New Castle: History, Volunteers…and Dogs

Its link to Billy Penn is just part of the appeal of this quaint city on the banks of the Delaware River

Before he ever got to Philadelphia, William Penn slept in New Castle.

According to local legend, he spent his first night in the Americas on Oct. 27, 1682 in front of the fireplace on the second floor of what is now the Penn’s Place artisans’ collaborative.

Living in New Castle “fills your soul,” says Esther Lovlie, who owns Penn’s Place and sometimes acts as a barista at the Traders’ Cove café in the back. “To know that you get to be part of this story which is 300-plus years old is just amazing.”

Yes, this 3.2-square-mile city with 5,300 residents is all about history, and that history predates William Penn, going back to 1654, when the first Dutch settlers built Fort Casimir on the west bank of the Delaware River.

Whether a resident or visitor, anyone who walks on New Castle’s cobblestoned streets or sits on a bench in the shade of The Green or Battery Park can easily imagine that he or she is about to strike up a conversation with William Penn, or John Dickinson, or Gunning Bedford, or George Read II.
Or they might wind up talking about their dogs.

“Almost everybody has a dog,” says Russ Smith, a New Castle native who returned to the city three years ago as the first superintendent of the new First State National Historical Park. “When I came back, I got to thinking that everybody was issued a dog when they moved into town.”

Those dogs contribute to a sense of neighborliness that pervades the community. “If you think you’re walking your dog for 10 minutes, forget about that notion,” Lovlie says. “You’ll run into three or four people on your way, and after you catch up with what’s going on, it turns into a 40-minute walk.”

The 207-year-old Arsenal, once a restaurant, is now home of the New Castle Historical Society. (Photo by Anthony Santoro)
The 207-year-old Arsenal, once a restaurant, is now home of the New Castle Historical Society. (Photo by Anthony Santoro)

That’s a far cry from what Lovlie grew accustomed to while living in the Bear area for 10 years. “I knew my neighbors on either side,” she says, “but I didn’t know the rest of the community.”

New Castle, says Lauren Spinelli, owner of Hedge Apple Antiques, “is like Cheers. Everybody knows your name.” And she doesn’t even live in town.

“I’ve lived in other places, where you feel like you’re a number,” says Spinelli, a resident of Kennett Square, Pa., who spent a lot of time in Battery Park when she visited her grandparents in New Castle as a child. “It’s very quaint here. You don’t get that close-knit community feel anywhere else.”

It’s no accident then that the developers of the Town of Whitehall, the new community being built just south of the C&D Canal, tout New Castle as an example of the atmosphere they’re trying to create.

If you’re in New Castle, you’ve already got that atmosphere. As Lovlie puts it, “New Castle harkens back to the communities of years ago. . . and I think it represents the future of self-contained communities.”

Ask 34-year resident Linda Ratchford why the community is so close-knit and she says, “It’s because we are run by volunteers.”

Ratchford, as president of city council for the past three years, may rank near the top of the volunteer pyramid, but she has plenty of company. Volunteers serve on the 11 boards and committees listed on the city’s website, and then there’s the Goodwill Fire Company and a multitude of service and social clubs that pull residents together.

In a city steeped in history, the New Castle Historical Society plays a significant role. It manages two homes that serve as museums, the Dutch House and the Amstel House, as well as the Old Library Museum (temporarily closed for repairs).

The society recently moved into the 207-year-old Arsenal, originally a weapons storehouse and later, among other things, a school and a restaurant. Executive Director Dan Citron is overseeing conversion of the building into a visitors center that would also serve the other tourism-related entities in the city – the national park, the state (which operates the Old Courthouse that is part of the national park), and the Delaware Historical Society (which operates the George Read II House and Gardens on The Strand).

“Right now we’re mostly a gift shop, but we’ll look much more like a visitor center by spring,” Citron says.

Two other organizations—one relatively new and the other having roots that extend to William Penn’s days—provide even more glue to unify the city; both are involved in significant initiatives aimed at securing the city’s future by strengthening the links to its past.

