one of only two vitally commercial sea-level canals in the United States.
Money men were dreaming of a water link between the Delaware River and the Chesapeake Bay back before there was a Delaware. Construction finally got underway in 1822 and with 2,600 men dig- ging and hauling dirt to create the waterway opened for business in 1829. The shipping distance between Philadelphia and Baltimore was immediately shortened by 300 miles and an often perilous ocean leg was eliminated from the voyage. And from that time on it has not been possible to travel the 96-mile length of Delaware without using a bridge (currently four highway cross- ings in Delaware and one in Maryland).
So for almost 200 years there has been a Delaware “above the canal” and a Delaware “below the canal.” North of the canal is essentially Wilmington and most of the state’s people and south of the canal has been mostly cropland, often tagged as Slower Delaware. In recent years the Wilmington suburbs have crept across the watery divide and the cul- tural distinctions between the two regions have blurred.
What’s Up With...the Ebright Azimuth?
The Ebright Azimuth marks the highest point in Delaware at 447.85 feet above sea level. Of all the states, only Florida has a lower roof than the First State. To stand on the Delaware highpoint go to Concord High School in northern Delaware and continue past the back parking lot on Ebright Road (all this land was once owned by James and Grant Ebright) to Ramblewood Drive at the entrance to Dartmouth Woods. Across the street you can find the National Geo- detic Survey marker in the ground.
And don’t believe all that malarkey about Kansas being the flattest state in the union. Delaware has the lowest mean elevation of any state. If anyplace should be compared to a pancake it is Delaware, not Kansas. The highest elevation in Kansas is 4,041 feet. A real Delawarean would get a nosebleed there.