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WHY GO: Milford and Dover, DE represent the yin and yang of quirky travel. Milford is a picturesque artsy town on the rise. Dover, the Delaware State Capital, seat of Kent County, and site of Dover Air Force Base, provides a historic and military perspective. Twenty miles from each other, it’s easy to experience both on this unusual Getaway. Climb into Air Force Two, learn about the country’s first “murder-by-mail,” sleep comfy in mansions owned by former Delaware Governors, and, of course, eat well, on this Southern DE escape.
Milford and Dover are two of Delaware’s Quaint Villages, and the Getaway Mavens have not lost sight of the rest of those towns. You’ll find much more to do in “the heart of Delaware” on THIS POST, with a roster of things to do in Smyrna, Bowers Beach, and Harrington.
Things to Do in Dover and Milford DE
TOUR: Delaware Public Archives, Dover. OK, I know what you’re thinking. Public Archives? How bor-ing. But I’m here to tell you that after taking the Delaware Public Archives tour, I cannot laud it enough. Why? Because you’ll hear stories and see photos and learn things about how our government works that will astound.
The building itself is imposing: first built in 1939 by the WPA, with a glass 2005 addition. There’s a research library, and small museum currently commemorating WWI in paintings, photos, documents, and weirdly wonderful “Trench Art” – beauty wrought from spent munitions (mostly shells).
The Public Archives was established in 1905 for several reasons:
- To Keep Official Records
- To Protect Citizen Rights
- As invitation to see the workings of government.
To that end, plan to join a tour here (by appointment only). Archivist, Tom Summer, takes guests on a behind the scenes look at the process by which documents are acquired, managed, and stored.
Black and white photos blanket the walls of a hallway crammed with dozens of cubic foot boxes, containing thousands of documents fetched from City and State agencies. One is a photo of a very young Amelia Earhart, standing next to Bellanca Aircraft pilot, Eleanor Smith. Earhart was eager to purchase a plane from this Delaware-based airplane manufacturer. After her required flight test with Smith, Earhart’s request was turned down. The Bellanca Aircraft pilot concluded that Amelia did not have enough expertise at the time to buy her own plane.
In the “processing area,” some papers come in requiring “loving care.” Archivists first remove staples and metal clips to prevent rust marks. Next, tightly wound, brittle photos are sealed in a “high-tech humidification chamber” so that they can be safely unrolled. What is this “high-tech” contraption? It’s a giant rubber trash can sealed with wet sponges under a milk crate upon which documents are placed for several days. Works like a charm.
Most of the materials that come in are scanned and put online. Some, though, just can’t be. Younger school groups love the “Dead and Dying” artifacts: floppy discs, 8-track tapes, and the once cutting edge Sony Walkman, among other antiquated tech.
The document storage area is a hushed room, kept at 60 degree Fahrenheit. The oldest document is a 1795 New Castle County Court Document complete with quill pen. The oldest artifact, however, is a 1532 State Bible first used in the swearing in ceremony for Governor Thorpe in 1847 and in nearly every inauguration since (except in 1901 for Gov. Hunn, who was a Quaker).
Summer removed a bunch of court documents bundled together with the red ribbon used in olden times to indicate government papers. This is where the phrase “wrapped up in red tape comes from,” said Summer.
Nearly half the visitors to the Delaware Archives come to the Mabel and Lloyd Ridgely Research Room for genealogy research. There are over 6,700 books, a self-service microfilm room, and programming. But you needn’t be a Delaware resident, or even have roots here to enjoy a visit. Exhibit area and research room open Mon-Fri. 8:30-4, free, behind the scenes tour by prior appointment.
TOUR: John Dickinson Plantation National Historic Park,Dover. The boyhood home of John Dickinson, this Plantation was Delaware’s first National Historic Landmark. Dickinson stood out as the only Founding Father who refused to sign the Declaration of Independence. You’ll discover why at his “Homeplace” outside of downtown Dover.
Begin in the Visitor’s Center, built in the 1980’s with reclaimed PA barn wood. Watch a 15-minute video before moving along to the main house, a 5-minute walk through a grove of trees.
