Millville was an easygoing town of shipping, shopping and steam mills

Nestled in the southeast corner of Sussex County, Millville has always managed to balance a little bit of hustle and bustle with an undeniable calm and warmth.

As a town, Millville is only a few miles in any direction but has always held just enough people and services to keep the current moving, quietly, but steadily.

As a municipality, Millville was founded in 1907. But the larger area known as Baltimore Hundred was a farming community for centuries. (Hundreds are an archaic method of subdividing land by every 100 families that live there.)

England had controlled the Delmarva Peninsula in the mid-1600s, enticing the more adventurous (or desperate) settlers with 50 acres of free land to anyone who crossed the Atlantic Ocean to settle this region.

But two wealthy families were arguing over who controlled present-day Sussex County. The Penns of Pennsylvania and Calverts of Maryland both had a legitimate claim, but debated exactly how far south Penn land extended.

Thanks to a 1613 map error by a Dutch navigator who mistakenly labeled Fenwick Island as Cape Henlopen, the Penns eventually nabbed the southernmost chunk of Delaware. But on the ground, people were not eager to settle Baltimore Hundred until the mid-1700s because of the ongoing border dispute and resulting skirmishes among the locals.

Although arrowheads and other artifacts have been found in Millville, along White Creek and other places, Native Americans had long since left the area, either by force or choice. However, they’re believed to have spent summers shellfishing and cooling off along the Indian River Bay.

Incredible as it may seem today, White Creek was a small, but important shipping channel for southern Delaware. However, today’s tiny creeks no longer resemble the channels that brought and exported lumber, produce and other goods.

In 1887, the State of Delaware began planning a new public road (likely what is now Club House Road) “to be built from Thomas Steel’s [sic] landing on White Creek” to the old schoolhouse on Route 26, according to 2013’s “The Mill Wheel” newsletter. “Presumably, the road was used to transport timber and other products from the Holt & Townsend steam mill on County Road (now Atlantic Avenue) to the landing…”

The Holt & Townsend steam mill, appearing on the Pomeroy & Beers 1868 map, seems to have been located behind the modern-day Millville United Methodist Church.

Old maps also suggest that Old Mill Road might still cross White Creek at Derrikson’s Millpond dam, where a bridge remains today, just north of the Weis grocery store.

In addition to lumber, locally grown sorghum was milled into feed and molasses, according to the Town’s centennial publication.

With so much local action, Millville’s first post office opened in 1886 at the Elisha C. Dukes store.

The town was officially born in 1907, when Elisha C. Dukes, Thomas R. Steele and George H. Townsend were appointed as commissioners to survey and record the land. The first town council election was scheduled for March of 1908.

This city was nearly called Dukestown or Dukesville, simply for that family’s large number and prominence. But the mills eventually won, and that appellation lives on, even if their industry doesn’t.

Because the region was generally so poor, many men had to seek a living beyond the farms. Before the 1923 broiler-chicken boom in Ocean View, farms were small and rather self-sufficient. But while they literally put food on the table, they didn’t put money in the bank. In fact, many women traded eggs and other farm goods for grocery store staples around town, into the mid-20th century.

Men turned to the sea, becoming ship hands, captains, commercial fishermen or officers at Indian River Life-Saving Station.

Because the roads were bad and the railroad was expensive, Millville businesspeople also looked to the sea. White Creek connected to the Indian River Bay, which reached farther inland, or out to the Atlantic Ocean.

So the shipping industry awoke, with an emphasis on schooners that could navigate the narrow, shallow waterways. There was even a shipyard at the head of Blackwater Creek near Clarksville, where schooners were built, with a repair facility near Ocean View.

Shop ’til you…

Millville’s tiny “business district” surrounded the Millville Volunteer Fire Company fire hall, on the east with Bob Willey’s store and on the west with the Quillen house/post office and C.Z. Townsend’s store (later, Emmon Phillips’ store), according to Ernest Marvel, 90, and Grace (Sheaffer) Collins, 88.

Charlie Derrickson’s store was across the street, where today La Tonalteca stands, offering groceries, sandwiches and coffee.

Shopkeepers’ children were often hired to deliver groceries. Gary Willey, 68, remembers one family that placed preorders with his father’s shop before they drove to Delaware. The kids could use a spare key to shelve all the groceries before the family even arrived.

