Looking at how the paths of history intersect in Middletown
Aug 25, 2015 12:45PM
By Steven Hoffman
For much of its history, Middletown was a sleepy little town, but a surprising amount of history has passed through the area, as shown in “Middletown Goes to War,” a long-term exhibit being hosted by the Middletown Historical Society.
The exhibit, which is on the first floor of the society's headquarters in the Academy Building on Broad Street, has a well-chosen collection of objects and information about Middletown families – or people who were associated with the general area – bringing history into sharp focus. The text panels and objects in display cases cover a huge sweep of time – from the Revolutionary War through the Vietnam War. During a tour, Alison Matsen, a staff member of the Historical Society, said, “I love to see local people take pride in their history. I love to see family things on display.”
Matsen pointed out the exhibit's list of signatures of local men who signed the “Oath of Loyalty to the Delaware State” in 1778, as well as a transcribed letter from George Washington to Gen. Rodney, advising him to muster men (“the quota assigned your State, at Middle-town and in its neighborhood,” the letter states) to harass and attack British troops as they made their way through the state on their way toward Philadelphia.
Matsen explained that Middletown got its name because it is at the midpoint going east and west on the Delmarva peninsula. It's eight miles across, “the shortest portage between the Chesapeake and Delaware River,” Matsen said. The local Native Americans knew this, and would carry their canoes across to get from one river to the other. Originally, Route 299 was a well-worn path, Matsen said, and settlers in the 1600s just widened it for carts.
The War of 1812 is reflected in the career of Capt. Thomas Macdonough, who was renowned for his victory over the British in the Battle of Lake Champlain in Plattsburg, N.Y., and whose home still stands on Route 13, six miles from Middletown. Nationally celebrated, Macdonogh's victory is immortalized in a commemorative Staffordshire plate on display in one of the cases. The plate – part of a whole commemorative set from the War of 1812 – was produced in England and shipped to America for souvenir buyers, despite the fact that England lost the battle.
During the Civil War, Middletown was a divided town in a divided state. There were local men who fought on both the Union and Confederate sides, and the division was reflected in the Witherspoon Hotel and the National Hotel, one of which drew Confederacy sympathizers and one of which drew Union sympathizers. The foundation walls of the Witherspoon survive today in the center of town.
The Spanish-American War was fought in 1898, and there was a training camp for about 1,000 members of the Delaware State Militia near Middletown, at a place called Camp Tunnell. The exhibit spotlights Leonard B. Chadwick, who was born in Middletown, for his bravery in cutting undersea communications cables being used by Spain, despite intense fire from Spanish ships. He won the Medal of Honor for his bravery, and went on to volunteer in the Boer War in South Africa.
World War 1 is reflected in the diary of former resident Julius Kirk, which is displayed in one of the cases and translated on a text panel. The diary vividly blends the miseries of camp life – cooties in clothing and the illnesses that claimed many lives – with the horrors of combat.
There is information about the Red Cross and Marie Louise McDowell, a local nurse who served in Paris during World War 1 and later was sent to treat the wounded in Serbia.
Visitors will also discover hidden stories along the way, such as that of Walter Wiest, who graduated from the school that used to be housed in the Academy Building, was wounded in World War 1 and returned home to die at the age of 24. In 1921, a bridge was named for him just south of town, but the marker has since been lost. Matsen said she will try to get a replacement sign put up in honor of the young man. There's a photo of Wiest and some of his classmates standing at the door of the Academy Building – the same door visitors walk through to enter the museum. It's a striking reminder of how the past and present intersect.
During World War II, there was a camp for captured German prisoners 11 miles northeast of Middletown, at Fort Dupont. Prisoners were put to work on local farms, and the exhibit highlights the letters exchanged between German prisoner Peter Doehrn and local farmer William Price. The cordial correspondence continued after the war, when Doehrn would ask for supplies while living in war-ravaged Germany.
Visitors can leaf through a World War II photo album owned by soldier Ralph Motter, who married a girl from Middletown and lived at Noxontown. The album shows Motter and his fellow soldiers in Paris at the close of the war, as well as in training and in camp.
There are several things for younger visitors to explore as well, with hands-on activities such as playing with cast-iron toy soldiers, playing with a rotary phone, playing a record on a turntable, and signing their own “oath of loyalty” to Delaware.
Upstairs, there are several galleries packed with fascinating exhibits put together by the historical society, including a whole room where children can sit at an old-fashioned school desk, play with paper dolls, write on a chalkboard and get to know toys of the past. There's a room full of objects from the turn of the century to the 1920s – dubbed “Downtown Abbey” after the popular PBS series – as well as a room devoted to schooling in the Academy Building, and the local peach industry.
Visitors can also research their own family roots through 124 years of the Middletown Transcript available online, and look at maps, letters, books and photos. The society is always looking for volunteer help for individual projects, and visitors are welcome on Fridays from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., the first Saturday of the month from 9 a.m. to noon, and the third Wednesday of the month from noon to 4 p.m. The Middletown Historical Society is at 216 N. Broad St., Middletown. Call 302-378-8265 or 302-740-5544, or visit www.middletowndehistory.com.