61 Things Every Delawarean Must Do (and a whole lot more)
by Maria Hess
Can you really claim you’re from the First State if you’ve never seen pumpkins blasted into the November sky? If you’ve never stalked a legislator? If you’ve never seen
the inside of Winterthur? Do you deserve a Delaware pedigree?
Order chicken’n’dumplings at the Smyrna Diner before the classic trailer is moved to Nebraska. While you can, shoot the breeze with longtime waitresses Charlotte Bleen and Mary Anderson, whose combined tenure equals 70 years. Expect tears from manager Jamie Compton, who pretty much grew up at the place; her mother, Sandra Margist, owned it for 34 years. Compton promises the same homey food and feeling when the new Smyrna Diner opens a mile farther south on Dupont Highway, but she and Margist are already making reservations for those who want to visit the original when it reopens in the heartland. “It was always the intention that one day we would rebuild,” says Compton. “But that doesn’t make it any easier.”
It’s hit or miss, but there’s real treasure to be found at Spence’s Bazaar in Dover. Vendors hawk everything from Engelbert Humperdinck vinyl to food processors, and they will do anything for return business—even layaway. Martha Morgenstern of Seaford—“Everybody calls me Marty”—rules a southwest corner of the warehouse, where she sells Vaseline glass pieces. Uranium makes them glow under black light, “but not enough to hurt ’ya,” she says. Spence’s attracts a colorful cross section of humanity. On one recent afternoon, a woman wearing Betty Boop pajama bottoms passed another in a blue power suit who smiled at a stroller-bound toddler who couldn’t keep his eyes off a 50-something man with a handlebar mustache and a Chihuahua. See the show on Tuesdays and Fridays.
Learn about your past. “Pay closer attention to Delaware’s significance in American history,” says James Newton, professor emeritus of Black Studies at the University of Delaware, “not only to the Underground Railroad, but to our series of firsts: first to start the nation, first cradle of black religious freedom, first to conduct a trial by a jury of peers,” So head to the Delaware Historical Society in Wilmington or, “for gosh sake, any local public library,” to brush up. Note that trial, Neal vs. Delaware, when attorney Anthony Higgins defended a black man unjustly accused of rape. “Pay attention to the lore in Delaware, like Judy Johnson, Delaware’s only black person to be elected to Delaware’s Sports Hall of Fame through the Negro Leagues,” Newton says. (Visit the hall at Frawley Stadium.) “Let’s also pay attention to this upstate-downstate mentality. We need to rid ourselves of this schizophrenic personality.” The answer, according to Newton: a County Exchange Day.
Experience FortDelaware, a restored encampment that once held 33,000 prisoners of the Civil War. Take the Delafort ferry from Delaware City to Pea Patch Island, pick up a jitney for the mile-long jaunt to the fort, then admire the 30-foot-thick granite walls, gun emplacements (including an authentic Columbiad cannon in position in the northwest rampart) and the slimy moat. About 3,200 of 33,000 Confederate prisoners held there during the Civil War died—not to mention the Union men and their families who perished from diseases like malaria, dysentery and small pox—and their spirits are said to linger. If you get an eerie sense that someone is watching you, rest assured that other visitors have had the same feeling. Other forts and sites to see: nearby Fort du Pont, Fort Miles at Cape Henlopen and FortSaulsbury near Slaughter Beach.
If you prefer to pass on another sequel to the slasher-flick favorite “Halloween,” Delaware offers great independent film alternatives such as Wilmington’s Theater N, the Newark Independent Film Festival in September, the Rehoboth Beach Independent Film Festival in November and the Hearts and Minds Independent Film Festival in Wilmington each March. WHYY-TV film critic Patrick Stoner says that indies are made by some of the best and brightest. “Not only do they provide and protect a level of quality seldom found in movies designed to attract the largest audience,” he says, “but also they serve as a stimulus and example to those who sometimes green light a wider release, as was the case with ‘Crash,’ ‘Brokeback Mountain’ and ‘Capote.’” We’re not quite up to the Philadelphia Ritz standards yet, but if we continue to patronage our indie houses, Delaware can become a contender.
We don’t know how anyone could possibly have escaped Punkin’ Chunkin’, Millsboro’s annual pumpkin-throwing contest held the first weekend after Halloween. We get a rush when pumpkins are blasted, sling-shotted and catapulted thousands of feet, then splattered into dirt. It sure ain’t the besotted backwoods spectacle it was nearly 20 years ago, but it’s just as much fun as ever.
Ride the Woodland Ferry. With a capacity of three cars, it’s not the Twin Capes or any of the ships that sail the Cape May-Lewes route, but it is a lot older. Since the 1740s a ferry has operated on the Nanticoke River at Woodland, just west of Seaford. “Travelers can enjoy the timeless pleasure of a slow trip across one of our state’s most scenic waterways free of charge,” says Russ McCabe, director of the Delaware Public Archives. The boat runs from early morning to dusk every day. The 17-mile cruise on the Cape May-Lewes Ferry offers it owns charms (including a cabana bar).
