Dover, Delaware, a way of life preserved

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By Victor Block

DELAWARE —

In a museum as eclectic as it is entertaining, my wife Fyllis and I gaze at an exhibit that rekindles memories of our youthful jitterbugging days. Later, we chat with a young man steering a plow pulled by six sturdy horses.

Welcome to Kent County, a surprisingly inviting destination where touches of history, which greet visitors around every corner, combine with vestiges of contemporary life in the slow lane.

The historic center of Dover, Delaware’s capital, retains the charm it did when laid out by William Penn in 1683.

The Dover Green is where a Continental Regiment was mustered during the Revolution, and where, in 1787, Delaware’s delegates gathered at the Golden Fleece Tavern to ratify the Constitution, making it “the first state.”

The Old State House, completed in 1791, served as Delaware’s Capitol for more than 140 Years, until the Legislative Hall replaced it in 1933. A five-minute audio-visual presentation followed by a guided tour brings to life the people who once deliberated within the walls of the graceful Georgian-style structure.

Located around the corner from the imposing Old State House is the tiny John Bell House, which dates from the mid-1700s. It was owned by three generations of a family that operated a series of taverns around The Green.

The little wooden structure now serves as an interpretive center and the starting point for tours. Our costumed “historical interpreter” shared information that ranged from facts and figures to interesting tidbits about life as it was when members of the Bell family lived there.

After taking in our fill of early Americana, Fyllis and I set our sights on the long list of other attractions in and around Dover. A short stroll led us to the Johnson Victrola Museum, which we found to be as fascinating in its own way as our truncated history lesson.

Delaware native Eldridge Johnson founded the Victor Talking Machine Company in 1901. The museum, which honors him, houses collections of more than 100,000 old records, antique phonographs and memorabilia that trace the history of recorded sound. Especially amusing is an assortment of early hand-cranked “talking machines” with oversized listening horns.

An introduction to a more contemporary chapter of history is available at farmer’s markets that take place in and around Dover. Our stroll through Spence’s Bazaar combined the usual appeals of a sprawling open-air shopping experience and a first encounter with representatives of the Amish community that has found a home in the area.

Dressed in their distinctive “plain people” attire, the Amish offer for sale a variety of fresh-baked breads and pies, homemade fudge and other hard-to-resist, diet-busting foods. Non-edible items included a jukebox, priced at $2,200, which contained records with songs like At the Hop and See You Later Alligator, which prompted memories of our long-past teenage years.

Equally enjoyable were encounters with the Amish lifestyle during a drive in the countryside. We passed tiny shops and tidy farms that line narrow, winding roads. A young man guiding a six-horse team pulling a plow paused to chat with us.

The main feature at Shady Lane Selection is a large collection of quilts, one of which Salina Yoder was working on when we arrived. She was using a foot-pedal-powered sewing machine, in keeping with the Amish practice of eschewing electricity.

Even this long list of attractions and activities doesn’t exhaust the possibilities. The somewhat oddly named Air Mobility Command Museum, which is housed in a World War II hanger, is home to more than two-dozen aircraft. They include an open-cockpit biplane and a retired jumbo jet whose passengers included U.S. presidents and vice presidents and the Queen of England.

The Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge encompasses 16,000 acres of habitat for waterfowl, songbirds, shorebirds and other wildlife. Close-up animal encounters are available for those who set out on gentle walking trails or who prefer drive-by sightings from their car.

The section of the Coastal Heritage Scenic Byway that runs through Kent County meanders through marshlands that skirt Delaware Bay and leads to small fishing villages A personal favorite was Leipsic, a tiny hamlet where working boats used for fishing, crabbing and oystering often are tied up at the dock. Fyllis and I received a lesson in crabbing from two watermen as they unloaded bushel baskets of creepy, crawly crustaceans they had just retrieved from the traps they tend.

For more information about Dover and Kent County, call 800-233-5368 or log onto visitdover.com.