All Things Colonial: Historic New Castle

A historic town relives its past during A Day in Old New Castle while building on its future.

I have horrific memories of a leisure suit. They start with the creepy DuPont polyester and the lime-green-lemon-yellow plaid, continue with the too-short flared pants, grow worse with a disco-era haircut that still managed to conform to the regulations of an all-boys Catholic school and culminate with their display on my person as a docent during A Day in Old New Castle.

On the eve of our Bicentennial, all things Colonial were fast becoming a national craze, which meant that the Day in Old New Castle—its popularity increased by its 50th anniversary—was bigger than ever. This was a fact I could not escape as I dutifully punched admission tickets for family friends Bill and Eleanor Tobin at the door of their Victorian home on Fourth Street, sullenly suffering the ignominy of the era’s fashion and fully aware that more people than ever would witness my crime—not that forcing a 13-year-old to wear a period costume would have been much better.

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Times and fashions change, but A Day in Old New Castle remains, having evolved from a simple home tour—91 years young on May 16—to an event that includes more gardens and a day full of activities on the historic Green, all in a town that recently became a key part of Delaware’s new First State National Historical Park. After a lapse in the home tours last year, organizers say this year’s event is likely to be the best yet. There are more houses on the tour than there have been in recent years, including a few gems that haven’t been included for a while. There will be a progressive lunch tour as part of the popular MidAtlantic Wine + Food Festival. And—perhaps the biggest change of all—the day will celebrate the sesquicentennial of the Civil War’s end.

Most of us know Historic New Castle for its see-sawing Colonial history: settled as Fort Casmir by the Dutch in 1651, seized by Swedes and renamed Fort Trinity in 1654, recaptured by the Dutch—with all of New Sweden—and renamed New Amstel in 1655, then seized by the English and renamed New Castle in 1664, taken again by the Dutch in 1673 and ceded finally to England as part of a treaty in 1680.

Following so far? William Penn took over, establishing the town as the center of Colonial government—pre-Philadelphia—then becoming embroiled in a long dispute with Lord Baltimore over Delaware’s boundary. The disagreement was at last settled by Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon’s famous survey, which resulted in the state’s unique northern arch, a 12-mile radius centered on the spire of the New Castle Court House, the state’s original capital.

And so it goes, with various changes and developments in the town’s life, including the birth of American independence, until the county seat moved from there to Wilmington after the Civil War. When it comes to that conflict, New Castle is greatly overshadowed by its neighbor to the south, Delaware City, home of Fort Delaware. A prison for Confederate troops during the war, the fort has become a darling of ghost hunters and sensational “reality” shows, earning our fair state some renown across the country.

But New Castle, with its longer, richer history and well-preserved architecture, has its own connections to the war. They are subtle, more obscure, but compelling just the same. One, says Brian Cannon, lead interpreter for the New Castle Court House Museum, involves a local man’s key role in ending the conspiracy that led to the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Late in the war, Zachariah Gemmill, schooled in the town Arsenal, enlisted in the Union Army, joining the First Delaware Cavalry and rising quickly to the rank of sergeant. The battalion was assigned to “boring” duties such as guarding railroads and bridges, Cannon says, though things got a bit exciting when, in Westminster, Md., a few troops encountered Confederate cavalry riding for Gettysburg, Pa. A skirmish ensued, ending with the outnumbered Union troops scattering.

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A short time later, Robert E. Lee surrendered and the war effectively ended, though thousands of troops remained on duty as they awaited discharge. Gemmill had returned to duty in the Westminster area when Lincoln was assassinated and John Wilkes Booth’s larger plot to also kill Vice President Andrew Johnson and Secretary of State William Seward was revealed. Gemmill, in command of six men, was dispatched to find the assassin, leading to the arrest of George Azeroth at a nearby home and the continued life of the vice president and secretary of state. Soon after, Gemmill returned to New Castle and lived quietly until his death in 1922.

Cannon will tell the tale during A Day in Old New Castle as he leads visitors on a tour of the graves of the town’s Civil War veterans, including a few U.S. Colored Troops (the men made famous in the movie “Glory”). Look for him in his formal suit, with top hat and cane, if you want to tag along. The event also presents a rare opportunity to see the new John Cleveland Civil War Museum and its collection of military weaponry, clothing and artifacts from the period. The museum is seldom open.

There will be Civil War reenactment encampments of the 2nd Delaware, 12th New Jersey and Union Patriotic League on the Green. See camp life, company inspections, drills, battle formations and more. Reenactor Matthew Dodd will perform two shows, one as a Confederate soldier, one as a Union man. Field Soup and the Fort Delaware Cornet Band will play music from the 1860s, and the New Castle Methodist Church Choir will perform in period dress. There will be much more, and it is all part of what makes New Castle a special place. Families have remained there for generations, even as its historic character and cozy business district on Delaware Street have attracted new residents. “I loved the community, the neighbors,” says Valarie Windle, chair of A Day in Old New Castle. A native Californian who moved to the East Coast in 1985, she discovered New Castle in 2007, then bought a home there in 2012. “Everyone works to get along.”

Historian Cindy Snyder, manager of the New Castle Court House Museum, confesses to having never known about New Castle while growing up in North Wilmington. She discovered it on a date with her not-yet husband in 1976. “I thought it was the coolest place I’d ever seen,” she says. After the kids fled the nest, she finally moved there in August, after almost 22 years at the museum. “This is my dream,” Snyder says. “I’m living where I want to live for the rest of my life.”

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