Posted by: ccooper2014 | September 29, 2014

1979: Wilmington Garden Center

In the mid 1970s, the Delaware Historical Society acquired 503 Market Street as a gift from an anonymous donor.  It’s a small building adjacent to the Research Library.  Although it has been part of the library for many years, that wasn’t its original use after it come to the Society.

From the late 1970s until the early 1990s, 503 Market Street served as the home of the Wilmington Garden Center, providing offices and a resource center.  The organization was founded in 1977 by a group of volunteers.  In 1981 it acquired a customized bread truck to use as an outreach vehicle, which allowed it to expand its programs.

By the early 1990s, the Wilmington Garden Center had outgrown 503 Market Street.  It moved to a former Wilmington Parks and Recreation building on North DuPont Street in Trolley Square and became the Delaware Center for Horticulture.  Over the years, its programs have grown to include horticultural education, community gardens, outreach to low-income neighborhoods, tree planting, and enhancements to public landscapes.

Once again, a Society partnership from the 1970s continues to serve the community today. To learn more about the Delaware Center for Horticulture, visit







Posted by: ccooper2014 | September 26, 2014

1978: The Society Remembers Marguerite du Pont Boden

At the annual meeting in April 1978, the Society passed a resolution in honor of Marguerite du Pont Ortiz Boden (1907-1977), a board member since 1974.  Mrs. Boden’s passion for history, genealogy, and historic preservation, combined with her philanthropic generosity, provided great benefit to the community.

As a genealogist, Mrs. Boden was active in many genealogical, family, and hereditary organizations.  Her interest in history led her to fund the publication of three diaries by the Delaware Historical Society in 1976: Plantation Life at Rose Hill: the Diaries of Martha Ogle Forman, 1814-1845 (now out of print), Diaries of Phoebe George Bradford, 1832-1839, and Mount Harmon Diaries of Sidney George Fisher, 1837-1850.  She also worked to help preserve early Anglican churches, for which she was named an officer of the Most Venerable Order of the Hospital of St. John in Jerusalem in 1972 by Queen Elizabeth II.

But her greatest treasure was Mount Harmon Plantation in Earleville, Maryland.  Mrs. Boden’s ancestors had owned it in the late 1700s-early 1800s, and she fulfilled a personal dream when she purchased it in 1963 and restored it to the period of her ancestors’ ownership.  Mrs. Boden lived there for a number of years, then opened it to the public by giving it to the National Trust for Historic Preservation.  Mount Harmon is currently owned by the Friends of Mount Harmon and remains open to the public.

Marguerite du Pont Boden

Marguerite du Pont Boden

Posted by: ccooper2014 | September 24, 2014

1977: Delaware Genealogical Society Founded

The study of genealogy burst into popularity in the mid 1970s, stimulated in great measure by the publication in 1976 of Alex Haley’s novel Roots, as well as the interest in Revolutionary ancestors spurred by the Bicentennial.  Here in Delaware, the Delaware Genealogical Society (DGS) was founded at the Delaware Historical Society in 1977.  It began with about 40 members, and now has about 300 members.  The connection between the two organizations remains strong.

Since 1977, DGS has held hundreds of meetings, presented numerous workshops, published a journal, newsletter, and books, offered bus trips to libraries, and helped countless people find their ancestors.  Along the way, an active community has formed, for genealogists are all friendly and willing to help others.  All of this work has been done by volunteers putting in countless hours, for DGS does not have a paid staff—it has been a labor of love and service.

DGS does not have its own office, but uses the Society as a home base.  Many board meetings, program meetings, and workshops have been held at the Society’s facilities.  One recent high point is the workshop on African American genealogy held in September 2012, which led to the creation of the Delaware Chapter of the Afro American Historical and Genealogical Society.

DGS supports the Society’s Research Library through donations of books and equipment.  Most important currently is the volunteer assistance that allows the Research Library to be open on the third Saturday of the month.  DGS volunteers assist the Society’s librarians and offer genealogical assistance to those who need it.  If you’re just getting started in genealogy or have hit a brick wall, come in on a third Saturday and chat with one of the volunteers—they’ll help you find your way.

