Harold hurst - January 2008
Immigration and Diversity on Delmarva: 1830 to the Present
Harold W. Hurst
The Delmarva Peninsula was settled largely by people of English descent. As late as the 1830s, most whites in the area were of British origin, although African-Americans formed a sizeable minority in most parts of the Delmarva area.
In Wilmington and northern Delaware, and to a lesser extent in the rest of the Peninsula, the population became more ethnically diverse in the period between 1830 and 1914. The rise of new industries in the Wilmington area; the construction of the canal between the Delaware River and the Chesapeake Bay; the arrival of the railroads; and the establishment of canning factories in southern Delaware and on the Eastern Shore of Maryland all provided new jobs, many of which were filled by an influx of immigrants from Ireland and the continent of Europe.
Wilmington was an ideal location for the development of new manufacturing operations. Located near the ports and trading centers of Philadelphia and Baltimore, the city also enjoyed abundant water provided by the Christiana and Brandywine rivers. Transportation links multiplied as the city developed new railroad connections with Philadelphia, Baltimore and other large commercial centers. By 1886, 227 trains arrived and departed from the city each day.
The water-powered mills in Wilmington became important in the early 1800s. One was a powdermill founded by E. I. DuPont de Nemours in 1802. Located on the Brandywine River, it employed 140 workers in the 1830s. The other was a textile mill established by Joseph Bancroft, an English Quaker.
The duPonts hired Irish workmen in 1803, and by 1839 all but a handful of employees were immigrants from Ireland. DuPont and his successors were paternalistic entrepreneurs who provided housing and other benefits for the burgeoning workforce consisting largely of Celtic immigrants. Despite their Protestant origins, the duPonts helped fund the construction of a Catholic church in the Brandywine area. Irish workers also labored in the railroad shops located on the Christiana River and in the marine engine and boiler shops of the Harlan and Hollingsworth Company plant.
Although most Irish immigrants who came to Wilmington in the nineteenth century were ordinary laborers or factory workers, a few achieved success in business activities. Among these were Dennis J. Menton and Thomas R. Lally, prominent citizens who contributed to Catholic religious and charitable enterprises.
The Germans were the second largest ethnic group to arrive in Wilmington in the era between the 1840s and about 1890. Although some of this nationality were ordinary laborers, others were skilled artisans and small business operators, many of whom gravitated toward the food and beverage industries. By the 1870s many German immigrants were successful owners of breweries, saloons, bakeries, restaurants and candy shops.
The wealthiest and most prominent member of the German community was Joseph Stoeckle, who founded the large and successful Diamond State Brewery. One of the largest firms in the city was a brewery owned by John Hartman and John Feherbach, natives of Germany who started their Wilmington company in the 1870s. Their plant covered three acres and included a massive four-story building.
Other German entrepreneurs of this period were Peter Ebner, owner of a bottling plant; Anton Hauber, a restaurant proprietor; John G. Sidel, who was born in Philadelphia of German parents and started a confectionery establishment in Wilmington; and Henry F. Robelen, who founded a company that sold musical instruments and pianos.
By 1860, Wilmington’s population reached 21,258, an increase of 50% over that of the 1850s. Foreigners formed 19% of the whole, with the Irish being the largest group. Industrial expansion in the post-Civil War era resulted in further immigration so that by 1890 the population passed the 60,000 mark, of which 16% were immigrants. By this time, of course, there were many second-generation Irish and German people in the city. Wilmington was becoming an ethnically diverse city.
A second wave of foreign immigrants arrived in the city between the 1880s and 1914. The two major groups in this new influx were the Poles and the Italians. The Polish arrivals came largely from the German-occupied sections of their country and tended to seek employment in industries where there were German-speaking foremen. Tanneries hired large numbers of Poles. Indeed, the work force of Blumenthal’s Tannery and Ford’s Morocco factory was heavily Polish in composition. Many of this nationality lived in the southwestern part of the city near the tanneries and foundries where they worked. By 1910 the Polish population of Wilmington was 3,458.
Italians first came to Wilmington in the 1880s, at which time they were employed as construction workers on the Baltimore and Ohio and the Pennsylvania railroads. Many of them also worked in the Bancroft textile mills.
William P. Bancroft, the son of the company founder, Joseph Bancroft, was a paternalistic entrepreneur who was interested in the welfare of his workers. In 1901 he formed a real estate company that constructed 390 brick two-story row houses on Union Street in the Italian section of the city. Rent was $10 a month, or about one-fourth of the occupant’s total wages for that period. Nicholas Fidanza, an Italian grocer and carpenter, also built apartments and houses that he rented to Italian immigrants who settled on Union Street in “Little Italy.”
