Author unearths treasures from Dover’s history

DOVER — Bruce Walls can laugh now when he looks back at the history of his “Tales of Old Dover” book that he recently re-released in honor of the state capital’s 300th birthday.

Mr. Walls originally wrote the book about his hometown back in 1977, when he was a journalism student at Delaware Technical Community College.

That version was wrought with errors and misrepresentations about the city as it was rushed into publication, much to the young author’s dismay.

Fulfilling a dream

It took 40 years, but his newest version of Tales of Old Dover, he said, is one that fulfilled a dream and has brought him great pleasure.

Dover native Bruce Walls has re-released his “Tales of Old Dover” book just in time for Dover’s 300th birthday. (Delaware State News/Mike Finney)

The book is a brisk 112-page journey through some of the more popular-known stories of Dover with some rare tales intertwined. It is a quick read that moves from story to story in a conversational way.

“Even though the earlier version was a classic and people paid money for the early editions and stuff, I always wanted to do it again,” Mr. Walls said. “I think we got it right this time. This I can at least be proud of. It’s a cool, fun book.

“This is the book the way I always wanted it to be. I’m not doing this for a profit. This is more for ‘Happy Birthday, Dover.’ I did it because I wanted to do it.”

He credits his interest in Dover’s history with the passion about the subject that a fourth-grade teacher in the Capital School District, Herman Harold Glass, passed on to him.

“Mr. Glass instilled so much enthusiasm for Delaware history in me that I wrote a rather lengthy extra credit paper on the topic and got an A-plus,” Mr. Walls said. “I was hooked. I read every Delaware history book I could find.

“Whenever I walked through The Green I would imagine Revolutionary troops in parade dress mustering for war while intellectuals filled the taverns arguing over the correct path our young country should take – freedom or continued British rule.”

Dover Mayor Robin Christiansen wrote the forward for the new Tales of Dover book. He found some of the content to be fascinating.

“Bruce Walls has captured many of the stories of the city from its earliest and humble beginnings through the growth and expansion to the place we all call home today,” Mr. Christiansen wrote.

“The quaint tales remind us of times gone by to be enjoyed today. They serve to show us that Dover comes from good stock, and hearty people.”

Tom Welch, former civics teacher, Wesley College administrator and currently a historical interpreter at the Old State House in Dover, was more than happy to review Mr. Wall’s book.

“Not written as a history textbook or a scholarly tome, there is within the book legitimate, documentable history,” Mr. Welch said. “Now that historical primary source material is more readily available to researchers, primarily through the internet, to make these tales as authentic history, it falls on either author Walls or other researchers to do the digging, the referencing and the citing of sources.

“To his credit, Walls has not claimed that his work is a history book. Rather, it is a book of Tales; it has a wealth of stories centered on the life of the people of the capital city of Dover that provide the reader with a page-turner loaded with enjoyable, entertaining stories that make Tales of Old Dover worth crawling up with in your favorite easy chair.”

Death by candy

Mr. Walls said that his favorite entry in Tales of Old Dover is a snippet about the Poison Candy Murders that he described as “three years of adultery on both sides with murder mixed in.”

The story is about the murder – by poisoned candy – delivered and eaten by Mary Elizabeth Dunning, who was the daughter of former Delaware Congressman John B. Pennington, a farmer turned politician.

Mrs. Dunning’s death in August 1898 came on the heels of her husband John Preston ‘Jack’ Dunning’s three-year affair with Cordelia Botkin in San Francisco. Mr. Dunning was a reporter with the Associated Press.

It turned out that Ms. Botkin mailed the poisoned candy to Mrs. Dunning, whose older sister Leila Deane also died after eating some of it.

“This is the book the way I always wanted it to be,” Mr. Walls said. “It’s stuff like that that needs to be told and they’re all great stories.”

Difficult intro to publishing

Mr. Walls got a quick harsh introduction to the publishing world back in 1977. That was when a man from Decatur, Illinois, recruited him to write the original book about Dover.

“A guy named James Warnick was going around the country writing these books … Tales of … you plug in the name of the town, and he asked me if I thought I had enough about Dover for a book,” said Mr. Walls. “So I was going to journalism school and I was just a kid. He said we’ll do Dover and then we’ll go to Wilmington and then Philadelphia and New York and all.”

Then, Mr. Walls’ passion to be a published author took an unexpected hit.

“I was a kid and I’m in college and I’m all excited because I sold a book,” he said. “We did it and we sat and we proofed the book and it was horrible. There were mistakes in it. There were pictures of Indians talking to pilgrims with mountains in the background and I’m trying to tell the guy, this isn’t Delaware.
“So I made all of the corrections and I sent it back to him and when the book came out in the bookstore they didn’t change anything. I was embarrassed and horrified about what I was going to do about this book.”

A chance for a do-over

When Mr. Walls remembered that Dover would be celebrating its 300th birthday this year he put the wheels into motion. This was his chance to undo what he saw as a wrong.

It was time to dust off the old book and fix those errors of the past.

He said it was just something he had to do, because of his long-time love affair with the downtown Dover area and the history of the city.

“Hey, I live in a town that started it all,” Mr. Walls said. “When you look at Dover history, this is it. They can say what they want about other places, but Dover had all of the cool stuff.

“I mean how cool would it have been to live back then when there were troops mustering on The Green and all these guys are all in the bars – John Dickinson, Caesar Rodney. This is where all the excitement was and I just was always interested in it and I read everything I could get my hands on about Dover.”

Mr. Walls, who now lives in Fenwick Island with his wife Susan, who helped him produce his new book, said it’s easy for him to explain why he is fascinated by the history and tales of Dover.

“I think the fact that you can go down to The Green and sit on the bench and imagine,” he said. “It’s just such a fascinating place and so much has happened here. It’s amazing.”

Delaware State News staff writer Mike Finney can be reached at mfinney@newszap.com.

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