At Dover Days Festival, city celebrates 300 years

The Green and the Old State House, shown, will be busy spots on Dover Days weekend. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

DOVER — Some notes and quotes between headlines and deadlines …

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The first of Dover’s 300th anniversary celebrations will step off Friday, May 5, with cake and a march of kazoo-playing citizens at Dover Days.

The evening will end with fireworks.

So what’s the story behind Dover’s tercentenary?

It plays off 1717, the year surveyors actually got around to following through on William Penn’s directive to lay out a town near the river that would serve as a new county seat and a place of commerce in one of the Lower Colonies.

It only took 34 years, but the work finally got done.

Penn’s initial warrant to plot out a town called Dover dates back to 1683.

At the time, Kent was part of the Lower Counties of the Province of Pennsylvania.

There were some settlements, but no center of activity.

One of the issues was land purchase for the town. That didn’t happen until 1694.

A courthouse was built in 1697.

Kent residents, knowing the land had been conveyed for public use, petitioned the Provincial Council for the creation of the town in 1699.

Their request, with exception to calling it Canterbury, was granted. It was to be called Dover after June 1699, the council ruled.

According to John Thomas Scharf’s “History of Delaware,” the petition stated it was “highlee necessary that a township, with all other privileges and benefits, be erected and established for the good of said county.”

The petition called for “a fair twice a year, and the same may be laid out into Lotts, a common and market place, as the county court and Grand Jury shall order and appoint, with streets and publick landings.”

The fairs of the time were marketplaces.

Penn’s directive called for a courthouse to be built along the King’s road that stretched from Philadelphia to New Castle and south to Lewes. Another road was to cross through it and extend to the river.

Approved under Governor William Keith, commissioners laid out the town’s streets. Intersecting the King’s road was Long Street, which extended from the river westward.

In all, it covered 125 acres.

Two religious squares were included in the town design.

They were Meeting House Square for the “Dissenters” (Presbyterians) and Church Square for followers of the Church of England. The Church Square, home to Christ Episcopal Church, was moved to higher ground in 1734.

History isn’t specific on the date the surveying started or when it finished, but orders called for it to be complete in March 1718.

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No doubt, there were many distractions that got in the way of Penn’s establishment of the town of Dover.

The biggest may have been an ongoing feud with Lord Baltimore who thought he had long before been given rights to a big piece of what we know today as Sussex County and control of the coastline.

Lord Baltimore thought Maryland had a border that would have been north to Cape Henlopen rather than Fenwick, as the King James II decided.

Penn went to his friend King James II, formerly the Duke of York, for clarification on that and the family friendship certainly ended up in his favor.

The debate raged for years, even after both their deaths, and there are legendary tales of Penn’s arrogance at meetings with Lord Baltimore in the early years of his governorship.

As part of the Dover Days schedule, Delaware’s Historical and Cultural Affairs team has a program called, “William Penn vs. Lord Baltimore: Let’s Get Ready to Rumble.”

The production begins at 1 p.m. at the Old State House on The Green.

Imagine if Lord Baltimore had won the argument. Delaware’s only beaches would have been along the bay.

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The Green, originally the public square in Penn’s plan, and the Old State House, built in 1791, are centerpieces to Dover Days.

Nena Todd, historic sites supervisor for the Division of Historical and Cultural Affairs, said The Green was the “center of the universe” and the State House “was the shelter from it” in the 18th century.

She noted how The Green was a place of commerce, where troops were mustered and announcements were made, and a spot where people met and talked.

People viewed the State House as a place to go.

“It was such a public, public place,” she said. “You didn’t need to be there.”

She said it is one of the reasons why the staff at the Old State House today is quick to welcome visitors. She said it’s the “people’s house.”

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In next Sunday’s edition, the Delaware State News will include the official program for Dover Days.

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On Tuesday, we hope to learn more about plans and ideas to celebrate Dover’s 300th anniversary.

At the end of the week, we received word that City of Dover Mayor Robin Christiansen and community organizers will be having a press conference Tuesday to discuss celebration.

Reach Executive Editor Andrew West at awest@newszap.com

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