Last Updated on
WHY GO: Though most people come to Wilmington DE to be immersed in all things DuPont, there’s resurgent interest in its Black History. Delaware, and Greater Wilmington in particular, was an important conduit for Freedom Seekers on the Underground Railroad. So, in addition to the DuPont attractions of Hagley, Winterthur, Nemours, and Historic Odessa, discover the key players in Delaware’s Abolitionist Movement – and Harriet Tubman’s relationship to them.
Since I first wrote about downtown Wilmington and the Brandywine Valley in 2014, the City itself is much farther along in its renaissance. Rodney Square, “the heart of downtown Wilmington,” is currently under renovation with the reconstruction of two original fountains. Market Street is being revitalized in a big way. And the Green Room at the Hotel DuPont is currently being updated. Most exciting is a “surge of new restaurants” that are collectively making Wilmington a prime destination for foodies.
Attractions in the greater Wilmington area can be daunting, many require a full day to explore. But no fear, the Getaway Mavens are here – guiding you to the most curious and intriguing figures in American History and their displays of industry, ingenuity, and wealth with a side of great dining and luxury bedding.
What to do in Greater Wilmington DE
PHOTO OP: Harriet Tubman Monument, Unwavering Courage in the Pursuit of Freedom. A “border state,” Wilmington DE was a crucial “station” on the Underground Railroad – the last Southern city before crossing into free Pennsylvania.
Heroine Harriet Tubman forged a close connection with the Abolitionist Quaker and Wilmington Underground Railroad “Stationmaster,” Thomas Garrett. She also worked with free Black, Samuel Burris, one of Delaware’s most notable URR “Conductors;” and free Black, William Still, who worked in an Anti-Slavery office in nearby Philadelphia.
On the Underground Railroad, trust was a key commodity, as runaway slaves were betrayed all the time. Garrett and Still developed a “Trust Network,” allowing freedom seekers multiple options to move through Delaware. This was a major reason why Tubman’s efforts were so fruitful in Wilmington.
VISIT: Jane and Mitchell Center for African American Heritage/Delaware History Museum. Poke around the plaques, signage, photos, and artifacts that tell the history of African-Americans in the New World.
The first permanent resident of Delaware is considered to be “Black Anthony” (Anthony Swartz) – who arrived in here in 1639 on the Swedish ship, Fogel Grip. By 1664, one fifth of those living in the new Swedish colony were of African descent.
Exhibits wind through, time, from Abolitionist activism, Underground Railroad, Emancipation, Reconstruction, and Jim Crow. Walk into a makeshift church and gospel music starts to play.
African Union Church founder, Peter Spencer, established the Big Quarterly here in 1814, which remains a thriving annual prayer revival. More displays are devoted to civic unrest of the 50’s and 60’s, Martin Luther King, Jr, Desegregation, and the Arts, Music, Clubs and Associations important to the Black community.
The painter, Edward Loper, was a prominent WPA muralist in the 1930’s. Musicians, Clifford Brown and Cab Calloway had roots in Delaware. Twins, Nnamdi Chukwuocha and Albert Mills, the 17th Poets Laureate of Delaware, represent the thriving, engaged, artistic, and intellectual “now” of this reviving town.
The bulk of the adjoining DE History Museum concerns the State’s beaches, shipbuilding, DuPont family, peaches and chickens. Prior to the “peach blight,” it was Delaware, not Georgia, that was known for this summer fruit. The Blight put the kibosh on that industry. Now, poultry makes up 70% of Delaware’s agricultural business. Chickens rule the roost! Open Wed-Sat. 11-4, free. Evening lectures throughout the week (check website) are also free.
TOUR: Historic Houses of Odessa, Odessa DE. Located about 30 minutes south of Wilmington, Odessa DE is worthy of a three building, 1 ½ hour tour – or at least a drink and dinner at the impressive Cantwell’s Tavern.
Under the auspices of the well-known Winterthur Museum until 2003, this tiny blink and you miss it town on the Appoquinimink River, population just over 300, boasts several homes dating to the mid-1700’s, a former bank that serves as a Visitor’s Center, the operating Cantwell’s Tavern, and other private properties. Not to get too cliché about it, Historic Odessa is an all around “hidden gem.”
