A Z4 Tour of … the Last Potato House in Delaware??


Okay, if you have a fabulous BMW roadster with 215 horsepower, outstanding handling, and flowing lines, what would be its best use? That’s right, you travel in search of a Potato House! No, it’s not like a Pizza Hut, Waffle House, or even an International House o’ Pancakes. A Potato House is something altogether different. And, as best I can tell, there are only two or three remaining in the U.S. Given their questionable historical significance, naturally I had to try to locate one.   🙂

I set off in pursuit of said Potato House on January 6, 2013, making this my first (and so far only) tour of the new year. The faithful 2006 BMW Z4 3.0i quickly brought me to the beautiful and historic town of New Castle, Delaware—but I motored right on through, intent upon discovering things new and different. (As for New Castle, check out To Have and Have Not.)

My first stop was at the newly renovated and re-operational Delaware City Oil Refinery. After closing down in 2009 and sitting idle for 2 years, the refinery was purchased by PBF Energy Company and brought back to life. Situated near the Delaware River, Dragon Creek, and Red Lion Creek, it ain’t pretty—but it refines upwards of 200,000 barrels of oil per day, adds 2,000 jobs to the local economy, and (most importantly) helps keep our BMWs running!

Across the street, this former park was a lot more scenic in the early morning light:

Although most self-respecting geese had long since flown south for the winter, the unseasonably warm weather apparently inspired this flock to fly north. At least they had a nice, proper, V formation…

…as opposed to this crowd, which exhibited no coherent flight pattern whatsoever. But then, these weren’t geese—possibly egrets—and they were flying south.

Delaware City is a beautiful place. I’d visited here several years ago (Fort Delaware), and I enjoyed a brief return trip. This is Battery Park, on the shore of the Delaware River.

Every once in a while, the rising sun reflects in just the right way.

Delaware City was originally founded in 1801 as Newbold’s Landing. The Newbolds hoped to develop their new town into a port to rival Philadelphia. The construction of the Chesapeake & Delaware Canal and Fort Delaware brought substantial prosperity to Delaware City. The canal still funnels a large amount of shipping traffic between the Delaware River and Chesapeake Bay, although its eastern terminus was relocated 2 miles south of the town in the early 1900s. The original part of the canal shown here now meets commercial fishing and recreational needs.

The fishing industry added substantially to Delaware City’s prosperity throughout the 1800s. This photo from the Port Penn Area Historical Association shows an impressive catch of herring. Massive sturgeon were also netted by the boatload, and quantities of sturgeon roe were shipped to Europe and Russia to meet demands for caviar.

With the relocation of the canal’s terminus and the growth of railroads, Delaware City’s fortunes faded, but the town and its buildings remain, largely unchanged. Continuing on, I pointed the BMW in the direction of the current C & D Canal entrance. I got almost there, before a combination of “Private Property” signs and a snowy dirt road stopped me in my tracks. (I had visions of getting stuck in the snow and having to explain why I was even there in the first place…   🙂

I did, however, get a good photo of the magnificent Reedy Point Bridge over the canal. Did I mention that it was a glorious January day, with temperatures in the 50’s?

I’d driven through nearby Port Penn before, but somehow I’d missed the 1886 Port Penn two-room schoolhouse. It stayed in service until 1961 and has been maintained in its original condition. The school now serves as an interpretive center.

The Port Penn Area Historical Association has a great collection of vintage photos. This one shows a number of students standing in the doorway to the school. The following two provide further evidence of what we already know—namely that (i) boys make good miscreants but poor students, while (ii) girls are naturally made of “sugar and spice and everything nice.” Or at least that’s how things were in the late 1800s and early 1900s! (And that’s all I have to say about that.)

Just south of Port Penn, I was pleased to see that the quirky Augustine Inn was still standing. It dates back to the 1700s and appears to be undergoing some much-needed renovation.

The skeletal-style lighthouse at Reedy Island was built in 1910 and replaced an earlier unit from 1839. (The old lighthouse remained in place but, sadly, was destroyed by a fire in 2002.) It’s hard to judge the scale of the current lighthouse, which rises 110 feet, so I temporarily parked a handy BMW Z4 next to it for perspective… The lighthouse is apparently still in use, although its adjoining structure is one good storm away from ruination.

