Longtime Milford locals still congregate downtown for coffee, community

Wayne Whitney, left, and Maggie Mae Stewart are part of a group of Milford residents who meet at Dolce on Walnut Street nearly every morning. James Merrell joins them in conversation. (Special to the Delaware State News/Ariane Mueller)

MILFORD — Most mornings, Dolce cafe on Walnut Street is serving up town chitchat along with its coffee and sweet treats.

So it’s quickly become the focal point of downtown Milford’s social scene, especially for a group of retired longtime locals.

“It’s just a place to meet your friends and see what happened the day before or during the night,” said Milford resident Albert Baker, who used to work for the Delaware Department of Transportation. “It’s mostly people that you’ve grown up with or went to school with or just knew through work.”

Mr. Baker, 78, is a long-standing customer at Dolce.

“The reason I started coming up here, Chuck (Stanko) and George (Carroll), the two guys that owned this place first, were just nice guys,” he said. “I got to know them. They were friends with my girlfriend, and I started coming here just to see them every day.”

Mr. Baker’s trips to Dolce are a good way for him to keep tabs on the other locals from his generation, many of whom he has known for 50 years or more.

“We just try to keep track of everybody,” Mr. Baker said. “Make sure they’re healthy and everybody’s doing well.”

Every day but Saturday, the group of roughly half a dozen meet at 7 a.m., when Dolce opens its doors.

“Saturday is a different crowd,” Mr. Baker said. “It’s the farmers market (across the street), and (Dolce) opens at 8 o’clock. Well, 8 o’clock is our lunchtime.”

Stephenie Tatman, who has owned Dolce with her husband, Dean, since 2016, said she knows the members of this informal breakfast group by their first names.

“We know them well,” she said. “Our team starts fixing their drinks as soon as they walk up, and they are very much a part of our Dolce family.”

Ms. Tatman said the members are a cherished part of the Milford community.

“When other people come in, they always make a joke,” she said. “They probably know most of the community themselves. You hear some people come in and ask, ‘What’s the town gossip today?’”

The group may be dependent on Dolce for its supply of morning coffee and sweet breakfast goodies, but they prefer to congregate in front of Milford Antiques and Friends, the business next door.

“They all start their days here. They’ve been doing it for years,” said Maggie Mae Stewart, who owns and runs that store. “They get their coffee, and they sit here, because of my tree.”

She said the group used to sit on the other side of Dolce, near the Downtowne Barber Shop.

“(The barbershop staff) don’t like the smoke” from the cigars many members of the group light up, Ms. Stewart said. “Me, I don’t care.”

Inside the barbershop, nestled on a corner wall, there’s a small painting of an older iteration of the group. Although it’s hard to make out exactly who is featured, the late Skip Pikus, a well-known Milford businessowner and community member, is easily recognizable.

“I was friends with him,” Wayne Whitney, a Milford resident and retired lineman from Delmarva Power, said of Mr. Pikus. “I worked for the city, he was on City Council. … He was fun to be around.”

Mr. Pikus also made Mr. Whitney’s first shoes, along with countless others, at the long-gone Lou’s Bootery in the historic, recently renovated Pikus Building.

Mr. Whitney was also a longtime volunteer firefighter for the Carlisle Fire Co., but now he has a different role there.

“I’m on the board of directors,” he said. “I don’t fight fire no more. I’m getting too old.”

Today, Mr. Whitney is “in charge of the hall rental, stuff like that. I help the chief engineer work on the trucks. Since I’m retired, I have more time to hang out there.”

Mr. Baker said the breakfast group’s ranks have shrunk in recent years.

“They’re dying off as fast as they come,” he said. “Take Skip Pikus. He was always here in the morning. He passed away. Steve Welch, he owned Mohawk Electronics, he passed away. My brother passed away.”

Buzzy Hood, a Harrington resident and another frequent face at Dolce, said local history is a common topic of conversation for the group.

“We talk about what used to be downtown years ago,” he said.

He and Mr. Baker are some of the few remaining locals who remember a very different downtown Milford.

“At one time, Milford was a metropolis,” Mr. Baker said. “When I was a kid, … you could come to Milford and buy anything you wanted. You had Penney’s, Sears, and you had Montgomery Ward. You had A&P, Acme.”

Mr. Hood also remembers the downtown area’s commercial heyday fondly.
“There wasn’t anything that you needed you couldn’t get here, from a plowshare to a wood stove,” he said.

“There were two women’s clothing stores here and then one real high-end men’s clothing store all the way on the end,” his wife, Jana, added.

“It was a hell of a lot better of a place to live than it is now,” Mr. Hood said.
He recalled that before he even met Mrs. Hood, Milford’s tightknit nature meant he was already familiar with her family.

“I knew her uncle. He sold Studebakers, and I worked at the gas station next door. I knew her mother and father,” he said.

Mr. Baker said modern Milford has lost this familiarity in the realms of both commerce and community.

“People seem to have lost interest in staying in their own community and spending their money here,” he said. “There’s no such thing as a family. It used to be that when you were a kid, you were always at a Sunday meal at your aunt’s, uncle’s, whatever.”

Now, he said many relatives only see each other at funerals or, if they’re lucky, big holidays like Christmas.

“People aren’t the same anymore,” he said. “They’re too independent, and they’re afraid they’re going to lose something if they get too close to somebody.”

Gathering in person is very important to the group, and COVID-19 has certainly not stopped them. Mr. Baker said he felt safe surrounded by his fellow elders.

“Sitting here among friends, I’d hate to think that one of my friends would be infected and come to town to visit,” he said.

Everyone sitting outside the antiques store had a mask and was willing to put it on to go inside any storefront, but they did not wear them when congregating outside.

Mr. Baker said the group’s ranks have been dwindling in recent years as members of his generation have begun to die. But now, he said more people are joining him for his morning ritual.

“It dwindled down enough, but now, it’s starting to work its way back up,” he said. “I guess it’s because there’s vacancy in the seats.”

Ms. Tatman said Milford wouldn’t be the same without its breakfast crowd.

“They’re sort of like a staple in our town,” she said. “It’s part of what makes our community what it is, when you ride by Dolce and you see the guys hanging out in front on the bench.”

Reach staff writer Noah Zucker at nzucker@newszap.com