Smyrna Celebrates 250 Years of Charm and History
In honor of its sestercentennial anniversary, the town looks towards the future.
South Main Street in Smyrna, present day.// photo courtesy of Jason Kokotaylo
As a child, Jackie Vinyard used to travel to Smyrna every Fourth of July to take part in the town's parade and other celebrations. Sitting on a fence, barefoot, in a farmyard at night watching the fireworks overhead, Vinyard knew then that Smyrna was the place she wanted to live.
Smyrna's hometown charm, beautiful and eclectic architecture, convenient location and varied and important history in Delaware have made the town a destination for years—250 years to be exact.
To celebrate its sestercentennial in 2018, the town decided it should throw a yearlong party.
"If you don't keep your name out in the public eye, they tend to forget," says Joanne Masten, lifelong resident of Smyrna, former mayor and the person who came up with the idea of the 250th anniversary celebration. She says she was driving into town one night and noticed the sign with the words "Founded in 1768." Celebrating the milestone was an opportunity she didn't want the town to miss. "We have so many neat things."
Those "neat things" include an interesting and important history. The town grew out of a settlement along Duck Creek, a place where small ships could land off the Delaware River. Farmers brought their produce there to sell and trade for merchandise off the ships. In 1806, the Delaware Assembly changed the name of the town from Duck Creek to Smyrna.
No one is sure how the name came to be, but one theory is it is named after a thriving port town in the Bible. Another is that it came from a sermon given by Francis Asbury, one of the two founders of the Methodist church in America, who spoke to a group there sometime in the 1780s.
A celebration of growth
The Colonial Hotel in downtown Smyrna during the early 1900s.// photo courtesy of Duck Creek Historical Society
The idea of the celebration, besides just having some fun, was to educate people about Smyrna, its history and all it has to offer, says Brooks Keen, one of the organizers of anniversary events. He hopes people will learn about how Smyrna has grown from a crossroads called Duck Creek to a bustling town that also serves as a bedroom community for cities like Dover and Wilmington.
"We've doubled in size in the last 15 years," says Keen. "When I grew up it was a handful of stores on [Route] 13. Now it is its own corridor."
The original boundaries of the town were one-fourth of a mile in each direction from the Four Corners—the intersection of Main and Commerce streets. In 1857, the town limits were extended another quarter-mile in each direction, making the town equivalent to 1 square mile. At that time there were perhaps 1,000 residents.
Today, Smyrna is approximately 3 square miles and has a population of about 11,000 people.
"We're trying to make Smyrna a destination," says Keen.
Indeed, Smyrna is a destination, for shopping, architecture, history and just, well, "neat things."
Smyrna in the early 1900s.// photos courtesy of Duck Creek Historical Society
The downtown has been growing. It was one of the first towns to win the state designation of being a Downtown Development District, which means members of the town came up with a plan to build up their downtown and are eligible for some reimbursement funding when the work is finished.
Some of the town's biggest changes in the last few years are the tastiest. Where it was once a stop for fast food on the way to the beach, recently opened restaurants like Maverick Texas BBQ, the Lemon Leaf Cafe and Sheridan's Irish Pub have people driving from neighboring towns and counties for everything from quick sandwiches to fine dining.
"It's a good town," says Vinyard.
She invites people to poke around her shop Jacques (pronounced Jakes) on Main Street, full of vintage, repurposed and eclectic furniture, accents and accessories. She shares for free stories about her merchandise, her historic building and the history of the town.
Part of that history is Sayers Jewelers & Gemologists. Ron Sayers has worked there since it opened in 1950. Today, the shop is still a destination because it makes jewelry and most of the staff are gemologists. In its 68-year history, the company has expanded three times and sold jewelry to people in every state but Wyoming, he says laughing.
Around the corner, Sue Shimomura, The Yarn Maven, is expanding as well. Her shop draws customers from a 60-mile radius to buy yarn and learn how to knit. After just over a year in business, she has waiting lists for her classes.