Back then, grocery stores were the social scene on Friday or Saturday nights. Adults ran errands but also stopped to shoot the breeze, catch the news and maybe play a round of checkers.

Increasingly, people relied on the chain stores for lower prices, including Selbyville’s Acme or Millsboro’s A&P. Then the Hocker family introduced Jake’s grocery store on Cedar Neck.

Jake’s nephew, now-state-Sen. Gerald Hocker Sr., purchased that store in 1971 to create G&E Hocker’s, buying up his cousin’s adjacent hardware business in 1973.

In 1980, he purchased a Clarksville convenience store on the corner of Routes 26 and 17. It started as a smaller grocery store, where Walgreen’s is now. Despite the Food Lion (now Weis) and Giant chain grocery stores that arrived in Millville around the new millennium, Hocker’s Supercenter expanded to 50,000 square feet.

His father and uncle, Richard Wood and Wilbert Hocker, partnered together to open Millville Hardware in the 1940s.

Meanwhile, cars were purchased around the area, in Millsboro or Georgetown, or Berlin, Md.

Today’s Millville Pet Stop started out as Case Tractors, owned by Lester Kauffman. Then Floyd Megee’s Studebaker dealership opened briefly there in 1948 before he moved the business to Georgetown, where it’s still run by the same family.

That corner store later became Raymond Banks’ filling station, where folks could also grab a sandwich.

The low brick restaurant of Perucci’s was once a gas station, from about 1939 to 1975, operated by a number of men before becoming a photo studio, then a gift shop.

For doctors and hospitals, people had options across the area, but for the mid-20th century, Dr. Kendall Hocker dominated the scene after his brother, Ulysses, moved to Lewes. His home and drugstore were downtown, where Steamers is today, selling ice cream and patent medicines. Although his office was in the back, he visited a lot of patients, including newborns.

But doctors weren’t the only game in town. Bill Cobb’s mother served as a midwife.

“She would leave for a week — sometimes a little longer — and go stay with somebody. Pop, he done most of the cooking anyway. She was hardly ever home,” her son said.

Mrs. Cobb helped families after the delivery.

“I don’t think she borned, I think she stayed and took care of them after the doctor born them. She took care of them for the first week.”

Home remedies cured many ills, or caused many questions. Lifelong resident Wanda Powell, 89, recalled castor oil as a nightmarish treatment for stomach aches; vinegar washes to make dark hair shiny; lemon juice for blondes; and lying in the chicken house to prevent scarring during chickenpox.

When Powell suffered from lice, her mother bought a potent rinse from Hocker’s drugstore.

“Had anybody lit a match, I’m sure I would have gone up in flame,” she recalled. After three treatments, she was pronounced cured.

But remedies weren’t always so easy. One of Cobb’s young sisters died of scarlet fever.

“I went down to Millville, and a nurse picked me up and brought me back home and said, ‘You’re quarantined in. You’re not supposed to be on the street,’” Cobb said. “When we went back, there was a paper glued on the door. We were quarantined. We weren’t supposed to be out. They thought it was catching, I guess.”

His future parents-in-law, Harold and May Palmatary, took over Hocker’s drugstore in 1945 to open Palmatary’s ice cream and soda shop, which also sold some patent medicines. They had just moved from Pennsylvania because some relatives lived locally, said daughter Shirley (Palmatary) Cobb.

They later sold it to a Mr. Lynch, who taught young “Bud” Palmatary to play checkers.

Winterbottom’s was the final iteration of that shop, where Tom Winterbottom sold newspapers, patent drugs, flowers, Halloween costumes, school supplies and other general goods.

While Willey’s store had a German butcher, some people enjoyed the luxury of meat coming to their kitchen door.

“Lee Megee from Millville would take the back seat out of his car, … butcher a cow and sell meat, going from door-to-door. Getting this meat was a treat for us,” Mary Collins recalled in “140 Years of Rainbows” (published in 1998 by Mariners Bethel United Methodist Church).

Families ate animals found locally, including chicken, fish, rabbit, squirrel, shellfish, wild duck and goose. On the other hand, Wanda Powell wrote, “beef was a luxury that we seldom had — even though my father had a grocery store.”