Birders from around the world know more about Bombay HookNational Wildlife Refuge than Delawareans do. You can change that by visiting now, which is prime time for observing Canada geese, snow geese, northern shovelers and other waterfowl during their annual migrations. On the 12-mile auto tour, linger at stop 4, Shearness Pool, to see the largest of four freshwater impoundments. On stop 13, which contains the freshest water of all, you could see beaver, muskrats and, occasionally, a river otter. All of the five walking trails, which range from a ¼ mile to a mile, are worth a ramble, but the Boardwalk Trail is especially nice. Bring binoculars—or if you’re a birder in the know, your Konus Vista 80 spotting scope. In December you’re likely to see a few bald eagles. Time your visit to avoid high water on Delaware 9.
Enjoy the decorated evergreens of Rodney Square during the holidays. City-employed Scrooges who ordinarily rejoice in writing tickets are forced to relax: Motorists get the gift of free parking at metered spaces. It’s a great time to stroll Market Street, do lunch at Cavanaugh’s or have a cup of coffee at the Bean Bag Café.
Savor a scrapple-and-egg sandwich at Wilson’s, a small country store on Route 30, south of Milton. Such stores were once common in southern Delaware, but only a handful remain. Open at 6 a.m., Wilson’s serves breakfast and lunch to farmers and other regulars. Grab a bite and pick up supplies for the morning hunt. Other breakfast classics: Helen’s Sausage House near Smyrna for terrific sandwiches of—what else?—and Kozy Korner on Union Street or Angelo’s Luncheonette on North Scott Street in Wilmington for good food and a regular sighting of local movers and shakers.
Old New Castle, established in 1651, is a three-mile long anachronism. But to get the real history of Delaware’s second-oldest town, convene with The Senate, an assembly of New Castle-born war veterans who hold court under the large elm tree at the foot of Delaware Street in Battery Park or at the Banks Building on The Wharf. Bob White, 81, the youngest and most outspoken member (he’ll be wearing a Notre Dame baseball cap) will share everything you need to know about New Castle, not to mention how he used to drink everyone under the table at The Green Frog on Delaware Street (now the considerably swankier Jessop’s Tavern.) The only senator who knows more is 100-year-old John Ryan. “We resuscitated him twice,” says White, “but he’s got a mind better than any.” Ask any one of them about the long-gone factories and fiber mills in town, long-dead and-or crooked politicians, ferryboats and hangings at the Market Green. What they’ll offer is far better than anything you’ll find in a history book (if a bit tainted by memory and romance). All are welcome. “The more, the merrier,” Ryan says.
Explore Delaware’s Spencer churches, and learn about Peter Spencer. Born a slave in Kent County in 1782, Spencer became a pivotal figure in black religious history by founding the first independent black Christian denomination in the country, the African Union First Colored Methodist Protestant Church and Connection, more commonly known as the A.U.M.P. church. Spencer chartered the first A.U.M.P church in Wilmington, the Union Church of Africans, in 1813. Conflict in the congregation led to the formation of two more denominations: the African Union Methodist Church (A.U.M.) and the Union American Methodist Episcopal Church (U.A.M.E.) Leaders of both the A.U.M. and the U.A.M.E. denominations hope their congregations will reunite as one A.U.M.P. church by their 200th anniversaries, seven years from now. The annual August Quarterly in Wilmington, the nation’s oldest African-American religious festival, celebrates Spencer’s work.
Order a Kitchen Sink at the original Charcoal Pit on Concord Pike in North Wilmington. The 20-scoop mountain of vanilla, chocolate and strawberry ice cream is covered with banana spears, chocolate syrup, pineapple, cherries and wet walnuts, then slathered with enough cream to make a whipped cream bungee. (Don’t ask.) The Charcoal Pit celebrated its 50th birthday in September, and though it’s showing its age, it looks just as good as ever. There is an old-fashioned counter with red vinyl-topped stools, black-and-white checkered floors, and jukeboxes on every table. Some work, some don’t, but they still take quarters. Diners pant for flame-broiled burgers and hand-dipped shakes served in frosted containers. It’s our answer to Arnold’s of “Happy Days.” Locations in Pike Creek and near Prices Corner serve the same great food, but without the retro vibe.
Head to Main Street in Newark for hip shopping, adventurous dining and, yes, Saturday-night cruising. Browse record shops such as the iconic Rainbow and Wonderland. Grab some Sicilian pie at Margherita’s Pizza or a slice of everyone’s favorite at Grotto. There’s trendier fare at Caffé Gelato and a bit of the exotic at Ali Baba. And the classic National 5&10 offers bargain buys on just about everything. Homegrown and Crystal Concepts let you indulge your inner hippie. And if you need to be well informed, hit Newark Newsstand, which carries 5,000 periodical titles and more bestsellers than ever. Tom and Carla Guzzi, owners of Bing’s Bakery, just across from Newark Shopping Center, create single serving confections for hungry yet calorie-conscious shoppers. And the Deer Park still reigns supreme as a classic. Of course, there’s far more. Visit any time, but join townies for the Newark Night street fest in June, when most UD students have absented themselves for the summer.
Go Hens. Under the home stands of Delaware Stadium, take in a private performance by the awesome UD drumline. The fun begins at the start of the third quarter of any h