A mere three miles from the Delaware Bay, the town was a thriving shipping center in the 18th and 19th centuries. Originally called “Cantwell’s Bridge,” in 1850 the name of the town was changed, with seemingly stupefying hubris, to that of the top grain port in the world at the time: Odessa, Ukraine.
In the early 1900’s, H. Rodney Sharp, arrived in Odessa to teach school. He eventually moved north to Wilmington, married Isabella DuPont, and, with his wife’s funds and blessing, returned to Odessa in 1938 to rescue his dear town and restore it to its Colonial grandeur.
When Winterthur closed the Historic homes, Sharps’ descendants were steadfast in their belief that H. Rodney Sharp would be “rolling over in his grave,” should he discover what was happening to his beloved town. They established the Historic Odessa Foundation and hired 18-year Winterthur employee, Debbie Buckson to lead the Board of Directors. Historic Odessa reopened in 2005, and has been quietly increasing tourism each year.
A guided tour takes you into three of the six buildings, though you begin in a 4th – the Bank, which serves now as the Visitor’s Center. (And you can eat and make merry in a 5th – Cantwell’s Tavern).
The oldest, the Collins-Sharp House – built in stages in 1700, 1730’s, and 1960’s, was actually moved here from Collins Beach 8 miles away. In danger of demolition to make room for a refinery (which never happened), the structure came to Odessa in 1962, and is a prime example of a wealthy Delaware farmer’s home. A 1723 English coin was discovered in the floorboards, and original wallpaper from the mid 1800’s remains surprisingly intact.
School groups make use of the hearth fireplace using recipes from a copy of the Virginia Housewife Cookbook, written by Thomas Jefferson’s cousin, Mary Randolph. Young kids make cake, older ones, pie, and they are allowed to eat their creations.
The stately brick Wilson-Warner House, built in 1769, belonged to general store owner, David Wilson. Sales of rum must have been good, as Wilson owned both a high-end carriage and his own sloop. The home is interpreted when his son, David, Jr. went bankrupt in 1828 – generating a meticulously itemized itinerary of his home furnishings.
The Delaware-Georgian home, with its focus on balance and symmetry, was decked out with Greek columns at the front door, wall-to-wall carpeting in the parlor, carpeted stairs, and 100 Baltimore Fancy Chairs, which Jr. collected. (Odessa Foundation is now in possession of 30 of them.)
In the backyard, be sure to see the unique triple-seat brick outhouse, and the “muskrat-skinning shed,” that “would have been down by the creek.” Now, the shed is used for lectures about the Underground Railroad, including one story that allegedly happened right next door in the Corbit-Sharp House.
Quakers, Daniel Corbit and his wife Mary, were members of the Odessa Friends Meeting House, known to be a sanctuary on the Underground Railroad. Daniel was out of town when Sam, an escaped slave with police hounds at his back, fled to the Corbit home, knocked frantically on the back door and asked for Mrs. Mary Corbit by name. Mary took Sam in and hid him in an attic nook.
Of course, that nook is the pièce de résistance of a tour of the Corbit-Sharp Home, set on a gorgeous riverfront landscape, and restored by H. Rodney Sharp to its 1818 splendor. The home had remained in the same Quaker family from 1772 to 1938, and thankfully “Quakers save everything,” so Sharp had all of the building records to work from.
The home’s wallpaper, from the later 1700’s, is a rare existing example of imported hand-painted Chinese wall coverings that became all the rage in America after Independence. Most significant, though, are the “broken” cornices over interior doors, called “mutule blocks,” in a configuration borrowed from Greek architecture. This feature is so important to the Historic Houses of Odessa, it became the Foundation’s logo. Open Tues-Sun March-Dec. 10-4:30 (last tour at 3pm), $10 adults, $8 youth. In addition, the very popular once a year 18th Century Dinner is cooked and served by costumed staff here. $125 pp.
TOUR: Hagley Museum. This is where the DuPont saga began. In service to King Louis XVI, Pierre Samuel DuPont was bound to loose his head when he escaped Revolutionary era France with his two grown sons, Éleuthère Irénée (I.E.) and Victor, to the fledgling United States.
In 1802, the DuPonts built the first version of their ancestral home, where five future generations would live, here on a dip in the Brandywine River. Improving on an ancient Chinese form of gunpowder, E.I Dupont established what was to become one of the country’s foremost chemical companies.
