In Search of Magic

Walking toward the Wagner Free Institute of Science near Temple University in Philadelphia in October, I was a little nervous. My friend Hannah and I thought we were going to go back in time and never return.

Why the concern, you ask?

We attended an annual magic lantern slide salon, of course. You can think of magic lanterns as the pre-cursor to slide carousels, projectors, and perhaps even motion pictures. When they first became popular in the eighteenth century, magic lanterns projected their scenes on glass onto walls or other backgrounds using an artificial light source. In the nineteenth century, as the Brooklyn Museum explained, the slides and the machine provided a way for lots of people to learn from the new photographic medium. (Not all slides are of photographs, though.) Modern machines, like the one we saw at the festival, are electrified. The projector we saw holds two glass slides at a time that are swapped out manually. The Wagner was an exciting place to attend such a salon, as the auditorium dates to 1865 and has hosted many a magic lantern presentation.

I learned a lot from this event. Quite frankly, I thought the presentation would be more transformative (see reference to concern about going back in time). But in fact, the visual experience of seeing the slides merely echoed projector or slide carousel presentations. The images did appear more crisp than what contemporary projectors seem to be capable of reproducing. What I found most interesting was the breadth of lantern slide collections in the region and how underutilized they are as archival sources. There may be good reason for this. If you ever handle these slides, you sense immediately how fragile they are. You drop it, it breaks (speaking from experience at an antique mall last year).

But that did not stop these archivists from institutions as varied as the Chemical Heritage Foundation, Penn Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, and Philadelphia Museum of Art from generously bringing their fragile collections to the Wagner and putting on a show. Some archivists used historic scripts. Others created wholly contemporary interpretations of old slides. Some mixed the two. We learned about how workers at the Stetson hat manufactory, which was based in Philadelphia, made its famous hat. We took a tour through the galleries at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. And we all cooed over a basket of baby lions born at the Philadelphia Zoo.

The festival was part of Archives Month Philly. Looking forward to more fun events next year, even if we do not go back in time or confront magic. This was, after all, held at an Institute of Science.

Further Reading and Exploring

One consortium called A Million Pictures is preserving lantern slide heritage in Europe.

The Brooklyn Museum has digitized some of its lantern slides. You can find out more about that collection here.

Mira Lloyd Dock probably taught forestry at Penn State with this lantern slides.

The Brittingham family in Wisconsin recorded and remembered their lives with these gems.

 

On Preserving African American History in the First State

Politely traipsing through privately-owned early nineteenth-century houses in Historic New Castle, Delaware, last May, I enjoyed the opportunity to take a peep as some strangers’ lives (and their glorious views of the Delaware River).

Gardens and Views of the Delaware River from The Strand in New Castle, Delaware
Gardens and Views of the Delaware River from The Strand in New Castle, Delaware, May 2015

In its 91st year, A Day in Old New Castle traditionally supported historic and other non-profit organizations based within the “old” city limits. As the New Castle Historical Society’s New Castle audio tour explains, the National Historic Landmark District, established in 1967 and expanded in 1984, includes buildings associated with land and events surrounding early Dutch and English settlement.

New Castle Delaware Historic District (New Castle, DE, Community History and Archaeology Program)
New Castle Delaware Historic District (New Castle, Delaware, Community History and Archaeology Program)

This vintage Day in Old New Castle ticket in my collection speaks to that European settlement history.

Mid-20th-Century Day in Old New Castle Ticket (Nicole Belolan's Collection)
Mid-20th-Century Day in Old New Castle Ticket (Nicole Belolan’s Collection)

I love New Castle so much I lived there for about two years while I was completing my PhD coursework, and I would consider moving back if the opportunity presented itself. New Castle boasts one of my favorite historic houses, the Read House, which is run by the Delaware Historical Society. The house, which you can tour, is well-documented and preserved. The house’s history is fascinating, but don’t miss the breath-taking view of the Delaware River from the second floor.

