Smyrna celebrates 250 years of history

Smyrna Commerce Street showing Swain’s Pharmacy. Courtesy of Duck Creek Historical Society

SMYRNA — Before moving to Smyrna Jim Wolfe and his wife would visit the town each year and be amazed by its historical buildings and atmosphere.

“It was a sight to see,” he said. “We used to come here at least twice a year because of the historical buildings. Smyrna is a small town and my wife and I have traveled a lot and I would say out of all the historical towns that we visited Smyrna tops that list.”

Smyrna’s rich history is one of the main reasons that Mr. Wolfe and his wife finally decided to move to the town in 2007.

“That’s what drew us here,” Mr. Wolfe said. “I think preserving history is important and Smyrna has done a great job with that.”

Tom Welch portrays Allan McLane, one of the influential men in time that has shaped Smyrna’s history. In addition to McLane, the “Big 5” includes Thomas Collins, Jacob Jones, Louis McLane and John Bassett Moore. Special to the Delaware State News/Arshon Howard

Those efforts have been on display as Smyrna has been celebrating its 250th anniversary with a series of celebratory and promotional events that have continued to take place throughout the year.

However, the main celebration will be held his week and through the Independence Day holiday with the Smyrna at Night Concert on June 29 and the town’s annual Fourth of July celebration.

The town’s history and early beginnings play a major role as to why Smyrna is the town it is today, which is why dedicated volunteers continue to keep it alive.

The Smyrna Museum, run by the Duck Creek Historical Society, showcases the history of Smyrna and the surrounding areas and the society hosts events, tours and community outreach. Tours run every Saturday from 10 a.m. until 1 p.m. All of the exhibits and tours are free to the public.

The museum, next to Sayers Jewelers & Gemologists, is the site of the Civil War draft lottery in Smyrna. Along with a variety of exhibits and Smyrna memorabilia, guests can tour the reconstructed Plank House, which dates to the 1790s.

Mr. Wolfe, who is now a noted local historian, has been a part of that charge by holding countless programs and tours promoting Smyrna’s Historical District.

The tour passes many of the town’s most historic structures. It features outdoor displays and historic houses and buildings such as the Van Gaskin Brick Dwellings, the J.R. Clements Mansion and the Enoch Spruance House.

Mr. Wolfe and his wife have been dedicated to preserving the town’s history as they purchased and restored the Presley Spruance House on North Main Street.

Smyrna David C. Harrison Post #14 Ambulance

Successful merchants known under the moniker of P&E Spruance, Presley and his brother Enoch purchased the property in 1818 from John and Susan Cummins. Presley, both a state representative and senator, served as a U.S. senator from 1847-1853.

“He was a great man,” Mr. Wolfe said. “He was a successful native Smyrna. We wanted to preserve his house, which is an important piece of history for the town.”

Mr. Wolfe said it’s important to keep Smyrna’s history alive.

“I was a history teacher for a long time,” Mr. Wolfe said. “History is important to me. I think people should know about different facts about Smyrna. When people are on these tours even some of the residents are shocked about some of facts that they never knew about the town before.”

Recreating history

Smyrna was originally called Duck Creek Cross Roads and received its current name in 1806 after the Ancient Greek seaport of Smyrna in present-day Turkey. The town was located along the north-south King’s Highway.

The town was originally a shipping center along the Duck Creek and was the most important port between Wilmington and Lewes, shipping grain, lumber, tanbark, and produce to points north.

Today, June 24, an event titled “Songs of the American Revolution and a Tribute to Patriot Allen McLane” will pay tribute to one of the town’s most historical figures.

Allen McLane was among the delegates to ratify the Constitution and earn Delaware its “First State” status. In later years of his life, he was appointed to serve as a marshal and collector at the Port of Wilmington.

Smyrna Main Street looking north c. 1916

Tom Welch has served as a historical interpreter for the Delaware Division of Historical and Cultural Affairs since 2007 after a successful 27-year career as an administrator at Wesley College in Dover.

His interest in Allen McLane began in 2008 when he was asked to portray the Revolutionary War hero as part of a proposed Delaware Day living-history performance.

“I never heard of him before,” Mr. Welch said. “I went home and looked on the computer and found an article about his life and I was blown away.” We were doing a play reenacting the ratification convention and the more and more I found out about him the more I was impressed by him.

After discovering how little was popularly known about this worthy Delawarean, he began a personal campaign to learn as much as he could about McLane, and to share his knowledge with others.