“When grandmother [killed] her chickens,” Powell recalled, “she would sling the chicken around and around by the neck until the poor thing couldn’t stand up, then quick lay its head on the chopping block, grab her axe and chop his head off.” The feathers were made into pillows.

Gardening was a necessity, too.

“My husband’s family, they raised chickens and they always had a big garden because, at that time, food was not easy to get,” said Lois (Wood) Dolby, who will turn 76 in 2017. “So they would all raise food to can and freeze, and that’s what you lived on all winter.”

The Ocean View canning workshop helped folks with the process.

Work on the farm and sea

Millville was always an agricultural area, but poultry got big in the 1920s and continued booming through World War II. Chickens and birdfeed sold like regular produce never had.

“The war brought prosperity for the farmers,” the late Ruley F. Banks Jr. recalled in the Millville United Methodist Church centennial publication. “The poultry business expanded as the Armed Forces demand increased. The farmers did not have enough labor, however, so the government brought in many German prisoners-of-war and workers from the islands to help.”

“I liken it to the Gold Rush,” said Bill Lord. “I understand during the war years, they got as much per pound for chicken as they do now.”

Many jobs followed those birds — for farmhands, sales reps, truck drivers, butchers and feed mills.

No farm is complete without a few animals running around to control pests.

“If you had chicken houses, these rats … [would] come up between the cracks in the boards, chew a hole in the feedbag, and they were fat as butter,” said Grace (Dukes) Wolfe, 90. But then her family got a rat terrier.

“In about two days, she had over 100 dead rats she’d killed,” although Wolfe’s mother wasn’t pleased when the dog “threw a litter of puppies on the living room davenport in February.” Wolfe had to clean the sofa before going to school that day.

Ellen and Ralph Hitchens also remember an influx of rats when the Old Mill Road dump closed in the mid-1970s. Just outside town limits, they were also close to the cattle and pig farms that could raise a stench in the right weather.

“When you would have that wind blow, and you had that rain, you could smell the chicken houses,” said Collins. She and her sister were both bookkeepers at different poultry companies.

She and her husband, John, eventually left Sussex County for good (though hesitantly) for his job sailing out of Philadelphia, but they kept the beloved family house on Cedar Drive.

Amos McCabe “got in on the ground floor and not only raised chickens but he built this building [Lord’s Landscaping now] to supply feed and coal for the other farmers,” said his grandson-in-law, Bill Lord. “The feed mill had a mixer. Farmers would come, because there was no Perdue or Mountaire. Each individual guy would come here with his own recipe — how could he get his chickens as big and as fast as he could.”

The feed business ended in 1970 and became Lord’s Landscaping in 1978.

In the later 1900s, southern Delaware had two major industrial employers, Delmarva Power & Light and the DuPont Company’s nylon plant in Seaford.

Linda and Gary Willey were married in 1973, thanks to the local newspaper. Linda had come to Delaware for a teaching gig, better-paying than in her home in North Carolina.

“During those days, Delmarva News was our local paper, and every year in September, they put a picture of the teachers that were gonna come,” Gary said. “I looked through the paper and saw her picture,” and he got a mutual friend to set up a date.

Other people were blacksmiths, hairdressers, truck drivers and carpenters.

Fired up

Like many great things, the Millville Volunteer Fire Company started in an ice cream shop. On April 14, 1936, residents met at Dr. Kendall J. Hocker’s drug store to organize a local fire service. Officers were appointed that night, and they soon decided to buy an American LaFrance pumper with a 250-gallon water tank.

That was a far cry better than the town’s previous fire protection: a single 40-pound chemical tank, which cost $60 in 1922 and had to be wheeled to each fire. It wasn’t speedy (Harry Dukes Sr. and Frank Holloway owned a shop that burned down completely in 1930, when a lit cigar was tossed behind the store). The tank was stored in the shed by H.H. Dukes Sr.’s store, until the shed itself was, ironically, destroyed in a fire.

That chemical wagon and later the LaFrance were stored in Dr. Hocker’s barn until about 1939, when the MVFC officially incorporated and purchased a lot from Amos McCabe to build a fire house.

The first building (1939) was near the current station, built in 1985. The fire company’s Clarksville annex (Station 2) was completed in 2010.

The MVFC’s ambulance service began in 1961 with the purchase of a used Cadillac ambulance from Georgetown. Until then, the Frankford fire company had provided all local ambulance service.

