Written by Eileen Fay
On Friday, December 13, 2022 the Delaware Valley Archivist Group met in Wilmington to enjoy a tour of the Delaware Historical Society’s State History Museum and Special Collections department. Among the attendees included representatives from the nearby Hagley Museum & Library, the Brandywine River Museum of Art, and the University of Delaware. Though I have been a resident of Wilmington for almost five years now, a great deal of the tour provided of the museum exhibits was new to me. For instance, the fact that modern-day Delaware was originally colonized by the Dutch and not the Swedish. Or Anthony, the first enslaved person ever brought to our shores, as well as Samuel Burris, the Black abolitionist who was arrested and put up for auction, only to be rescued by allies who successfully bid on him. (He was officially pardoned by the State of Delaware in 2012.)
My favorite part, however, was learning about Delaware’s chickens. In 1923 Cecile Steele of Ocean View was surprised by a clerical error that added an extra zero to her order of 50 chicks. Instead of returning them she elected to raise them and sell the meat, earning such a handsome profit that her backyard enterprise exploded into what is today a $1.7 billion poultry industry represented by the Delmarva Chicken Association. Alejandro Lobo sums it up succinctly: “Delaware, a small, three-county state, is not a minor player in US chicken distribution, it is the figurehead.”
Enhancing the history lessons imparted by presentations on the Paul Preston Davis Collection of Delawareana, consisting of books, periodicals, photographs, artifacts (including a unique assortment of watches), ephemera, and various interesting odds and ends related mostly to the Civil War, local businesses, and the state’s African-American community. Davis (1932-2021), a native of Wilmington and longtime employee of the Delmarva Power & Light Company, was a lifelong passionate collector whose bequest to the Delaware Historical Society far surpasses what the organization could have purchased on its own, and came already housed and organized in archival storage boxes. Davis’s personal favorite piece was an unusual calendar consisting of a single page with twelve brightly colored birds that could be rotated to reveal a month. The calendar was mounted in a heavily ornate frame by Davis’s brother-in-law and hung over the couple’s bed, much to the consternation of his wife Mary French Davis, who worried about it falling on them Another recipient of Davis’s generosity was the Brandywine River Museum of Art in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, which received the Howard Pyle Research Collection compiled for his book Howard Pyle – His Life, His Work, an expansive record of all books, short stories, artwork, articles, lectures, and other creative outputs of the great Delaware illustrator. Published by Oak Knoll Press of New Castle, Delaware in 2004, the two-volume set contains over 3300 images, some not seen since their original publication over a century ago.
The DVAG thanks DHS for their time and generosity.