Upgrading a jewel of state history: Improvements set for John Dickinson Plantation

Sen. Thomas R. Carper, Del., meets with historical interpreters, from left, Jennifer Dunham, Melissa Fitzgerald and Barbara Carrow while touring the historic John Dickinson Plantation. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

DOVER — Gloria Henry, the site supervisor at the John Dickinson Plantation, has been at work on the site for 26 years this month.

“When I first came out of college I said to myself that I want to do research on African American history and research on women and children of earlier eras,” said Ms. Henry. “This plantation was just the place for me. They opened all their files for me to do research, and it allows me the great privilege to do the interpretation at the site and help form the story we tell the public about it.”

Ms. Henry had a special guest to show around on Friday when U.S. Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., stopped by to survey the museum and be updated on recent projects.

“Harry Truman once said that the only thing new in the world is the history you don’t know,” said Sen. Carper, extolling the value of the site. “This is a big part of the history of not only Delaware, but the country. John Dickinson played a huge role in the history of the country and in helping to throw off the yoke of the British.”

According to staff, the site is receiving $45,000 in federal funds to do some rehabilitation projects and increase their programming for visitors.

“Over the next year we’ll be doing some roof repairs on the log dwelling, adding some fencing and also working on some land management plans and developing a new interpretive plan,” said Ms. Henry.

The new land management plan will be designed to help the site make itself more sustainable and offer more to its visitors, she said.

“We have about 400 acres that belong to the site, so we think we can do more with that land,” said Ms. Henry.

The access to federal funding is due to the recent accreditation of the site, and the state’s museum system, by the American Alliance of Museums, the highest recognition afforded to museums in the United States.

According to state officials, the newly accredited state museums include the John Dickinson Plantation, the Johnson Victrola Museum and Old State House in downtown Dover, the New Castle Court House Museum and the Zwaanendael Museum in Lewes. State museums are under the stewardship of the Department of State.

Sen. Thomas R. Carper, D-Del., right, walks with site manager Gloria Henry, center, and Ethan McKinley with the First State National Historical Park while touring the herb garden at the historic John Dickinson Plantation. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

Timothy Slavin, the state’s director of historical and cultural affairs, said the new $45,000 federal grant money was the plantation’s portion of a $190,000 grant to support all five of the sites.

“Three of these great sites are here in Kent County,” he said. “Even though the state continues to own and operate the plantation, our affiliation with the National Park Service has begun the process of bringing in some federal money.

“We just think it’s a critically important story that’s being told here at the plantation. It’s a nice experience for people to come visit because it’s the perfect mix of nature, history and information about how this land have been used over the years.”

Ms. Henry said the plantation gets about 10,000 visitors per year — ranging from elementary schoolchildren to senior citizens and “everything in between.” In addition to walking tours that explain the history of the site and provide a snapshot of life in the late 1700s early 1800s, there are a range of era-appropriate demonstrations and activities for guests to engage in.

“We have great workshops, demonstrations and even candle dipping — we’re having colonial games here during the holidays,” said Ms. Henry. “We have brick making demonstrations that the kids love because they get to play with clay. We even have a working smokehouse. So, if I wanted to slaughter a pig, I could smoke the meat here.”

According to site historians, John Dickinson was born in November 1732 in Talbot County, Maryland. In 1740, John’s father, Samuel Dickinson, moved his family to a plantation on Jones Neck, southeast of Dover. Samuel had come to Kent County to accept a judgeship and to allow his wife, Mary Cadwalader Dickinson, to be closer to her native Philadelphia.

At the new plantation, which they called Poplar Hall, John was schooled by his parents and a series of tutors. In 1750, at age 18, John began reading law in Philadelphia and later went to London, England at Middle Temple, Inns of Court and Westminster.

Returning home in 1757, he began law practice in Philadelphia. Active in the Pennsylvania Assembly, he attended the Stamp Act Congress, where his suggested resolutions were adopted with few changes. His ‘Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania’ written in 1767, brought him fame. As a result, John was called on for advice and inspiration in the years before the First Continental Congress.

After leading a moderate position up to the Declaration of Independence, John realized that a separation from Britain was inevitable, but opposed the timing. John abstained from the vote on the Declaration of Independence and his reputation suffered due to his action. However, John became one of only two members of the Continental Congress to take up arms against the Crown.

John died on Feb. 14, 1808. Thomas Jefferson wrote upon learning of his death that “John Dickinson, a more estimable man, or truer patriot could not have left us.” John was interred at the Wilmington Friends Meeting Burial Ground.

Sen. Carper feels that in addition to preserving a site that’s valuable to local history, having sites like the plantation well maintained gives visitors a reason to stay in the state a bit longer.

“Since it’s become part of the National Park System, it’ll be easier to help preserve it so people from all over the country and world can visit it,” he said. “It turns out that the top destination for people who visit from other countries when they come to America is our National Parks. We have one of the most recently designated ones in the system, so we want to make sure people know about it so they can appreciate it.”

Staff writer Ian Gronau can be reached at 741-8272 or igronau@newszap.com

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