s one of the original 13 colonies and the first state to ratify the U.S. constitution, Delaware shares an important role in the founding of the United States with its Mid-Atlantic neighbors. The state’s rich history has been neatly preserved in a collection of small towns that have successfully maintained their architectural integrity and unique qualities for more than 100 years. Whether it is a stop-off on the way to another destination or an extended stay, these picturesque towns provide a much needed respite from the fast pace of daily life. Each location has its own individual story to tell and offers cozy places to stay, eating spots that reflect the local flavor, and great places to antique hunt or find that special purchase for the person who has everything.
The cobblestone streets of Old New Castle, on the Delaware River just south of Wilmington, date back to the colonial era as do the homes that line them. New Castle was occupied by the Dutch, the Swedes, and then the British before it became the first landing site in North America for William Penn in 1682. There are a number of historic buildings open to the public, including the New Castle County Courthouse, one of the oldest of its kind in the nation, and the Old Dutch House, which reflects the 1651 founding of the town.
The Court House in New Castle (pictured above) was Delaware’s colonial capital and the meeting place of the State Assembly until 1777. The Declaration of Independence was read and the first Constitution of Delaware was drafted here in 1776.
Tombstones in the Immanuel Episcopal Church date from 1707, and the Federal-style George Read II House, built by the son of George Read I, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, is one of the finest structures in town. New Castle’s historic bed and breakfasts, boutiques, and quaint dining spots make this the perfect spot for a weekend getaway. For more information, call the Historic New Castle Visitors Bureau at 800.758.1550 or go to http://www.visitnewcastle.com/
Just a 20-minute drive down scenic Route 9, which runs along the Delaware coast, is Delaware City. Originally called Newbold’s Landing, it was given its present name in 1826 when the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal was being built. West of Battery Park is The Olde Canal Inn, a historic restaurant and inn that was once home to laborers that built the canal. On Clinton Street, Jim Pileggi, a sixth-generation craftsman, runs his Shaker-style furniture shop.
Delaware City is also the departure point for the Delafort, the ferry that transports visitors to Fort Delaware State Park on Pea Patch Island. This former U.S. Army fortress dates back to 1859 and once served as a prison for confederate soldiers. Period actors help visitors experience what life was like at the fort during Civil War days, and interpretive programs, including candlelight ghost tours, are offered during the summer months. For more information on Fort Delaware, call 302.836.2533. http://www.visitthefort.com/
Continuing south on Route 9 will bring visitors to Odessa, which has one of the finest collections of late 18th and 19th century architecture in the mid-Atlantic region. Founded in 1741 as Cantwell’s Bridge, the town operated as an important port for wheat, corn, tobacco and other products through the 1840s.
Winterthur Museum operates a small enclave of historic buildings here, referred to as the “Historic Houses of Odessa.” The Brick Hotel Gallery contains the finest collection of Belter furniture in the country, and at the gambrel-roofed Collins-Sharp House, one of Delaware’s oldest houses, visitors can enjoy hearth-cooked teas, brunches and dinners made from original 18th century recipes. The Corbit-Sharp House, circa 1774, is the former home of prominent tanner William Corbit and is furnished with objects once owned by the Corbit family or made by Delaware craftsmen. The Wilson-Warner House, is furnished according to the inventory at its 1829 bankruptcy sale. For more information on Historic Houses of Odessa, call 302.378.4069. http://www.winterthur.org/
It was in the capital city of Dover that Delaware earned the moniker “The First State,” since it was here in 1787 that state legislators became the first to ratify the U.S. Constitution. Following Route 9 south from Odessa will bring visitors onto Route 1, the main road that runs through the state, just south of Dover Air Force Base. The Base’s Air Mobility Command Museum is open to the public and possesses a fine collection of vintage aircraft. World War II veterans are often on hand to relay their war-time experiences in the planes now on display in the museum. A few miles northwest of the Air Force Base is Dover’s historic Green. This English-style square, laid out in 1717 by William Penn, is lined with Colonial buildings. One of these buildings is the Old State House, circa 1792, which contains an 18th century courthouse and legislative chamber.