"We're working hard to bring business to town," says Gary Stulir, Smyrna town manager.
A boulevard for new business
Sayers Jewelers and Gemologists and the Smyrna Museum are located on S. Main Street.// photo courtesy of Quentin Schlieder
The plan is to make Route 13 an urban corridor with enticing shop fronts along the road that could encourage people to stop on their way through town, and then maybe stay to look around.
It's a pretty place to explore. In fact, there's a walking tour map online at mydowntownsmyrna.org. In less than a mile a person can see well-maintained examples of Georgian, Federal, Greek Revival, Gothic Revival, Italianate, Second Empire and Queen Anne architecture. In 2009, This Old House magazine designated Smyrna as one of the top 50 places to buy a historic home. There are more than 490 houses in Smyrna that qualify to be named to the National Register of Historic Places.
A must-see on any tour of Smyrna is the Smyrna Opera House. It was severely damaged by fire in 1948, after which town residents raised more than $3.6 million for its restoration. Celebrities from Frederick Douglass to Rosanne Cash have graced its stage.
Smyrna played a role on the Underground Railroad helping slaves flee to freedom. While some people tell stories of Harriet Tubman marching liberated slaves up Main Street or discovering hidden spaces behind false closet backs in their old houses, the National Park Service in 2001 identified the Duck Creek John Hunn House and the Smyrna Brick Store Landing as specific stops in the effort.
Above Main Street, the Smyrna Eagle watches over everyone from its perch atop the house where John Bassett Moore—the first American judge to serve on the World Court and a member of the Hague Tribunal—was born.
A creative hub
Main street looking north.// photo courtesy of Duck Creek Historical Society
Maybe it's something in the water at the "beach" at Lake Como, or maybe it's the inspiring scenic vistas at Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge, but Smyrna seems to breed creativity. Former National Geographic photographer Kevin Fleming spent his childhood there. Country music star Chuck Wicks grew up on a potato farm there. And all over town there are glass artists, marble sculptors and musicians.
"There's a whole lot of talented people," says Larry Ford, a stained-glass artist and owner of Masters Art Glass Studio, who has his work showing in Europe, South America, Australia, Canada, Mexico and every state in the U.S.
That talent extends to the covert arts as well. Allen McLane was an American spy and confidante of George Washington during the Revolutionary War. He is listed on the CIA webpage as one of the greatest masters of disguise in American history. His house is on the town's walking tour.
"It's exactly what I wanted," says Carol Binns, who recently moved to Smyrna from Maryland after visiting the area every summer for 30 years. People look out for each other here.
"It's a nice community," she says.
It's the friendliness of the residents that attracted Mike Rasmussen, one of the co-owners of Painted Stave Distilling, a craft distillery located in what used to be the Old Smyrna Theater.
"The town encouraged us to be downtown," says Rasmussen, who also now lives around the corner from the distillery.
Painted Stave has become a showplace for the partnership between the downtown and the larger community. Besides offering tours of the distillery—which still has the original ornately painted theater ceiling and wall sconces—Rasmussen and his partner, Ron Gomes, hold community events and art shows in their space.
"More and more people want to move downtown. It sings of opportunity," says Rasmussen.
A townwide effort
Outside of Sheridan's Irish Pub on W. Commerce Street, Smyrna.// photo courtesy of Quentin Schlieder
It's been amazing how everyone has joined in, says Masten.
There are commemorative coins, T-shirts, a history book, yard flags, hats and Christmas ornaments available in town.
There was also a whole calendar of events for the year, which wrap up this month with the annual Christmas parade and tree lighting, caroling and a special Christmas event at Belmont Hall—a Georgian mansion built in 1773 known as the first meeting place of the Delaware Legislature.
Lauren Ide, a waitress at the Lemon Leaf Cafe, housed in one of three buildings her family helped restore on the corner of Commerce and Main, says she's not surprised by the positive response. She's helped pull down old walls and put paint on new ones at her establishment to help Smyrna grow.
"We have a lot of Smyrna pride around here," she says.