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Delving Into Dover Museums

Delaware’s people, culture and history are all remembered here.

By Lisa Halvorsen

Dover, the capital of one of the smallest states in the country, has more museums per mile than most metropolitan cities. Whether your Delaware camping taste runs to history or aviation, agriculture or art, or even archaeology, this city of less than 35,000 residents has a museum for you. What may also surprise you is that admission to most of them is free of charge.

Capitol Complex

The best place to begin your tour of the city’s many museums is the Delaware State Visitor Center in downtown Dover’s Capitol Complex. Not only will you find information on all of the city’s museums and other attractions here, but the site and its periphery will give you an intriguing introduction to the culture and heritage of Delaware. Two museum galleries on the lower level have rotating exhibits on the state’s people, places and history, which over the years have focused on such diverse themes as African-American history, handmade quilts and memorabilia from all the ships named the U.S.S. Delaware.

The Biggs Museum of American Art occupies the upper two levels and features 14 galleries of paintings, sculptures, rare 18th-century furniture and decorative arts amassed over six decades by the museum’s founder, Sewell C. Biggs. The collection includes many artworks from Delaware, as well as a large number of American landscape and 20th-century Impressionist paintings.

A Walk in the Past

At the Visitor Center you can sign up for “A Walk in the Past” tour, which focuses on the history of Dover’s commercial district 100 years ago. The 30-minute walking tour, offered Tuesday through Saturday, includes a visit to the Museum of Small Town Life, located on the Meeting House Square, part of the original city plan laid out in 1717 by the Quaker visionary William Penn.

Set up as late 19th-century Main Street, this museum displays a general store, post office, apothecary, print shop and woodworking shop. Exhibits at the Museum of Small Town Life emphasize society, commercial industry, trade, cost of living, occupations and consumer goods utilized by the ordinary citizens of late 19th-century Delaware small towns. Check out the original William Reith stained-glass window in the rear of the building, built in 1880 as a Presbyterian Sunday school. The window is rare, as it is one of the few stained-glass pieces signed by this artist.

The adjacent Delaware Archaeology Museum has artifacts from North America’s last Ice Age up through the last century. It highlights more than 11,000 years of history about people living in the state of Delaware, from the Native American residents, through the period of European colonization, to the present day. Exhibited artifacts range from arrowheads, ceramics, and other stone and bone tools, to glass and personal objects used in Delaware during the 17th, 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. Of particular interest are the exhibits featuring Delaware’s Native Americans and an archaeological dig to show how archaeologists search for remnants of civilizations and other artifacts. The museum is housed in a historic late 18th-century Presbyterian church.

On the same block you will find the Johnson Victrola Museum. It is a tribute to Delaware native Eldridge R. Johnson, who founded the Victor Talking Machine Company in 1901, and includes many items from his personal collection. Peek inside a replica of a 1920s record store to view the antique phonographs or “talking machines” and early records. The museum has a display of vintage photos of famous singers who recorded with Victor Records, as well as an original oil painting of Nipper, the dog, listening to a wind-up phonograph. That image has become one of the most recognized logos in the music industry.

The Green

From here, head one block west to The Green, which is the heart of Dover’s historic district. This square, which is ringed by beautiful colonial buildings including the Old State House and the city’s original post office, is where Delaware earned its “First State” nickname.

On display at Constitution Park , a mini-park dedicated to the Constitution of the United States, is a 12-foot bronze quill resting on a four-foot cube, upon which is inscribed the entire Constitution as it has evolved. This is believed to be the only such sculpture in the nation.

A short block from the park is the Golden Fleece Tavern, where Delaware’s Constitutional delegation met on December 7, 1787, to ratify the new U.S. Constitution, the first state to do so. A tavern sign and bronze plaque mark the site of this event. Throughout the years, other historic happenings have also occurred on The Green, including the mustering of the state’s Continental Regiment before they headed off to fight in the Revolutionary War.

Touring the Old State House

Take a guided tour of the Old Delaware State House, now a museum, with its grand staircase and stunning interiors furnished as they were two centuries ago. This was the first permanent capitol building in Dover, and originally served as the headquarters for both the state and Kent County governments. A fine example of Georgian architecture, the hall took more than five years to build and was finally completed in 1792.

Delaware’s General Assembly met here until 1933, when it moved to its current state capitol building, Legislative Hall, which is also open for public tours. The hall is filled with paintings and portraits of former governors and Delaware’s heroes of World War II. The tour schedule is dictated by the legislature’s session schedule, but visitors are always welcome to observe the Senators and Representatives in action when the legislature is in session.

