Where is Millsboro today?

Date Published: 
May 2013
Downtown Millsboro as it is today.

Today, Millsboro’s remaining mills are that in name only. The bustling little town of yesteryear has become a major hub of action by “Slower Lower Delaware” standards, and certainly by traffic patterns.

With a population of 3,877, according to the 2010 U.S. Census, Millsboro town limits have increased to include shopping centers, housing developments and the huge migration of people from other states and countries who finally noticed the area’s famously low taxes.

No longer carrying passengers, trains still rattle through the town, though only with cargo, leaving people to swarm the highways in their personal vehicles.

“If you look at it geographically, you have to go through Millsboro to get anywhere,” said lifelong resident Gary Brittingham.

The main intersection of Millsboro has long sat where Routes 113 and 24 intersect and set people on their way. People zip south to Bethany Beach and Ocean City, Md., or north to the Route 95 megalopolises of Wilmington, Philadelphia and New York. Two more traffic signals were previously the only interruptions on the highway, just north and just south of town limits.

Peninsula Crossing Shopping Center changed everything. With grand openings in 2009, anchor stores BJ’s Wholesale Club and Lowe’s, and the upcoming PetSmart, have brought major modern chain stores that Sussex Countians had previously traveled to Salisbury, Md., to patronize. Smaller retail tenants are filling the adjoining strip mall, and even the long-established northern Millsboro McDonald’s moved, to be the first restaurant there on the highway.

That only adds to the hundreds of other businesses in town: Several grocery and drug stores, restaurants, auto mechanics, fast food, furniture, professional services and much more.

“I never would have imagined it, even as a teenager,” said Amy Simmons, now executive director of the Greater Millsboro Chamber of Commerce. “When we drove with my grandmother to Millsboro from Frankford, we thought we had hit the big city.”

The Delaware Department of Transportation has adjusted traffic flow by removing many of the highway crossovers. Cars can still make U-turns, but most cross-streets no longer cross the highway. That was part of an effort to reduce perpendicular car collisions.

Also north and south of Millsboro are new housing communities that seem to have doubled the size of the town. Plantation Lakes on west Route 24 and the Millwood on Mitchell Street are still building and selling homes today, having moved past the 2004 real estate bubble burst.

“Back in the ‘80s, there was nothing down to the beach,” said longtime resident George “Rusty” Rust. “Now you can’t even move, there’s so many people.”

Rust and his wife built their home in 1986, within eyesight of a huge Townsend farm. Now 200 homes in The Plantation are there. He paid for his house by selling woodcarvings. Property values have leapt up since then.

“It’s a growing town,” said Brittingham, describing the support for expansion and new shopping centers. “It always was a progressive town.”

Although Route 113 long ago expanded to a dual highway, downtown Millsboro is still a maze of single-lane streets, all of which swarm with summertime traffic.

Each day, Main Street (part of Route 24) points thousands of cars, trucks and busses eastward to the Atlantic Ocean, Rehoboth Beach, Lewes and Long Neck.

Many of the eastbound trucks have only two more miles to travel after leaving town limits. They are aiming for the 2,800-acre Mountaire poultry processing plant. Mountaire took over the former Townsend’s plant in 2000 to continue the Delmarva poultry tradition.

Mountaire has hired around 2,000 Delmarva residents to work at the Millsboro facility, according to Roger Marino, corporate community relations director for Mountaire. The property includes central offices, administration, a hatchery, processing plant, transportation center, the newly-built resource recovery plant and more.

“As the demand for products grow, we continue to grow,” Marino said. “As our employment numbers grow, the impact on the town and the economy will be positive. Mountaire and the people we employ contribute significantly to the state and local economy.

“Mountaire desires to be a good corporate citizen,” he added. “We believe very strongly in being a positive impact in the communities where we operate. We believe in doing the right thing in the places where we live, work, play and pray.”

Mountaire has participated in transportation workshops held by the Delaware Department of Transportation and encourages efforts to enhance safe transportation.

“We support the mission of improved traffic flow for Millsboro and all the vehicles that use the roads,” said Marino. “A sensible plan that reduces the traffic slowdowns and improves the flow of vehicles will be welcomed by our drivers, employees and management.”

“I think the growth is OK,” said Angel Malabet, a Main Street small-business owner. “I haven’t seen where it’s affected these [downtown] business owners. And I think it brought more attention to Millsboro.”

