A look at Millsboro's roots

Date Published: 
May 2013
Millsboro Postcard bridge.jpg

Millsboro Pond is the dammed-up headwaters of the Indian River,” explained Richard Carter, chairman of the Delaware Heritage Commission, and lifelong Millsboro resident.

“A guy named Elisha Dickerson got an act through the General Assembly in 1791 to establish a grist mill in an area known then as Rock Hole. That was the actual beginning of the town. Settlers of English ancestry had already been there since the late 1600s, but they were sort of dispersed. Building the grist mill there was kind of what brought the town together.”

Carter said that about 10 grist mills had been established in the greater Millsboro area.

“There were a lot of grist mills and other kinds of mills in the area, because there were a lot of streams,” Carter explained. He noted there was a mill by Doe Bridge behind the current location of the Stockley Center and another by Betts Pond that predates 1773, but that was replaced and is now the home of Warren’s Mill. “There could be two or three along the length of the stream, depending on the length of the water.”

In those days, Millsboro was on the east side of the Indian River and also known as the Indian River Hundred. The west side of the river, which is now the downtown area of Millsboro, was known as Washington.

“Then, when the town got its first post office in the 1830s, the federal government wouldn’t let them call it Washington, because there were already so many places called Washington, so they made the whole community Millsboro.”

Carter said the mill industry was booming in the area up until there was a growth in farming in the Midwest.

“They could farm on such a massive scale there that they could mill it there and ship it by train cheaper than local grist mills could mill it locally.”

A hurricane in the 1930s sealed the grist mills’ fate, when it destroyed many of the dams in the county.

“There was this huge hurricane that hit our area back in 1933 that hit us from the west,” said Carter. “It washed out a lot of the old mill dams in Sussex County. Because they were already feeling the pinch from the Midwestern grain companies, it was not economically feasible for them to rebuild those mills.”

There was also a boom in the timber products industry in the early 1900s, with the Houston-White Mill and Basket Company opening on the corner of Main and Monroe streets, where Brandywine Appartments now stands.

“They made fruit and produce baskets, primarily from gum trees that they got out in the Great Cypress Swamp,” said Carter. He added that the basket industry lasted until the 1950s, when it succumbed to competition from plastics.

Millsboro was also home to Indian Swan Orchards, owned by Selbyville resident and former governor and U.S. Sen. John G. Townsend. Indian Swan was a peach and apple orchard just west of Millsboro, where Mountaire’s processing plant now stands.

“There was a large orchard industry in Sussex County starting in the ’20s and ’30s Townsend was one of the biggest orchardists — not only in Delaware, but in the United States,” noted Carter.

Lifetime Millsboro resident and former U.S. Sen. Richard Cordrey’s first job was working at Townsend’s orchard.

“As long as you could walk, you could work,” said Cordrey, who started working there when he was about 13 years-old. “That was my first job growing up. All that open land that you see was all those peach and apple orchards. I was so young at that time, the first part of the summer I remember they paid the water boys like me 35 cents an hour. But they gave the big boys 50 cents an hour.”

“When they first started doing that, they hired about 20, hoeing around the trees. They hired two people just to make sure the young kids had water or something cold to drink. It was all done in the summer. The summers were hotter and the winters were colder than they are today. The temperatures have really changed.”

Cordrey said that one of the older boys quit during the summer, and he was promoted to a trimmer, with a raise to boot.

“I got to go all the way up from 35 cents an hour to 50 cents an hour. I started helping to trim around trees. It gave me enough money that I didn’t have to ask my parents for any money at all,” he said. “I thought it was terrible hard work at the time. Today, they wouldn’t do it the way we did it. We did everything manually. There wasn’t any electric or mowing machines or anything like that. We did it with trimmers and hoes.”

In January of 1946, Indian Swan Orchards was visited by former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, after she and Townsend had become friends while serving on the U.S. delegation to the first United Nations General Assembly, held in London.

“She and one of her sons and his wife, Faye Emerson, took a train down to Wilmington, and then one of John G. Townsend’s grandsons met them at the train station in Wilmington and drove them down to Sussex County to visit Sen. Townsend,” said Carter. “They had lunch with him at his house in Selbyville, and I believe they stopped at the orchards on their way to Rehoboth Beach.

“The national media tried to make a romance between John G. Townsend, who was a widower, and Eleanor, who was a widow,” he noted. “Nothing came of it, but they had quite a fun time for a while.”

