Welcome to lovely little Delaware. First state to ratify the Constitution; often last when recalling all 50. An overshadowed state, not known for much in particular, except chemicals, credit cards and other corporations, consistently overshadowed by its more boisterous neighbors. An understated state that, for many years, featured welcome signs with the slogan “Home of Tax-Free Shopping.”
Now, Delaware will become the smallest state, in land mass and population, a smidgen shy of a million, to send a citizen to the White House. (Chester Arthur and Calvin Coolidge were born in Vermont, but eventually hailed from New York and Massachusetts, respectively.) Residents are jubilant, bragging, rapping and dancing on social media about their state, letting folks know that it is no longer Dela-where?
“We tend to be proud about little things because we don’t have any big stuff, but this is pretty big,” says lobbyist and former state Democratic Party chair Richard Bayard, a seventh-generation Delawarean.
Delaware: finally home to pretty big stuff.
Bayard is descended from five Delaware U.S. senators, one governor and a congressman, the sort of thing that can happen in Delaware. He’s also related to du Ponts. The state is rich in descendants of gunpowder grandee Éleuthère Irénée du Pont de Nemours, who founded the chemical giant. The name is associated with so many legacy institutions that greater Wilmington could be called du Pontville.
The big city of Wilmington (70,166) is far smaller in population than nearby suburban Philadelphia counties. Google the town, and North Carolina’s version elbows its way to the top. Downtown Wilmington resembles a random exurb, except for the clump of drab buildings blistered with bank logos and I-95 cleaving the place in two.
Everything is pretty much next to everything else in this surprisingly hilly town. The Blue Rocks, not to be confused with the University of Delaware Fightin’ Blue Hens, play minor league baseball in a downtown stadium. Next door is the Chase Center. On Nov. 7, its parking lot became the Biden-Harris drive-in celebratory amphitheater. Both are situated on the city’s riverfront, which is scenic and small like so many things in Delaware. The riverfront is blocks from the Joseph R. Biden Jr. Railroad Station, named for Amtrak’s ardent patron. Now that he’s won the presidency, he may never use it again.
Wayne and Garth in the movie “Wayne’s World” draw blanks when trying to think of anything to say about the state. Here’s some of the things Delawareans want outsiders to know: The top of Delaware is the 12-mile Circle (technically, it’s an arc), dates back to a 1682 land grant made by the Duke of York and cuts into the Jersey side’s low water mark of the Delaware River, sparking a history of legal disputes between the states that have occasionally reached the U.S. Supreme Court.
On a single day, June 15, 1776, Delaware declared its independence from Britain and Pennsylvania. It was originally named the Assembly of the Lower Counties of Pennsylvania. It’s been called a northern state with a Southern disposition. It has glorious beaches: Bethany, Dewey, Fenwick and Rehoboth, home of the amusement park and arcade Funland. Bob Marley lived in Wilmington for a while, in a redbrick rowhome on North Tatnall Street and worked as the Chrysler plant in Newark. (Which is pronounced New-ark not New-work, New Jersey’s biggest city.)
Two years ago, the Wilmington News Journal asked readers to name the most famous Delawarean. Aubrey Plaza, of “Parks and Rec,” won by a landslide.
Biden, who moved with his family from Scranton to Claymont, Del., at age 10, came in a distant sixth.
Possibly, this is because “an awful lot of people in Delaware have met Joe Biden,” says historian Dick Carter, chairman of the Delaware Heritage Commission. “Everyone knows everyone. It’s one degree of separation, maybe less.”
The state’s political orbit is so minuscule that it’s possible for one man, Tom Carper, to hit an elective trifecta in less than two decades: congressman, governor and now U.S. senator. Carper basically swapped jobs with Mike Castle, who went from governor to the U.S. House of Representatives (this happens in Delaware) before running in 2010 for Biden’s vacated senate seat. Castle lost the GOP nomination to tea party activist and blurtmeister Christine O’Donnell.
Remember the season of the witch? O’Donnell told Bill Maher “I dabbled in witchcraft,” which spurred her to run a campaign ad announcing “I am not a witch,” which was parodied on “Saturday Night Live.” She lost to Democrat and Biden ally Chris Coons. That’s the sort of thing that, before Biden’s election, put Delaware on the map for a moment.
Delaware is the teeny state that loves, loves, loves big business, the self-professed “corporate capital of the world” that’s the legal home to 1.4 million corporations (including The Washington Post) but precious few of its employees. It’s like the post office-box of states.
This is due to the colonial-era Court of Chancery that settles business disputes with as little stress as possible. “It’s stable, predictable and renders decisions quickly,” says University of Delaware historian Jonathan Russ. Corporations pump so much lucre into the state’s coffers that there’s no sales taxes on anything. Annual property taxes are risible, resembling other states’ monthly bills.
Delaware boosters promote how close it is to so much else — New York, Washington, Philadelphia — without being like so much else, making it sound not so much a bedroom community as a bedroom state. With no major commercial airport, people don’t fly out. But fallen military service members often land at Dover Air Force Base.
“A microcosm of the country as a whole,” Russ says. Actually, everyone says this. “The northern part is heavily corporate. The southern is focused on agriculture.” Northern residents sound semi-Philadelphian; southern Delawareans sound intensely southern. So do their politics. Biden won in New Castle County (Wilmington and the north) by 37 percent and central Kent County (Dover) by 4 percent, and lost southern Sussex (chickens, beaches) by 11 percent.
Delaware manages to be north and, strangely, east of the Mason-Dixon Line. During the Civil War, it fought with the Union yet remained a slave-holder state. Founding Father Caesar Rodney, after whom many Delawarean things are named, was a substantial enslaver. Now, Delaware is having a reckoning. In June, it removed a massive equestrian bronze statue from a downtown green, a square still named for Rodney.
The first state was the last to receive a national park, in 2013, and only after a bit of carping. First State National Park consists of seven sites spread out across all three counties, a little bit of everything to appease everyone, which seems such a Delawarean thing to do.
In the mid-20th century, the town of New Castle passed on the becoming the next Williamsburg, a restoration plan that was rebuffed by town leaders. “Except much of Williamsburg is recreated,” says Cindy Snyder, site manager of the New Castle Courthouse Museum. “This is the real deal.”
Delaware is known for crabs, but Maryland is more celebrated for them. Helen’s Famous Sausage House in Smyrna is the rare — possibly only — Delaware restaurant to have been featured in the late Gourmet magazine.
Muskrat, yes, is still a thing. The Southern Grille in Ellendale features a Wednesday Muskrat Dinner on Wednesday (broiled and flash fried, served plain or smothered in gravy or barbecue sauce, two sides, $17.95). Delawareans brag about the state being home to scrapple, pork loaf with some other unidentifiable stuff, fighting words to Pennsylvania Dutch country. Capriotti’s sandwich shop is noted for the Bobbie sub, Biden’s favorite and basically Thanksgiving on a roll: turkey, cranberry sauce, stuffing and mayonnaise. It tastes like what you think a sub would taste with a generous slathering of jam.
Since 1986, Delaware was known for hosting the annual Punkin Chunkin in Sussex County the first weekend after Halloween, a competition consisting of hurling gourds as far as possibly by human muscle, catapult, centrifuge, trebuchet or air cannon. That is until 2016, when people were injured, followed by a lawsuit and considerable insurance obstacles.
Last year, the competition was staged in Rantoul, Ill. It was no longer the state’s own.
Which is fine. Now, after all, Delaware has its own president.