Dover's Many Delights

Delaware: Rich in history and high-tech hustle, busy markets and natural beauty, the state capital is a charming study in diversity.

February 13, 2000|By Reed Hellman | Reed Hellman,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Delaware's capital is a city of contrasts. In Dover, you can discover 300 years of history, try your hand at high-tech gaming or kick back at places that seem happily stuck in the '50s.

You can tour a Colonial homestead within sight of a modern military jetport, shop at an Amish market near a slot machine palace and explore a wetland wilderness not far from discount shopping malls. Such diversity is at the core of Dover's charm.

Moderate prices for accommodations and meals, friendly residents and a number of interesting museums add to the city's appeal.

One of the best places to experience a Dover contrast is at the John Dickinson Plantation, southeast of the city. Visitors to this 18th-century enclave immerse themselves in the daily routines of more than 200 years ago. Entering the estate's grounds resets the calendar, and Brenda Chase, museum interpreter, resets the mood. "Are you Whig or Tory?" she asks. Dressed in homespun, a long apron and a tight white bonnet, Chase challenges visitors' loyalties as she pulls open the door to Delaware's Colonial past.

John Dickinson, lawyer and landowner, was the "Penman of the Revolution." He served as president of Delaware and Pennsylvania and was a delegate to the Federal Constitutional Convention in 1787. Dickinson's family built the plantation in 1740 and retained ownership for the next 200 years. Delaware took over the remaining buildings and grounds in 1952 with help from the National Society of Colonial Dames of America and the newly formed Friends of the John Dickinson Mansion.

The plantation, opened as a museum in 1957, offers an opportunity to visit Revolutionary America. The mansion presents a window into the life of a wealthy landowner, his family, tenants, and slaves. Decorative formal gardens and practical herb gardens flank the mansion, along with outbuildings, and fields of wheat, corn and flax stretch to the tree line.

The roar of a mammoth military cargo jet brings you back to the present. The neighboring Dover Air Force Base is home to the outsized cargo carriers, and also to the Air Mobility Command Museum.

The museum has aircraft display galleries and exhibit spaces detailing the evolution and history of the Air Mobility Command and Dover AFB's varied missions. The displays include two dozen minutely restored aircraft and permanent exhibits on the Berlin Airlift, Women Air Force Service Pilots (WASPs) and the emotionally powerful Hall of Heroes.

Volunteer docents conduct nearly 40,000 people annually through the cavernous museum and the huge aircraft parked outside. On the main runway beyond the museum's apron, the behemoth C-5 Galaxie cargo planes, visible from John Dickinson's front porch, keep up a nearly constant jet engine scream as pilots practice "touch and go" drills.

Unusual museums

Downtown, three very different museums display other facets of Dover's history. The Johnson Victrola Museum, on the corner of Bank and New streets, is a tribute to Eldridge Reeves Johnson, founder of the Victor Talking Machine Company.

In 1901, Johnson began producing his talking machines, soon to be marketed as Victrolas, and ensured that recorded sound would become widely available. Within this modest building, the story of his life is told through recollections and displays of his inventions and personal items.

Exhibits include a 1920s Victrola dealer's store with an extensive collection of talking machines, Victrolas and early records. A giant statue of Nipper, the dog listening to "his master's voice," graces the front entry. Photographs and memorabilia of recording artists from the era are on display, and the staff regularly plays Victor recordings on modern and antique equipment.

For music lovers, listening to a 1906 recording of Enrico Caruso singing Pagliacci, played on a hand-cranked, 1912 vintage Victrola X-1, is thrilling.

Across Meeting House Square, in a former Presbyterian Church built in 1790, the Delaware Archaeology Museum showcases artifacts, paintings, photographs and displays recounting 10,000 years of Delaware's historic and prehistoric past.

Next door to the Archaeology Museum, in a building once occupied by the church's Sunday school, the Delaware Museum of Small Town Life presents "Main Street Delaware," an exhibit emphasizing the economics, history and culture of regional communities from 1880 to 1930. Within the large open space, curators have assembled an authentic post office, general store, pharmacy, woodworker's shop and printing shop. The equipment is all original, and so are many of the products on the shelves.


A block away from the three museums, rustic, ramshackle Spence's Auction is a buzzing hive of micro-capitalism.

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