Holly wreaths were also part of the local economy in Millsboro and were shipped all over the United States, and even made it to Hawaii.

“That was a regional industry,” said Carter “It was a big seasonal thing right before the holidays. A lot of local farm families would make holly wreaths on the side, to make extra money right before Christmas.”

“It was a real industry. The local entrepreneurs organized a number of farmers’ housewives to make holly wreaths,” recalled Donald Ward, who grew up five miles outside of Millsboro, by Carey’s Camp, and still lives there today.

Ward said there were holly trees on his family’s farm, and he remembers his mother making wreaths to sell.

“The holly-wreath man would come and buy the holly wreaths from you and take them to the train station and ship them to the city. When they started in the early ’30s, my mother was getting 3 cents apiece. She made them from 1933 until 1949. I remember her making holly wreaths. I remember the holly-wreath man coming and buying them. I think the price eventually went up a bit, to maybe 5 cents.”

Because Ward’s family lived outside of town, his family didn’t get electricity until the 1940s, after the Rural Electrification Act, which provided federal loans for the installation of electrical distribution systems to rural areas.

“It was a lot different growing up 5 miles outside of Millsboro. I tell my grandchildren, as I told my children — when I came home from the hospital there was no big electric sign welcoming me home, because we didn’t have any electricity,” he said.

“Millsboro the town had electricity, but much of the countryside in the early ’40s I assure you did not have electricity. And if you don’t have electricity, there’s something else you don’t have — running water. I never understood the concept of this convenient thing we call a shower.”

Once they got electricity, Ward’s family was then able to have a radio in the house.

“All of a sudden, you were connected to the world no matter where you went,” he said. “A telephone? We heard about them. We didn’t get a telephone until 1953.

“Sometime after that we got this marvelous, marvelous thing called the television. It was black-and-white, and it picked up one channel, because we had this antenna thing on the roof.”

Before the Ward family got electricity, the main source of information and news was found at the local country store.

“Saturday nights we’d go to the Lowe’s Crossing Country Store. You could take your eggs and do your dealings, and that would be your main source for news.”

Ed Carey, whose family owned Carey &?Smith Country Store on Laurel Road, just a couple miles west of Millsboro, agreed.

“It was a place for the exchange of information —some of it I?probably shouldn’t have heard,”?he said with a laugh.

Thelma Monroe also did not have electricity in her family’s home on Route 30.

“We had oil lamps and a gas-generated refrigerator,” she said.

Carter said that “farming was always the big thing” for the town, and many families had their own farms.

“My parents had a few chickens,” said Ward. “A few by today’s standards. It seemed like a lot to me. We had 7,000 chickens. Today, if you said 7,000 chickens, that would be some kind of joke or you would be raising specialty chickens, because farmers have 200,000 chickens.”

Millsboro resident Norris Godwin grew up on a farm just off Route 113 and had to help his family tend to the chickens.

“When I grew up, everybody had a small farm and raised the grain themselves. Now, because farm equipment is so expensive and big, you have to do a lot of acres, sharecrop it,” he said. “My father kept me pretty busy on the farm. One of my jobs was cleaning out chicken houses.”

Isabel Wharton Smith, now 95, moved to Millsboro in 1940 when she married Frank Smith, who had grown up in the town.

“It was a much bigger town than Ocean View,” recalled Smith, who grew up on Muddy Neck.

The Smith family started raising chickens in the 1940s, with just four chicken houses.

“People don’t even know what work is, at least when it comes to chickens,” said Smith. “That was hard work. They got a life of it now!”

Smith’s husband worked a day job at the Stockley Center, so she stayed home and tended to the family’s farm — which involved feeding the chickens, cleaning the houses and heating them with stoves when it got cold.

“That was hard work at that time,” she said, adding that it took about 12 to 14 weeks to grow a flock to maturity.

In the 1940s and 1950s, local poultry farmers would take their flocks to the Selbyville Poultry Exchange to sell them.

“It was at the little white cement block building in Selbyville across from Holly Kia,” said Smith’s son Bruce. “At the time, there was no big conglomerate, like Perdue or Mountaire. It was all little local farmers. They would go there and auction off these flocks of chickens. Then they would take them to the processing plant.”

Then, in 1948, they built Brasure & Smith Southern States Independent Cooperative on Willow Drive.

“The whole building was built without any power equipment,” said Bruce Smith. “Everything was sawed by hand, nailed by hand.”

Brasure & Smith Southern States was originally a feed store that supplied the surrounding vicinity with feed and farm supplies.

