The Corner Door Story
I first saw the building as a youngster when my Aunt Anne worked for Mr. White at the finance company located there. It was a different-looking place, what with the entrance in the corner instead of on the side or front, but that’s what made me remember it, I guess; it was different, and it became a landmark for me.
Spending time in town with my grandmother and aunt was a regular habit for me as a small boy, and the history of the town and its inhabitants became very familiar. My Grandmother Carey lived just a block away from the building with the corner door. In fact, she lived just a block from everything that was happening in Millsboro. Everything we needed was within walking distance in town, and if we needed something from somewhere else, we could walk to the train station and go there, too. My Aunt Anne had a car then, I know, but I remember grandmother, Aunt Anne and my taking more than one trip on the steam passenger train from Millsboro to points north.
My parents operated a store just west of town on Laurel Road, next to our home in my younger years, but Millsboro was the focal point of our family and social activities. Millsboro had a regular pulse that we could equate with the time of day, the day of the week, or the season of the year. The movement of people and commerce through the community reminded us that we never really had the place to ourselves, no matter how quiet it might get once in a while. Years later as an aging teen, I lost my appreciation for the “quiet small town” and couldn’t wait to get away. I can’t recall exactly how long it took, but after a few years of seeing the world, my old hometown looked pretty good.
In the mid-fifties, Mom and Dad had determined that the store in the country was no longer adequate for the business they had in mind, and they began renting the store vacated by Mr. White. Now my brother, Fred, and I had a whole new world of things to discover in the attic of this store and the surrounding property.
The adventures that followed expanded upon my earlier years in Millsboro and only served to create a life-long love of history, community, and the people that make up both. As we grew a little older and began to know more of the lay of the land, my readings from “Tom Sawyer” and “Huckleberry Finn” took on even greater relevance as we explored Tiger Valley, Ward’s Wharf, and Kupe-alow (Cupola Park). All of these areas were very much “wilderness” 50-plus years ago and were fertile soil for imaginative and inquisitive young minds:
An intrigue-filled day lay ahead as we steal away from civilization and travel along Morris Street. Down now to the dip toward the west end of the street, we turn and look around carefully to ensure we aren’t about to be discovered. Then we slip quickly through the “time warp” and begin the first phase of our journey into the hidden dangers of Tiger Valley.
Travelling south, we first steal past Joe Lingo’s, slip stealthily across Wilson Highway and then down again, this time behind the school fence. On we go, through sandburs and briars. “Here’s a neat place for a fort! Remember this spot!” Nearing the cemetery now and wanting to avoid the unknown lurking there, we turn hard left along the southern edge of the school property and move up the rise past Sallie Q. Ellis’ old home place, across State Street, on toward Ward’s Wharf and the next phase of our mission.
Rising from the depths of Tiger Valley, our ears are almost popping as we encounter the promontory of Ward’s Wharf and from this lofty perch we survey the vast new territory that extends down the river to the “land of the yellow dirt” that lies across the wide blue waters beyond. Our eyes encounter new and wonderful sights, each one carefully noted as the wheels of imagination shift into overdrive, and future exploits are envisioned.
But, suddenly we are snatched back into “reality” as hordes of river pirates (two school chums) scale up the hill below us. We turn and make a mad dash for the safety of our fort hidden deep in the jungle overgrowth near Cupola. In our race along the shoreline of the Indian River to our objective, we narrowly evade hostile Indians (fishermen quietly rowing down river) and dodge many ferocious animals (squirrels, rabbits and an occasional muskrat). Our pursuers were ensnared by the overgrowth of vines and pulled down into the mire of the swamp, but we were saved by our intimate knowledge of the area and the secret trails we had so carefully marked over time.
Yes, the Cupola Park that we know today is indeed very different from the one we explored as boys. It really was a swamp of trees and overgrowth. The above picture is of a painting that hangs in the front room at Mom’s, and it’s been there as long as even she can remember. The artist would have been situated where the old wooden bridge was, and about midway down the embankment. The fisherman’s shanty and the iron ore foundry pictured here were long gone when we cavorted in the area, but if you can just envision this painting without them, then you have a mental picture of the area we knew so well. Imagine if you will, walking down Morris Street today, down the entrance road into the park and then down toward the water’s edge, where your walk would be bordered on your right by trees and overgrowth – the “swamp” of my little story.
And, if you turned and looked behind, toward the artist’s vantage point, you would see the old wooden bridge and spillway. What fun it was to explore under the old bridge in summer, with traffic moving overhead, loose boards slapping against their supports, and the cascading pond water falling over your body and around your feet. The river was dredged sometime in the fifties, and everything as we knew it began to change. Things never stay the same, I was soon to discover, but when you’re young and innocent, you don’t seem to notice that the world is changing. Only as innocence fades do you realize that it is and you are as well. I guess the first phase of my “right-of-passage” occurred when Grandmother Carey passed away, the first familial loss that I had experienced up to that time. As a consequence, Mom and Dad received grandmother’s house, renovated it, and we left our home in the country and became completely assimilated into the community of Millsboro. It all took place over the course of a couple of years, but it seemed to happen so fast.
