Harrington is planning to celebrate the anniversary of its 1869 founding in style.
Sesquicentennial. It’s not a word you see every day.
But then again you don’t see a 150th birthday celebration every day, either.
Sesquicentennial is the word of the day – or rather the word of the year – in Harrington. It’s been a century-and-a-half since the city of 3,500 people was incorporated, and it is planning a year’s worth of celebrations in recognition. The first is a special dinner Saturday, March 23, 150 years to the day after incorporation passed the General Assembly.
Harrington native Doug Poore is helping the celebration with a book, “Images of America: Harrington.” Issued this month by Arcadia Publishing, the 128-page tome lays out much of his hometown’s early history in a series of photographs.
“I have a lifelong interest in history, but up until I retired I hadn’t had the time to do much,” the former paramedic said. “I wanted to find a way to promote the town and the Greater Harrington Historical Society specifically.”
Poore dedicated several months to gather the photos, most of which come from the Historical Society’s files, and the background information for each.
“Fortunately, people in town have a good knowledge of what’s happened here since the 1930s,” he said. “I found the photos and was able to interview people to get the stories.”
Almost every photo was a discovery, he said. “It’s amazing how one fact led to another. I found things that would take me to a new story or something I didn’t know about – or in a lot of cases, something nobody knew.”
Hub of Delaware
Harrington still has the ambiance of a small town even though it has an economic base and population large enough to be called a city,
“As a kid growing up, I knew all my neighbors,” Poore said. “You could leave your doors unlocked and keys in your car. You can walk into a restaurant in town today and people will know you and stop to talk. It still has that first-name basis and Mayberry-like feel to it.”
Known as the Hub of Delaware, Harrington has been around a lot longer than its 1869 incorporation.
The land now making up the city was deeded to Benjamin Clark in 1760. By the 1780s Clark had a tavern and stagecoach stop at the intersection of roads leading from Milford and Frederica, known as Clark’s Corner.
Under the guidance of Samuel M. Harrington, the railroad came in 1856 and Clark’s Corner became a major stop between Dover and Seaford. Growth brought a U.S. Post Office in 1857, and the town was rechristened in Harrington’s honor in 1859.
John Thomas Scharf’s 1888 book, “History of Delaware,” considered Harrington “one of the most important points on the Delaware Peninsula,” and the state’s primary railroad center south of Wilmington.
Growth by rail
Rail travel is the reason for Harrington’s existence today, Poore said.
Before the railroad, trade in and out of the area was by horse-drawn wagon. With rail, produce could be moved quickly. By the latter part of the 19th century, items that once took days to reach destinations such as Philadelphia got there in hours.
Farming and agricultural industries grew increasingly important to the town’s economy. Peach and strawberry crops boomed, and tomato production spawned at least six canning companies in the town.
Harrington also harbored a healthy garment industry. By the 1930s, at least a dozen manufacturers were turning out clothing from fabric shipped into town. One, the Harrington Shirt Factory, dated from around 1901 and at one time employed almost 10 percent of the population.
Another, Ace Manufacturing, had a workforce of about 125 during the late 1950s.
By the 1920s, Harrington was bustling with hotels, stores, and ice cream shops, owing to the nearby dairy industry.
One of the best inns, the three-story Swain’s Hotel, was a meeting place. In 1925 it hosted the annual stockholders meeting of the Kent and Sussex Fair, later to become known as the Delaware State Fair. An elaborate banquet is said to have followed. At the intersection of Routes 13 and 14, the site now is home to a Hardee’s restaurant.
With an increasing population came the need to educate the town’s children. A new schoolhouse was proposed in 1883, but construction worried owners of the town’s first newspaper, the weekly Harrington Enterprise.
Writing about the proposed school, Enterprise editors feared the two-story wooden building could become a firetrap and argued for a secondary means of escape from the upper floor.
“A building of that capacity and used for public gatherings should always have two stairways leading to the upper story,” they wrote.
The school ultimately was built in 1884 at a cost of $6,000. There is no record of an additional staircase in the plans.
Meanwhile, Harrington was modernizing. Electricity came to the town in 1906, and gas pumps sprang up in front of the general stores to serve the growing number of families owning automobiles. Slowly, horses and carriages began to disappear, along with the blacksmith shops and livery stables necessary for their upkeep.