For six years on eastbound Route 24, Malabet has seen thousands of live chicken trucks pass his business at Legendary Barbershop and Legendary Beauty Supplies. He said it’s a “touchy” situation, but there usually isn’t a lingering odor from the process.

“This is a very nice town. People are very friendly. All the store owners are very nice,” said Malabet, even if, he noted, the on-street parking situation is not so nice. Millsboro’s centrality has made for a great businesses location.

“I love having a business here in Millsboro. I love the small-town image it has,” said Malabet, adding he just feels the downtown needs to work on its image and be more inviting. “When people talk about Millsboro, they’re like, ‘Where?’ The town has a lot of charm. Just bring it out and bring a little more attention.”

Organizations such as the Millsboro Downtown Partnership are working toward that very goal. MDP is a federally-designated Main Street program designed to revitalize Millsboro but keep the historical significance, through projects with businesses and residents.

With just a few changes, they say, Millsboro could be a destination, not just a thoroughfare.

“It’s very easy, with the amount of traffic, tractor trailers, chicken trucks. You’re looking straight ahead. You’re on your way to the beach. … You have your blinders on and you’re just driving, and I’m guilty of it too,” said Jessica Wiggins, owner of the downtown eatery Blue Water Grill. “We just need people to stop and park and realize there’s lots of small businesses that offer good services, and that they might really appreciate it.”

Wiggins and her husband took over Blue Water Grill in 2007. The Long Neck residents used to just drive straight through Millsboro, too.

“The town has a lot of potential,” said Wiggins. “We love the people. You definitely get all walks of life: people who lived in town their entire life, transients, retirees, lots of families.”

Another goal is to get those big trucks out of downtown Millsboro, possibly onto a future bypass. That will leave room for people to slow down and look around Millsboro, perhaps with the help of new crosswalks courtesy DelDOT, some hope.

“We care about the entire town, and anybody who wants to get involved, we encourage them to. It’s always a work in progress,” said Wiggins, also cofounder and president of the MDP board.

With grant money and time playing a key role, MDP is looking at the town as a whole, including streetscaping, business retention and façade improvement. Their accomplishments to date include a community branding, a J.C. Penney catalog store, three downtown cleanups, several fundraisers, Main Street training conferences, the town’s new farmers’ market and more.

The MDP was created with inspiration from the Millsboro Garden Club, which had formed years beforehand to help the small town maintain early beautification efforts — namely flower planters. The Garden Club has planted several gardens and around 30 flowerpots in town, including along the bridge and in Cupola Park. They maintain most of the planters themselves, but neighbors have begun helping to water the plants, boosting some town pride.

“I think we’ve encouraged a lot of clean up, a lot of sprucing up of business fronts,” said club president Carol Jarboe. “People have started taking better care and putting their own plants out there. … We all work together, doing whatever we can to help.

“We love the small town and the community,” said Jarboe. “It’s large enough that you can be private. Your business is your own. But small enough that you get to know everybody. Everything is about church, kids and sports, in my personal view.”

Jarboe moved to Millsboro from Anne Arundel County, Md., following after her daughter, who serves as a coach for the Millsboro Little League. Though a transplant herself, Jarboe has been around long enough that she’s seen a considerable amount of farmland turn into houses, first in Maryland, then Delaware.

With the Millsboro Art League and Millsboro Public Library adding information and culture, Millsboro’s children have the opportunity for a well-rounded education. Most of them attend school right in town until the age of 14, at East Millsboro Elementary and Millsboro Middle (formerly Sussex Central Middle) schools.

Afterward, they travel two miles north of town to the new location of Sussex Central High School, which moved from Georgetown in 2004.

According to state education statistics, East Millsboro Elementary’s student population is diverse: 55.3 percent white, 17. 6 percent Hispanic, 17.4 percent African-American, 2.2 percent American Indian, 2.1 percent Asian and 5.4 percent multi-racial.

“All in all, I think it’s a good place to live,” said resident Leolga Wright, who herself has ties to the local Nanticoke Indian tribe. “We’re not immune to the fact that there’s crime in every area. It just seems that it gets localized every once in a while. It’s not like [cities], where every two days you hear someone gets shot on the street.”

“There’s so many small churches,” Jarboe said. “Everybody goes to church. Church is important, and they’ll say it.”