Begin in the Visitor’s Center where you’ll find working dioramas, and take the good part of a day to explore all 235 acres, with over 70 structures, including a small Neoclassical building that served as company school for 150 children (only on Sundays when they weren’t working in the mill: and each child was encouraged to practice their own religion as E.I. and Victor were Diests).
Don’t miss a working demonstration of shapers, lathes and other 1870’s machinery in the Machine Shop (on the half hour). As there were no Lowes or Home Depots around, this was primarily a repair facility, with hydro-powered cutting machines connected by leather straps to a centerline shaft.
Kids as young as 8 years old who showed promise could earn five cents an hour, ten hours a day, six days a week as an apprentice. DuPont gave them half while they learned, then the saved portion with 6% interest added when they became full-fledged workmen. Smell the kerosene, watch these oiled machines at work, shards of metal flying helter skelter – it’s a thrilling way to learn about early industrial life.
The other side of the machine shop is equally intriguing – illustrating how 75% Saltpeter, 12.5% sulfur and 12.5% Black Willow charcoal combined to create Black Blasting Powder. These exciting, moving dioramas depict all aspects of the powdermaking process: preparation, production and packing.
Next investigate the Roll Mills – there were once 33 in all – where two rolling steel wheels as heavy as school buses, ground the powder to the consistency of pepper flakes. Made of Gneiss stone – a dense granite – mill buildings were open only to the creek, preventing blasts from destroying workers homes.
Crouch behind a stone for the “quality control test” of the blasting powder – just a teaspoon causes a loud bang and lots of smoke. One ounce – a plastic film container’s worth – could throw a 24 lb cannonball 200 feet. There were 288 explosions during the 117 years of Hagley Mill operation, leading to 228 deaths (known as “going across the creek”). The DuPont’s were altruistic for the time, allowing widows and families to continue living in company quarters for the rest of their lives.
Take the bus from the Visitor’s Center to E.I.’s house on the hill – Eleutherian Mills – which was expanded and prettied up over the years by subsequent generations. It’s original footprint was small, the home wracked by explosives from the mills downhill, and micro-manager E.I. was known to shout orders from his balcony through a bullhorn to his workers below. He died in 1834 of a heart attack, hugely in debt, and was never able to enjoy the wealth and prestige of future DuPonts.
Plan to spend a full day or at least four hours here. There’s even an organic café – Belin Organic Restaurant – on site that serves great soups and salads. Open daily 9:30-4:30, $15 adults, $6kids. Closed Thanksgiving and Christmas.
TOUR: Winterthur. An exhibit in the Visitor’s Center of Henry A. Dupont’s 175-room museum/home, expanded from 40 to 150 rooms between 1928 and 1931, invites you to consider Colonial-era American dress and décor from various perspectives. My favorite is a watercolor titled, “Pernicious effects of Reeding Tails” – a graphic depiction of what happens when a long petticoat snags on a full chamber pot.
These slice-of-real-life vignettes come at you fast and furiously during a mind-blowing introductory tour, as you walk through narrow lamp-lit and low-lit corridors to one enthralling room after another.
Henry collected rooms from American Colonial homes in all 13 original U.S. colonies and transferred them beam by beam, crown-molding by crown-molding to his mansion. Arranging dozens of existing antique rooms into an already-built framework was an engineering marvel in itself – a feat that fascinates architects even today – and it is one reason that Winterthur is a draw for those who don’t care a whit about decorative arts.
But for those who do, you’ll positively drool over 90,000 pieces of furniture and trimmings – among the most famous a porcelain china set that belonged to George and Martha Washington and a full set of six silver tankards from the studio of Paul Revere circa 1868.
The large and colorful Chinese Parlor showcases Henry’s insistence on one type and hue of flower per vase (for some reason, he didn’t like multi-colored flower arrangements), hand-painted Chinese wall coverings, and a Steinway Grand Piano. An 1822 Spiral Staircase from a North Carolina property came with the plaster crown molding from its original home.