The New Castle Community Partnership, successor to the Historic New Castle Alliance as the city’s affiliate with the national Main Street small town economic development program, has assumed a more active role managing special events and promoting tourism.

oa-old-new-castle-shops-and-shop-owners-7621It has taken over operating the Wednesday night summer concerts in Battery Park and A Day in Old New Castle, the popular festival held on the third Saturday in May. The organization also has developed a sponsorship package that enables businesses to write one check a year to support multiple special events.

The partnership also took the lead in planning the installation of informative interpretive signage at 10 historic sites in the city. Smith, who retired from the National Park Service in December 2014, volunteered to prepare the text and find appropriate illustrations for the signs. The first three were erected this summer —at the site of Fort Casimir, near the ticket office for the New Castle and Frenchtown Railroad in Battery Park, and outside the Sheriff’s House, adjacent to the old Courthouse.

Final cost for the 10 signs will be $15,000 to $20,000, according to Laura Fontana, the Partnership president. The city will pay for two signs, the Trustees of the New Castle Common will pay for three, and sponsors are being solicited for the others, she says.

The Trustees, a nonprofit organization, were incorporated in 1764 and given the responsibility of preserving and protecting more than 1,000 acres of common lands in the city designated by a survey ordered by William Penn in 1704. Over the years, the Trustees have built and operated libraries, supported the fire company, purchased the land that makes up Battery Park and donated it to the city, and even operated New Castle’s public schools from the late 18th century until 1875. The organization now owns about 80 commercial, residential, agricultural and industrial properties in or near the city, including the New Castle Farmers Market, the Airport and Penn Mart shopping centers, the Centerpoint Industrial Park, and Historic Penn Farm. It uses its rent revenues on projects that benefit the city.

Two current projects—costing about $500,000—are key to making New Castle more hospitable to residents and visitors alike.

Just completed was a major drainage upgrade in Battery Park, with new storm-water piping installed underground. According to Trustee Chris Castagno, who also serves on the city’s Battery Park Committee, for years the park has been buffeted on two sides —by storm water runoff from nearby neighborhoods and tidal flows from the river during storms, leaving the park soaked with standing water long after bad weather has passed.

With the drainage project completed, the Trustees are moving ahead with a paved parking lot, with spaces for about 50 cars, on the edge of Battery Park and south of Delaware Street, the main road in the historic district. That new lot, according to Castagno and Ratchford, will provide additional parking for park users, employees of downtown shops and visitors to the First State National Historical Park.

The lot should be ready by the end of the year, which is also the target for completion of the $1.2 million state-funded project to rebuild the 170-foot-long pier at the foot of Delaware Street that had been destroyed by Superstorm Sandy in October 2012.

The rebuilt pier will serve as a reminder of New Castle’s maritime history. The city was a bustling port from Colonial times until the 1840s, when the development of rail lines between Philadelphia and Baltimore minimized the importance of the New Castle and Frenchtown Railroad, which was used to haul goods from the north end of the Chesapeake Bay to New Castle, where they would be shipped north to Philadelphia or south to other coastal ports, or to Europe.

Contemporary uses of the pier will be more modest. Ratchford hopes, in a couple of years, that there would be interest in a ferry or water taxi service linking New Castle with Wilmington, Delaware City, Fort DuPont and perhaps Pennsville, N. J. But, she adds, the pier will not have docking space for dayboaters, a concession to residents concerned about the prospect of riverside revelry akin to Canal Days in Chesapeake City, Md.

Reconstruction of the pier also will mean the return of the Kalmar Nyckel, the replica of the tall ship that brought the first European settlers to Wilmington in 1638.

Homeported in Wilmington, the sailing ship will likely make several visits to New Castle each year, for festivals, public sails and education programs, says Cathy Parsells, executive director of the Kalmar Nyckel Foundation.

Jan Henion, Rodney Pratt, Michelle Quaranta and Gene Dempsey of 2nd Act Antiques.
Jan Henion, Rodney Pratt, Michelle Quaranta and Gene Dempsey of 2nd Act Antiques.

“It’s a real positive for them,” Fontana says. “They’re excited to dock here. They can’t put their full sails up when they’re coming out of Wilmington. They’re too tall to go under the Delaware Memorial Bridge.”

It’s also a positive for tourism and one-day visitors.