George Read II House, New Castle, Delaware (Historic American Building Survey, Library of Congress)
George Read II House, New Castle, Delaware (Historic American Building Survey, Library of Congress)

The “Day in Old New Castle” (DIONC) tour allows visitors to check out the homes and/or gardens a handful of current residents choose to open to the public for a few hours during this annual tradition. For the next few years, DIONC will be particularly critical for introducing Delaware’s new National Park (dedicated in 2013) to the public. The park encompasses the Woodlawn Tract (a patch of undeveloped land open to the public in northern New Castle County preserved by nineteenth-century cotton mill owner William Bancroft), the New Castle Court House (built in the 1730s, making it the oldest extant court house in America, and served as Delaware’s capitol building until the capital moved to Dover), the New Castle Green (the beautiful public space in the heart of Historic New Castle), and the Dover Green (plotted in 1717 and surrounded by historic sites such as the place where DE delegates met to agree to ratify the Constitution in 1787).

The sites that comprise the new National Park and the well-maintained private homes are, without a doubt, historically significant. But like all places, there is a lot more to Old New Castle than buildings associated with founding fathers. Perhaps the one that intrigues me most because it is now condemned and in danger of being demolished is the Mouth Salem Methodist Episcopal Church at 138 E. 4th Street.

Places like this deserve more attention than they get.

I drafted this blog post in May, but this sentiment now seems all the more dire in light of the recent murder of nine congregants at the Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, South Carolina, a crime with which 21-year-old Dylan Roof has been charged.

Mouth Salem Methodist Episcopal Church, New Castle, Delaware (May 2015)
Mount Salem Methodist Episcopal Church, New Castle, Delaware (May 2015)

Built to replace the original 1857 wood frame worship space, this 1878 Gothic Revival structure served as New Castle’s second black church. (Bethany UAME Church had been established first in 1817.) According to a National Register nomination prepared in 1983, the church retains some original furnishings such as carved wooden clergy stalls. The surrounding burying ground at Mount Salem includes several gravestones that commemorate African American soldiers—such as this one for Jerry Myers–who served in the Civil War.

Mouth Salem Methodist Episcopal Church
Jerry Myers gravestone at Mouth Salem Methodist Episcopal Church, New Castle, Delaware (May 2015)

Now, as the notice affixed to the front door suggests, the Church is endangered.

The New Castle City Board of Health condemned the church last February due to “visual verification of mold infestation caused by moisture and flooding in the basement area” and “a strong odor of mildew through the structure,” as the notice states. The notice also explains that there is “probable cause to the believe that the church may be structurally compromised.” The Church’s congregation worships elsewhere.

I don’t know what progress has been made in mitigating or otherwise addressing the Board of Health’s orders. And one can’t help but wonder what will become of the civilians’ and soldiers’ graves here too. Next year’s Day in Old New Castle, then, may include one less building and therefore one less opportunity to learn about African American history in Delaware.

One might conclude African American history sites in Delaware face a bleak future. Yet the Delaware Historical Society recently established the Center for African American Heritage. I hope initiatives like will prevent future deterioration of Delaware sites associated with African American history. So here’s to a bright future for raising public awareness of and appreciation for African American history in the First State.

Further Reading and Exploration

For a comprehensive tour of buildings in Historic New Castle, check out the New Castle Historical Society’s excellent audio walking tour (which includes the Mount Salem Church), available free here. If you can, visit in person to explore this charming city.

You can learn more about New Castle Historic District here.

For a visual overview of New Castle’s history, check out Jim Travers’ New Castle (2005). For a more sustained look at New Castle’s history, see Constance J. Cooper’s 350 Years of New Castle, Delaware: Chapters in a Town’s History (2001).

The End of a “Delaware Backstory”

Some time in the 1650s, a Dutch soldier named Peter Alrich was shipwrecked off New York. (At the very least, his luck ran out – I have found conflicting secondary sources). Instead of giving up on starting a new life in the colonies after what was probably a harrowing experience, he stayed in the “New World” and bought some land to farm near present-day Port Penn, Delaware, a town founded in 1763 by David Stewart. Yes, that’s right. Alrich was bopping around Delaware before William Penn (1644-1718), the man from England who acquired present-day Pennsylvania and Delaware from King Charles II.

Port Penn, DE (Google Maps)
Port Penn, DE (Google Maps)

Peter’s grandson built a brick house on the land in 1760. The house, up until recently, was one of a few in Delaware that predated the Revolutionary War. In the nineteenth century, the Alrich family sold that house to the Kux family. In the 1990s, the Kux family sold the house and 340 acres of land to Delaware Wild Lands, Inc. According to the Delaware News Journal, the owners were under the impression that the eighteenth-century home would be preserved.