In 2002, the MVFC stationed another ambulance at the beach, serving the Bethany Beach fire district, but eventually it could no longer handle the volume of ambulance calls it was receiving, and the MVFC asked the Bethany Beach Volunteer Fire Company to take over the ambulance service in their district in 2009, according to the station history by William J. Quillen, Harold Lloyd, Robert Derrickson and Bob Powell.

In a community surrounded by water, the MVFC couldn’t help but to start a dive team, which they did in the 1970s. By the time a new station was dedicated in 1985, the MVFC had grown to more than a dozen apparatuses and 80 members.

Their original fire alarm was two minutes of ringing church bells. Soon, a siren was mounted at Dr. Hocker’s. Later, people would simply call Willey’s store to report a fire, and an employee would run and trigger the siren. Subsequently, the firefighters got Plectron boxes — like a giant pager that sat on a shelf and beeped for fire or medical emergencies. The technology has improved vastly since then.

“If we had 30 [calls] in a year, that was a pretty good year. Now we have that in a month,” Roger Hitchens said.

Originally, chimney fires or brush fires were common, as people burned trash outdoors or fired up their dusty woodstoves for winter.

Firefighters rode on the back of firetrucks, with a belt looped around their waist to keep them attached to the truck.

“In the summertime, it was good because you didn’t have snow,” Bob Powell said. “If it was raining, in some cases we had a cover over the hose bed. We would take that … and literally shield ourselves from the rain or from the snow. And they were cold rides at times.”

“We used to run and jump on the back of the truck, just to catch it,” Roger Hitchens said. Seatbelts are required now.

At the firefighters’ side since 1938 were the members of the MVFC Auxiliary, who still lead the community in supporting and funding Millville’s emergency rescue service.

“Our Firemen are very special but let’s not forget the caring community, because they have always been behind the Firemen and Auxiliary — it is a team project. I am sure when it was organized so long ago, few if any, could even dream of the growth as we see it now. New firehouse, most modern equipment, well trained personnel. You name it, we have it. We must have laid a pretty firm foundation to have it grow like this,” wrote Auxiliary Presidents Grace Sheaffer and Gail Quillen.

Many volunteers joined because their parents had. Fire Chief Doug Scott followed his friends into the junior fire service. But the 10 or 12 cadets had to arrive early enough to compete for the four sets of gear, Scott recalled with a laugh. Junior members don’t fight fires but can observe or help manage equipment.

Finding the fire was less difficult, since traffic was lighter than today. In a small town, everyone knew where everyone else lived, so they didn’t need addresses. People just called and said, “Fire at ‘John Smith’s’ house,” and firefighters knew where to go.

When he moved to the area from New Jersey 40 years ago, Norman Amendt avoided driving, since he didn’t automatically know where every Bunting, Bennett or Brasure lived. It resulted in plenty of teasing at his expense, he recalled with a laugh.

Eventually, new developments started filling the landscape, and firefighters couldn’t keep up with the new web of roads. So developer Lou Travalini loaned the fire company maps for the MVFC to copy to create their own maps. (“You can’t keep up now, on paper,” Scott said. “You have to have GPS.”)

Fun in the sun and snow

Going to the beach was the best part of summer. Driving on the beach — automobiles didn’t have four-wheel drive, but that didn’t stop anybody.

“You just had slick tires, and you let ’em down to about 8 pounds, and away you went,” said Ellen Hitchens. “And if you got stuck, everybody sat on the tailgate until you got unstuck.”

“We met there every Saturday afternoon,” Collins said. “At that time, there was a nice wide beach to the ocean. It was fun. We didn’t have surfboards. We would go out far enough, up to our waists, wait for a wave and ride it all the way to the beach.

“There was hardly anything in Millville,” she added of the possibilities for entertainment.

So, “You made your own fun,” Dolby said. “You could go out and play, ride your bicycles, go out all day long. … I learned at an early age, you didn’t tell your mom you were bored. Oh, I had to polish the pipes under the bathroom sink. I did that about three times before I learned.”

They made paper dolls and dresses from the Sears & Roebuck catalog. They captured frogs to make fried frog legs. They joined scout groups, picked berries or rollerskated down the long, smooth cement-laid Route 26 (all the other roads were dirt).