Since then, Mr. Welch has portrayed McLane on numerous occasions at events throughout Delaware and the region, as he will do the same during Sunday’s event.

“McLane had two houses in Smyrna, so when I went down there for research in early 2009, I always asked people ‘What do you know about Allen McLane?’” Mr. Welch said. No one knew who he was. He had is name on the armory, but when the Boys and Girls Club moved there, his name left, too.”

Mr. Welch said it’s great that the town of Smyrna is educating its residents on Mr. McLane during their 250th anniversary celebration.

“He was a great man,” Mr. Welch said. “More and more people are starting to understand how significant he is not only in Smyrna, but throughout the state of Delaware. It gives people an example of someone who displayed leadership, sacrifice, patriotism and service. He’s a model citizen for me I’m not going to be able to do the things that he did, but I look up to him.”

According to Mr. Welch, there are four other men who helped shape Smyrna to the town it is today. He refers to them as the Big 5.

“There are few small towns that can boast five stalwart men who contributed so greatly to their town, their state, their nation and even the greater international community more than Smyrna Delaware,” Mr. Welch said.

In addition to McLane, the list includes Thomas Collins, Jacob Jones, Louis McLane and John Bassett Moore.

Collins was born in Smyrna in 1732 and served as a brigadier general of the Delaware militia in the Revolutionary War and then held several government positions including eighth governor of Delaware. In Smyrna residents can visit the historic Belmont Hall, which was his home and the first meeting place of the Delaware Assembly. The Georgian mansion was built in 1773.

Jones, who was born in Smyrna in 1768, and moved to Lewes in his youth, spent almost 50 years in the U.S. Navy and fought in two Barbary pirate wars and the War of 1812. He was honored by promotion to the rank of Commodore.

Louis McLane, born in Smyrna in 1784, was the son of Allen McLane. He won election to six terms in the U.S. House of Representatives and one to the U.S. Senate. He served three appointments from President Andrew Jackson: as Minister to England, Secretary of the Treasury and Secretary of State.

Moore was born in Smyrna in 1860. Until the new Smyrna High School in 1970 was built, the former high school was named the John Bassett Moore High School. The intermediate school still bears his name.

Mr. Wolfe said that residents and visitors seem to appreciate the town educating them on Smyrna’s history.

“People come to town and learn a lot about it. That makes them want to stay an extra day or two. It increases the tourism a lot. For some they may even move here. I think it’s a win-win situation for Smyrna,” he said.

In addition to learning about its influential residents, visitors can learn about its historic landmarks.

When people stroll through Smyrna they see the historic charm of the red bricks, brackets, gargoyles and lace of the Colonials, Federals, Italianates and Queen Annes architectural styles.

People get the look and feel that they’re back in those times when Smyrna was just starting to emerge into a bubbling town.

Quentin Schlieder, member of the 250th Anniversary Committee, credits that to the town for having the foresight to improve or rehab all of its historical buildings.

“Smyrna’s governing body has had the foresight and wisdom to support a Historic Review Board to assure that new structures enhance the historic feeling of the town and to preserve the existing buildings, many of which are on the National Register of Historic Places, through a facade grant program,” Mr. Schlieder said.

One of the town’s historical landmarks includes The Smyrna Opera House, which is listed in the National Registry of Historic Places. It is one of more than 490 buildings in Smyrna that qualify.

It opened in 1870 as the Old Town Hall with an opera house on the second floor, a popular concept in the 1800s. The Smyrna Opera House is the only operating second-floor opera house in Delaware.

The “Old Town Hall” was restored in 1998; 50 years after a fire nearly destroyed the elegant building. All remaining original materials were carefully preserved, said Mr. Schlieder.

“Today, the Smyrna Opera House offers an eclectic mix of musical acts, comedy shows, and theatrical productions, as well as children’s programs and art exhibits, from September through May,” Mr. Schlieder said.”

“There also are many fine private residences which span 250 years of architectural history,” Mr. Schlieder said, adding that some of those sites will be open to the public on Oct. 20 for the 250th Anniversary Historic House Tour.

“History can be fragile,” Mr. Schlieder said. “By promoting the importance of preserving the historic integrity of the downtown, future generations will have the opportunity to enjoy it. Hopefully everyone who visits will realize just how special Smyrna has been to the history of the state of Delaware and the nation.”

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