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Delaware packs plenty of appeal into its compact space

BY ROBERT SELWITZ Modified: April 30, 2012 at 12:50 pm •  Published: April 30, 2012
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Many travelers come to Delaware primarily to see the extraordinary homes and gardens created and maintained by generations of the du Pont family, and the Hagley Museum, Winterthur, Longwood Gardens and Nemours are definitely worth the trip. But the state and the region also have much more to offer.

From the Brandywine River Museum and N.C. Wyeth's studio (just north of the Pennsylvania-Delaware state line at Chadds Ford) and gorgeously preserved New Castle and Odessa, Del., to the fortress and Civil War prison at Fort Delaware State Park and a host of attractions within Wilmington, this region has a terrific menu of fascinating destinations.

Anyone who loves the work of Andrew Wyeth will relish the Brandywine River Museum's large collection of his work. A Chadds Ford native, Andrew was the son of famed illustrator N.C. Wyeth. His works — particularly his book illustrations — paid for the land where today's museum, housed in a renovated 19th-century grist mill, now stands.

Here are also works of Andrew Wyeth's son Jamie, plus those by Maxfield Parish and N.C. Wyeth's mentor, Howard Pyle. It's worth calling ahead to try and schedule a visit when Andrew's granddaughter Victoria is leading a tour. Her reminiscences and experiences as a member of this extraordinary family and her firsthand stories about some of the subjects of paintings on display make the visit even more memorable.

If it's open, a visit to N.C. Wyeth's nearby restored home and studio is a treat. The vast interior space is filled with props, canvases, easels, antiques and an eclectic collection of some of his favorite things. N.C.Wyeth lived and worked here until his death in 1945. His wife continued to live in the house until 1973.

The first southbound exit off Interstate 95, just after crossing from Pennsylvania via the Delaware Memorial Bridge, is New Castle. This is Delaware's first capital and one of the nation's best-preserved Colonial cities. Year-round, a small number of 17th- and 18th-century structures are available for inspection. But seeing them on May 19, this year's date for the annual Day in Old New Castle, is a great opportunity to get a look at many more.

Highlights of any New Castle exploration should include the old courthouse, the green (laid out in 1651 by Dutch governor Peter Stuyvesant), and the Dutch House, Amstel House and George Reed II House and Garden. A stroll through the town's residences, shops, cemeteries, library and courtyard, narrow alleyways and along the river is a delightful way to soak up early American history.

Most important, New Castle is real. Unlike a theme park or the more tourist-focused Williamsburg, Va., people have really lived here since its 1651 origins as a Dutch fort. Today many residents occupy fine examples of centuries-old Colonial, Dutch and Federal architecture.

This is where William Penn made his initial New World landing in 1682. In 1704 New Castle became Delaware's Colonial capital when the territory broke away from Pennsylvania. Indeed, the curved northwestern Delaware-Pennsylvania border was plotted from the cupola atop New Castle's courthouse.

At the start of the Revolutionary War, New Castle was named capital of the new state of Delaware. But a year later, sparked by fears of a British attack, the capital was moved 33 miles south to more inland Dover, where it remains today.

Much less visited but also intriguing is Odessa, 26 miles south of Wilmington. This 18th-century port hub and toll-bridge crossing initially profited from heavily commercial traffic. That largely ended when 19th-century railroads co-opted their traffic. Town members decided to change its name from the original Cantwell Bridge to Odessa.

They hoped that by adopting the name of the then-Russian and now-Ukrainian Black Sea port their maritime traffic volume would rebound. Alas, it didn't work.

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