“It was a small-town atmosphere… you knew not to get into trouble because your mom knew about it before you got home,” said Richard Hudson, who lives in Clarksville, near his Hudson’s General Store.

Anyone whose parents owned a shop might be lucky enough to get snacks there after school and in summers.

The lucky kids owned a horse or pony. Willey and his cousin Harry Dukes took their horses on day trips.

Wolfe got a pony from the annual pony swim in Chincoteague, Va.

“Mr. McCabe from Selbyville bought it for his son, who was about 16, and the pony was wild,” said Wolfe, so her father bought the creature. After long hours on the farm, the pony was worked down enough that “I could ride that pony anywhere in summertime.” She tied the pony to guidelines that kept telephone poles in place. But his true nature emerged when they rode to the beach. “He wanted to get back in the sand and roll!”

Willey’s father owned a boat, so they fished and waterskied out of the Roger’s Haven neighborhood along White Creek.

People also saw movies in Selbyville, Dagsboro or Rehoboth Beach. Teenagers went cruising as soon as someone got a car and license. Gas was cheap (except during gasoline rations of World War II, which put everyone back on bicycles or horses).

Hunting was a big deal, as families ate local. Most boys — and Wanda Powell — were proud to own their first guns, although Powell’s attempts at hunting were a comedy of errors.

Winters were much colder in the mid-1900s, as people remember the rivers and creeks freezing up much more frequently than they do now. And ice skating was the name of the game. Everyone had favorite spots, such as White Creek, Eagle Pond or Strawberry Landing. The best times were frosty nights on shallow ponds, with mittens and hockey sticks, surrounded by trees and warmed by impromptu fires.

“We always had puzzles and Monopoly to play in the winter, and in the summer, we would play hopscotch and croquet,” Wanda Powell said. “We walked everywhere, or rode our bikes, and it was great fun. I just have wonderful memories of growing up in Millville. We had such a wonderful time.”

True to your school

Every little enclave in the area once seemed to have its own post office and school, but the tiny schoolhouses have been consolidating for more than a century. The 1868 Beers Atlas appears to show Millville school house No. 123 several lots west of its next iteration, District No. 181, which opened in 1868 on the present-day site of Millville U.M. Church, on Atlantic Avenue and Club House Road.

That school lasted until around 1905, when School District No. 181 built and furnished a new two-room schoolhouse on a side road, and the old school building was removed to make way for MUMC.

School pride really helped to build a sense of community, as it physically connected people in new ways. For about 40 years, students attended all 12 grades together at Lord Baltimore School.

The original school was a long, white building constructed in 1920 — one of Delaware’s many new schoolhouses built on Pierre S. duPont’s generosity. Residents of Millville and Ocean View had hesitantly voted to consolidate their little schools. But as 10 other small, scattered schoolhouses eventually joined, the General Assembly appropriated money to build the brick school still seen in Ocean View today, according to “140 Years.”

Now called Lord Baltimore Elementary School, the iconic brick building was constructed in 1930 in Ocean View, for high schoolers.

Grades 1 through 6 moved into the big brick building after an addition in 1952. Their mascot was an eagle, with school colors of green and white.

Originally, the school building physically sat on the municipal boundary between the two towns, and Millville only recently relinquished its slice of school.

But today’s Atlantic Avenue (Route 26) didn’t exist in front of the school originally.

“When the DuPont School was built in 1920, a road was cut past the new school to connect the two towns,” according to “140 Years.” Millville’s road to the beach wasn’t the same smooth line people drive today. The road from Millville to Bethany turned down Cedar Drive and Central Avenue before continuing straight east.

In the 1960s, residents once again voted to consolidate schools, that time to create the new Indian River School District. The transition began in 1968, sending Lord Baltimore and Selbyville high-schoolers to Frankford, and middle-schoolers to Selbyville.

Separate, but … separate

Most residents of the area were Caucasian, and the Millville area had a very small African-American population.

In fact, Baltimore Hundred had the smallest population of black residents in Sussex County (about 17 percent in 1820). That suggests that most farms were small enough to be managed by the immediate family, not slaves, according to Carol E. Hoffecker’s 2000 book “Honest John Williams: U.S. Senator from Delaware.”

