For Now, It's Farm Town, Usa

POSTMARK: TOWNSEND, DEL.

November 29, 1992|By WAYNE HARDIN

A John Deere combine, forked teeth raised and extended, blasts straight ahead, taking up most of Main Street in west Townsend, Del. It roars by the butcher shop and several other small businesses, bounces over the Conrail tracks and turns off into a farm across from 17 ConAgra grain bins that dwarf everything within miles.

It is a lingering image of a still-rural town, but a town possibly facing a new role.

At the Townsend Fire Company hall, at the other end of Main Street, Dave Bailey walks among the equipment, reeling off year, make, model and nomenclature of each vehicle.

Mr. Bailey, 45, who works for a contractor in Wilmington, has been president of the 50-member volunteer company for six years, a resident here for 10.

Because the company serves "maybe 60 square miles," he knows the area well. And he forecasts change: Townsend is just too accessible to Dover, Wilmington and Newark; all are within 25 miles or so.

"That cornfield across from us already had been subdivided for 130 homes and then the economy went bad," he says.

He's still not sure how he feels about a new Townsend.

"The more people that come in, the more there are to pay taxes and keep things going.

"But in a few years, Townsend could become a suburb instead of a small town."

For now -- at least -- it looks like Farm Town, USA. In the fall before the corn is cut, Townsend appears to be on the shore of a tall greenish-brown lake. On the south side, the stalks start across from the fire hall, nudge the Townsend Elementary School playground, then zigzag along the town limits down to the concrete plant.

Main Street is long. The land is flat. And the town, below the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal in New Castle County, has a Midwestern look. Picked up and set down in Kansas, it probably wouldn't seem out of place.

In some ways, the town already is a bedroom community.

"Many of the people who live here now commute to Wilmington or Dover," says Mary Brown, 69, former Town Council member and longtime resident. "There's not much industry. You have to leave to work."

Population 322, Townsend is five miles from Maryland where Kent and Cecil counties meet.

Visitors arriving from the east see a small, wooden "Welcome to Victorian Townsend 1850" sign. The town, on the National Register of Historic Places since 1986, isn't all Victorian but has an uncommon number of white houses and front porches. Anything red brick, such as the school or the Immanuel United Methodist Church, stands out.

The welcome sign is near the school where Linda Zankowsky, in her second year as principal, deals with an overcrowded building constructed in 1932.

"The Wilmington community is moving south," says Ms. Zankowsky, 33. "Many professionals are buying land down this way."

The Rev. Robert W. Helms, Immanuel's pastor, sees the southward movement in his congregation. In fact, he came down from Wilmington.

"We have a mixture of natives and people who have moved here to seek the quiet life," he says.

His church is about halfway between the fire hall and grain bins.

The bins of "Peavey, a ConAgra Company," do much to give the town its rural feel.

"This is a country elevator," manager John Meyer tells a visitor. "All the grain is locally grown. We're really busy twice a year -- corn and beans in the fall, wheat and barley in the midsummer."

Mr. Meyer, 41, says the bins hold 1.4 million bushels. They come in by truck, and go out by truck and rail.

All those trucks going in and out of Peavey are bothersome, Mary Brown says. But, she adds, at least the operation is seasonal. A native of Townsend, she left only once, when she got married. But she returned in 1950 to stay, and now her daughter lives two doors down; her grandson just bought the house next door. Her roots here are about as deep as they get.

Her parents lived here all their lives. Her father, town barber for 76 years, worked almost until he died in 1987 at 96.

Sometimes she thinks being closer to a big city would be nice, because going to a concert or a major shopping center involves a trek. But in the end? "I'd rather live in a small town and get in DTC my car to drive to a mall or to cultural activities."

TOWNSEND TALK:

Two ways they say it: Towns'nd, for the Townsend family. Or Towns-end, because railroad conductors used to sound it out that way.

Famous citizen: John "Happy" Townsend (1879-1963). Major-league pitcher from 1901-1906 with Philadelphia, Washington and Cleveland. Won 35 games, lost 82.

Early history: Before 1850, Townsend was a shantytown called Charley Town, named for Charles Lloyd, a black man who lived there.

What's this M.O.T. everybody talks about? Acronym for the Middletown, Odessa, Townsend triangle. Towns do much together. September festival alternates among them.

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