Based On Agriculture

The Delaware Agricultural Museum and Village, just north of the city, takes visitors back to a more nostalgic time, when agriculture ruled the economy. The Great Hall (main exhibit building) is the home for an 18th-century log house, the first broiler chicken house and a crop duster. The story of Delaware’s agrarian past is told through these plus thousands of exhibits on dairying, poultry, fruit and vegetable production and even rural-free-delivery mail.

You can also view antique farm equipment and machinery, and the one-room Swedish log house, an authentic example of the type of house that was introduced to this country by Scandinavian immigrants in the early 18th century.

Visit to a Re-created Community Village

Behind the main exhibition hall is Loockerman Landing Village, a re-created community of 21 buildings and structures, including a church, school, mill, barbershop, granary, wheelwright shop, general store, blacksmith shop and train station. Most of these are original structures from the mid- to late-1800s. Also on display to round out your experience and understanding of this period in time are an 1893 farmhouse and its outbuildings, including the livestock barn, henhouse, meat house and even the outhouse or privy.

The museum also conducts special living history events and seasonal festivals throughout the year, with costumed interpreters, demonstrations, workshops and children’s activities.

Police and Military Exhibits

The Delaware State Police Museum at the state police headquarters has a mix of impressive exhibits including police uniforms, insignias, firearms, two antique Harley Davidson motorcycles and a 1946 Ford patrol car. The displays portray the changes or advancements in crime-fighting techniques and technology of the Delaware State Police from 1926 to the present. For an even more personal experience, you can test your forensic skills at a mock crime scene or listen in to a 911 emergency call center or live radio communication from the Dover Air Force Base and local airports.

On the city’s southern outskirts, the Air Mobility Command Museum at Dover Air Force Base has rare vintage aircraft and exhibits on the history of the base, home to more than half of the country’s largest military cargo planes. The base cargo terminal known as the “Superport” is the largest anywhere in the U.S. military. With over 1,700 buildings on 3,900 acres, Dover AFB ranks as Delaware’s third-largest industry.

Among the beautifully restored aircraft on display are a C-45 light cargo plane, a PT-17 biplane trainer, a B-17 Flying Fortress, an HH-43 helicopter and the only C54M still in existence. Visitors can also view the C-5 Galaxy, the world’s largest cargo plane, along with a collection of fuselage art and an exhibit on strategic Air Force airlift operations.

The AMC museum is housed on the base in Hangar 1301, which has an interesting history of its own. This was where the military conducted secret rocket testing during World War II. Today the building is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

In addition to the vintage and veteran aircraft, the museum displays historical artifacts since the beginning of the air base in 1941. There is a variety of educational exhibits, (including a unique set of flags in U.S. history) and historical displays dated from WWII to the present, plus a colorful fuselage artwork exhibit.

Plantation Mansion

Nearby is the John Dickinson Plantation, with its restored mid-18th-century Georgian mansion and outbuildings. Once one of the largest plantations in the state, it was the home of the man known as the “Penman of the American Revolution” for his writings debating secession from Mother England. Statesman John Dickinson earned his place in history as one of the framers and signers of the federal Constitution. Today costumed docents introduce visitors to the people who lived on the plantation – from this son of a wealthy tobacco grower to the slaves, indentured servants, tenant farmers and freed blacks.

Discover more about slavery in Delaware at the Star Hill Museum. This small museum, a good place to learn more about the Underground Railroad, contains many items, including apparel and kitchen utensils owned by slaves. It is located adjacent to the original 1842 Star of the Sea African Methodist Episcopal Church, once an Underground Railroad station.

Area Attractions

In addition to its numerous museums, Dover has a variety of other attractions of interest to visitors. You can explore the area’s natural history at the St. Jones Estuarine Research Reserve or attend a live musical, dance or theatrical performance at the Schwartz Center for the Arts. Dover Downs, an entertainment venue and racetrack, offers a number of options from its smoke-free casino to harness racing and NASCAR auto races at its Dover International Speedway.

Spence’s Bazaar, a twice-weekly farmers’ market, flea market and auction, is a fun place for lunch or to browse the rows of merchandise for everything from previously owned items to Amish-made products, including food, quilts and furniture.

Another notable stop is The Delaware Made General Store, housed in a charming 1775 building, which exclusively sells products from Delaware’s artists and craftspeople.

First State Heritage Park at Dover, the state’s first “park without boundaries” links historical and cultural sites in this capital city of Delaware, and most of the sites mentioned here are within the park. Although small in size, Dover is definitely big on its museums. If you travel to Delaware, take time to explore all of Dover’s wonderful museums.

Find Woodall's recommended Delaware camping locations in the Dover area.