When Carey’s Paint and Hardware had opened in town years earlier, there was a large house that fronted on Main Street, situated behind the store. It had been the home of Dr. E. C. Blackstone, a pharmacist in town. It was a beautiful and impressive home, fitting for someone of prominence within the community. In fact, the Blackstone property had occupied the entire block at one time. During the first several years of our presence, the home sat vacant, finally becoming the Cedar Croft Nursing Home, then disappearing altogether to make room for the new post office in the late sixties.
I remember a wind-driven water pump with an elevated tank at the back of the property, next to the wall on Washington Street. At that time Washington Street was a two-way street, as was Main Street, but not paved or used nearly as much. There are only remnants of the wall remaining that ran completely around the property when we first moved there. When my aunt worked for Mr. White at that location, Dr. Blackstone’s fish pond was still there for the pleasure of passers-by and kept stocked with large fish of some type. It was in what is now the side yard of the store, very near the wall on State Street.
Although no records can be found to support this, it is legend that the store began life as a ship chandler’s shop near Ward’s Wharf. It was moved to the corner of State and Main, I presume by Dr. Blackstone, only to be relocated when a new brick building was built on the corner for a savings and loan company, sometime in the 1920s or 1930s. On the side of the store, obscured from sight in the little yard next to the brick building, is a door that would have fronted on Main Street.
Look closely at the picture above (courtesy of Randy Murray and used in his father’s book, Remembering Millsboro’s Past), and then more closely at the show window to the right of the doorway. Down a little further to the right and out of the picture, toward the back of the store, is another door. Now if you look closely at the picture, along the sidewalk next to the store, you can see a hitching post to the right of that window. And hitching posts were of course only found along streets.
That would place the store on Main Street, as well as on State, and support what has been told about the other door, that through it patrons could enter the soda fountain in the rear of the pharmacy and experience a cool and refreshing concoction of Dr. Blackstone and Dr. Frame – the locally-famous Strawberry Float. Strawberries were a major commercial product on our peninsula, in that bygone era.
The savings and loan eventually became the law office of Myer Ableman, and his presence there is most familiar to me. In those days, there were steel doors in the sidewalk next to his office, along State Street, that provided access to the basement from the outside. They have long since been covered over with a new sidewalk, but if you tap on the appropriate concrete square with a broom handle, as Fred and I used to do, you can detect a distinct “hollow” sound that will indicate the open space beneath.
Grandfather Carey was named postmaster in Millsboro by President Woodrow Wilson in 1917. He also served as Mayor of Millsboro for several years. In 1935, Dr. Blackstone successfully ran for state treasurer and then appointed grandfather as his deputy. Many thoughts have been conjured up in my mind as I studied the pictures of the old pharmacy and the one of Dr. Frame as he was about to enter. It made me imagine the friendships that must have existed then. I remember walking through Mechanics Cemetery with Grandmother Carey quite often and paying respects to the memories of deceased family members and friends. I still go there myself occasionally, and after leaving the family sites, I always walk over to Dr. Frame’s and Dr. Blackstone’s. Friends of my family then – friends of my family forever.
If the old store could talk, it would undoubtedly have many tales to tell. In shape, it has changed little these past hundred or so years. If our current knowledge of its history is to be accepted as fact, it has seen perhaps a half-dozen owners and businesses in the span of maybe 130 years:
- Ship chandler c ?-1900
- Pharmacy (Dr. Blackstone) c 1900-1935
- Finance company (Mr. White) c 1935-1955
- Paint and Frame Shop (Ned and Bea Carey)1955-2010
The exterior of the store is traditional clapboard siding which now is covered in a layer of protective aluminum. The wooden shutters were removed when the siding was added and have since been safely tucked away for some future project. The hand-made hardware that suspended them from the window frames was there, as well, and that set me to thinking anew. Great-grandfather Johnson had a blacksmith shop on the home property on Morris Street that opened onto Central Alley. The old forge was still there in my childhood, only to be removed when the building was renovated for a garage when we moved there. I’m left to wonder what items like that he might have made for home owners and shop keepers, all around town, back then.
The 3rd floor of the building is unusually tall, as a result of the high peak and steep slope of the roof line. Most structures with similar areas are much less spacious and generally require the visitor to stoop or crawl. But this particular area would probably accommodate as much as the 2nd floor below, if the building itself would support the load. The floor boards are 16 to 20 ½” wide and almost 1” thick, and the ceiling beams on the 1st and 2nd floors are 2 ½” x 7”.
Fred and I spent many an hour playing upstairs in the store, as boys. Under a piece of loose wallpaper, we found something mysterious written on the wall. We peeled it back and discovered an old charcoal drawing of an Indian with the words “To-Te” scrawled under it. We’ve always wondered what it meant.
Future visitors will see the words “Bat Detective Club” painted on the inside of the door lintel by two young, imaginative boys of a later time. And they too will be left to wonder…