Effort to preserve Milford’s Vinyard Shipyard property gaining steam

Vinyard Shipyard owners Sudler and Joan Lofland celebrated the installation of a historical marker with Delaware Public Archives Director Stephen M. Marz in 2016. (Delaware State News/Jennifer Antonik)

MILFORD — With freshly cleaned relics and enough research to occupy a visitor for days inside the previously condemned Vinyard Shipyard, Joan and Sudler Lofland have brought the historical property in Milford back to life.

A task force will soon help them preserve their property and other nearby properties, hopefully expanding the Riverwalk for future generations to enjoy.

Vinyard Shipyard is the last of seven shipyards to survive from Milford’s vibrant shipbuilding industry. Founded in 1896 by Wilson Vinyard, the company would join Milford’s legacy of producing “more wooden ships than any of the other seven significant wooden ship building centers in Delaware, including Wilmington,” according to Milford resident and business owner Daniel Bond.

Tugboats and sailing vessels were some of the first boats to line the Mispillion River as Vinyard Shipyard came into business. The Albert F. Paul became “the largest and last” of the sailing ships measuring in at 174 feet.

That ship sank when it encountered a German submarine near the Bahamas in 1942, but not before the Milford-made boat sailed around the world for 24 years. Its crew went down with the boat.

Albert Paul of Monte, Virginia, a decedent of the Mr. Paul who was a merchant in Baltimore for whom the boat was named, recently visited Vinyard Shipyard in awe of the preservation the Loflands have done over the years.

“They came to Milford not expecting to see anything. They pulled in here knowing this was next door to where the ship was built,” Ms. Lofland said.

Among their shelves full of shipbuilding research, Ms. Lofland pulled out a book written about the Albert Paul ship by a longtime curator of the Newport News Maritime Museum.

“I had the last copy of the book, and he said I had pictures of his family in there but didn’t want me to open it because I had never opened it before since it was older. And I said, ‘Al, I’ve had this for three years and I haven’t opened it. I think I was waiting for you.’”

Together, from inside Vinyard Shipyard in Milford, they flipped through the book depicting an era gone by with seemingly long-lost photos of Mr. Paul’s family and legacy.

“The fact that we were still here and could help them reflect the heritage of their family is unbelievable. Except for this book and that ship model on the wall, everything else is gone. I could help save that legacy and bring it back to Milford,” Ms. Lofland said. “He became very emotional and was very happy that it had been saved.”

The couple has also saved the history from Milford’s contribution to wartime vessels and “rum-runners” used during the Prohibition period. Luxury yachts rounded out the offerings from Vinyard Shipyard.

Partnering with the community

Concerned with the longevity of Vinyard Shipyard, the Loflands are now teaming up with a group of concerned residents and business owners to continue preserving a piece of Milford history.

The shipyard was condemned in 1995 after 12 years of vacancy. The Loflands purchased it in 1996 and several of the yachts, like the Augusta, to restore to their former glory.

Now, with a historical marker to publicly acknowledge the property being listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the task force of citizens is ready to help the Loflands keep the business looking as shiny and new as when it first began in the 1800s.

Members include Mr. Bond, Abbott’s Mill Nature Center Site Manager Matt Babbitt, former Milford Parks & Recreation Department Director Gary Emory, U.S. Department of Agriculture Business and Community Programs Specialist Lisa Fitzgerald, Milford Museums Executive Director Claudia Leister, Milford City Planner Rob Pierce, First State Manufacturing Co-Owner Sher Valenzuela and Downtown Milford, Inc. Executive Director Murrie Zlotziver.

“This small group has been working to find out how to preserve Vinyard Shipyard which Joan and Sudler Lofland own,” Mr. Bond told members of the Milford City Council in December.

“We want to maintain it for the public. We felt like a professional study to look at how best to do this was what was necessary to go forward. You have to have a plan, a clear plan, a well thought out plan, a professional plan.”

The study will be done by Architectural Associates after being chosen from an RFP process and is estimated to cost about $56,000. Mr. Bond said it would help the group identify ways to preserve not just Vinyard Shipyard, but nearby areas, effectively adding on to the vision of the Mispillion Riverwalk created decades ago.

“A grand vision of the Milford community in the early 1970s — to clean up the banks of the Mispillion and turn it into a public greenway — has resulted today in the city’s most valuable public resource,” he said in his presentation. “Milford now has the opportunity to develop and expand the eastern half of the Riverwalk Greenway into a major recreation and culture complex.”

DMI agreed to front the money for the study for the group, with the understanding that the task force will raise the funds necessary and reimburse that organization. To help the cause, the city of Milford agreed to offer $15,000 toward the study from the Economic Development Fund to be given when the remaining funds are raised. Other government agencies and eventually the public will be asked to pitch in, as well.

On Dec. 11, Kent County Levy Court made their support of the Vinyard Shipyard project official when commissioners voted unanimously to grant $15,000 toward the feasibility study — thereby matching the city’s contribution.

Kent County administrator Michael Petit de Mange noted that DMI briefed county commissioners on the project initially several weeks ago. Mr. Petit de Mange said the county support the project as it fits well into long-term economical development plans.

“It’s a good investment in the ongoing revitalization and economic development of Milford,” he said. “They’ve done a lot of great things recently and there is momentum there. They’re a Downtown Development District now and there are some positive things happening in town. This one is a grass-roots type project that commissioners traditionally support.”

The money will come out of Kent County’s strategic development fund.

“We’re looking beyond just the shipyard. We’re looking at 50 acres east of the city that could be a large recreational complex. We need more recreation downtown. We also have visitors that are coming in now. DE Turf is bringing in a lot of people that have time on their hands,” Mr. Bond said. “Kent County is contributing to this, too. They realize for DE Turf to continue to support these tournaments, there has to be more in the area for them to do.

“We are hopeful that this project will create a new and exciting vision for Milford as we grow into the future.”

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