Teenager Chip Welch has a new interest in his middle school history class.
The 13-year-old credits a riveting performance in Dover for this. Costumed actors—including Chip’s English teacher—reenacted the ratification of the U.S. Constitution in a play called “Fully, Freely, Entirely.”
The play is one of the programs at Dover’s First State Heritage Park—which really isn’t a park at all, but a collection of historical buildings and museums. The park includes the Biggs Museum of American Art, Legislative Hall, the Old State House and the Johnson Victrola Museum. Park officials like to call it an “urban park without boundaries.”
Last year, the park hosted more than 28,000 visitors. Park officials are now moving into the realm of historical theater and plays like the one Welch saw, says Elaine Brenchley, project director for First State Heritage Park.
(The teenager says he learned that the founding fathers had to be careful not to “break apart the nation.” One mistake could “turn a democracy into dictatorship.” )
The park also offers lantern tours of church cemeteries, when visitors encounter half a dozen characters from the 18th century. In one such tour, Revolutionary War hero Colonel John Haslet appears in period clothing as visitors pass his tomb.
Dark Dover takes visitors on an evening tour to hear chilling true murder tales and encounter the ghosts of Colonials on the Dover Green.
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“When you’re trying to figure out about real history, you should see a play rather than a film,” Chip says. “It’s a learning experience.”
His dad, Kent County Judge Chuck Welch, agrees. Welch has been attending First State Heritage Park programs for the past three years with Chip and daughter Katie, 15.
The $10 charge for “Fully, Free, Entirely” made it an inexpensive family outing, Welch says. And Chip’s grades in history class have gotten better since he began taking him to the plays at the park. Now he is not just reading a story about history, but visualizing how events happened.
“We found that visitors respond favorably to the historical theater,” Brenchley says. “It allows them to suspend disbelief.”
Held in the evening and lit by candles, the tours and plays transport audiences back to 1787 to learn how Delaware became the first state to ratify the U.S. Constitution. Another performance in March simulates the women’s suffrage movement, based on the story of the War of the Roses.
“What we are doing is creating a social experience as a vehicle for learning about history,” Brenchley says.
Park officials also offer five free daytime walking tours each day from March to November. They include a tour of Legislative Hall, a tour on the Dover Green, and a new tour about the role of female political leaders and business leaders in Dover’s history. The company SegZone Tours (800-979-3370) offers First State Heritage Park tours as well.
On the first Saturday of each month, the park re-creates the sights and sounds of an 18th-century market fair. The events feature arts and crafts demonstrators, baked goods and characters from that time period. French lacemakers, a silhouette maker and a blacksmith all sell their wares.
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At one market fair in November, lace merchant Monsieur LeFarceur de Villeverte, who was forced to flee the 1789 French Revolution, greeted visitors. The “arrogant Frenchman” wanted to recruit the audience as lacemakers to help support his extravagant lifestyle.
“People seem to be hungry for that traditional immersive experience,” Brenchley says.
Beverly Lang, manager of historic sites for the Division of Historic and Cultural Affairs, compares First State Heritage Park programs to the experience of visiting a place like Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia.
“The park has allowed us to step into that role,” Lang says. “There’s nothing like it in Delaware.” The state’s Division of Historical and Cultural Affairs oversees and operates several buildings in the park, including the welcome center and galleries, the Old State House and the Johnson Victrola Museum.
About one third of park visitors are school groups. Half are Delawareans, Lang says.
“It’s one of our most marketable aspects of Kent County,” says Cindy Small, executive director of Kent County Tourism.
Mike Dixon of Elkton, Maryland, teaches history at Wesley College and the University of Delaware. He is a big fan of the theater programs and guided summer tours.
“They have well-trained guides who know the subjects,” Dixon says. “It’s first class, fun, accurate and informative.”
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“When you deal with a 21st century audience, there’s a way to present information that has to be different to reach modern audiences,” Dixon says. You have to tell history in a way that’s fun and engaging. “It’s the best quality theatrical drama in terms of accuracy.”
The Welcome Center offers plentiful free parking, information about First State Heritage Park programs and events, a gallery of changing exhibits on Delaware history and a rotating display of Delaware’s founding documents.
First State Heritage Park Welcome Center and Galleries
Monday through Friday, 8 a.m.-4:30 p.m.
Saturday, 9 a.m.-4:30 p.m.
Sunday, 1:30-4:30 p.m.
Biggs Museum of American Art
Open since 1993, the Sewell C. Biggs Museum of American Art houses American fine and decorative arts from the 18th through 21st centuries.
Tuesday-Saturday, 9 a.m.-4:30 p.m.
Sunday, 1:30 p.m. to 4:30 p.m.
Delaware Public Archives
The official depository of state government records is one of the oldest public archives in the country. It includes the Mabel Lloyd Ridgely Research Room.
Monday-Friday, 8 a.m.-4:15 p.m.
First Saturday of each month, 9 a.m.-4:45 p.m.
The Georgian Revival brick structure has been home to Delaware’s General Assembly since 1933. It houses the formal chambers of the Senate and House of Representatives and their offices, the Division of Research and the Office of the Controller General. The governor and lieutenant governor also have offices in the building.
Free guided tours June-September, 10 a.m.-4 p.m.
October-May, 10 a.m.-1 p.m.
First Saturday of each month, 9 a.m.-4:30 p.m.
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Johnson Victrola Museum
The museum honors Eldridge Reeves Johnson of Dover, who founded the Victor Talking Machine Company in 1901. The museum displays sound recording industry items from the 1890s through 1929. Exhibits include phonographs, recordings, memorabilia, trademarks, object and paintings that highlight Johnson’s successful business enterprises and chronicle the development of the sound-recording industry.
First Saturday of each month, 9 a.m.-4:30 p.m. and by appointment for groups
Old State House
Delaware’s first permanent capitol building completed in 1791 on Dover’s historic Green. The State House was the home of Delaware’s General Assembly until 1933.
Monday-Saturday, 9 a.m.-4:30 p.m.
Sunday, 1:30-4:30 p.m.
Woodburn and Hall House
The official Delaware governor’s residence since 1965, the Georgian-style home has housed gentlemen farmers, landowners, an abolitionist, two U.S. senators, two doctors, a dentist and a judge. Next door is the Victorian-era Hall House, which serves as the governor’s guesthouse.
Tours of Woodburn are open to the public Monday-Friday, 8:30 a.m.-4 p.m., by appointment only. Tours are also conducted 10 a.m.-1 p.m. on the first Saturday of each month. Tours at other times are available by appointment. Call 739-5656.