In 1738, John’s family moved to Delaware from their tobacco farm (a “luxury” and water-sucking crop) in Virginia to grow the staples of corn and wheat. From an elite family, Dickinson was sent to England to study law. He practiced in Philadelphia, married a Quaker, Mary Norris, and owned land in both Pennsylvania and Delaware.
While serving in the Assembly of both states, Dickinson wrote a series of screeds, called “The Farmers Letters,” declaring his opposition to the Townsend Acts – the British mandates to tax the American colonies from afar. He also wrote “The Liberty Song,” – a popular ditty sung in every Colonial tavern to raise funds for the cause. For all these reasons, Dickinson was considered by his contemporaries to be the “Penman of the Revolution.”
In 1774, John Adams wrote that Dickinson was a modest, agreeable man. A man, however, who distinguished himself by abstaining when it came to sign the Declaration of Independence. Dickinson pressed for a more “United States” with a Central Government, rather than a collection of 13 self-governed states. His reasons were sound, and proven valid 11 years later, when the U.S. Constitution replaced the Articles of Confederation.
But Dickinson supported the Declaration once it was signed and took up arms in the Revolutionary War. In 1787, Dickinson signed the US Constitution.
A tour through the Plantation house is a peek into Dickinson’s personal life, though my guide did “trigger” warn me that we’d encounter lifelike mannequins in several rooms. The mustard yellow shutters and vibrantly green front door were most likely the same as when Dickinson lived here as a child and again during the Revolutionary War.
Rooms are set up for a family of means. A desk that belonged to neighbor, Caesar Rodney, sits in a corner of the parlor. The Grandfather Clock in the well-stocked “Book Room” still works. Dickinson himself chose interior colors of the main floor: Straw yellow with red trim, and an almost neon green in the dining room. “John was a bit flashy,” noted the guide.
The interpretation of Dickinson’s home life does not shirk from slavery. In the basement office, there’s a depiction of Dickinson and his free Black tenant farmer, John Furby, in the process of signing a contract. Also on display is a copy of Dickinson’s 1786 manumission document, freeing the last of the 57 slaves that he hadn’t already freed. Open Tues-Sat. 10-4:30, from April – Oct. also open Sundays 1:30-4:30, free.
VISIT: The Biggs Museum of American Art, Dover. Founded by Peach magnate, Sewell C. Biggs, just 26 years ago (1993), The Biggs focuses on Decorative and Fine Art from the Mid Atlantic, New York, and New Jersey.
Galleries on three floors are bright and delightfully arranged into parlors and living rooms sporting landscape and portrait art juxtaposed with period furniture. So, discover American Baroque from 1720 – 1750, the Federal Mid-1700’s, American Empire, Late 19th Century after the Civil War, through each era’s clothing, crafts, folk art, furniture, Grandfather Clocks, and paintings.
Don’t miss Thomas Cole’s – the “Father of Hudson River School of Art”- Summer Sunset. And make sure to climb the ornate cast-iron staircase between the 2nd and 3rd floors. Before leaving, check out the great gift shop, Delaware By Hand, featuring only DE artisans. Open Tues-Sat. 9-4:30, Sun 1:30-4:30, $10, under 18 free.
TOUR: Air Mobility Command Museum @ Dover AFB, Dover. If you’ve watched the news and have seen coffins of dead military men and women removed solemnly from airplanes, you’ve seen Dover AFB. With the only Port Mortuary in the military complex, Dover has the sad distinction of being the first US destination for any soldier who dies in combat overseas.
But Dover is also home to one of the best military museums in the country- the Air Mobility Command Museum. What is Air Mobility, you ask? Anything to do with the movement of troops, food and equipment, or, as tour guide Jon Andrews quips, “You call, we haul.” It’s the only museum in the USA dedicated to airlift and refueling history.
It’s this hauling that is so compelling here – from small aircraft to some of the largest flying “trains” in the world. People come from all over the world specifically for this museum because they can actually get into the cockpits of the planes central to some of the greatest airlifts in history.
