Historic wanderings around MiddletownApr 21, 2022 04:14PM ● By Tricia Hoadley
If you’re driving around Middletown, Delaware and want to find some links to the past, you won’t have to go too far. On the west side of Broad Street near Crawford stands a building whose roots go back almost two centuries. In 1824, a group of local citizens petitioned the General Assembly to construct a building for "an academy and elementary school, and also a room for public worship.” A lottery was held the next year and $10,000 was raised to purchase six acres of land for the structure. A problem arose almost immediately. According to historian Thomas J. Scharf, author of “History of Delaware: 1609- 1888” one landowner refused to sell, so a trustee of the proposed institution, William Crawford, donated a two-acre lot for the school. Construction began in 1826 and was completed the following year.
The Middletown Academy was a private school typically utilized by the families of ‘country gentlemen.’ The building is solid brick with a yellow stucco facade, two and a half stories in height with a belfry and cupola, as well as four dormers arched above the roof. For years it was called “the Yellow Prison” by students. In “Historic Landmarks of Delaware and the Eastern Shore,” author Betty Harrington Macdonald states that Reverend John Wilson was the first principal of the academy starting in 1827 at a salary of $400 per year. An early advertisement mentioned tutoring in the “English branches” for $8 a session; mathematics training cost two dollars more. For those families who lived far away, Macdonald mentions that early advertising stated: “Good boarding can be had in respectable families in the village at the rate of $40 per session” and “a few boarders can be accommodated in the family of the principal.” As this author attended a small private Catholic school as a child, these words hint at how schools used to operate many years ago.
The Academy functioned as a private institution until 1876, when it was leased to two public school districts. Classes were held there until 1929, when a local school was built. The trustees sold the Academy building to the federal government, but public interest prompted the St. Georges Hundred Historical Society to purchase it in 1945. Fifteen years later, the town bought the building and over the years it has housed offices, a meeting hall, police station and library, more recently the local historical society and Chamber of Commerce. It was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1972.
A building whose roots go back roughly three centuries also calls Middletown its home. Old St. Anne’s Church was built in 1768 on the site of a former wooden Church previously constructed around 1705. The Church was named in honor of Queen Anne, the English monarch at the time. Macdonald in her book mentions that after a period of rotation among various preachers, the Church stabilized under the leadership of Reverend Philip Reading starting around 1746. A staunch supporter of the Crown, Reading began hearing protests from church members as the American Revolution got underway. He never preached there again after July 21, 1776. The beautiful Flemish bond brick structure is a sturdy reminder of how churches were built over 250 years ago. An east end Palladian window allows light inside; some of the other windows are shuttered. Macdonald describes galleries on the south and west walls; box pews with doors have three sections for those who want to worship. Outside the building stands a white oak tree believed to be more than 400 years old. The nearby cemetery holds a distinctive gravestone- that of artist Frank Schoonover (1877- 1972). Schoonover was one of the highly gifted students of Howard Pyle, founder of the Brandywine School of Artists. He became one of the most successful illustrators of the early-mid 20th century. His works along with those of his mentor are featured at the Delaware Museum of Art.
Just southeast of Middletown, you can see a part of early industrial America still in good shape. The Noxontown Mill has roots that go back to around 1740, after Thomas Noxon built a dam on nearby Appoquinimink Creek. The grist mill which operated there supplied schooners which sailed up the Appoquinimink to load grain from its doors. A small settlement grew up around the mill which came to be called Noxontown. Macdonald notes that by the time of the Revolutionary War, the area had a bakehouse, a brew house and an inn. It has been reported that Noxon’s son was living at the property when British General William Howe’s forces prepared to march northward to assault colonial troops near Cooch’s Bridge. The mill has undergone several restorations over the decades, from the 1880s to the 1950s and despite its age, is in remarkably good condition. The site was listed on the National Register in 1973.
So, if you’re looking to find some of Delaware’s “roots,” these sites around Middletown can bring you all the way back to the days when our country was young, early settlers worked the land and our republic was just beginning to take shape.
Gene Pisasale is an historian, author and lecturer based in Kennett Square. He has written ten books focusing mostly on the Chester County and Philadelphia area. His latest book is “Forgotten Founding Fathers: Pennsylvania and Delaware in the American Revolution.” His books are available on www.Amazon.com and through his website at www.GenePisasale.com. Gene can be reached via e-mail at [email protected].