Lending a hand: Volunteers donate their time, efforts for John Dickinson Plantation cleanup

Gloria Henry, the site supervisor at the John Dickinson Plantation, was pleased with the volunteer turnout the plantation received on Monday to help spruce it up in anticipation of the summer season. (Delaware State News/Mike Finney)

DOVER — Believe it or not, it takes a lot of work and upkeep to keep a historic place like the Colonial-era John Dickinson Plantation looking old and, well, authentic.

That’s where the Delaware Division of Historical & Cultural Affairs and First State National Historic Park — and their many capable volunteers — come into play.

About 10 or so volunteers for those organizations spent their Monday at the historic Dickinson Plantation at 340 Kitts Hummock Road planting bayberry bushes, paw paw trees, dogwood trees, painting benches, picnic tables, and generally cleaning up the place.

For them, it was the perfect chance to get National Volunteer Week underway and give back to their local community.

“Volunteering is something that I’ve always wanted to do and it gets me off the couch and out of the house for a little bit,” said Jim Schilling, who also serves as a volunteer at the Johnson Victrola Museum in downtown Dover. “I knew about the John Dickinson Plantation because I brought my kids out here when they were younger and in school on field trips.

“Really, I just wanted help out the community.”

Volunteers are invaluable

Gloria Henry, site supervisor for the John Dickinson Plantation, said the work that volunteers provide is invaluable to the historic property.

Jan Rettig (left) and Kara Briggs help plant Paw Paw trees in the lawn of the John Dickinson plantation Monday morning. (Delaware State News/Mike Finney)

“Our volunteers bring a lot to the table when they come out here, not only their enthusiasm but sometimes their expertise, plus they sometimes bring a whole different perspective,” Ms. Henry said. “We encourage everyone to come out here and help out.

“Volunteers bring a great deal of resources here whenever they come, whether they’re professional or amateur. They have their enthusiasm and they help with a lot of work that is done here.”

Bridget Wallace, volunteer coordinator for the Delaware Division of Historic and Cultural Affairs, had plenty of work ready for the volunteers, and some staff workers, on Monday.

“We try to include our staff in our volunteer projects so they can take time from their regular day-to-day duties and get outside of the office and do something that helps the whole division and work with their hands,” said Ms. Wallace. “If we get caught in the rain, I’ve got some indoor activities planned, as well.”

Samantha Zielinski, volunteer coordinator for First State National Historical Park, agreed that volunteers are a big part of what keep historic sites such as the John Dickinson Plantation going.

Hard work lauded

“For First State National Historical Park we actually have a variety of volunteers at all seven of our sites (in Delaware) and we appreciate every single one of them,” she said. “We wouldn’t be able to operate without our volunteers and all the hard work that they do.”

James Scott puts some coats of red paint on a bench that is used for visitors to the John Dickinson plantation. (Delaware State News/Mike Finney)

Betsy Grant serves as the horticulture supervisor for the Division of Historical and Cultural Affairs.

She definitely was getting her hands dirty at the John Dickinson Plantation on Monday as she guided the volunteers with shovel in hand.

“We’re trying to put in a paw paw patch — we don’t want New Castle to get all the love, we want some of it,” Ms. Grant said, with a laugh. “We’ve got this orchard out here that takes a lot of maintenance, whereas the paw paw’s shouldn’t take any maintenance.

“We’re planting all native plants. These are all plants that they could have utilized (in Colonial times). These are going to bear fruit that Native Americans, as well as John Dickinson, would have eaten and utilized. With the bayberries (historical interpreters at the plantation are) going to make candles with the leaves and the dogwood trees are good for native insects and beauty.”

Ready for history buffs

By the time the volunteers are finished, the John Dickinson Plantation won’t exactly be Colonial-times’ authentic, but it will be attractive for school field-trip groups and other history buffs who like to wander around the property and learn about how things used to be.

After all, Ms. Henry said, most of the outbuildings that surround Poplar Hall, the three-story house built by wealthy Quaker and tobacco farmer Samuel Dickinson (John’s father) in 1740, were actually built in the 1980s — though they were built to Colonial-era specifications.

It’s that whole history aspect that encouraged Faye Middleton to donate some of her time to paint some benches on Monday.

“I like history,” Ms. Middleton said. “I like to preserve it and I like to give back to the community. I’ve done this before in different places. I think it’s important to learn about history. The more you know is better.”

That is information that she is more than happy to volunteer.

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

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