Both inside a historic hangar and outside on the tarmac, you’ll see dozens of these workhorses – like the C45 that dropped 19 paratroopers onto the beach at Normandy on D-Day, and a C9-A Nightingale flying hospital that served injured troops from the 70’s to early 2000’s.
Time your visit to step inside Air Force Two – used mostly by Vice Presidents and First Ladies. Michelle Obama was the last First Lady to fly on this now decommissioned DC-9, which also carried four presidents; Carter, Regan, Bush and Clinton. Andrews points out the “very fancy” coffee maker in the galley – Mr. Coffee – “good enough for VIP’s!”
Perhaps the most impressive airship is the C5A Galaxy –one of the largest military aircrafts in the world – longer than the Wright Brother’s first flight. At 121 feet, the cargo hold could carry 2 Abrams Tanks, 9 aircraft or 6 ½ fuel tanker trucks at one time, secured by chains and clips engineered to restrain up to 25,000 pounds. In 1974, this plane launched an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile in the Pacific (the only time an ICBM was launched from the air), in a demonstration of US capabilities during the Cold War. Plan to stay one or two hours here, though you’ll most likely stay longer. Open Tues-Sun 9-4, free.
TOUR: Dover Green, “First State” Heritage Park. A section of Dover most overlooked by tourists, the Dover Green is ringed by the Old State House, clubs, taverns and historic homes. You’d be well served to take an hour-plus walking tour of this charming place. A museum without walls, local history certainly comes alive here.
Anyone who’s got a beef with the US Constitution can take it up with Delaware, which was the first state in the Union to ratify the Document in 1787. Having just split from Pennsylvania, Delaware’s delegates met at Battell’s Tavern – now The Golden Fleece Tavern (and yes, on the tour) to vote on ratification.
A very entertaining overview of the Dover Green, illuminated by stories of those who worked and lived here – the big machers of their day – begins at the The 1740’s Joshua Bell House.
As then part of Pennsylvania, and midpoint between Philadelphia and the Port of Lewes, William Penn established Dover as a Court Town in 1683. Entrepreneurs, like tavern-keeper, John Bell, set up shop downstairs from the courtroom. His inn changed names from Bell Tavern to King George’s Tavern to George Washington Tavern as the country’s alliances shifted.
You’ll hear about the merchant who imported uniforms from England to clothe Washington’s troops, pass by Declaration of Independence signer, Cesar Rodney’s, house, and learn about The Century Club – established here in 1897 as a Women’s Philanthropic group, but was more a front for political action.
In 1919, the election for the Women’s Vote was held in Dover. Suffragettes from the Century Club stood on the Green handing out yellow roses. Those who opposed suffrage handed out red roses. This method of persuasion was coined “The War of the Roses” in national media. Women did not win the right to vote until the following year, in Tennessee, where a letter from the mother of an official persuaded a deadlocked vote.
Perhaps the most sensationalistic story here, though, revolves around the country’s first “Murder By Mail” in 1898, originating in San Francisco, but with victims right here on the Dover Green. The case involved a philandering husband on a newspaper assignment in San Francisco (John Dunning), a spurned lover (Cordelia Botkin), and a Delaware society wife (Elizabeth Pennington Dunning) and her sister, Ida.
In a fit of jealousy over her man, Botkin sent a box of poisoned chocolates from S.F. to Elizabeth in Delaware. Elizabeth, believing it was from another friend in California, ate the chocolates, but not before sharing a few with neighbors and her sister.
The neighbors became ill, but Elizabeth and Ida died. Botkin was tried, found guilty and sent to San Quentin where she died of “softening of the brain,” a euphemism for syphilis. Free walking tours Mon-Fri 10-3, let by historical interpreters begin at the John Bell House every hour on the hour and are 45 minutes. For “First Saturdays” of Each Month programming, and other events throughout the year, check the website.
TOUR: Old State House, Dover. No longer the Legislative House (that’s behind the Green now), the Old State House was first opened in 1791, fell into disrepair, was slated for demolition and saved, nearly singlehandedly, by society matron Mabel Lloyd Ridgely (who lived cattycorner next door). In 1912, the exterior was renovated, followed by the first interior redo in the 1970’s and another one to correct the color palate in 2007.
