New signs point the way at First State National Park

First-graders from Holy Cross School listen to Tim Slavin, the director of the state Division of Historical and Cultural Affairs, speak at an event Friday unveiling new signs for First State National Historical Park.  (Delaware State News photos by Eleanor La Prade)

First-graders from Holy Cross School listen to Tim Slavin, the director of the state Division of Historical and Cultural Affairs, speak at an event Friday unveiling new signs for First State National Historical Park. (Delaware State News photos by Eleanor La Prade)

DOVER — First-graders from Holy Cross got a lesson in history on Friday morning.

The children took a front-row seat Friday when officials unveiled the new signs for First State National Historical Park outside of the Old State House in Dover.

When Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., came up to the podium, he had a question for them.

“How many (of you) are missing teeth today?”

Nearly all their hands shot up.

“Delaware was missing something, too,” Sen. Carper continued, “not teeth, but a national park, because we never got one. We never got a national park. Can you believe that?”

It’s a problem Sen. Carper worked on for more than a decade, before Congress finally approved the First State National Historical Park in December 2014.

He helped lead the effort to bring the national park to Delaware, working with the state delegation, federal officials,

state officials and community leaders to identify a theme and park concept.

Their ideas became First State National Park, which is made up of historical sites across the state, including The Green in Dover.

As the new signs affirm, The Green became the heart of Dover when the town was laid out in 1717, surrounded by

First-graders Chloe and Zoey Sekyi helped First State National Historical Park Superintendent Ethan McKinley, left, and U.S. Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., uncover new interpretive signs at The Green in Dover on Friday.

First-graders Chloe and Zoey Sekyi helped First State National Historical Park Superintendent Ethan McKinley, left, and U.S. Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., uncover new interpretive signs at The Green in Dover on Friday.

shops, government buildings, homes and taverns.

Visitors to the site can learn more, too, about the 30 delegates who met there to discuss the Constitution.

“Before any other state ratified the Constitution, we did,” Sen. Carper explained to the group, “about 200 yards from here, in a place called the Golden Fleece Tavern.”

If Philadelphia was the birthplace of the Constitution, Dover was its proofing ground, park superintendent Ethan McKinley said.

Along with The Green, the new national park is comprised of the John Dickinson Plantation in Dover, the Ryves Holt House in Lewes, the Woodlawn Tract between Delaware and Pennsylvania, Fort Christina in Wilmington, Old Swedes Church in Wilmington and, in New Castle, the Old Sheriff’s House, the Old New Castle Courthouse and the Old New Castle Green.

Mr. McKinley, who was chosen for the job in January, said the sites already are getting more visitors.

“We have a very small staff right now, so monitoring and counting that visitation is part of the plan,” he said.

“We have seven different sites across the state so it’s rather difficult to count. We’ve had really great reviews from partners so we’re starting to get that stake in the ground. It takes a lot of building.

“Most of it’s going to be done behind the scenes, but you’re going to see things start to pop up.”

Mr. McKinley said the new signs are “the tip of the iceberg” in new initiatives at the park.

At the event Friday, officials unveiled two interpretive signs looking out over The Green that detail its history, along with a road sign to point the way.

State legislators helped secure funding for the highway signs. First State Heritage Park, Kent County Tourism and Friends of Old Dover also worked on the project.

First State National Historical Park was founded on a simple principle. “It’s the first settlement in the first state,” Mr. McKinley said.

The park chronicles the first communities of Dutch, the Swedes and the English men and women who settled the state, and follows their transition from colonists into something completely new.

“It was no longer a Colony. It was founded as a country. What happened in that transition? That’s what we’re here to talk about,” Mr. McKinley said.

He said the park has more plans on the horizon, especially educational initiatives.

“We know we’re here for a really good reason. The question is, how do we connect that story to the public?” Mr. McKinley said.

“We have all these wonderful pieces of the overall fabric that comprises Delaware. It’s a matter of weaving it together. It’s going to be a challenge, it will be. It’s mainly the travel between sites that’s the hard part. And it’s a matter of really communicating the stories.

“The stories are there. The places are fascinating,” he said.

Sen. Carper said one of the reasons he fought so hard to bring a national park to Delaware is that they are top destinations for visitors.

As folks start to learn more about the park, Mr. McKinley said, he expects to see more visitation. They’ll realize there’s something there to bring their kids to, tell their friends about and plan their vacation around.

“National parks preserve our special places. They’re the crown jewels of the United States. Wherever there is something that is nationally significant and unique and incredibly important, worth preserving, this is where we put national parks,” he said.

“From the state perspective, we’ve got a proud history. We’re the first state in the country. That is worth telling.”

A bigger version of the sign unveiled outside of the Old State House on Friday will soon point the way to First State National Historical Park.

A bigger version of the sign unveiled outside of the Old State House on Friday will soon point the way to First State National Historical Park.

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