Jews, mostly from Russia, came to Wilmington during the 1880s. By 1900 there were about 250 Jewish families in the city, who generally lived in multi-ethnic neighborhoods. By profession, most of them were small shopkeepers. As they moved up the social ladder, they tended to move to better neighborhoods north of the Christiana River in Ward 9, a middle-class area of the city.
Ethnic diversity also resulted in religious heterogeneity in the city. Before the 1830s, most of the inhabitants of Wilmington were Protestants belonging to the Episcopal, Presbyterian, Baptist, Methodist and Quaker denominations. English was the only language spoken in the city’s houses of worship.
By 1860, and especially after 1890, immigration had resulted in the rapid growth of the Roman Catholic Church and the introduction and modest expansion of German Lutheran and Jewish congregations.
Irish immigrants established the first Roman Catholic churches in Wilmington. The Reverend Patrick Kenny founded St. Peter’s church in 1816 and aided in the erection of a new building located at the corner of Sixth and West Streets. In 1841 St. Joseph’s church was built for the workers at the DuPont powdermill in Brandywine Hundred. A second parish in Wilmington proper, St. Mary’s church, was organized in 1857, and St. Paul’s was established in 1869. By the late 1860s there were 3,000 Catholics in Wilmington, mostly Irish immigrants of working-class background. More churches were founded by the Irish in the following decades. Meanwhile, German Catholics organized the Church of the Sacred Heart in 1857.
The Polish and Italian immigrants were also of Catholic background. The Polish community, aided by the Benedictine Order, raised enough money to erect St. Hedwig’s church in 1904. Located at the corner of Linden and Harrison streets, St. Hedwig’s was one of the most impressive churches of any denomination in the city. Gothic in architectural style, it featured twin towers and an elaborate façade. The 1,800 Poles in the city also established a parochial school. By 1912, when there were 7,000 Poles in the city, a second parish, St. Stanislaus Kosta was founded.
The Italians did not start a church until 1924, when Father J. T. Tucker, a convert from Protestantism who learned Italian while studying at a seminary in Rome, started St. Anthony’s church. He became very popular in the Italian community and made St. Anthony’s the focal point of the social and cultural life in Little Italy.
German Lutherans organized Zion Church in 1848 and erected a building at the corner of Sixth and French Streets that seated 300. Lutherans desiring an English-speaking church established St. Stephens church in 1888. Most prominent German immigrants in the 19th century were associated with the Lutheran Church, the leading Protestant denomination among foreign immigrants in Delaware and elsewhere.
The first synagogue was Adas Kodesch, a conservative congregation whose members came largely from Russia. By the 1920s there were 4,000 Jews in the Wilmington area who supported several temples.
Immigrants and their descendants enriched the cultural, social and fraternal life of Wilmington and the surrounding area. They introduced their own festivals, holidays, cuisine and fraternal societies. The Irish celebrated the first St. Patrick’s Day in the 1850s with parades and festivals featuring green flags, wreaths of shamrocks and Celtic music.
The Germans transplanted their culture into the city by organizing libraries and music societies. The Delaware Saehgerbund was established in 1853 “for singing and general social purposes.” A German Library Association saw the light of day in 1873. Much of the city’s public social life centered about saloons, cafes and restaurants run by German immigrants and their descendants.
Poles sponsored an annual “May procession” and organized many of their own fraternal and civic societies. The Italian community started their own groceries, bakeries and restaurants specializing in their own native foods. They also established numerous male lodges. St. Anthony’s church also sponsored many social and cultural events, making it the focal point of life in Little Italy.
Although the Irish and the Germans, and later the Poles and Italians, eventually became “Americanized,” these separate ethnic communities never completely forgot the heritage of their ancestors.
What about immigration and diversity in the rest of Delmarva? Few immigrants from Europe settled in lower Delaware and the Eastern Shore of Maryland and Virginia before 1900. The area was overwhelmingly rural and agrarian in character and African-Americans provided a cheap labor force, leaving few jobs for white working class immigrants.
As a result, immigration to the area has received little scrutiny from the region’s historians and writers. But a close examination of various local and regional chronicles reveals that some European immigrants did, indeed, trickle into the area after the Civil War and especially after about 1890.
The Chesapeake and Delaware Canal, completed in 1829, was built by a labor force of 1,500 men, most of whom were either black or Irish. The workers were housed in shanties located in nearby villages in New Castle County in Delaware and Cecil County in Maryland. Irish workers were also among the laborers who constructed the railroads built in lower Delaware and the Eastern Shore of Maryland in the 1850s and ‘60s. It was this group of people who helped establish Catholic churches in the area, including those in Dover, Chestertown, Easton and Salisbury.