For more information on the Delaware Genealogical Society, visit

Delaware Families, 1787-1800, published by Delaware GenealogicalSociety

Delaware Families, 1787-1800, published by Delaware GenealogicalSociety

Posted by: ccooper2014 | September 22, 2014

1976: Creation of Willingtown Square

Willingtown Square, a pleasant oasis in the midst of the city, looks as though it has always been there—but it hasn’t.  It replaced a solid range of buildings that included a movie theater, a hotel, and several stores.  The square was completed in 1976 as part of Wilmington’s celebration of the Bicentennial of the American Revolution. The area consists of four early Wilmington houses originally located in other parts of the city that were undergoing urban renewal, placed in an open square.  The houses are:

  • Ferris House, originally at 414 W. Second Street
  • Simms House, originally at 101 E. Fourth Street
  • Jacobs/Dingee House, originally at 105-107 E. Seventh Street
  • Coxe House, originally at 107-109 E. Sixth Street

The story of Willingtown Square began long before 1976. In the 1960s, historic preservation and adaptive reuse weren’t generally part of the vocabulary of urban renewal or redevelopment.  But in 1966 the Delaware Society for the Preservation of Antiquities had a vision of developing a historic enclave surrounding the Customs House building at Sixth and King streets, using some of these houses to create something similar to Elfreth’s Alley in Philadelphia.  This didn’t work out, and in the early 1970s the Delaware Ethnic Studies and Cultural Center proposed moving the buildings to the neighborhood of Old Swedes Church, where they would serve as a center for the study of history with a focus on the ethnic groups that made up the population.

In 1974 Wilmington mayor William Maloney introduced the plan that became Willingtown Square: moving the houses to the 500 block of Market Street, where they would be adjacent to the Historical Society of Delaware and serve as a southern anchor of the Market Street Mall, a pedestrian walkway intended to enhance and revitalize downtown Wilmington.  This plan worked out and Willingtown Square opened in the summer of 1976. Since then it has offered a welcome green and peaceful spot in downtown Wilmington.

Newly completed Willingtown Square, 1976

Newly completed Willingtown Square, 1976

Posted by: ccooper2014 | September 19, 2014

1975: The Society Acquires the Read House and Gardens

In 1975, the Delaware Historical Society took on a new dimension with the acquisition of the Read House and Gardens in historic New Castle after the death of Lydia Laird, fulfilling a commitment made in 1965 (see blog entry for that year). Her generosity expanded the Society’s reach beyond Wilmington and gave it a new way to present Delaware’s history.

Philip and Lydia Laird’s purchase of the house in 1920 added another layer to its history, after its use by the Read and Couper families.  The Lairds furnished the house with antiques in the fashion of the colonial revival.  They added a swimming pool in the garden and tap rooms in the basement to make it a center for entertaining.  They also installed modern plumbing.  As mentioned in our blog for 1920, their interest in historic preservation led them to purchase other properties in New Castle, and they were also involved in the New Castle Restoration project of the late 1940s.

The house came with most of the Lairds’ furnishings, so it opened to the public in an as-is condition soon after the Society acquired it.  The Society also began extensive research on the house and made plans for a thorough interior and exterior restoration, completed in 1986.  But historic houses are like all houses, only more so—they always require more work and money, so the maintenance of the Read House is an ongoing saga.

The Society is proud to share this architectural treasure with the public in a way that honors the three families who have lived there.  Continuing research is always adding new layers to our understanding of the house and property.  The best way to experience the Read House is to visit it—go to for more information.

Lydia Laird in the Read House, 1974

Lydia Laird in the Front Parlor of the Read House, 1974

Posted by: ccooper2014 | September 17, 2014

1974: Jewish Historical Society of Delaware Founded

The mid 1970s proved to be a time of great interest in history, inspired in part by the bicentennial of the American Revolution. With the opening of the Research Library in the former Artisans Savings Bank building at 505 N. Market Street, the Delaware Historical Society was now able to take advantage of opportunities that arose.  Some of the ventures of this era are still going strong today.

Chronologically, the first is the founding of the Jewish Historical Society of Delaware in 1974.  The first Jews came to Delaware in the mid 1600s, but it wasn’t until 1879 that there were enough Jewish people in Wilmington to form an organized community.  The Jewish Historical Society collects and preserves that community’s heritage.  Collections have to live somewhere, and the Jewish Historical Society decided early on to place them at the Delaware Historical Society’s Research Library, where they cared for by the Jewish Historical Society’s archivist and available to researchers by arrangement with her.

The Jewish Historical Society of Delaware is celebrating its 40th birthday this year, and its collaboration with the Delaware Historical Society is almost as old. In addition to holding collections, the Jewish Historical Society presents programs, publishes a newsletter and books, and holds occasional exhibitions.  For more information, visit

Jewish Historical Society Brochure

Jewish Historical Society Brochure


Posted by: japotts | September 15, 2014

1973: The Society Opens Its New Library Building

In 1973, the Society finally got to realize its long-held dream of more space with the opening of its new research library in the former Artisans Saving Bank at 505 North Market Street. At the Board of Directors Meeting on March 21, 1973, the President, Walter J. Heacock, announced that renovations to the new building were substantially completed and that a reception and preview for contributors to the Renovation Fund would be held on April 1st. On April 17th, the Society held its 109th Annual Meeting in the new space (even though renovations were not yet fully completed) so that the President could take the opportunity to thank everyone who was involved in the project.