Although business is usually the talk of the town, there’s fun to be had in Millsboro. Cupola Park lounges on the Indian River, peacefully watching over the busy bridge carrying Route 24 traffic. With a waterfront playground, the park offers fun time for free. Jessica Wiggins said she would like to see more boats and fishermen enjoy the water, too.

Still in its toddlerhood, the Millsboro Farmers Market is walking on new legs at Cupola Park. After a few switches, MDP organizers may have found the perfect setting there on Wednesday mornings from Memorial Day to Labor Day. The park features plenty of space, parking, recreation, picnic benches and more.

No longer home to a main-street movie theater, the town instead features the Millsboro Lanes bowling alley, home to leagues with bowlers of all ages and open bowling for the novices.

Driving through town on Tuesday nights, travelers can also see people embracing history at the classic car cruise-in at the grassy lot by the Dairy Queen.

“A bunch of old cars would come here and then they would sit around and talk to their friends and spend money in your establishment” was how organizer George “Rusty” Rust originally pitched to the powers-that-be. As of 2013, “It’s now been 12 years.” Rust and his friends started the weekly cruise-in after they tired of traveling to Wilmington for a similar event.

“I just like old cars. Everybody has a hobby, and mine is old cars,” Rust said.

Millsboro’s Big Thursday Festival has scaled back in recent years, compressing from three days to one big day in August, as fewer newcomers recognize the historical significance of the longtime event.

But two newer festivals are joining the spotlight. Festival Hispaño moved from Georgetown to Millsboro around the start of the new millennium. A large Hispanic population influx from Central and South America has brought a new perspective, food, music and culture to Millsboro. That also means several Mexican restaurants and shops have brought new flavors to town. The August festival celebrates all those things, inviting Delmarva natives to try something new while organizers remember and share their heritage.

The Chamber of Commerce’s newest project is the Millbilly Festival & Redneck Games, set to premiere in September of 2013. Hearkening back to Delmarva’s rural and agricultural roots, there will be a chickin’ pickin’ contest, cornhole tournament, redneck pet parade and “bedknobs and redneck” bed races downtown.

Millsboro’s Christmas celebrations haven’t changed, though. Each winter, Christmas tree lights on the river welcome people crossing the bridge into town. The holiday parade also brings warmth to the chilly city streets, with bands, beauty queens, floats, legislators, fire trucks and much more.

The Nanticoke Indian Association in Oak Orchard has long intertwined with Millsboro. Further celebrating culture on the coast, the annual September powwow is still their biggest function and fundraiser. Complete with storytelling, antique headdresses, traditional garb and hundreds of American Indian dancers, the powwow is open to the public, allowing them to experience living history in the woods of Oak Orchard.

“I think it’s wonderful. I’ve lived here all my life. It has gone from being a quiet, reserved farmland area, now to some of the areas being developed because we’re close to the beach,” said Wright, a powwow organizer. “It used to be we could see a difference when fall started and school started. A lot of [people] would go back home, but you don’t see it as much, because a lot of them stay here.”

If she was a local businessperson, Wright said, she would appreciate the increased clientele, but as thousands of former vacationers move to Sussex, there is more congestion on roads and in communities, she acknowledged. Her husband is a farmer, so he sees the intense traffic build-ups when moving his farm equipment to different properties. Non-natives also show frustration, unaccustomed to “Sussex County traffic jams.”

“It used to be you could go any distance in your neighborhood and you knew your neighbors because they had lived there years and years,” Wright said. Today, not so much.

But, ultimately, in Millsboro, she said, “Everyone’s welcome.”

The Nanticokes have also been welcome to use a huge plot of local wooded land for their powwows. Yet, after the owner recently passed away, the group had to begin brainstorming what happens next.

“At some point in time — and that’s probably years down the road — I think we need to probably come together to organize something, buy land that we can own as a tribe, so we can have different functions,” Wright said, though she acknowledged it may be difficult to find 20 to 25 available acres, preferably with woodlands.

“We have been assured we can have it there for the next two years. … [But this challenge] has always been out there, lurking on our horizon,” she noted.

Like the Nanticokes, all of Millsboro must navigate the challenges of space and population heading into the future. With all the potential and determination to move forward, Millsboro could continue to flourish in the future just as it did in the past.

“I would love to go back in time, even just for a few hours, because … this place was amazing,” said Jessica Wiggins. “If it was awesome then, if definitely can be again, with the right resources to make it amazing.”