Sometimes Dover Mayor Robin Christiansen walks to The Green and touches the sign commemorating one of the buildings as the site of the Golden Fleece Tavern.
“I look to the left and the right, and I see the country flowing out from there,” Christiansen says of the spot where the Delaware delegation made Delaware the first state to ratify the Constitution in 1787, in essence creating the United States. “Philadelphia gets all the credit, but if it hadn’t been for 30 people from Delaware—this is where the country started.”
This year Dover commemorates its 300th anniversary. The Dover flag bears the year 1683, the year it was founded by William Penn, but Dover wasn’t properly incorporated and laid out until 1717. Christiansen, who traces his roots back to the native Americans who lived in the area before Dover was founded, wants everyone to share in the celebration.
The city, with Kent County Tourism, is about to embark on months of fun, beginning with Dover Days the first weekend in May, then ending with fireworks and a ball drop on New Year’s Eve. There are plans for a talent show, a time capsule, a Civil War-themed musical, a jazz event and a Dover trivia board game (available at the Delaware Store in Dover) in between. There is talk of organizing a Guinness World Record attempt on New Year’s Eve, and Christiansen is looking to have a commemorative blanket and license plate for sale to help pay for everything.
“We’re doing it all on a shoestring,” Christiansen says. The city’s goal is to do everything without spending any public money, but, he points out, there’s a lot to celebrate.
Dover has come a long way in the past 300 years. When it was founded as the court town by William Penn in 1683, it was little more than a buggy, swampy area with a big river flowing beside it. The St. Jones was a major waterway in the 1600s and 1700s, so by the time Dover was incorporated, it was a major stopping place for merchants and travelers. Boats would dock in Dover, then take goods up Water Street to The Green for sale.
The most famous tavern on The Green was The Golden Fleece, run by Elizabeth Epson Battell, sometimes called the Godmother of the First State for her role as hostess to the men who voted to ratify the Constitution.
It was another woman, though, Cordelia Botkin, of California, who really put Dover on the map in the late 1800s. In a jealous rage, she mailed arsenic-laced candies to a Dover socialite, killing the woman and her sister in an effort to win the affection of the socialite’s husband. The so-called Poison Candy Case was a national sensation.
Still, much of Dover’s history was a bit quieter. In the 1800s it was mostly a small, tight-knit agricultural town. People pulled together to help each other and the city. When it snowed, for example, farmer Manlove Hayes would run his herd of cattle up the street into town and back out again to stamp down the slush. It was his civic duty, according to his great-great-grandson L.D. Shank III.
In 1855, Alden B. Richardson and James W. Robbins started a small cannery for fruits, vegetables and chicken. That company ran until 1959 and is credited by Christiansen with keeping many Dover families fed during the Depression.
The company would let the workers take home the chicken gizzards and hearts. The gizzard pies local women would make was the only meat many people saw at that time, Christiansen says.
Dover Mayor Robin Christiansen // Photo by Ron Dubick
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Things began to change even more in the 1900s, when L.D. Shank Sr. proposed the city have a city manager—him, in fact.
Taking one of the five trains that stopped in Dover in the 1930s, Shank rode to Rochester, N.Y., to meet with Abram Spanel, founder of a latex company that made gloves so women didn’t have to get their hands wet washing dishes.
“I don’t know how he did it, but he talked Spanel into visiting Dover,” says the younger Shank. On the tour of Dover, Spanel was taken to see the workers at the Richardson & Robbins cannery. Watching the busy cannery floor, Shank is said to have leaned in to Spanel and whispered that none of the workers were unionized. “Spanel turned to my grandfather and said, ‘I’m coming down.’”
That company, International Latex, was the first nonagricultural business in Dover. It would spin off four companies in the 1940s, one of them being Playtex and another ILC, which made all the space suits for the astronauts of the Apollo missions.
“He didn’t get any money to get that company to move to Dover, but the community did,” says Shank. He has similar stories of how General Foods, now Kraft Heinz, was persuaded to build its huge factory in Dover. “Guys like that set the stage, but didn’t get any credit.”
Entrepreneurial spirit wasn’t the only factor that built Dover. There was also defense.
In 1947, the Dover Air Force Base was founded on a site the Army had used during the war. The new base turned a field into one of the biggest revenue generators for the city. Today, business from the base puts more than $500 million into the local economy.
“You can’t beat our location,” says Shank, which is why business and people would want to move to Dover. There are estimates that more than 40,000 people a day go to or pass through Dover. Many of them use the Dupont Highway, now U.S. 113 and U.S. 13 in Dover. As businesses have been pulled from downtown and out to the highway, it has been both a blessing and challenge for the city.
“It was a big change and a big worry of many people, of how to keep [the downtown] from becoming a nothing,” says John “Jack” Richter, former mayor of Dover. Back in 1990, Richter started working on ways to encourage businesses to stay downtown. That effort continued in 2015, when Dover was named one of the first Downtown Development Districts by the state for its efforts and plans to revitalize.
Through all the years, though, some things have stayed the same. People continuously complain about parking. There is still spraying for mosquitoes. The Green remains a gathering place. And Dover is still a tight-knit community.
“Dover runs on relationships,” says Kristi Osborne, member services and special events assistant for the Central Delaware Chamber of Commerce.
It’s one of the best things about Dover, says Christiansen, who believes the city’s greatest days are still ahead. With the new downtown initiatives and the city’s Garrison Oak Technology Park starting to kick in, Christiansen sees great potential to come.
“Let’s not hide that Dover pride,” Christiansen says.
Things you might not know about Dover
Yes, actress Teri Polo of “Meet the Parents” is from Dover, and people still run into her when she goes home to visit. But she is just one in a long line of famous and important people from Dover.
There are the founding fathers of our country, Caesar Rodney, whose midnight ride to Philadelphia swayed the vote for Independence, and John Dickinson, known as the Penman of the Revolution for his prolific and influential writing during the Revolutionary War.
Annie Jump Cannon, an astronomer in the 1800s, developed a system for organizing and classifying stars that is still used today.
Dover was a major stop on the Underground Railroad for slaves fleeing to freedom in the North.
Although unsubstantiated, there are those who believe the term, “Everything is just peachy,” came from the vibrant and profitable peach industry in Dover and throughout Delaware in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
Dover is the only state capital that still has an all-volunteer fire department.
Delaware State University was founded in 1891 as the state College for Colored Students.