Delaware’s fastest-growing town has attracted some attentionAug 18, 2021 11:42AM ● By Tricia Hoadley
Before it was on its way to becoming the state’s fastest-growing town, Middletown, Delaware was home to a long-standing public festival, two revered private schools and the site where one of the most popular movies of the 1980s was filmed.
Located in New Castle County in northern Delaware, Middletown’s population has been expanding at an incredible rate, growing by over 206 percent between 2000 and 2010. People have found the location an attractive place to buy a home and raise a family, with easy access to both Wilmington and Philadelphia.
At just over eleven square miles, Middletown still has a small-town atmosphere. It has also attracted the attention of one of the fastest-growing companies in America—Amazon—which opened a fulfillment (distribution) center there to serve customers in the region.
As people in Delaware and around the country “sheltered in place” during the recent COVID-19 pandemic, many increased their online shopping, boosting revenues for the retail giant.
Rapid growth of the area spurred the town to form its own police department in 2007. The Olde Tyme Peach Festival has been held here for many years, but was not scheduled this year due to the COVID situation.
Education has been an important part of Middletown’s heritage. Population growth caused Middletown High School to become so overcrowded that the town constructed a second public school, Appoquinimink High School, in 2008 and later a third one, Odessa High School in 2020. St. Andrew’s School, a private Episcopal boarding school opened in 1929 due to the efforts of A. Felix du Pont, a director and vice president of the DuPont Company. The institution was founded to provide a high-quality education for boys of all backgrounds, regardless of their families’ ability to pay. St. Andrew’s became co-ed in 1973. It is notable for its scenic location on 2,200 acres of land, the majority of which is a nature preserve. Nearby the lovely Noxontown Pond is open to fishermen and used for students’ crew exercises. St. Anne’s Episcopal School also serves students in the region.
A. Felix du Pont must have enjoyed the talents of N.C. Wyeth—a large mural by the artist graces the wall in the St. Andrew’s School Dining Hall. In it, the school’s founder is depicted gazing into the distance at his dream of a new educational institution; students both in formal and athletic dress are standing nearby. Felix’s sister Irene is honored there as well. The Irene du Pont library was constructed in 1956, later completely renovated in 1997. It holds 32,000 volumes, over 120 periodicals and computer labs, other technology resources and a reference room for supporting student research.
The world got its first look at St. Andrew’s in 1989 when the film “Dead Poet’s Society” was released. Directed by Peter Weir, written by Tom Schulman and starring Robin Williams, the movie is the story of a fictional elite prep school for boys—Welton Academy—located in Vermont and set in the late 1950s. “Dead Poets Society” was shot on location at St. Andrew’s. The film was an immediate hit, garnering good reviews and Academy Award nominations for Best Director, Best Picture and Best Actor. The movie won an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay.
One of Welton Academy’s former graduates, John Keating (portrayed brilliantly by Robin Williams) is an English teacher there at the school, but his approach to teaching is, shall we say, a bit unconventional. He urges his students to act out their emotions and express their inner feelings in ways they’d never done before. Telling them the Latin phrase “carpe diem” (“seize the day”), Williams nudges them to throw off the shackles of everyday life and appreciate the beauty of every moment.
Mr. Keating’s activities attract the attention of the school’s senior staff and eventually get him in trouble. Some of his students participate in pranks on campus. One of them, Neil Perry is so impressed with his teacher’s methods, he decides to audition for the lead part in a school play and become an actor, but this lands him in hot water with his father, who is emphatic that his son will attend medical school. Neil is determined to follow his heart, but that gets his father even more determined—to set him straight and enroll him in military school. There is a heartbreaking scene where Neil is so distraught at the changes forced upon him, he takes his own life. At the film’s end, Mr. Keating is fired from his position and forced to leave the school. His students are stunned to see him go and, in a moment reminiscent of the film “Goodbye, Mr. Chips,” give a memorable performance of their own to show how much they love him. “Dead Poets Society” remains a very popular movie, and it brought attention to what had been the sleepy bedroom community of Middletown.
Some well-known personalities have called Middletown home, including Reggie Leach, the Philadelphia Flyers player on their 1975 Stanley Cup-winning team. Dennis Blair, former U.S. Director of National Intelligence and folk singer Loudon Wainwright III are alumni of St. Andrew’s School. Middletown’s convenient location, attractive educational opportunities and small-town appeal make it a popular destination for those who are considering living and working in the northern Delaware area. Who knows? If it continues its rapid growth rate, perhaps another film will be shot there, bringing more recognition to this place which sits quietly on the fringe of Wilmington.
Gene Pisasale is an historian and author who lives in Kennett Square. He has written ten books, mostly on American history. His latest book is “Forgotten Founding Fathers: Pennsylvania and Delaware in the American Revolution.” His books are available on www.Amazon.com and his website at www.GenePisasale.com. He can be reached via e-mail at [email protected].