The Society’s extensive Old Town Hall restoration project enters a new phase as work moves from the exterior to the interior of the building. Having previously decided to do all of the interior restoration under one general contract, the Society is now faced with having to raise additional funds in order to complete the project as planned. Fortunately, an offer of $37,500 from Henry DuPont comes to the rescue, on condition that the Society raise the matching funds before the end of the year.

A fund drive was formally announced to the membership at the April 18th Annual Meeting and by November, the President was able to report that it had gone well enough that the full scope of the project was expected to be substantially completed by the end of the year. At the Annual Dinner Meeting on November 14, 1967, the Society’s President formally thanked all present and reported that:

“The restoration of our Society’s headquarters at the Old Town Hall is proceeding on schedule. It appears that the building will soon be available for us. The interior has been restored to reflect as closely as possible the interior of the hall as it appeared when it was opened in 1799. Those, who have seen it, are loud in their praise of the beauty of the rooms in regard to their proportions and their color décor. The lightness and spaciousness of the late 18th century architecture is once more underscored by this restoration.”

Old Town Hall interior 2

The interior of the Old Town Hall, 2014

Posted by: japotts | August 27, 2014

1966: Urban Renewal Offers an Opportunity

This year was one of renovations and changes for both the Society and Wilmington in general. The Society was deep into making plans for extensive, much-needed interior and exterior renovations to its Old Town Hall headquarters. Roof work had been completed the previous year and, at the April 12th Board of Director’s meeting, the Building Committee reported that a structural survey of the walls and interior had been completed and showed no major structural problems. At this same meeting, the Society voted to approve a proposal from Rupert Construction Company to go ahead with exterior repairs as recommended by a consulting architectural historian. By December, plans for interior work had necessitated a move into temporary quarters at 509 North Market Street.

At the same time, the City of Wilmington was also making plans for urban renewal projects that would change the face of the city and involve the demolition of various old buildings. In an effort to save some of them, the Society presented an extensively-researched proposal to the City Planner and Wilmington Housing Authority to have certain key examples of Colonial dwellings moved to the Society’s campus where they could be preserved. Potential candidates included the Thomas Coxe House and the Alrichs House. As the Executive Director reported at the Annual Dinner Meeting on November 15, 1966, “it is hoped that the publication of this study with the conclusions reached by both Societies may result in the preservation of some of these houses. At least it will provide a record for the future of some of these structures that were once part of the town of Wilmington.” Happily, these hopes would indeed bear fruit years later in 1976 when the Society was able to save some of these buildings to create the Willingtown Square campus currently on the 500 block of Market Street.

Coxe 1

The Thomas Coxe House at its original location at 107 & 109 East 6th Street in Wilmington (DHS photo collection)

Posted by: japotts | August 27, 2014

1965: Lydia Laird Offers the Read House to the Society

The year 1965 found the Society poised to grow and trying to navigate the difficulties of both pressing repair needs and a space crunch in its Old Town Hall headquarters. The Society spent most of the year seriously investigating the possibility of acquiring the old Customs House at Sixth and Kings Streets or building an annex onto Old Town Hall. Little did they realize, but this would be the year that the organization would begin to grow, but in a slightly different direction.

The Society ended the year on a high note at the Executive Committee meeting on November 15, 1965 when one of its Directors, Chief Justice Daniel F. Wolcott, announced that Lydia Laird had offered to bequeath the Read House, furnishings, gardens, and accompanying property on the Delaware River in New Castle to the Society, along with an endowment to operate the house as a museum. The Read house was built between 1797 & 1803 by George Read II (1765-1836; son of George Read the Signer). Lydia and her husband, Philip Dandridge Laird, were the third owners of the house and purchased it for $9,000 in 1920. As life-long history enthusiasts, the Lairds were keen to ensure that the house and its history would be preserved for future generations. The Society agreed to accept Mrs. Laird’s generous offer at the Board of Director’s Meeting on December 8, 1965. Although the Society would not actually get the house until 1975, it would later prove to be one of our most important acquisitions and a jewel of historic New Castle.