In 1868, Delaware and the Eastern Shore of Maryland and Virginia were detached from the diocese of Philadelphia and incorporated in the new diocese of Wilmington. Under the dynamic leadership of the appointed bishop, the Reverend Thomas T. Becker, parishes for Irish and German immigrants were established in this area.
Between 1868 and 1886 the following parishes and missions were established in Delmarva by Bishop Becker: St. Frances de Sales, Salisbury, 1868; Holy Cross, Dover, 1870; St. Peter’s, New Castle, 1872; Star-of-the-Sea, Meekings Neck, 1872; St. Rose of Lima, Chesapeake City, 1873; St. Mary’s, Ocean City, 1875; Sacred Heart, Chestertown, 1877; St. John’s, Rock Hall, 1878; Holy Family, Church Hill, 1879; St. Patrick’s, Ashland, 1880; St. Patrick’s, Conowingo, 1881; St. John the Baptist, Newark, 1882; St. Patrick’s, Cambridge, 1883; St. John’s, Hockessin, 1884; St. Joseph’s, Middletown, 1885; and St. Polycarp’s, Smyrna, 1886.
One of the larger Catholic parishes on the lower Eastern Shore is St. Frances de Sales in Salisbury, which was organized in 1868 to serve both local residents and vacationers from the nearby beaches on the Atlantic Ocean. The first church building burned down in 1886 and the parishioners were forced to worship for many years in church buildings that formerly served Protestant congregations. By 1928, however, there were 2,000 Catholics in the city, and there were pressures to erect a new church for the growing membership.
In 1938 the Reverend Eugene T. Stout became the dynamic new pastor. During his pastorate a new church costing $700,000 was put up and a parochial school was established. In 1966 Father Stout was honored as “Man of the Year” by the National Conference of Christians and Jews in Salisbury.
Salisbury, the largest city on Delmarva south of Wilmington, became a city of ethnic and religious diversity in the 20th century, in contrast to the surrounding rural areas, which remained heavily Protestant in religion and either English or African-American in ethnic background. Jews established a synagogue in 1923 while Lutherans, mostly of German origin, organized Bethany Church in 1931 and a second congregation in 1953.
The canning industry, long a major activity in Delmarva, often suffered from labor shortages, prompting efforts to bring immigrant workers into the area. In 1911, 90 men, women and children of immigrant origins arrived in Milford, Delaware, to work in the tomato factories. In 1913 the Torsch Canning Company in Milford brought in two carloads of workers from Baltimore, housing them in large barracks near the Mispillion River. Most of these immigrants were Poles who were accompanied by a priest to support their spiritual needs.
Several German colonies were founded on Maryland’s Eastern Shore in the 1890s by immigrants who had failed in previous farming ventures in the Middle West. These German farmers settled in Preston in Caroline County and in Cordova in Talbot County. Successful in their new surroundings, they established Lutheran churches in both towns and a parochial school in Preston that closed in 1917 during World War I. In the village of Jumptown in Caroline County, a small group of German settlers made a living by making cider, weaving baskets and manufacturing cigars in the factory of Otto Gephart.
One group of Germans on the Eastern Shore were not voluntary newcomers but prisoners of war who were used as forced labor during the World War II years. Thousands of German and Italian POWs were successfully utilized by farms and factories in the Middle Atlantic region. Many were used on the vegetable and fruit farms and in the canning factories. At Easton, in Talbot County, a camp of 1,500 prisoners was operating in 1944. Farmers generally paid 35 cents an hour to hand pickers of tomatoes and other vegetables.
The most recent wave of immigrants to invade the Delmarva Peninsula have been the Hispanics. During the 1980s, vegetable farmers, poultry processing plants and canning factories began to hire Hispanic laborers to fill jobs vacated by blacks and native whites who gained better paying positions in the skilled trades and other employment. By 1997, for instance, the Perdue Farms labor force was over 60% Hispanic in composition. Vegetable packing and canning jobs have been increasingly filled by immigrants from Latin America.
Hispanics have been heavily concentrated in Sussex County, Delaware. Between 1990 and 2000 the county’s Hispanic population increased from 1,476 to 6,915. Georgetown, the county seat of Sussex, is over one-third Latino, and Spanish is spoken on the town’s streets as often as English. Milford, Selbyville, Lewes, Milton and Bridgeville are now home to numerous immigrants from Guatemala, Honduras, the Dominican Republic and Mexico. Ethnic diversity in southern Delaware stems largely from Latin American rather than European immigration.
Much of Delmarva is still rural and agrarian in nature, and inhabitants of most towns of fewer than 2,000 people are either whites of English descent or African-Americans. But over 150 years of immigration from Europe, and recently from Latin America, has created a more cosmopolitan and heterogeneous society characterized by ethnic and religious diversity. Social change has come to all of the larger towns in the once isolated and provincial Delmarva Peninsula.