Transport planes, houses took off in Dover in the 1950s

DOVER — A few years back, a professor posed a question to Eric Czerwinski.

“Was there segregated housing at Air Force bases after World War II?”

At the time, he was working on a master’s degree in historic preservation at Delaware State University.

From the Editor logo copy copyThe retired airman of 20 years came back in a few days with a quick answer — no.

In the era of segregation, black military families found homes in communities such as Star Hill and the Kirkwood Street area in Dover.

“As a result, they were not privy to the limited numbers of quality housing and facilities available to white families,” Mr. Czerwinski said in a 2014 research paper.

The question led him down an interesting path, collecting a historical perspective on Dover’s boom years in the 1950s.

You have to go back to 1952 for perspective, said Mr. Czerwinski.

Dover Air Force Base had been reactivated and designated the Atlantic hub of the Military Air Transport Service.

Mostly relying on the Delaware State News in his research, Mr. Czerwinski said it was intriguing to see it unfold in front page headlines.

From 1954 to 1957, base personnel grew from 1,600 to 7,000.

There were 4,000 more cars on Kent County roads. Two new elementary schools and a power plant were built in Dover.

Shopping centers sprouted up.

Where corn once grew, houses popped up.

“What was really hitting me in the face was that here you’ve got this dynamic change of Dover itself,” said Mr. Czerwinski said. “Throughout this whole period, in the newspaper, all you read about is the base commander Col. Paul Zartman screaming, pleading with people, ‘Hey, we need housing. I need 1,700 rental units — ASAP.’”

Jack Smyth, the founder of the Delaware State News as a daily in 1953 and its original editor, was among those trying to facilitate a connection between the base and the community. He learned that some airmen were accepting discharges in hopes of reenlisting and landing at a base with better housing prospects.

“Uncle Sam asks these people to serve their nation,” he wrote in an editorial. “They give up a lot of advantages — absence from those they love, their home communities, business opportunities. All they ask is, when they are ordered to a new base, that they can give their families a decent place to live.”

Mr. Czerwinski, an aircraft crew chief who retired from the Air Force in 2008, is now an adjunct history professor at Wesley College. He shared his observations of Cold War Dover at a Delaware Public Archives program last week.

Among his slides was a Gordy and Sons’ advertisement for the “Yankee Doodle Rancher” in Capitol Park.14dsn from the editor dsn ad 1954

“It’s cool,” he said, “to look at the fabric of our environment and go, ‘What caused that?’”

To meet the housing demands, 10 new subdivisions were built in the 1950s: Briar Park, Capitol Green, Capitol Park, Kent Acres, Lakewood Manor, Morris Estates, Northwest Dover Heights, Palmer Park, Rodney Village and Shady Lane.

The majority of them were single-story, wood-framed ranchers with carports.

The government preferred rentals, but builders in the private sector wanted to sell land and homes.

There were also three trailer parks — King’s Cliffe, Nelson and Rodney.

An amusing aside is that Col. Harold Rau bought the land for King’s Cliffe. The name, notes Mr. Czerwinski, comes from the name of a British airfield where Col. Rau led the 20th Fighter Group.

Briar Park ad

Palmer Park, he said, deserves a spot on the National Register of Historic Places since it was the only military-only development built for Dover Air Force Base. When it opened, the two-bedroom units rented for $72 a month.

You often hear Dover people speak fondly of Victorian and Federalist eras. But, Mr. Czerwinski said, we should give the 1950s its due.

“It was really the only time that our country enjoyed the American dream,” he said. “All the Depression-era kids that were eating cold cuts for dinner at one time are getting jobs, and they can afford the house and the carport. We’ll never see that again.

“A lot of those subdivisions are run down now, but they define Dover.”

By 1956, the military had grown frustrated with the private sector, which was lagging behind its needs.

The federal government built 500 homes on land west of the base. By 1961, there were 1,275 military-owned and -operated housing units, Mr. Czerwinski noted.

***

For those of us who cover news with the understanding that it someday will be history, a passage of Mr. Czerwinski’s report is rewarding.

The U.S. Air Force did not have much information, nor did Kent County records, that were helpful in his research, he said.

“The Delaware State News was a savior as it reported the impact Dover AFB had on the local communities as it unfolded,” he wrote.

Interestingly, he noted the impact the base had on local romance and the tension that may have created among the locals, too.

“The vast majority of wedding engagement notices in the paper throughout the entire period spanning 1952-1956 featured local women marrying airmen, and that had a distinct impact on the demographics in and around Dover, Delaware.”

All of that was news that Jack Smyth must have loved collecting for his young and growing daily.

Mr. Czerwinski said it was neat to read a story about Mr. Smyth’s visit to the base to meet with airmen.

“He had to explain how Dover is a small city and it’s not used to growing and it’s not used to being around people from different parts of the country,” he said. “And at the bottom, he wrote, ‘I don’t think we were too convincing.’

“He was editor of the local paper trying to deal with this and he was getting it from both sides.”

***

In a brief conversation with retired U.S. Air Force Col. Rich Harper, this editor mentioned the housing presentation. It reminded Col. Harper of a visit a few years ago from Rotary International President John F. Germ.

Mr. Germ made a quick visit to Capitol Green where he had a home in the early 1960s. At the time, Mr. Germ was a C-124 navigator at Dover.

***

In other base-related news, we learned Air Mobility Command Museum director Mike Leister will be retiring this fall.

Just like the centerpiece C-47, Mr. Leister is the only other 30-year fixture of the museum.

The Delaware State News has been working with Mr. Leister, Col. Harper and the team of volunteers at the museum in recent weeks in advance of the Festival of Flight, a celebration of the 30th anniversary.

The festival will be Sept. 23-25, starting with an exclusive Friday night party on the eve of two days of unprecedented open aircraft opportunities for the public.

For more information on the Festival of Flight, read the “From the Editor” column on the topic at DelawareStateNews.net or visit amcmuseum,org.

Reach editor Andrew West at awest@newszap.com

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