Lydia 1

Lydia Laird painted in 1927 by Charles MacLellan (DHS collection)

Posted by: japotts | August 25, 2014

1964: The Historical Society of Delaware Turns 100

The year 1964 was an incredibly important landmark year for the Society as it celebrated its 100th birthday. The organization now boasted six employees, including a Librarian and its second professional Executive Director, Mr. Dale Fields, and was looking to keep expanding both its facilities and programs. This was also the year that the Society began planning in earnest for important renovation projects to its headquarters in the Old Town Hall. One of the Society’s most important celebratory projects for the year was a special 100th anniversary issue of “Delaware History” journal that was published in April 1964 and included an overview of the organization’s history, biographical sketches of its leaders, and a list of manuscript materials in its collections.
Another cause for celebration was the acquisition of the Richard S. Rodney manuscript collection, which was bequeathed to the Society by prominent Delawarean and avid historian, Judge Richard Seymour Rodney (1882-1963). Judge Rodney, a native of New Castle, served as an Associate Judge of the Delaware Supreme Court, on the U.S. Supreme Court, and also as the Society’s President from 1943-1954. At a special dinner meeting of the Society on January 14, 1964, the Society’s President, James M. Tunnell, Jr., formally announced that “under the Will of Honorable Richard S. Rodney the Society will receive the large collection of 18th and 19th century manuscripts and books which Judge Rodney has collected over the years. Among the most important of these documents are a number which deal with George Read, one of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence for Delaware. This collection will be known as the Richard S. Rodney Collection.” A fitting, well-timed, and appropriate gift from a man who was not only a history scholar in his own right, but also the originator and driving force behind our “Delaware History” journal, which continues to this day.

Rodney 1

Judge Richard S. Rodney

Posted by: Delaware Historical Society | August 21, 2014

1963: The search for more space

One of the Society’s big moves toward expansion in the 1960s was the purchase of the lot at 510 N. Market Street in Wilmington. For several years, the staff had conveyed the need for better collections storage than what the space in Old Town Hall could offer. At a special meeting of the Society in January 1963, the board announced that money had been raised to purchase the Arcadia Theater property adjacent to Old Town Hall.

View of Arcadia Theater building at 510 Market Street, as it appeared in 1939

View of Arcadia Theater building at 510 Market Street, as it appeared in 1939

Soon after the purchase of the land, the Society razed the existing building. At the same time, the board discussed the possibility of buying the old Customs House building on King Street to meet the additional storage needs. But despite these plans, the historical society did not opt to buy the Customs House nor did they build on the old Arcadia site. Instead, the property at 510 N. Market Street served, and continues to serve, as staff and special visitor parking.

The problem of space persisted until the purchase of other property on Market Street several years later. As the Society’s centennial drew nearer, the legacy of its first 100 years and the future of the organization were at the forefront of the minds of both staff and board.

Posted by: Delaware Historical Society | August 20, 2014

1962: The Society professionalizes

By 1962, the Delaware History Society had three full-time staff members and two part-time staff members. In January of that year, the board elected to hire its first professional executive director for the organization.

The position was given to Richard Simmons, who at the time, worked in the history department at Berkeley. In their letter to Mr. Simmons, the board stated that “the basic reason for the existence of the Society is the collection and preservation of historical material, and the making of it available to scholars.” Yet even at that time, leadership recognized the need to reach a broader public, admitting, “By force of circumstance, it is necessary for the Society also to be active along lines which will arouse interest in the Society among non-scholars. Without this interest, we feel very strongly that the Society cannot continue to exist.” It is interesting to see that even 50 years ago, our field grappled with attracting new visitors and extending the scope of their work. We tend to think of these as a 21st century problems, but clearly they pre-date the age of the internet.

Simmons accepted the position and the reported salary of $6,000 per year. Though his tenure was short, the creation of a professional executive director position set the stage for the organization’s professionalization of their staff.


Posted by: Delaware Historical Society | August 18, 2014

1961: Sally Farris joins the staff

As they approached their centennial year, the Historical Society of Delaware began planning for the future. In the letters and minutes of 1961, the board discussed staffing and storage needs. They agreed that the staff, comprised mainly of women, was aging. They assessed the productivity of the existing staff and began looking for ways to meet their growing needs. In her letter to Society president John Christie, Executive Secretary Marion Reed stated, “Increasing the full-time members of the staff from two to three will relieve me of some of the pressures which result from the great amount of unfinished work that should be done in order to have a better functioning society.”

Subsequently, the Society hired Sally Farris, their third full-time staff member, later that year.  Prior to her professional appointment, Farris spent two years with the organization as a Hagley fellow. As Mrs. Reed writes in her letter, “Mrs. Farris was an English major as an undergraduate, taught school before coming to Hagley, and expects to get another teaching job next year, unless she is appointed to this position, which she would prefer, in spite of higher teachings salaries. (She did some volunteer history society work in New Jersey before coming to Delaware, and likes this kind of work).”