In later years, the African-American community settled in Clarksville, centered around the #207-C Blackwater School and historic Union Wesley Methodist Church. The old schoolhouse stood from the late-1800s until it was replaced in 1922 by another structure that closed after a 1951 fire, according to the Delaware State Archives.

Before 1950, black students could only attend tuition-based high schools farther north. Starting in 1950, all black high-schoolers in the area attended the William C. Jason Comprehensive High School, about 25 miles away in Georgetown. Jason was phased out in 1967 as minorities were returned to their local schools, via forced integration.

Black adults often worked on farms or in shops. But not all memories are rosy. Ernest Marvel, who is white, recalled a local black man who defied the posted “rule” of “No n****** in town after sundown.” He was beat up, badly.

Children were more interested in having playmates. “We all played together, didn’t make no difference to us,” Marvel said.

Praise on Sundays (and other days)

Church was the center of the community life, often with multiple services on Sunday. People attended different church programs all week long, mixing it up with neighbors.

The present Millville United Methodist Church opened in 1907 under a different iteration of Methodism. They shared charges and partnerships with other nearby churches over the years, but “In 1987, Millville Church was at a crossroads,” according to their 100th anniversary publication. MUMC only remained open at the vote of the tiny remaining congregation — about a dozen members. But they’ve grown back to a comfortable number today.

A tiny blue church still stands on Route 26, now more than a century old. Today, it’s the Reflections Antiques lighting store. But it was home to the Millville Protestant Church from their dedication in 1898 until 1910. Later, the civic organization Gleaners Club purchased the land for community and Methodist events, committee meetings and fundraisers, including the popular chicken-and-dumpling dinner around election time, Dolby said.

After that, Realtor John. R. Hoke appears to have purchased the Gleaners Hall on a lark, in 1970 for $5,000.

Beacon Baptist Church is the only other church within town limits, which came in more recent years.

More than 200 years ago, in 1816, before the first St. George’s United Methodist Church was built in Clarksville, near its current location, worshipers began meeting in their homes. The modern site of the church, at Route 26 and Omar Road, was dedicated in 1880, with the church rebuilt in 1928 and renovated in 1937, according to “140 Years.”

Union Wesley United Methodist Church served the African-American population west of town in Clarksville. It originated in 1873, was destroyed by fire in 1957 and was rebuilt in 1961 on the adjacent property, the former site of the Blackwater School.

Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, Union has also boasted one of the last remaining summer camp services going into the 21st century — two-week services, where people once slept in covered wagons arranged in a circle around the pulpit, and now in small semi-permanent “tents,” a confectionery and bower.

Although its far-flung congregation disbanded in 1921, the Blackwater Presbyterian Church began with meetings in 1763 and a physical church built in 1767. Listed on the National Register, the Omar-area property is managed by a Tunnell family trust.

Moving  forward

Sleepy south coastal Delaware saw its first push toward development after the legendary Storm of ’62. The March nor’easter crashed upon the coast and lingered for the duration of five high tides, flooding the low-lying farms and crushing the beachfront.

Airplanes provided the most striking view of the widespread damage, and hatchery worker Ralph Hitchens got to catch a ride with his boss.

“‘Anybody wanna take an airplane ride to see the storm? It’ll cost us five bucks,’” Hitchens recalled of the opportunity being offered.

They flew south out of Rehoboth Beach, on a 45-minute tour of collapsed houses and boardwalk floating in the ocean.

Many buildings were swept down the road or out to sea. The destruction was horrible. But that ruined beach would rebuild into a new modern-day resort. That relatively fresh slate encouraged people to start building again with insurance policies and stronger materials. Deep pilings would anchor new houses where delicate cottages once stood.

 In the 1960s, beachfront lots could be had for $11,000, a mind-bogglingly low number by today’s resort standards.

Since then, the beach has become the most important factor for attracting people to Millville. But as more people come, willing to pay for a slice of heaven, more settle inland, with many retiring there in the new communities and among the old.

The most important rule for newcomers is “Don’t spread gossip, because everyone’s related,” Wolfe said. But locals will be welcoming, as long as new residents don’t try to change them.

“They were very friendly to me when I moved down here, being a newcomer,” said Ellen Hitchens, a Showell, Md., girl who married a local in 1959.

“They’re good, hardworking people,” Collins said of Millville folk. “They were the best.” v

— Story by Laura Walter