Kux Alrich House

For a few years, Delaware Wild Lands rented the home to a caretaker. That arrangement ended around the time the septic system failed. Uninterested in restoring the home’s septic system, Delaware Wild Lands applied for a permit to demolish the home from the New Castle County Historic Review Board. I attended the meeting back in August when the Board considered the application. I was there with my partner Tyler to support the preservation of the home along with other historians, archaeologists, and preservationists from the region. It turns out there were plenty of Kux-Alrich advocates in the room.

And why not? We wanted to speak in favor of preserving this home. To me, this seemed to embody a central part of the Delaware Wild Lands’ noble mission to conserve and manage the site’s “biodiversity” and “traditional uses of the land.”

If farming and building a house in 1760 aren’t “traditional uses of the land,” I’m not sure what are.

Despite the outcry, Delaware Wild Lands decided preserving the house was outside its mission (see comments by Executive Director here). So, they offered anyone with the means to take the house and move it elsewhere. (This is one example of what is involved in moving a house.) Unfortunately, no one took them up on the offer. (It is possible to board up historic buildings. See the example of the stone house at Historic Elk Landing.) Happily, at some point in time, it seems that Delaware Wildlands allowed the University of Delaware’s Center for Historic Architecture document the house.

But now, that house is just that – a pile of documents. Some time around May 27, 2014, after the New Castle County review board could no longer sit on the permit request, Delaware Wild Lands razed the 1760 home. That means it was destroyed.

So how do we prevent this from happening again? First, I should note that not all historic places or things can or should be saved. As a cultural heritage professional, I make decisions about what should be discarded as well as preserved on a daily basis. I’ve probably made some decisions future historians will find inane. It’s difficult to determine now what’s worthy of preserving for the future. But in the case of the Kux-Alrich House, no one has persuaded me that the house, its landscape, and all of us would be better off without it. What’s a landscape without its history or a history without its landscape?

This is a view of the Robert Ashton House in Port Penn, Delaware. You can see why Alrich and Delaware Wildlands chose to use this landscape. It's a beauty.
This is a view of the Robert Ashton House (built around 1700) in Port Penn, Delaware. You can see why Ashton, Alrich, and Delaware Wild Lands chose to put their stamps on this landscape. It’s a beauty (HABS).

Let this be a lesson to us that we should remember the interconnectedness of conserving the land and preserving the stuff on it. We can start by doing a better job cultivating environmental and cultural stewards from a young age before we loose more traces of what it meant to be human in Delaware. People shaped what comprises Delaware Wild Lands just as much as they shaped that house. We can learn and benefit from both.

I wish I had learned more about this place before it was destroyed. I will always wonder what it was like to walk into that house and admire the views of the wetlands, the marshes, and the fields. Why did Alrich pick that spot? Why did his grandson stay? What made that house a home and a workspace? What was the house’s relationship to the land around it? Why did one of the last men who lived there love the house and the land so much that he had his ashes spread there?

I don’t know, and I never will.

Further Reading

For more about the history of the Alrich House, see the following articles and blog posts:

For a brief overview of Port Penn and its architectural heritage, see pages 208-210 in W. Barksdale Maynard’s Buildings of Delaware (2008).

For a more in-depth study of Port Penn and its built and environmental heritage, see pages 281-315 in Gabrielle M. Lanier and Bernard L. Herman in Everyday Architecture of the Mid-Atlantic (1997).

If you want more detail on the life of Peter Alrich, see Kate Hutchinson’s The Unbeatable Dutchman (2011).

Nearby History

There’s nothing like a few days of spectacular weather to encourage two Ph.D. students to get out of the house. Last Saturday, my partner Tyler and I ventured to Havre de Grace, Maryland, to investigate the town and its museums. We found a great used book store just a few steps away from the town’s oldest extant building.

Rogers House, 1788, Havre de Grace, MD
The Rogers House, built around 1788, survived the British burning of the town in 1813

We also learned that this circa 1900 Shad Shack’s preservation depends on the public’s beneficence.

Circa 1900 Shad Shack, Havre de Grave Maritime Museum
Circa 1900 Shad Shack, oldest known surviving example from the Upper Chesapeake Bay

Its interior is intact, too. As I have written elsewhere, I am entranced by the interpretive value workspace “period rooms” hold for us.