As originally contrived, the State House served as courthouse, and was a noisy place, as the public was allowed to trot in and out during proceedings. As per the English Court System, three judges oversaw trials, during which witnesses were asked to stand in an enclosure at the front during testimony (hence the term “witness stand”). Open Mon-Sat, 9-4:30, Sun 1:30-4:30, free.
TOUR: Delaware State Capitol aka Legislative Hall. You can also tour Delaware’s working Capitol building. Open Mon-Fri 10-1, and select Saturdays.
VISIT: Johnson Victrola Museum, Dover. Did you know that the saying “put a sock in it” derived from the only way that Victor Talking Machine users could dampen the volume on its speaker horn? You’ll discover this and tons more at this esoteric, hugely entertaining museum covering the world’s first popular record player. A tour takes you through a 20’s era store to listen to music on original Victrolas, and then on to comprehensive exhibits about its history.
In 1879, Thomas Edison was first to record sound and play it back. Early machines were rudimentary tin foil cylinders that had to be cranked by hand. Eldredge Johnson, considered “too stupid for college,” became a machinist and in the late 1800’s, developed a motor that would drive a hand-cranked gramophone.
The “victor” in a series of lawsuits in “The Patent War,” Johnson created the Victor Talking Machine Company in 1901, selling it to RCA in 1928. It was a time when adding “ola” to the end of a word – Crayola, Coca Cola – gave the product marketing cred, and so, when the speaker was placed inside a cabinet, the “Victor Talking Machine” became the Victrola.
The Victrola went on to make Johnson very wealthy, and one dog, Nipper, a household name. The mixed breed Terrier from England was the subject of a painting called “His Master’s Voice,” portraying him staring quizzically into a gramophone horn, and Nipper’s story is told in an exhibit on the second floor. This little RCA-Victor dog is now one of the world’s most recognizable trademarks. Open Wed-Sat. 9-4:30, free, but donations happily accepted.
GO: Spence’s Bazaar & Amish Market, Dover. If you’re into it, pick through the flea market tables for knickknacks and cheap bargains inside and outside this massive barn. But definitely go into the market building where Mennonite and Amish girls in bonnets scoop ice cream, roll dough, and dispense meats and food to hundreds of eager eaters.
VISIT: Milford Museum, Milford. In the original Milford Post Office, this glass-case museum celebrates the idiosyncrasies of a small town. There’s a Civil War Room, an exhibit on shipbuilding – once the town’s principal industry – a WWII display featuring a Japanese Battle Flag from Iwa Jima, and a whole room devoted to Ladybugs, the “State Bug.” If you love sports history, Milford was known for its baseball team. There are pictures from the late 1800’s, and currently, Milford plays a full season in the National Vintage Team, which uses 1864 rules and period dress and equipment. Open Tues-Sat 10-3:30, Sun 1-3:30, free but donations welcomed.
WALK: Mispillion Riverwalk, Milford. In the 18th and 19th centuries, seven shipbuilding companies were situated along the Mispillion River, which runs about 15 miles to the Delaware Bay. Young artists have provided a fresh take on this history, fashioning 18 decorative replicas of the classic yacht, Augusta, that line the landscaped brick walkway through town. In the summer, the river comes alive with kayakers and canoers, but it’s a wonderful stroll any time of year.
SHOP: Gallery 37, Milford. Marcia Reed taught art at a private school in Western MA for 35 years, and then relocated in Milford to open this visually exciting arts and crafts gallery. Reed shows both her own work and that of high-end, super creative crafts-people who fashion the likes of inner tube/marine vinyl handbags, eclectic lamps, ceramic horseshoe crabs, and whimsical “Git Boxes” – ukuleles made from old cigar boxes ($350-$500).
Gallery 37 was voted “Best Gallery Downstate” by Delaware Today Magazine, drawing patrons from Washington DC and other surrounding cities to this sleepy town. Reed handpicks the painters, furniture craftsmen, sculptors, ceramists, fiber artists and jewelry makers herself. “This is not tourist trade stuff,” she states.