Nearby, Delaware Made offers products made exclusively by Delaware artisans. Delaware Made is also the departure point for the Shadows of the Past walking tour, offered Saturdays at 1l a.m. Participants will learn about Dover’s colorful past and pick up a few entertaining anecdotes from their Colonial-costumed tour guide. The tours are free of charge.
Dover is also home to a number of unique museums that chronicle the area’s rich and varied history. The Johnson Victrola Museum celebrates the achievements of Eldridge Reeves Johnson, Dover native and inventor. There, visitors can view Victrola memorabilia, and listen to the voices of early recording stars such as Enrico Caruso. The Delaware Agricultural Museum features early farm tools and equipment, an 1890s village, and the extraordinary whittling collection of Jehu Camper which was once sought after by the Smithsonian Institute. At the John Dickinson Plantation, visitors can view the boyhood home of John Dickinson (1732-1808), the “Penman of the Revolution.” For more information on Dover, call the Kent County Tourism Corporation at 800.223.KENT. http://www.cityofdover.com/
Located at the head of the Broadkill River and less than a 10-minute drive from the beaches, Milton was a major shipping center in the 18th and 19th centuries. Historic Colonial and Victorian buildings line its streets, including several that have been converted to bed and breakfasts. King’s Ice Cream Parlor on Union Street, famous for its frosty delights, is the longest continuously operating commercial building in southern Delaware. Down the street is The Lydia Ann B. Cannon Museum, originally built as a church in 1855. It features relics from Milton’s shipbuilding days, a press that makes buttons out of seashells, and a hometown doctor’s office. Milton is the hometown of five former governors, and the appropriately-named Governor’s Walk, which runs along the Broadkill River, provides a scenic path through town. The town is also a haven for those that collect antiques, with shops located throughout the town and its outskirts. It is aptly called “Delaware’s Smallest Wonder”. For more information, call the Sussex County Tourism at 800.357.1818 or visit http://www.historicmilton.com/
Lewes, located on the Delaware Bay, is the northernmost of Delaware’s coastal towns. Settled by the Dutch in 1631, it is also the state’s oldest settlement. There are many historic attractions to see here, and all are in walking distance. A good place to start is the Fisher-Martin House, circa 1728, which today operates as the town’s Chamber of Commerce. Walking tours of the Lewes Historical Complex, a collection of historic buildings and homes, are available from June until Labor Day. Highlights include a Greek Revival doctor’s office, a stately home furnished with Chippendale and Empire Antiques, and a recently-restored one-room school house. Nearby Zwaanendael Museum features exhibits on local history, as well as artifacts from the H.M.B. DeBraak, a British brig which sank near Lewes in 1798. Two historic lighthouses, The Harbor of Refuge and Breakwater Light, can be seen from the shores of nearby Cape Henlopen State Park, or visitors can get a close-up view from the deck of the Cape May-Lewes Ferry, which makes regular trips back and forth from historic Cape May, NJ.
In additional to its historical offerings, Lewes is home to a plethora of antique shops and boutiques. There are a number of bed and breakfasts and inns to choose from, and several restaurants along the Lewes-Rehoboth Canal offer alfresco dining. Nearby Fisherman’s Wharf offers fishing trips and dolphin watching cruises. For more information, call the Lewes Chamber at (302) 645-8073 or visit http://www.lewes.com/.
Whether it’s to soak up the local history or enjoy a relaxing vacation, Delaware’s historic towns have much to offer. For more information on Delaware’s historic towns and other visitor attractions, call the Delaware Tourism Office at 800.441.8846 or visit www.visitdelaware.com The Delaware Tourism Office, 99 Kings Highway in Dover, Del., a division of the Delaware Economic Development Office, promotes tourism and economic growth in Delaware and works to preserve the state’s cultural and natural resources.
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