This move was the first of many in the 1960s that steered the Society towards becoming a more efficient, professional organization that could take on the many responsibilities of a statewide agency.

Posted by: Delaware Historical Society | August 15, 2014

1960: Acquisition of Hannah Wolfe Burton’s diary

On March 4, 1960, the historical society acquired the diary of Hannah Wolfe Burton, a resident of Sussex County, Delaware during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The diary entries, which were written between 1811 and 1824, describe daily life on a farm in southern Delaware. Burton discusses family activities, the religious education of her children, social calls made by the Burtons on friends and family and vice versa, as well as family health, weather, and local news.

Hannah Wolfe married Joshua Burton in 1794. The family was active in their Sussex County church and religious community. The Burtons owned slaves and ran a farm near Lingo Creek in Indian River Hundred. Joshua Burton was a lay minister and also served for a number of terms as a representative of Sussex County in the Delaware General Assembly.

The diary is a fascinating piece and provides wonderful opportunities for research. First, it is rare to hear first-hand experiences from a woman in southern Delaware during this time period. The journal also sheds light on the daily activities and responsibilities of running a family farm in the early nineteenth century. Finally, descriptions of Christian religious practices and local clergy leaders provide excellent research material on the study of early American religion in the Mid-Atlantic region.


Diary entry from journal, 1819

Diary entry from journal, 1819

Posted by: Delaware Historical Society | August 13, 2014

1959: The C&D Canal papers

In 1959, the Historical Society of Delaware received a sizable donation of materials related to the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal from the estate of Walter Hall. Hall was president of the canal company when the federal government took control of the canal in 1919. After his death, his widow carried out his wishes to donate his collection of C&D Canal papers to the Society.

The Chesapeake and Delaware Canal Company was formed in 1802 to dig a canal across the Delmarva Peninsula to join the Delaware Bay and Chesapeake Bay. Benjamin Henry Latrobe engineered the surveys and work began, but the company ran out of funds and abandoned the project in late 1805. The company revived in 1822 and successfully completed a canal, which opened in 1829. The federal government purchased the canal in 1919. The canal runs from Delaware City, Delaware to Chesapeake City, Maryland.

In the news notes of 1959, the Society reported that the papers had been donated in installments beginning in 1951. The latest additions to the collection included: Latrobe’s detailed reports of proposed canal routes, 1803-1805; weekly statements of tolls collected, 1862-1864; a contract between the Company and four landowners along the route, 1823; stockholders’ minute book, 1803-1906; a stock certificate issued to Thomas Allibone & Son, 1804; and other printed material. These items were added to existing collections of minutes, reports, ledgers, maps, surveys, blueprints, and other related papers.

Together, these items help tell the long history of the canal and the company. They also provide excellent evidence of Delaware’s business and industrial history. All of them are available for your use at the Research Library on Market Street!


View of C&D Canal in Delaware City, ca. 1900. Original at Mariners Museum in Newport News, VA.

View of C&D Canal in Delaware City, ca. 1900. Original at Mariners Museum in Newport News, VA.

Posted by: Delaware Historical Society | August 11, 2014

1958: Ruthanna Hindes leaves the historical society

In 1958, Ruthanna Hindes, librarian for the Historical Society of Delaware, resigned her post to join the library staff at the Longwood Foundation. Hindes is most remembered for her work, Delaware Silversmiths, 1700-1850, which was published as an issue of Delaware History in 1967. Her essay provides biographies for silversmiths working in the state in the 18th and 19th centuries. Hindes’s research was the first major contribution to the topic since Jessie Harrington’s Silversmiths of Delaware, published in 1939.

Originally, the book was to be published under an agreement with the Wilmington Poetry Society whose president was David Hudson. The book was slated to be finished in 1956, but editorial differences between Hindes and Hudson delayed publication and ended in a lawsuit. The suit, Hindes v. Wilmington Poetry Society, was settled in 1958.

Ruthanna Hindes was a native Delawarean who spent twelve years as an employee of the Historical Society of Delaware, four as Assistant Librarian and eight as Librarian. She became interested in Delaware silver while working for the Society. Francis Lindell was hired as the Society’s librarian upon Ruthanna Hindes’s resignation.

Teapot made by Wilmington silversmith Thomas Byrnes, 1790-1793

Teapot made by Wilmington silversmith Thomas Byrnes, 1790-1793. From the collections of the Delaware Historical Society.

(You can see our more of our collection of Delaware silver here at the Wilmington campus!)



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