Noisy and grimy
Taylor’s Hardware was one of Harrington’s major businesses from 1934 to 2006. Founded by J. Edward Taylor, the firm sold John Deere and other farm gear, including horse-drawn equipment and general hardware. Taylor was a director and later president of the People’s Bank of Harrington.
Robert Taylor, now 81, began working in the store as a youngster and took over when his father retired.
It was the railroad that helped keep the store supplied, Taylor’s wife, Betty, said.
“Everything was brought in by railroad,” she said. “It ran past our house and it was noisy, but we got used to that.”
The coal-powered engines of the day blew out cinders and smoke that turned much of the surrounding area a dull gray, Robert Taylor said.
At one point, an average of 50 freight runs per day were made to Philadelphia.
People watching on Commerce Street
For a small town, there was a lot to do while they were growing up, noted longtime residents, Jean Miller, and Charlotte Hutson.
Burton’s Sports Shop was a popular spot that served teens from the 1940s through the 1980s.
“That was the hangout for everyone then,” Miller said. Burton’s featured a candy counter and soda bar that served ice cream and milkshakes. Entertainment included a jukebox and pinball machines.
The counter and a booth from Burton’s now are part of the Greater Harrington Historical Society’s collection.
Another popular spot was the Reese Theater, owned by Reese Harrington. The theater was open from 1922 until it was destroyed by fire in 1943. Rebuilt, it opened again in 1944. Both incarnations featured some of the most modern projection equipment available and a large stage for live shows.
“They always had a big bash each New Year’s Eve,” Miller said.
Young people went to dances, held upstairs in some of the garment factories. The space also was the site for many Friday or Saturday night boxing matches.
Saturdays saw large crowds in town as people relaxed from their weekly labors by going downtown to shop, have dinner or sit around.
Families would come into town early, park their cars along the streets and stay until nightfall, or even longer.
“People watching was a great sport, and I’m sure a lot of gossiping went along with that,” Poore said. “The joke was that if you weren’t sure what you had for dinner that day, you could ask one of your neighbors because they’d know.”
Wheeler’s Park, however, was the place to be for Harrington's youngsters. Founded in 1947 by former railroad worker William A. Wheeler, it was considered the city’s version of Disneyland.
“That was a marvelous place,” Miller said. “I remember we’d go and do our chores, eat our lunch, then jump on our bikes and spend the afternoon there. They had swings, a Tarzan rope and a little train you could take a ride on.”
All for a dime.
Although it started out only with a single picnic table, the park grew to feature live monkeys, nature trails, a concession stand, a small pool, picnic tables and what kids called the horse tree.
“It was a big tree back in the woods that had taken a 90-degree turn when it was growing,” she said. “You could get on it and pretend it was a horse.”
Advancing age and failing eyesight caused Wheeler to close the park in 1978. He died at age 94 in May 1984.
A very close-knit community
History will be at the forefront of many activities through 2019.
In addition to the Incorporation Day dinner, there will be the annual Memorial Day parade, the August Heritage Day celebration and a “Farm to Table” dinner that will shut down Commerce Street in September.
Some of Samuel Harrington’s descendants are expected to take part, as are Benjamin Clark’s heirs. The city will place a memorial wreath at a marker in the parking lot across from the city police station where it is believed about 20 members of Clark’s family lie in unmarked graves under the asphalt.
Mayor Tony Moyer considers it an honor to be mayor at this time in the city’s history.
“I consider it more a community than a city in the normal sense because everyone here knows each other and they all pull together to help each other,” he said. “It’s a very close-knit community and one that I chose to raise my children in.”
Moyer also recognized the effort some residents put into organizing the sesquicentennial events.
“I really want to thank the 150th-anniversary committee for the many hours and ideas they put into this,” he said. “Without their drive and persistence, the events that are happening through the year would never take place.”
City Manager Don Williams concurred.
“This city is lucky to have three individuals, Chad Robinson, Vice Mayor Amy Minner, and Rob Taylor, who are so emotionally connected and vested in the success of this celebration,” he said. “I am personally excited about all the events and memorabilia that they have come up with that celebrates and memorializes our heritage.”