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Middletown Life

Finding your way through history

Mar 27, 2018 05:21PM ● By Steven Hoffman

One of the great things about escape rooms is that you don’t have to be a genius to figure them out. And although history can be a part of the story, you don’t have to be an historian either. Although if you do happen to a genius and a historian, it will probably give you an advantage.

The Middletown Historical Society escape room is coordinated by Barb Wessel, who is also one of the board members. Wessel got the idea from her daughter, a medical librarian at the Delaware State Hospital, where she was creating one as a team-building exercise for the workers.

“Because you have to work as a team to accomplish this,” Wessel said, “I thought that would be a good thing for the historical society to do to get more people involved and to bring different age groups in here, as well as increasing awareness of the organization. There are a lot of new people in Middletown.”

Part of the mission is to educate people about the rich history of Middletown.

“This was the path to the Chesapeake,” Wessel added. “Right through here. So we started this to bring in a different crowd and build upon that. Plus, it’s a popular thing that’s happening right now. There are quite a few in Newark, some in Dover and at the beach. Why not capitalize on this?”

Although Wessel is quick to note that you don’t have to love history to participate, she is personally a big fan. “I like history. That’s why I’m part of this. But when people came to our first escape room, they thought they had to know all about the Civil War, but it’s just a themed room. You don’t have to know anything to do the puzzles. It’s just logic and you just have to think about it. And you gather your facts from what’s in the room.”

In relating how the first escape room worked, Wessel said, “It was a Civil War encampment and you were looking for the loot that was hidden by the Confederates.” There was a trunk with six locks, which needed keys to unlock them. Some were keys and others were number and letter combinations. You had to go into the room and figure out how to find the items.

There were some trial runs to make sure everything would proceed smoothly. “We did these so we knew what to expect.,” Wessel said. “We had ages from 7 to 70. A lot of families came through; it was a good experience for them.” And yes, there were some arguments. But they were friendly arguments.

“It’s all about fun. Yes, it can be a challenge, but it’s really what you make it,” Wessel said. “And it gets the kids involved. In fact, sometimes, the kids come up with solutions before the adults do.”

In preparing the room for public participation, Wessel and her colleagues are very careful in placing the clues. Since they are dealing with some very rare artifacts, they are particularly cautious with regard to what they can and can’t utilize. “We don’t want to use anything that is precious because we wouldn’t want to ruin it. We put clues behind old photographs, but some things are archived and we don’t want anything to be broken. Sometimes people come in and start ripping things apart, although we were lucky this time that the public was very gentle with everything. We hid a flashlight in a tree stump and they had to find the batteries. Then there’s a key over here, but what does it unlock? We also had an end table with a phone in it that would help with the camera. Then we had a rod with numbers on it so you had to figure out which rod goes where, and then come up with the number, which would unlock something else.”

The “clue crew” monitors the whole thing in another room and determines whether the group is having problems and might need some help. “We were watching them on a camera so you see where they’re going and if they’re stuck, you give them a clue,” Wessel said. “Watching how people interact is interesting.” Each group gets an hour to figure out the solution.

Obviously clues for baby boomers won’t work as well (or at all) for millennials. “We had a clue that was a riddle,” Wessel said. “Some of the older people knew the riddle, but the younger ones didn’t. The answer was ‘pins and needles.’ The question was, ‘What has an eye but not a head?’ So many people didn’t know it’s a song.”

The challenge is to come up with an equal amount of references which relate to all age groups. The same kind of balance is also important with respect to the difficulty of the mystery puzzles. Tough, but not so tough they can’t be solved.

The next escape room challenge has been determined and it’s official. “This time, it’s a pirate ship that has wrecked in the cove,” Wessel said. The actual story line is still in the planning stages. The history involves Captain Kidd and Blackbeard coming up the Delaware and, of course, buried treasure along nearby shores -- Bombay Hook, Woodland Beach between Dover and Middletown.

The stories abound. For instance, Blackbeard used to come on shore by Blackbird Forest. Legend says it used to be called Blackbeard, but they changed it to Blackbird. Wessel added that coins were found on area beaches and there were many shipwrecks along the shore. Much of this is documented. “There was a lot of piracy going on around here,” she said.

Wessel has all kinds of interesting information about Blackbeard. “He dressed with all this armor and weaponry, but he really didn’t kill anybody. He was really tall, like 6-foot-4, and he towered over people so he scared them that way, but he never killed them. He chopped off their fingers, but he didn’t kill them.”

According to Wessel, Blackbeard had a lady friend up in Marcus Hook. “That’s why he came up the Delaware and why he was stopping along the way,” she said. “They found the house they shared and discovered some artifacts that proved he had been there.”

Along with Wessel, there are several other people who play important roles in putting the escape room together. “I’m just the organizer, Wessel said. “I have a lot of people on my team. We have the builder and the puzzle maker and the logistics person. It’s a good team.”

During a brief tour of the building at 216 West Broad Street in Middletown, Wessel was happy to show some of the upstairs rooms, one of which will house the second escape room, scheduled for this spring. The place is a testament to Middletown history.

“Up in the attic is where the school students stayed,” Wessel said. “On the wall, you can see where people owed the bookstore money, and they wrote down how much they owed. Yep, the figures are still up there.”

One exhibit shows what downtown looked like back in the day, with a trolley car, a shot of Main Street looking toward Route 301, a barbershop, a church and an area where Lowes is currently located. Another exhibit contained a map of the Underground Railroad.

The soon-to-be-pirate-escape-room was under construction at the time. There’s a planned path around the room for the visitors to traverse in their effort to solve the puzzles. “It’ll be really cool-looking when we get it all done,” Wessel said.

So get your group together and come see if you’re up to the challenge. Eye-patches and skull and crossbones are optional.

For more information: Middletown Historical Society (216 N. Broad St., Middletown), 302-378-7466,

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