“The ship’s education programs will bring people down here, and we’ll have more people coming to town to see it,” Fontana says.

Those visitors will see what Ratchford calls “a solid, stable downtown,” one that blends historic sites with a mix of antique and craft shops, art galleries and dining options but is a bit short on traditional neighborhood retail fare. There’s no pharmacy or hardware store on Delaware Street (but there is a Walgreen’s within walking distance) and residents are awaiting the expected opening this month of Mrs. Snyder’s Market Café, which will sell daily essentials like milk, bread and eggs in a setting that promises to be half coffee shop, half country market.

“I remember we used to go to the doctor in New Castle, but you don’t see any doctor’s offices anymore,” says Smith, a 1967 graduate of William Penn High School. “There was a movie theater too, but we’re not going to get a multiplex on Delaware Street. That’s a part of the town that’s gone.”

Among downtown businesses, at least one retailer from the 19th century endures. Bridgewater Jewelers, founded by James Bridgewater in 1883, is now in its fifth generation of family ownership.

“My father [Clay Bridgewater] learned hand-engraving, watch, jewelry and clock repairs, and was a silversmith too,” says owner Mary Lenhoff, the first woman to head the business. “When my father ran the store, I was everywhere, fixing things. I don’t have the patience to repair a watch, but I can size rings and repair jewelry.”

Lenhoff, who has run the business for 12 years, provides concierge service for her loyal customers, bringing jewelry and gifts for them to select at their home or office “if they can’t come to me,” she says.

She has a few ideas for new retail in the area. “I wouldn’t mind seeing resale shops. Vintage clothing might draw,” she says. “And my mother, who lives over the store, would like to see a little bake shop.”

There’s plenty of vintage material at 2nd Act Antiques, a collaborative of nine vendors, seven of them New Castle residents, in what was originally an opera house and, much later, a Wassam’s 5&10. Michelle Quaranta, who owns and operates the business, is a New Castle native who lives next door in the 196-year-old Van Dyke House.
“I brought my husband here on our first date. We went to Battery Park and Jessop’s Tavern,” she says. “We like it. It’s walkable, bikeable, and the arts are coming back.” They were married in the old Courthouse, conveniently located across the street.

Esther Lovlie, Sani Sarver and Jean Norvell in front of the fireplace where William Penn spent his first night in New Castle.
Esther Lovlie, Sani Sarver and Jean Norvell in front of the fireplace where William Penn spent his first night in New Castle.

A couple of doors down from 2nd Act is Penn’s Place, a collaborative where artisans sell purses, trays, trunks, equine art, jewelry and candles. Appropriately enough, Jean Norvell’s Bit of History gift shop occupies the second-floor space where William Penn is said to have spent his first night in New Castle.

Behind the artisans’ shops is the Trader’s Cove Café, a popular meeting place for locals, and behind that is The Muse @ Penn’s Place, a 25-seat cabaret where Lovlie serves up an eclectic mix of entertainment from 6 to 8 most Saturday nights.

“People come for a light dinner, beer and wine,” Lovlie says. “It’s great for couples with young kids who want to get home and get the kids to bed, or for older folks who want some entertainment but don’t want to be out all ours of the night.”

On Fridays, Lovlie serves wine, beer and cheese at 5 p.m., an informal happy hour warmup for people headed for a meal at the colonial-themed Jessop’s or Nora Lee’s French Quarter Bistro.

When it opens in October, Mrs. Snyder’s Market Café will be a complement to Trader’s Cove, not a competitor, proprietor Cathy Snyder says. “I’ll be doing more hot cooking” than at Trader’s Cove, she says.

Snyder, a veteran caterer who has operated several bakery and cookie shops in New Castle County since the 1980s, said she began visiting New Castle “years ago,” when she moved to Delaware from California.
“I love the place, the feel, the ambiance,” she says. Residents and business owners alike have been quite encouraging as she gets the café in shape. “They’re so helpful, so friendly, it’s ridiculous.”

Like many residents, Smith admits that “New Castle really has a hold on me. It’s a place sort of caught in time.”

And people like Castagno, from the Trustees of the New Castle Common, want that hold to endure.

“We’re only here for so many years,” he says. “Our job is to preserve it for the next round.”