Feed mills were predominant in Millsboro, as well. Cordrey’s family had the John A. Cordrey Feed Mill, right next to the railroad tracks.

“It was the biggest industry in Millsboro at the time. It was a major industry here,” said Cordrey of the poultry industry.

Cordrey said the mill was run with about 10 people and that the feed was shipped in by train.

“It came to us by railroad cars in 100-pound bags of feed. They would leave the cars right on the side of the track, right close to our feed mill, and we would send trucks down and take 100 bags off at a time and take them to the poultry farm,” he said. “We worked at that. Today it’s so simple, it’s unreal.”

Godwin’s family also had a feed mill, H.E. Williams & Co., located on the corner of West Monroe and Houston streets. He, too, would have to go to the train station to unload bags of feed.

“That was one of my jobs when I was a youngster,” he recalled. “We had a machine that was an evacuator. You would shovel and sweep the corn into the nozzle, and it would suck it up. There would be 40 tons to a boxcar, and we could get 10 tons on a truck.”

With Millsboro home to a growing poultry industry, the Delaware Poultry Laboratory was established by Dr. Hiram N. Lasher, a Millsboro resident.

“Dr. Lasher was something of a genius in the area of poultry farming. He came down to this area, after World War II, when the broiler industry was becoming a big thing. He established that poultry vaccine business,” said Carter. “Dr. Lasher later sold Delaware Poultry Laboratory to the Sterling drug company, which was the manufacturer of Bayer Aspirin. He worked with them for many years after he sold the company to them.”

After retiring from Sterling, Lasher went on to establish Akzo-Nobel, another vaccine company.

The Vlasic Pickle Plant also opened on State Street in the 1970s.

“That was kind of interesting, because it played into the agricultural and farming industry of the area,” said Carter.

Aside from the town’s industries, Millsboro was just what you’d expect in a small town.

“Everybody was a friend. That’s just the way it was back then,” recalled longtime Millsboro resident Lynn Bullock, who at one time served as the town’s mayor. “You used to be able to call everybody by their first name back then.”

Ask anyone of a certain age who grew up in Millsboro what it was like when they were young, and that’s just what they’ll say.

“It’s changed. When I grew up you knew everybody who lived here,” said Godwin. “There was no traffic — just dirt roads, farm fields. So you can see how it’s changed.”

“It was a whole different place,” recalled Carter. “Everybody knew everybody else. The local kids would leave home at the crack of dawn, and we’d spend all day out playing and running around. We’d come home for lunch, and then we’d be out again until dark practically.”

Virgil Truitt, who owns Truitt’s Carpet Service on Main Street, was born in 1939 and grew up in a house that once stood where Dollar General is now. Truitt’s parents ran a barbershop and magazine/newspaper stand out of the downstairs of the family’s home.

“I used to like to sit in the barbershop and hear the old folks talk about the old days,” said Truitt.

If you lived in Millsboro, Main Street was the main place to be on Saturdays — for work and for fun.

Cordrey recalled working at Le Grande Store, where JR’s Fine Music now is, on Main Street, every Friday night and all day Saturday.

“That’s how a lot of us young guys made our spending money, so if we wanted to take a young lady out for a date, we had some money,” he said.

“When you worked in a grocery store, you
didn’t work in a supermarket. You worked in a grocery store. They came to you and you came to the counter, and they would say, ‘I want two cans of beans,’ and you would go get two cans of beans and put them down. If they needed a quart of milk, you went to the refrigerator for them and put it down. After you had it all put together, you added it up on a piece of paper and hoped they paid you, and then go to the next customer.”

Cordrey said that both he and his brother worked at the store and made 50 cents an hour.

Bullock also worked at the same grocery store and also noted the store was not what grocery stores are today.

“The best way I can describe it was it was a little hole in the wall. It was real tiny. I was old enough to drive, and we delivered groceries to the older ladies in town.”

Main Street was also home to Ableman’s Department Store and Verrato’s Drug Store.

“It wasn’t like what you have in a drug store in this day and time. You could get aspirin and candies and little presents, stuff like that,” said Bullock.

Monroe — who was the first female mayor in the state of Delaware, let alone Millsboro — was married to Walter Monroe, whose family owned W.P. Monroe & Sons, which is where the two first met.

“It was a booming place. We would come into town every Saturday. I went with Mother to get a pair of shoes,” said Monroe. “That was the end — I wanted him.”

