Middletown: Yesterday and todayApr 12, 2023 12:46PM ● By Tricia Hoadley
Although its origins go back to the late 1670s, when Adam Peterson purchased warrants for the land which eventually became Middletown, the town’s incorporation did not occur until two months before shots were fired at Fort Sumter starting the Civil War. Originally a crossroads town halfway between Cantwell’s Bridge (Odessa) and Bohemia Landing in Maryland, Middletown possesses a rich history, exemplified by many of its buildings, institutions and monuments. An educational academy, a war memorial and a theater embody this heritage, all sites near downtown which add color to a vibrant community, now the fastest growing one in Delaware.
Most people think of a lottery as a way to win millions of dollars, but back in 1824, Middletown needed a school, so the Delaware State Assembly authorized a lottery to raise funds for the purpose of constructing an educational institution for local children. Middletown Academy has its origins in this lottery, which was designed for “…raising a sum of money, not exceeding six thousand dollars…” for “…the erection of a building… to contain rooms for an academy and elementary school, and also a room for public worship… to be free for all denominations of Churches.” Local landowners supplied the first six acres and in February 1826, approval was granted for “building an Academy two stories high, with two rooms on each floor… to be built of the best materials and in a plain but substantial manner.” A tenant on the purchased land caused some problems- he refused to vacate the property, so William H. Crawford donated two acres of adjacent land, on which the building was constructed. The cornerstone was laid on August 24, 1826; the academy opened on October 15, 1827.
For nearly 50 years, the Middletown Academy provided quality education for students, but in 1876 it became part of the public school system. The school was finally closed in 1929 and the building deeded in 1945 to the St. Georges Hundred Historical Society for preservation. The town acquired the structure in 1960 and it was used for a variety of purposes by community organizations and public agencies. The Middletown Historical Society and Main Street Middletown currently occupy the building. The yellow brick Academy was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1972. An historical marker stands there today at the intersection of North Broad Street (Delaware Route 71) and Crawford Street, honoring its legacy.
After the railroad came to the area, Middletown farmers found a new way to get their products to market, notably peaches, which became a major export in the 1860s and 1870s. The state’s oldest continuously published newspaper- The Middletown Transcript started operations in 1868 and is the oldest continuously operating newspaper in southern New Castle County. In 1886, Middletown became one of the first cities in the state to install electric street lights.
Middletown owns the distinction of being the first city in Delaware to erect a memorial to those who fought in “the war to end all wars”- World War I. Located in the center of town at Cochran Square, named after a prominent local businessman, the Middletown World War I Memorial is a stately 18-foot tall bronze shaft with an ornamental base, with a five foot square granite base. It honors all who served in that war and was dedicated “…in memory of Rupert R. Burstan, Capt. U.S.M.C., John J. Hoffecker, 9th Infantry, E.Davis Manlove, 59th Pioneers, Jeremiah Jackson, Colored I.R.D.” Today the monument honors local citizens who served in all wars. The memorial has a beautiful bronze eagle at its top and even provides light for passers-by with two white globes which come alive at night.
The busy townspeople wanted some entertainment so in 1863 Middletown’s first stage opened as the Masonic Hall and Opera House. The establishment held productions for more than 50 years, until 1918, when a disastrous fire took down the building. Insisting that the town have a place for public enjoyment, a new structure was built on the same site and on November 9, 1922, the Everett Theatre opened its doors, allowing people to see a magnificent 600-seat interior designed by the Hoffman-Henon Company, renowned theater architects. For more than five decades, the Everett thrilled audiences, but finally dimmed its lights and closed its doors in 1979.
The Everett didn’t stay closed for long. Four years later a group of concerned citizens known as Associated Community Talents purchased the theater, determined to bring entertainment back to town. They succeeded—and today the Everett hosts a wide range of productions. Over the years, it has staged such popular plays as “Barefoot in the Park,” “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” and “South Pacific.” Their annual Children’s Theatre Workshop brings young people together to experience the thrills of stage productions, with footlights, dance and drama. Even if you’ve never been to Middletown, if you’ve seen the movie “Dead Poet’s Society,” you have viewed its stage, which was included in filming for the production starring Robin Williams. Their Rogers Trio Organ even provides music during the occasional silent film shown there.
Middletown is a city on the move. Town leaders created the Downtown Development District Plan in 2019 to assist in support for the local economy and the creation of local businesses, civic and cultural venues to attract visitors and potential future residents. Between 2000 and 2010, the population more than tripled, growing by 206.3%. The town has become quite popular with many persons who work in Wilmington and even Philadelphia who have chosen to call it their home.
Gene Pisasale is an historian, author and lecturer based in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania. His ten books focus mostly on the Chester County/mid-Atlantic region. His latest book is “Forgotten Founding Fathers: Pennsylvania and Delaware in the American Revolution.” Gene’s books are available on his website at www.GenePisasale.com and on www.Amazon.com. He can be reached via e-mail at [email protected].