Bonna Nelson - December 2011

Tidewater Day Tripping

Holidays in Historic Dover

by

Bonna Nelson

Candlelit house tours. Strolls on The Green and the Legislative Mall. An 18th-century holiday celebration at a period plantation home. A 20-mile extreme run fundraiser. A Creole Christmas experience performed by New Orleans’ Preservation Hall greats. Decorations. Caroling. Art and historical exhibits. All this and more awaits you…
When I mention a day trip to historic Dover, Delaware, to friends they flash me a puzzled look. Dover? Historic? Many Tidewater area residents have never been to Dover or have only visited to shop tax-free, attend a race, play the slots at nearby Harrington, or to visit the Dover Air Force Base. We have taken two day trips to explore the quaint historic district, enjoyed both trips and are planning another during the upcoming holidays.
The day of our last visit presented a mix of light mist, heavy rain and occasional gusts of wind. A red wind sock perched on a farmhouse roof on Matthewstown Road outside of Easton showed winds blowing from the east. Hurricane Lee, making landfall in New Orleans, was providing the intermittent showers to the Eastern Shore.
We arrived in Dover famished and, after stopping a pedestrian on the street, who looked like she might be a local businesswoman, for a recommendation, we lunched at the award-winning 33 West, located, where else, but at 33 West Loockerman Street. The eatery was packed with patrons in business dress but thinned out by 1 p.m. I am assuming they were primarily government workers since we were a block from The Green and the Legislative Mall, the historic and current seat of government for Dover and the state of Delaware.
My blackened salmon was superb and John’s juicy hamburger made him happy. On our way out the door, the proprietress offered us chocolate chip cookies hot from the oven, which provided us with a sugar high and the energy we needed to fight the rain showers and tour the town.
Just across the street from the restaurant is the Delaware Made General Store, the perfect place to pick up apparel, gifts, and souvenirs for all things Delaware. The shop offers quilts, candles, T-shirts, sweatshirts, hats, jewelry, purses, pottery, ornaments, etc. and of course postcards for sale. I purchased a few holiday gifts for family and friends.
After the Civil War, when Dover began to grow, many mercantile activities that were limited to the historic Green area shifted a few blocks north to Loockerman Street. Buildings on the street housing restaurants, taverns, specialty shops, and galleries still retain turn-of-the-century façades.
Dover is the capital and second largest city in Delaware and the county seat of Kent County. Named by William Penn in tribute to Dover in Kent, England, Dover is situated on the St. Jones River in the Delaware River coastal plain. According to the Delaware State website and information provided by Main Street Dover, Inc., Dover’s historic area, “The Green,” was laid out in a rectangle shape in 1722 according to the 1683 orders of William Penn. The Green was the center of life for the county and state, with markets and fairs in abundance. Crafts people and artisans proffered their wares from the buildings around The Green, including carpenters, shoemakers, tailors and hatters. They shared the space with government officials and residents as well as several inns and taverns.
A plaque commemorates “The Golden Fleece Tavern,” site of Delaware’s ratification of the United States Constitution on December 7, 1787. Delaware was the “first state” to do so. The U.S. Constitution sculpture in the historic district commemorates that signing with a 12-foot bronze quill on a 4-foot tilted cube that is inscribed with the U.S. Constitution.
Dover has been Delaware’s capital since 1777. You can tour its old and new state houses. Like most of the structures on The Green and Legislative Mall, they are built of brick with cream trim. The Old State House was built in 1791, and Legislative Hall, which replaced it as the seat of state government, opened in 1933.
The Old State House, one of the country’s oldest surviving state houses, is now a museum but once was the town’s focal point for early courts, legislature and social history. Visitors may see the Governor’s presentation and ceremonial office, an 18th-century courtroom and legislative chambers.
The Legislative Hall on the Legislative Mall, a block from The Green, is quite beautiful and houses interesting murals, portraits of Delaware’s Governors, and other paintings. Now the center of Delaware’s government, Delaware’s General Assembly meets there, and in the center of state government buildings it also features the Compass Rose sculpture and a replica of the Liberty Bell.
The area, now also called the First State Heritage Park, Delaware’s first urban “park without boundaries,” offers a Welcome Center and Galleria at the Delaware Public Archives Building on the Legislative Mall with information, tours and free parking. Living history tours led by storytellers in period costumes explore the tales and history of the town.
The Public Archives Building, one of the finest historical research facilities in the nation, features interactive exhibits that make Delaware’s history fun and exciting. The building also houses exhibits, including several important paintings, one of each of the American Civil War generals, Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee.
While strolling the brick sidewalks lined with shade trees and flowers on The Green, you can almost imagine the historic town bustling with political and social events and the spirit of the people who lived and worked on and near The Green for over three centuries. It has the feel of colonial Williamsburg to it.
One of my favorite sites on The Green is the Biggs Museum of American Art on Federal Street, which offers an outstanding collection of American fine art objects as well as remarkable fine and decorative art reflecting the State of Delaware and the Mid-Atlantic Region. Sixteen galleries are arranged in chronological order to showcase the permanent collection of American art, including paintings, illustrations, sculpture, silver and furniture. The Biggs also provides changing exhibits, tours, family programs and lectures, and it is free!
Just a block from The Green on South New Street is the Johnson Victrola Museum, where you can take the kids to see how sound was recorded in the old days. The museum showcases antique phonographs, memorabilia, paintings, and early popular recording artists, and offers demonstrations and activities.
The friendly, helpful staff at the Information Center advised us to stop by to see a newly renovated building on The Green, the John Bell House. They said that the oldest known wooden home in Dover would soon be open for touring. We observed workers putting on the finishing touches between raindrops.
When I asked what The Green looks like during the December holidays, the Information Center staff raved about the festive decorations and lights. They mentioned caroling on The Green and special exhibits and festivities.
In addition to visiting historic sites, they added that there is a variety of events scheduled in December in or near Dover that attract visitors to the area, including the Goruck Challenge in downtown Dover. The event is an extreme team run to benefit the Green Beret Foundation. The routes showcase the best sites in the city. This run is not for the faint-hearted or weak-willed, as it requires the runner to carry 20 pounds of bricks in a Goruck backpack during the run, which takes eight to ten hours!
Want to pick up some holiday decorating ideas instead of training like a military elite force for the Goruck? On Thursday, December 8 the Dover Newcomers Club sponsors its annual Candlelight Tour, opening private Dover doors to the public. Enjoy touring homes decorated for the holidays with proceeds benefiting local schools.
If you yearn for music for the holidays, you won’t want to miss a Special Holiday Performance of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band of New Orleans on Saturday, December 17th at the Schwartz Center for the Arts on South State Street, Dover. The event celebrates the Center’s 10th anniversary and features the Preservation Hall Jazz Band’s popular holiday presentation of a “Creole Christmas.”
On December 31, revelers will welcome the New Year with a wide range of activities in downtown Dover and at state museums. First Night Dover is alcohol-free and begins at 3 p.m.
Through January 1 at the John Dickinson Plantation near Dover, enjoy an 18th-century holiday celebration including a decorative dessert table display.
The area is rich with accommodations and eateries to suit most budgets should you want to make it more than a day trip, and with all that the area has to offer you’ll need several day trips or overnighters to do it justice. For more information, search the Web for any of the sites and events that I mentioned as well as the city and state websites. A good one to start with is www.visitdover.com. Enjoy!

 

Bonna L. Nelson is a Bay-area writer, columnist and photographer. With a master’s degree in liberal studies and English, she has taught both memoir and creative writing. She resides with her husband, John, two dogs, two kayaks and a power boat in Easton, Maryland.