The 1740 Marlboro Room (Maryland) is set for afternoon tea, bright yellow seating positioned for optimal conversation. Yes, Winterthur is a showcase, but it was also the DuPont’s home, and 80% of what you see are the rooms they lived and entertained in. Choose among six tours or arrange a customized one to suit your own interests. Open Tuesday–Sunday, 10:00 am–5:00 pm. Last tour tickets sold at 3:15 pm. Last tour is at 3:30 pm. General Admission, $20 adults, $6 kids.
VISIT: Nemours Mansion and Gardens. After a recent $39 million renovation, Nemours well illustrates the story of Alfred I. DuPont, who built this 47,000 sq. ft. Versailles-like French château in 1910 at age 46 to woo his ladylove. The grandson of E.I DuPont, Alfred was orphaned at 13 and a full partner in “Uncle Henry’s” Black Powder business by age 25.
An inventor who held over 200 patents, Alfred was what these day’s we’d call a nerd but was loved and considered one of the boys by Hagley’s “powder men.” Not particularly flashy, Alfred believed that Alicia Bradford would love him if he treated her like a French Queen. So he hired Carrere and Hastings, the same architectural firm that designed the New York Public Library, to build Nemours. From most accounts, though she married Alfred and bore him two children who died young, Alicia never came around to loving him before she passed away in 1920.
Begin with a wonderful 15-minute movie to learn about Alfred’s hard-working and relatively humble life and strife, and about his happy later years. The tour takes you through this stucco and limestone mansion outfitted with many of Alfred’s inventions, including a wind meter that would indicate whether it was a motorboat or sailboat day, and a stained glass window that opened up.
Upstairs, in the more genteel areas, you find historical pieces like the grand chandelier – a gift from Marquis d’ Lafayette to Pierre DuPont and a clock in the reception area made for Marie Antoinette (which was on loan to the Metropolitan Museum in New York and now back in its rightful place).
Real birds reside in the Victorian birdcages in the conservatory, and for those in search of curiosities – there’s a Greco-Roman “tear bottle” used by mourners. The kitchen features a rotating silver vault and a set of personalized Limoges china specifically for the DuPont’s yacht.
But the most interesting part of the house, especially for anyone in search of man-cave ideas, is in the basement. Alfred was a sticker for detail and emergency planning, so he installed back-up furnaces, generators and hot water heaters.
There’s a personal water bottling plant, a shooting range, a two-lane bowling alley behind a retractable movie screen, and the ultimate guy’s hideaway – a room with two billiard tables, a gun rack and four butler call buttons because “G-d forbid you should run out of bourbon or cigars from anywhere in the room.”
Forced out of his own company by his cousins in a hostile takeover in 1915, Alfred, 57 and a widower, had reached a low point in 1920 when he married his third and most loving wife, Jessie Ball – 20 years his junior. This proved to be the happiest season of his life, and most profitable. The DuPonts invested in Florida real estate in 1923, just as land values were increasing.
When he died at age 70, Alfred left a fortune in a charitable trust, which is now worth billions and funds the Nemours/Alfred I. DuPont Children’s Hospitals in both Wilmington, DE and Orlando, FL. Jessie lived in Nemours until her death in 1970, often entertaining hospital board members in the grand dining room beneath the portraits of King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette.
A tour of Nemours includes a bus-ride around 300 acres of French manicured gardens (among the Best French Gardens in America) and a stop at the Carriage House. Open May 1st through December 31st Guided Mansion Tours – Tues-Sat: 9:30am, 12:00pm, & 3:00pm Sunday: 12:00pm & 3:00pm, $15.
VISIT: Mount Cuba Center. In 1934, Pamela du Pont Copeland transformed a fallow cornfield with no bio-diversity whatsoever into a thriving ecosystem with ponds, woodlands, meadows, and bogs. Now, you’re invited to walk rustic mulched paths to a lily-padded pond that puts one in mind of Monet’s Giverny, past Lady Slippers and Pitcher Plants (digesting bugs), signs with poems on the back and other surprises on 20 acres of manicured formal and naturalistic gardens and 1000+ acres of natural preserved lands.
Opened to the public in 2001, the Mount Cuba Center is newer than other area gardens, but with “old bones” and a mission: to introduce native landscape perennial and shrubs with exceptional ornamental attributes and garden adaptability.” To that end, hybrids of native ornamentals have been planted in a “Trial Garden” – half shaded and half open to the sun – where researchers are studying the hardiness of various plants.