At the Executive Committee meeting on May 23, 1973, the President was finally able to report that the temporary quarters the Society had been occupying at 509 North Market Street had been vacated and that the move to the new building was complete, with Executive Director and his staff now located in “much improved offices.” Thus, the resolution adopted the previous year to “convert the premises to a library, reading room and administrative offices” had come to a satisfying conclusion and the Society was glad to be able to embark on the next stage of its organizational life. The handsome building continues to welcome researchers today.

Library interior

The interior of the Society’s new library in the former Artisans Bank building (DHS photo collection)

Posted by: japotts | September 12, 2014

1972: An Important Bayard Family Gift

The year 1972 was a busy and productive year. At the Board of Director’s Meeting on February 9, 1972, the President announced that the settlement had been completed on the new building at 505 North Market Street and that renovations were underway to transform it into the Society’s new library and administrative offices. This was also the year that the Society received the gift of a very fine Chinese carved ivory presentation cup that had originally been given to Secretary of State, Thomas Francis Bayard (1828-1898), by the first Chinese Minister Plenipotentiary to the United States. This gift from Robert H. Richards, Jr., a former president of the Society, was announced at the Annual Meeting on April 11, 1972.

Thomas Francis Bayard was born in Wilmington on October 29, 1828 to James A. Bayard, Jr. and Anne Francis. The Bayard family had a starred history in Delaware. Thomas Francis Bayard’s father and grandfather had both been U.S. Senators and his great-grandfather, Richard Bassett, had also served as Governor of Delaware from 1799-1801. Thomas Francis Bayard continued this family tradition, entering the U.S. Senate in 1869 and serving until 1885, when he resigned to become Secretary of State during the Cleveland administration. As Secretary of State, one of the issues he faced was that of unrestricted Chinese immigration into the United States, which he (like many Americans) generally opposed. It was probably during negotiations for the treaty of March 12, 1888, which prohibited Chinese laborers from entering the United States for a period of twenty years, that he acquired this cup during diplomatic gift exchanges with the Chinese minister, Chang Yen Hoon. Although from a rather dark period in American foreign policy, this fine piece still stands out as an eclectic high-light of our collections.

Bayard cup

Carved ivory presentation cup given to Thomas F. Bayard

Posted by: japotts | September 10, 2014

1971: The Society Purchases the Artisans Savings Bank Building

Artisans Savings Bank

The Artisans Savings Bank on Market Street, Wilmington (DHS Photo Collection)

In 1971, the Society’s search for more space finally came to an end with the purchase of the former Artisans Savings Bank building at 505 North Market Street. This purchase would be the successful conclusion to several years of searching. Other candidates included the Old Customs House on King Street and the Mullins Building on Market Street.

At the Executive Committee Meeting of May 19, 1971, the Society looked at the possibility of purchasing the building in conjunction with plans to create a “historical enclave” (later Willingtown Square) in the 500 block of Market Street to save several Colonial buildings slated for demolition as part of urban renewal, noting that “the Artisans Building would probably be useful to the Society if the enclave project did not materialize.” At this same meeting, the Society voted unanimously to obtain a 120-day option to purchase the building at a price of $190,000.

By July, the Society’s President, Charles Lee Reese, Jr., was able to announce that “the officers had executed the contract for the purchase of the Artisans Savings Bank at the price of $185,000.00 after receiving a grant from the Longwood Foundation of $150,000.00 with the additional grant of $70,000.00 for needed improvements.” With that, it was unanimously agreed to accept the grant, approve and ratify the purchase contract, and launch the Society into a new stage of development.

Space suit 2

The Apollo 11 replica space suit

The excitement of the Space Race had captured the entire nation’s attention during the 1960s, and by the end of the decade, the triumph of the July 20, 1969 moon landing meant that America entered the 1970s brimming with optimism about the Space Program’s future. The Historical Society of Delaware was no exception and celebrated in March with a special exhibit in Old Town Hall entitled “Steps to the Moon” that focused on this momentous event.

The exhibit looked at the history of the Apollo 11 mission, the Dupont Company’s contributions to the Space Program, and the development of space rockets leading up to the Saturn V used by NASA’s Apollo (and later Skylab) programs. The exhibit seems to have garnered a very positive response, with the Annual Meeting Minutes of April 14, 1970 reporting that: “The response from the public to the space exhibit was overwhelming, and our visitors numbered 200 every day. It has been gratifying to receive letters from our visitors praising the quality of the displays and the guides’ knowledge.”

Interestingly enough, at this same Annual Meeting, the Space Program was still very much at the forefront of everyone’s minds as the world watched the near-catastrophe of Apollo 13 unfold in real time. It was a big enough deal that the Society’s president called for those present to observe a moment of silence for the astronauts involved. Fortunately, this mission ended with the safe return of the astronauts to earth. The Society also ended its year well with the donation of a replica space suit from ILC Industries in Dover (maker of the Apollo 11 space suit).

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