Shad Shack Interior

On the way back to Newark, we spontaneously followed a sign for “historic” Elk Landing. Little else along busy route 40 indicated its presence just a stone’s throw down the road save this liquor store featuring a Revolutionary War soldier graphic.

Elk Landing Liquor Store from Route 40 going West
Elk Landing Liquor Store from Route 40 going West – Always nice to see local businesses giving a nod to history

After we turned at the intersection and drove past a few homes and a prison, we encountered Elk Landing.

Historic Elk Landing
Historic Elk Landing

Elk Landing’s national historical significance lies in that General Howe’s troops supposedly navigated up to this site from farther the Chesapeake Bay during the Revolutionary War. From there, the British went on to the Philadelphia Campaign through northeastern Maryland, northern Delaware, and southeastern Pennsylvania. This movement culminated in the British defeat of the Americans in the battle of the Brandywine.

Today, in addition to the landscape itself, a circa 1800 home and a circa 1780 stone building on the Elk River constitute “Historic” Elk Landing.Hollingsworth House

The town of Elkton owns the site, and the group that cares for the property hosts occasional gatherings at the larger of the two buildings. The stone building, though not in use, has been thoughtfully boarded up. Perhaps the current keepers of the Kux Alrich House could get some inspiration from this type of preservation.

Eighteenth-Century Stone House at Elk Landing

We found a few signs indicating the yet-to-be-fulfilled intention to develop a “living history museum,” complete with a blacksmith shop and a cooperage.

Will a donor step forward to fund the cooperage?
Will a donor step forward to fund the cooperage?

At first, I thought this was an unfortunate failure. But I realized that the group smartly decided not to go ahead with each of these projects until they had funding for them. For now, the buildings and the landscape are preserved, well-kept, and accessible to history nerds like us (and a giant turkey vulture.)

This visit to Elk Landing capped off the end of an enjoyable day.  By the following afternoon, I was eager to visit the site where Howe’s troops first landed in Maryland, before they marched up to Elk Landing.

So as the afternoon started to wane, Tyler and I went off to find Elk Ferry, known as Oldfield’s Point in the 1770s.

Oldfield's Point, Maryland

Turns out our friends at Google have also labeled the point on its map, but, frustratingly, someone had marked the road to the point as private. Soldiering on, we cruised by some homes along the shore just north and east of Oldfield’s Point, and we could, in fact, see water from the car. Still unsatisfied, we Googled some more and came across a historical marker that commemorates the overlook of Howe’s landing.

Overlook General Howe Landing Map
Overlook of General Howe’s Landing, marked on a map

At first, I was bummed that we couldn’t get to Oldfield’s Point. I had wanted to be where Howe and his troops at landed. But we deemed the overlook

Overlook of General Howe's Landing
Overlook of General Howe’s Landing

…which was in front of a church outdoor amphitheater that also overlooked the Bay was quite charming in and of itself. And if we had been able to drive down Oldfield Point Circle, we might not have bothered to find the overlook. According to Battle of Cooch’s Bridge (1940), “the people were numerous and well-dressed” when they watched Howe and his men make their way onto the shore from this spot. I find it fascinating that, historically, civilians turned out to take in military maneuvers and battles. We generally avoid doing that today, if only because we would be in comparatively more danger given the increased power and precision of modern weaponry.

Hart's United Methodist Church Amphitheater, overlooking where Howe landed  in 1777 at Oldfield's Point
Hart’s United Methodist Church Amphitheater, overlooking where Howe landed in 1777 at Oldfield’s Point

We had assumed we would have to drive to the end of Elk Neck just to the west to get to or see the landing site. Thanks to the overlook, that wasn’t the case. Even though we made it there and spied Oldfield’s Point, we decided to venture to the end of the peninsula, anyway, to see what the State Park there had to offer. After making a short trek down a path along the water, in the shadow of an early nineteneth-century lighthouse, we took in a magnificent view of the Chesapeake Bay.

IMG_4503

We thought day two’s hunt would provide us with an  hour-long distraction. Instead, we found several “new to us” historic sites nearby that, at first, eluded our abilities to make good use of our reference books and maps. If Google or other powers that be had marked these local historical sites on Google Maps (as we initially wished they had), we would have spent far too few hours exploring our nearby history.