The Copeland’s brick mansion now serves as Mount Cuba’s staff offices. For a treat, join a Yoga or Ti Chi class when offered in the gardens. Open Mid-April thru November,Wed-Sun 10-4 with later hours in the summer and classes year round, $10 adults, $5 children.
VISIT: Delaware College of Art & Design Art Gallery. The public is invited to stop in to the largest art gallery in downtown Wilmington – for free. With bold and sometimes oddball art exhibits that change every month, something will be sure to spark debate and conversation. Open Mon-Fri 10-7, Sat/Sun 10-4, free.
WALK/BIKE: The 8-Mile Jack Markell Trail from Russell Peterson Refuge to New Castle. See bridges, and climb elevated boardwalks on this newly paved riverfront pathway. Most is wheelchair accessible.
STROLL: Wilmington Riverwalk. The famous boat that carted 4,500 Jewish War refugees from France to British Mandate Palestine, The Exodus, was built right here on land along the Christina River. Once a center of ship and railcar industry, the Wilmington riverfront is now a charming esplanade lined with townhomes, high-rises, shops and restaurants. It’s a serene walk past whimsical birdhouses designed by a local artist, Tom Burke, and rowing crews practicing on the quiet water.
A former railcar factory is now home to the Delaware Center for Contemporary Arts, and the stunning “industrial chic” Russell Peterson Urban Wildlife Refuge has been carved from 212 acres of marshland. Over a mile, this charming esplanade connects several restaurants and museums and the environmental center – and places you within reach of café-rich Market Street.
VISIT: Delaware Museum of Art. Several structures make up this sunlit museum, with a concentration on “Art of Illustration.” Naturally, there are a number of Wyeth pieces, as well as those of N.C. Wyeth’s mentor and Wilmington native, Howard Pyle. The “Chihuly Bridge” – a windowed skywalk featuring a cluster of colorful glass art – is particularly striking.
VISIT: Historic New Castle. Not to be confused with the new New Castle, this 6 block historic district is so authentic (if you remove the cars), it served as backdrop for the Oprah Winfrey movie, Beloved. Some of the red brick townhomes, shutters in black and Federal Blue, were here when William Penn arrived in the New World, and at one time the copula that sits atop the Courthouse (a newly designated National Historic Monument) served as the border between Delaware and Pennsylvania.
Wander the original cobblestone streets (FYI, wear comfy shoes) and seek solace in the old church graveyard: Many stones date to the early 1700’s and are perfect for rubbing. Pop into the Read House – facing the Delaware River – built for George Read, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence as the finest home in Delaware.
To round out your colonial experience, eat Fried Oysters or a Reuben on a Dutch Pretzel Roll off pewter plates at Jessop’s Tavern and Colonial Restaurant. In a three hundred year old barrel-making shop, it’s a throwback for sure, with ale tankards, colonial fare and waitresses in period dirndl skirts.
Where to Eat in the Wilmington DE Area
EAT: Bardea Food & Drink. Opened in 2018, Bardea in downtown Wilmington, has fast become a hot ticket. So hot, in fact, it was a 2019 James Beard Semifinalist for Best New Restaurant nationwide. Dine on seriously good pizza, and tweaked Italian comfort foods in a rustic-palatial space capped with embossed copper ceiling.
For appetizers, order the heralded Nona’s Meatballs ($10), and Root Vegetable Pave ($10), with apple butter and porcini mushrooms, and you’ll see what the fuss here is all about. And why even jaded New Yorkers are checking this place out.
EAT: Ciro Food & Drink. In the up and coming Riverfront area of Wilmington, Ciro offers innovative “Tapas Style” fare in a boxcar-shaped space spruced up with retro-Victorian chandeliers. Chefs turn out well-executed variations of vegan and healthy-meats bites made without the benefit of fryer or microwave. Imagine my delighted surprise at the tastiness of baked “Fried Chicken” ($16) – offering a satisfying crunch without heart-clogging oils. Both the deliciously complex Toy Box Tomato Tart ($13), and the phenomenal Strawberry Shortcake –a cornbread/strawberry/whipped cream confection – should be menu staples.