SEE/SHOW: Riverfront Theater, Milford. This Southern Delaware town has its own spunky little theater open all year long. Run by the Second Street Players, it features everything from A Christmas Story to Fiddler on the Roof.
Where to Eat in Dover and Milford DE
EAT/DOVER: 33 West Ale House and Grill, Dover. The casual, pub-like 33 West is known for its variety of great burgers, local craft beer on draft, and some of the friendliest servers in Delaware.
EAT/DRINK/MILFORD: Locals love the beautifully river-set River Lights Cafe for Tex-Mex (Del-Mex?) breakfast. Locals and visitors alike make a beeline to Mispillion River Brewery for the newest IPA, Ale or Porter on tap in the tasting room. The Brewery is one of five stops on Kent County’s “Good Libations” Tour – which also includes a winery and distillery.
Where to Stay in Dover and Milford DE
STAY/DOVER: State Street Inn, Dover. The State Street Inn, a pretty Tudor Revival home on the corner of a residential street, was once the home of Delaware’s 8th Governor. On the National Register of Historic Homes, it stands among other stately Victorian homes in this leafy residential neighborhood, a ten-minute walk from Dover’s historic downtown.
Owned since 2017 by the friendly Fred Breukelman and his wife, Joan, this four room bed and breakfast is the place to stay for antique-lovers and others looking for an upscale homey overnight in Delaware’s Capital city.
There’s off street parking behind the home, adjacent to a pretty brick patio. I knocked on the rear glass door, and Fred came right out to welcome me into the great room and dining area, where the walls are blanketed with chicken-stamped wallpaper. At first, Joan wanted to remove the in-your-face décor but decided to keep it after guests remarked on its nods to the local chicken industry and how fun/quirky it is.
The wallpaper, and Joan’s legendary Lemon Cookies (intensely decadent morsels that tempt you in the afternoon and evening even if you’ve already had dessert), have become State Street Inn’s trademarks, along with an 1860’s Mathushek Co. Rectangular Orchestral Piano (unplayable) that stands in the front parlor.
My room, the smallest of the four, was nevertheless spotless, eye-catching, and tidily furnished. The grey wood framed bed clad in white, burnished wood floors, small flat screen TV, neo-Greco toilet paper stand, fluffy blue bathrobes in a large walk in closet– not to mention lots of outlets for electrical devices at the bedside wall (rare for an old inn) – indicates a guest-forward attention to detail.
A made to order breakfast is included with the room, and can be Strawberry Cream Cheese stuffed French Toast, Belgian Waffles, or omelet your way. The hash-browns come straight from the freezer, but the fantastic Maple Chicken Sausage, from a nearby farm, is a winner; a most requested menu item for sur. Rooms from $95-$120 include made to order breakfast, parking, wi-fi, bottled water, snacks, and Joan’s famous Lemon Cookies.
STAY/MILFORD: Causey Mansion B&B. Once occupied by Governor Peter Causey (in the mid 1800’s), owners Jan and Joe have put their own stamp on this spectacular inn. The couple collects Asian antiques, and you, the guest, are the beneficiary of their good taste.
The mansion, sitting on a rise on the edge of downtown, is a grand Georgian, Neo-Classic Colonial, with high ceilings, big windows, expansive gardens and welcoming patios and statuary.
Inside, the inn appears to be an exotic and eclectic emporium of Chinese and Japanese ceramics, furniture and woodblock prints, “Even Louis” (14th and 16th) pieces, an 1840 room-dividing screen from the Iran Embassy in DC, and a cornucopia of other antiques to make an aficionado’s heart sing.
Each of four lavish rooms is a showpiece. I stayed in The Country Room, walls and ceiling trimmed in Shaker Blue, overhead lamp made of perforated tin, hardwood floor with floral rugs, Spanish chest of drawers and knickknacks tastefully scattered about. There’s even a small, indiscreet flat screen TV.
Honeymooning couples ask for antique-filled Sussex Room, with an extravagant clawfoot-tub bath.
Breakfast is a lavish affair, served on a large table in the dining room. Joe whips up quiche, peirogis and other delights for breakfast. Rooms $125-$175 include wi-fi and gourmet hot breakfast.