The Monroe store was one of many that serviced both local Millsboro residents and those in surrounding towns.

“When we drove with my grandmother to Millsboro from Frankford, we thought we had hit the big city,” said Amy Simmons, now executive director for the Millsboro Chamber of Commerce.

“All the farmers came into town to do their shopping on Main Street,” added Godwin. “By lunchtime, all the downtown was deserted, except for the movie theater on Saturday nights. Most of the kids that lived in town, we all went to the movies on Saturday nights for 25 cents.”

The Ball Theatre — now home to the United Faith Church on Main Street — was opened in the 1930s by Walter “Huck” Betts, a Millsboro man who played Major League Baseball and was a pitcher for the Philadelphia Phillies (1920-1925) and Boston Braves (1932-1935).

“He used to be a professional ball player, and he named it Ball Theater when he started the theater up,” said Bullock. “For a quarter, you could go in and stay all evening and see whatever was the main movie attraction.”

Isabel Smith said that, when she was newly married, she and her husband would go to the movies or play cards for entertainment. Cordrey said that the movies were the place to take a date on a Saturday night.

“All the Millsboro boys dated Georgetown girls, and all the Georgetown guys dated Millsboro girls. I would mostly travel from Millsboro to Georgetown for socializing,” he said. “Most times, you would go to the movies. There was a restaurant here in Millsboro. You’d stop by and get some cake or whatever. Each town had a place like that where you could take a date.”

As for transportation, many residents used ponies, as opposed to cars. Truitt recalled he kept a pony in the back yard and would ride to school to play, then slap the horse’s rump, and the horse found its way home.

“We had ponies. We rode ponies all around. You could ride anywhere back then. I could go out and jump on the pony and just go where I wanted to,” added Godwin.

“Even though we had cars, we certainly didn’t travel then as we do now,” said Ward.

Carey, whose family has deep roots in the town and owns Carey’s Paint and Hardware on State Street, remembered taking a steam locomotive from Millsboro to Wilmington with his grandmother and aunt as a child.

“We would go up as an annual excursion — it was a big deal. I remember going into the station. I?can almost smell it. It was exciting to me.”

As a pastime, many would travel to the boardwalk at Oak Orchard, which no longer exists, or enjoy the Indian River.

“When I was in high school, my friends and I all had boats and would spend all our time out on the local ponds and the river. We would go hunting after school every day… It was a different world,” said Carter. “Now that I look back on it, I realize that it was all pretty old-fashioned. Didn’t seem like it at the time.”

Carey remembers playing in a wooded area called “Tiger Alley,” near Morris Street, as well as in the woods that were once adjacent to Cupola Park, where Hunters Pointe now stands.

“We played all long through there. We had forts and everything... Talk about Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer.”

Although the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case was decided in 1954, it took Delaware more than a decade for its schools to be fully integrated. Prior to that, African-American students attended the William C. Jason School, which is now East Millsboro Elementary.

The Nanticoke Indians also had their own separate school, known as the “Little School,” for grades one through eight.

“When I was in the seventh grade, the Nanticoke Indian kids began going to Millsboro School,” recalled Carter.

“They were gonna close our school,” said Leolga Wright, who lives in the Oak Orchard area, of the Little School. “A few people met with Sen. John Williams. We were kinda caught in the middle. We were not considered black, not considered white, had our own school, had our own teacher. In ’62 I believe some of us went to Millsboro High School. A year or two after that, integration started. I can’t say, as a Nanticoke, truthfully, that we had any issues.”

Segregation was present in the town, though, as it was everywhere else in the country at the time. Even the Ball Theatre had a balcony where African-
American patrons had to sit.

“You go to the local movie theater, and the blacks had to sit in the balcony and the whites had to sit below,” said Carter. “I visited South Africa in 1987, when apartheid was still in effect. Many of the aspects of apartheid reminded me of growing up in Sussex County in the 1950s. Delaware was very much of a part of the Old South in those days, in many respects.”

Aside from those aspects, though — and no matter what the present is, or what the future holds — everyone who grew up there seems to look at the town’s past with fondness.

“I wouldn’t leave Millsboro. I just wouldn’t,” said Godwin.

“There was no question,” said Ward. “I always knew I wanted to come back home.”

“I’ve been alive for 79 years and lived here 80,” said Cordrey. “I’ve always loved the town. I wouldn’t have wanted to be raised anywhere else. I enjoy it. I just love my town here. It’s a great town to raise a family.” v