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Rural History Comes Alive at The Delaware Agricultural Museum and Village

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Visitors to The Delaware Agricultural Museum and Village have a rare opportunity to catch a glimpse of rural Delaware lifestyle through the ages.  According to Executive Director Linda Chatfield, the museum’s mission is to give visitors a “living history” experience.  “You have the chance to immerse yourself in another time, trying through a variety of devices to get the flavor of living in that time.  To use the time honored cliché, it’s like walking a mile in their shoes.”

You may forget you are in modern Dover when you step into the re-created village of Loockerman Landing.  Bullfrogs sing in the old millpond as Canada geese parade nearby.  Silver Lake borders this “village that never was” which, said Chatfield, “was designed as a theoretical crossroads that gives one of each type of structure.

Representative of Delaware towns of the past, Loockerman Landing Village consists of 18 buildings waiting to be explored.  Many are common farm buildings, which would not have survived if they had not been moved to the museum.  Most rural structures built before 1900 were “vernacular architecture” said Chatfield, or common buildings designed by the builder since the owners could not afford an architect.  Vernacular architecture tended to be typical for a region, and can be defined by the building materials used, the room layout, and room use.

The Carney Farmhouse (ca. 1893) is not only a beautifully simple example of an 1890’s Cheswold Farmhouse; it demonstrates vernacular architecture with its efficient design.  Visitors can explore the ground floor, noticing the upwardly mobile furnishings in the parlor.  An important status symbol, a pump organ, has prominent pride of place.

Chatfield said the collection of buildings is important because the museum has chosen not to represent the house museums of the wealthy, as seen in other regional museums.  At The Delaware Agricultural Museum and Village, visitors have an opportunity to explore the lifestyle of working farmers and rural townspeople.

In 1864, a farmer built the Loockerman Landing Train Station in what is now known as Woodside.  According to local lore, the name “Woodside” was inspired by the piles of wood stacked near the station.  Train stations were critical to farmers and the development of the agricultural industry since they opened many new markets in the mid-19th century.  Once efficient transportation routes developed, fresh produce could be shipped quickly to market, and canned goods and livestock transported across the United States.

The Johnson & Son Blacksmith (ca. 1850)/ Wheelwright Shop (ca. 1886) came from a site near Staytonsville in Sussex County.  Johnson started out as a rural farmer, able, like many; to repair his own tools and shoe his horses.  Blacksmithing and wheelwrighting became his fulltime occupation by 1870

This building is typical of blacksmith shops found throughout rural America.  All sorts of clutter often filled the blacksmith shops; from broken pieces of equipment waiting repair to scrap iron, horseshoes, and tools.  Dirt floors helped to reduce the risk of a fire, while open high ceilings allowed smoke and fumes to escape.

Reed General Store (ca. 1871) may have been in operation for the longest consecutive period of time of any store in Delaware.  Few changes have been made to the one and one-half story building during its 123-year history. Some visitors to the museum still refer to it as “Elsie Jenkins’ Store” after the long time proprietor and Reed family member.

“Many people who visit Loockerman Landing Village remember buying milk at the General Store, or getting a haircut at the Gourley Barbershop.  Unfortunately, as the rural lifestyle disappears, we are loosing this heritage,” said Chatfield.

A bench on the front porch and chairs placed near the stove remind visitors of the social importance of the country store. Lanterns, dippers, pails, and rug beaters hang from the ceiling while tin advertising signs decorate the walls.  Rakes, hoes, scythes, and other farm implements are “for sale” in the back room.  Jewelry, candies, tobacco, notions, threads, medicines and spices cheerfully line the display shelves.

Harry Gourly owned and operated his one-chair barbershop, (ca.1900) in Magnolia, Delaware.  Legend has it he cut children hair for ten cents if they wiggled and nine cents if they sat still.  Like other barbers of the time, Gourley displayed the shaving cups used by his customers, which advertised the number of customers he served.

Permanent exhibits in the Museum’s main exhibit hall feature thousands of objects. Part of the building has been extensively remodeled, enabling the museum to host traveling exhibitions they would not have qualified for in the past.  Some of the new gallery space is available for private rental.

“Powering Inventions” forms an important part of the museum’s display in the main exhibit hall, and explains the development of farm machinery from simple hand tools through modern machinery

The Whittlin’ History, a collection of woodcarvings by Delaware resident Jehu Camper, is housed in the remodeled section of the exhibition hall.  The Smithsonian Museum sought this significant collection of folk art.  It features 44 hand-carved scenes of farm and village life at the turn of the century in Delaware.

In the Round Barn Gallery vintage vehicles show the many ways farm crops traveled to the market.  An old wood wagon could be used to carry a variety of crops depending upon the type of rack used.  Photos from the collection show the wagon overflowing with lima beans.  A gleaming Ford Model T illustrates more modern transportation modes.

The Delaware Agricultural Museum and Village
866 North DuPont Highway
Dover, Delaware 19901
302-734-1618

http://www.agriculturalmuseum.org

This story was first published in the News Journal in 2002  under the byline of Gail A. Sisolak. All rights reserved.

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