Focus on Hartly: Delaware’s smallest town on the mend

 

Rep. Jeffrey N. Spiegelman, R-Clayton, sits inside The Young Bean chatting with Hartly resident Joe Hennessey while Ohio filmmaker David Kuznicki films a documentary on the town of Hartly Wednesday morning inside the Clayton coffee shop. (Delaware State News/Dave Chambers)

Rep. Jeffrey N. Spiegelman, R-Clayton, sits inside The Young Bean chatting with Hartly resident Joe Hennessey while Ohio filmmaker David Kuznicki films a documentary on the town of Hartly Wednesday morning inside the Clayton coffee shop. (Delaware State News/Dave Chambers)

HARTLY — One year ago, Delaware’s smallest town had a dim future. There was no town council, and absent a government, little got done. Things had fallen into disrepair — both figuratively and literally.

Dissolving the town was an option, albeit one that would leave the residents part of an unincorporated community in Kent County, rather than a separate municipality.

Many residents had little reason to expect change.

Today, the situation is different. Today, there is indeed “A Hope for Hartly.”

That’s the title of an upcoming documentary on the small town, which sits in western Kent County. With a population of 74 people as of the 2010 Census, Hartly is Delaware’s smallest municipality.

It was also for many years perhaps the most disorganized one.

Hartly’s town council had effectively sat empty for years, as council members’ terms expired and no one replaced them. The law requires any representatives of the governing body to be a part of the town proper, and while many others outside the town have a Hartly address, they’re not technically area residents.

Everything came to a head in December, when a meeting was scheduled to discuss the town’s future. Officials and more than 100 Delawareans turned out, and over the next hour, they hashed out some basics.

An option to suspend the charter and turn Hartly into an unincorporated part of the county was soundly rejected, and so residents and government representatives began working to restore the town.

‘Do small towns still matter?’

Shortly after that meeting, filmmaker David Kuznicki stumbled across an article on the plight.

He was immediately intrigued.

“Do small towns still matter? My thesis is yes … I’m proving it through the lens of Hartly,” Mr. Kuznicki, of Toledo, Ohio, said.

He’s worked in the TV and film industries for years and has been making documentaries since 2010. Three of his films have been aired nationally on PBS, and he’s hoping a recently finished fourth one is successful as well.

That fourth documentary in many ways prepared him for this one. Titled “The Town that Disappeared Overnight,” it chronicles a small New Jersey town that was flooded to create a reservoir.

Mr. Kuznicki spent about an hour Wednesday shooting film for his documentary, when several community members gathered in Clayton to meet with Mr. Kuznicki and Rep. Jeff Spiegelman, R-Clayton, who has helped lead the push to build Hartly back up. Mr. Kuznicki drove nine hours to make his second of four planned trips to central Delaware, and on Wednesday, he filmed community members casually chatting about the town and their lives.

Several men sat around, swapping stories and reminiscing. Founded in 1734, Hartly was a “residential commercial hub” for years, former resident Jim Melville said. It had essential stops like a gas station, liquor store, hardware store, church and bank, many of which are now gone.

Other towns have sprouted up, making Hartly less of an island in a sea of farmland and more of just another stop. It sits at the intersection of Del. routes 11 and 44, less than two miles from the Maryland state line.

According to the U.S. Census, Hartly always has been small. In many ways, it’s Everytown, U.S.A.

Mr. Melville, who resided in Hartly from 1942 to 1960 and now lives just outside Kenton, recalled walking more than a mile to the bus stop from his house on his family’s farm — just part of daily life in small-town America.

Mr. Kuznicki said he has heard a number of tales from residents, including one about a stray llama that had to be chased out of the street. That’s not his best story, though.

Like every community, Hartly had its own urban legends, one of which turned out to be true. For years, there were rumors a monkey had been buried in a garage. When what remained of Schweitzer Garage was demolished in 2007, many expected the myth would be proven to be just that when no bones were found.

Surprise, surprise — a monkey skeleton was discovered, Mr. Kuznicki said.

In November 2007 what was left of the Schweitzer garage was demolished. Hartly residents, including lifelong town resident Nancy Vodvarka, were eager to see if the legend of Tommy the Monkey was true. It was. Here, she holds the remains of the monkey, buried in 1941 in one of the concrete pillars of the garage. The monkey story was one of those retold this week when a filmmaker met with Hartly residents. (Delaware State News file/Dave Chambers)

In November 2007 what was left of the Schweitzer garage was demolished. Hartly residents, including lifelong town resident Nancy Vodvarka, were eager to see if the legend of Tommy the Monkey was true. It was. Here, she holds the remains of the monkey, buried in 1941 in one of the concrete pillars of the garage. The monkey story was one of those retold this week when a filmmaker met with Hartly residents. (Delaware State News file/Dave Chambers)

He plans to have the documentary finished by March, when it will be submitted to PBS and possibly aired nationally.

After reading about the town, he decided to turn the peoples’ efforts to re-establish a functioning community and government once more into a documentary.

“I read this and was intrigued, just blown away,” he said. “This is a story. This is a real — this is what America is. This is great.”

While some information can be gleaned from websites and old newspaper articles, there’s no substitute for hearing it firsthand. That’s why Mr. Kuznicki made the nine-hour drive earlier this week, and it’s why he aims to come back to the town again in the ensuing months. In all, he expects by the time the film is finished he will have spent about three weeks in Delaware.

“There’s no substitute for getting out and talking to people and hearing everybody’s history,” he said. “It’s those little nuggets that are most interesting.”

All this shouldn’t detract from Hartly itself, however.

A functioning council

The town has a functioning council of five citizens. Formed back in the spring, the group is working to adopt new ordinances and to annex some land — not to gain new properties but to have boundaries that simply make more sense.

Currently, the boundaries cut right through some properties, Rep. Spiegelman said. The town fire hall, for instance, is in Hartly itself, but its parking lot lies outside the lines. Some residents are thus receiving tax bills from both the town and the county, a hassle council is hoping to change.

Dollar General plans to build a store in town next year, as long as the lines can be adjusted to allow for the company to construct a building that is solely inside the town’s boundaries.

Hartly is crafting its comprehensive plan, which is submitted to the Office of State Planning Coordination and used by the Dover/Kent County Metropolitan Planning Organization to develop a long-term transportation vision for the county.

Once new regulations have been adopted, cleanup of local blights can commence. Residents are also intent on putting together community events.

New legislation adjusting the charter could be introduced to the General Assembly in January, Rep. Spiegelman said.

There remains one issue: Hartly is in debt more than $20,000, the result of years of not collecting taxes and paying bills.

“What to do about that is still a matter of some contention, and it’s still a conversation that’s ongoing with Delmarva Power,” Rep. Spiegelman said.

While the climb back is a long one, Hartly appears to be headed in the right direction. Mr. Kuznicki’s documentary has the potential to shine more light on the town and its people, which would bring additional benefits as well.

Town residents have hope.

Reach staff writer Matt Bittle at mbittle@newszap.com

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