ICE CREAM: UDairy Creamery. This University of Delaware creamery employs current students who operate the shop, create ice-cream flavors of their own design, and learn business fundamentals while earning a buck. A win-win for the community and UD.
EAT: DeCo Food Hall. Upscale food courts are having a moment – and this one is changing the way downtown Wilmington office workers are eating. “A launchpad for chefs; a haven for eaters,” DECO features everything from Indian street food to sushi and pizza, and is sure to please any palate.
EAT/DRINK: Wilmington Brew Works and La Pizzeria Metro at Miller Road Station. These two establishments sit side by side in the former DuPont owned Delaware Chemical Co. Besides dreamy lagers and ales, WBW serves up Ciderosas – mimosas made with hard cider.
La Pizzeria Metro is the real deal, and by most accounts, a hit from Day One Sept. 2019. Experienced pizza makers serve up Neo-Neapolitan Pizza that emerges hot and crispy from a shapely mosaic’d pizza oven shipped here from Italy.
EAT: Cantwell’s Tavern, Historic Odessa. Before or after your tour, or even when the Historic Homes are closed, sally forth to this authentic tavern for lunch or dinner. Though dishes are along the lines of comfort-pub-food, they’ve been updated and enlivened for modern tastes. Ergo – Kale Salad ($13.99), Meatloaf Sliders ($10.99), Peach Burger with homemade peach marmalade ($14.99), Pizza’s, Flatbreads, steak and chicken. The food is fresh and clean – with produce procured from the Collins-Sharp house garden next door – and ultimately very, very good.
EAT: Krazy Kats at Inn at Montchanin Village. Named after a woman (purportedly koo-kooo) who lived here in the 1800’s, you’ll dine in clubby luxury surrounded by portraits of aristocratic cats and dogs. Known for its wild game (e.g. Smoked Rabbit Chowder) and marvelous Crab Bisque, the chef does an expert job with Lamb Porterhouse ($18 for one chop, $34 for 2), perfectly coated Caesar Salad, and flash-fried caramelized Brussels sprouts to die for.
EAT: Green Room at Hotel DuPont. With walls and ceiling of gorgeously carved wood, this exquisite dining room, a throwback to the 20’s and 30’s, is feast for the eyes as well as the palate. I would have been content with the plate of mouthwatering diced, fried, sautéed and grilled mushrooms ($14) from nearby Kennett Square, if it wasn’t for the perfectly executed Diver Scallops ($38) seared to a golden crisp. Once known for its table-side Cesar Salad, Green Room chefs bring this tradition back for special occasions. No meal is complete without the restaurant’s signature macaroon cookies, brought to you with the check. You’ll want to take home a box.
DRINK/EAT/PLAY: Constitution Yards. This Riverfront seasonal, outdoor Beer Garden – BBQ spot is dog friendly. Plus, it’s got ax-throwing! (Thankfully, far from the bar).
EAT: Other recommendations by locals include Farmer & The Cow (for interesting takes on burgers), Torbert Social, an upscale speakeasy with strict collar-shirt (for guys) dress code, the highly touted LaFia on Market St, Buckley’s Tavern in Centerville where you’ll park your car beside Rolls Royces and wear P.J.’s to get breakfast 50% off the $18.50 Sunday Pajama Brunch.
Where to Stay in Greater Wilmington DE Area
STAY/SPA: Inn at Montchanin Village. One of the finest and surprisingly whimsical places to stay in the greater Wilmington area, the Inn at Montchanin Village once housed the laborers who worked across the street at Hagley Powder Mills. It’s now a luxury inn, and deserved its own Getaway Mavens write up here. Rooms and suites from $192-$379 include free parking, wi-fi, coffee/tea and all the Hershey’s Kisses you’ll ever want.
STAY: Hotel DuPont. A grand dame of Wilmington, the Hotel DuPont was built by Pierre Sam DuPont (owner of Longwood Gardens) in 1913 to host corporate owners and executives. It remains the place to stay in downtown Wilmington, and has kept its traditions going strong (house-made macaroons at turndown) even after a recent renovation. Room rates $200 (weekends)-$450 (midweek).
STAY: Westin Wilmington. One of several new hotels on Wilmington’s burgeoning waterfront, the Westin is contemporary and upscale. Spacious rooms from $180 per night.