This historical photo from the Library of Congress shows the earlier lighthouse-keeper’s house, which was also lost in the 2002 fire.

It appears that the lighthouse keeper was not claustrophobic; that narrow center column houses a tight spiral staircase up to the light itself.

This little house near Taylor’s Bridge has clearly seen better days. (Note the tree visible through the lower right-hand window, due to a missing wall on the right side of the house.) The second photo, from Google Maps street view, indicates that it was doing much better not so long ago.

And speaking of key pieces of architecture that have gone missing, check out this fishing boat in Leipsic. That’s a restoration project that would give even Ron Stygar pause.

While looking at the partial fishing boat, I had that familiar feeling of being watched. Sure enough…   🙁

This stately Georgian-style home proves that much of Leipsic is in fine shape (and therefore safe from vultures). Later research revealed that William Ruth, a prosperous local businessman, built the mansion in 1807. The first two-thirds of the smaller section to the right was added in 1841, complete with its handsome two-story porch. The white bay window in the upper center of the house came along in the late 1800s. A comparison with the historical photo from the Library of Congress indicates that the last third of the smaller section and three dormers were later additions. When Mr. Ruth passed away, he left the northern (righthand) portion of the house to his son Samuel and the southern section to his son-in-law Peter Stout. The dividing line specified in his will ran along the wall dividing the main hallway and the front entrance—on all three floors!

At the other end of Leipsic’s domiciliary scale, this little house was home to Captain Kenny Wright, a fisherman and hunter all his life. These days, the house is all boarded up, with the crab baskets on the front porch destined to remain unused. (Historic photo from the Library of Congress.)

Leipsic (which was named after Leipzig, Germany) is about as scenic a little place as you can imagine. This is the Leipsic River, which flows immediately north of the town. Captain Kenny’s house is just visible on the right (look for the highest chimney).

The top on my Z4 had been down ever since the temperature climbed above 40 degrees, but an awful lot of road salt had found its way onto the fenders and doors when I drove up I-95 to Delaware. If I’d planned ahead, I could have washed the car with water from the Leipsic River before taking this otherwise-scenic photo.   #-o

So how’s this for a haunted house candidate? (And where’s Halloween when you need it?)

From Leipsic, I continued to wend my way south, aiming for Lewes, DE (the favorite vacation spot of Sally the Actuary, in case you didn’t know). On the way, I encountered Little Creek. The Old Stone Tavern was in pretty good shape—although it turns out that it never served as a tavern at any time during its existence from the 1820s right through the present. The origin of the building’s name is a mystery, since records indicate that it has always been used as a dwelling. Stone buildings are rare in this part of Delaware, since Kent County does not have any native rock suitable for building.

The historical plaque in front of the Old Stone Tavern also mentioned that its builder, one Manlove Hayes, had also constructed a nearby stone octagonal schoolhouse in 1836, which was used for nearly 100 years. I drove up and down the main street of Little Creek looking for it, without success—it was actually about 1 mile north of town. If I had found it, it would have looked like this (courtesy of the Library of Congress):

I knew I would be driving by the massive Dover Air Force Base, but I didn’t know that the Air Mobility Command Museum is located there. Or that it would be open, or that admission is free! Naturally I popped in for a quick visit—and ended up staying for 2 hours. The museum has both a large indoor section and a massive outdoor part. The C-47A “Skytrain” in the foreground dropped U.S. paratroopers at St. Mere Eglise during D-Day and also towed gliders full of troops during the assault across the Rhine River. Just above the left wing of the C-47A is the 381st Bomb Group’s B-17 “Flying Fortress.”

B-17’s were incredible workhorses of World War II. With nearly 13,000 built, today only about a dozen are in flying condition. The museum’s B-17 has been lovingly restored. If you’re tall enough, you can stick your head up inside the bomb bay (and hope that (i) the bombs are securely attached, and, if not, that (ii) they are display dummies only!)

The noses of most bombers and fighter aircraft featured characters out of popular comic strips or voluptuous babes with suggestive names. Mostly the latter, I suspect…

B-17’s were legendary for their ability to continue flying despite sustaining heavy damage. They also had considerable ability to defend themselves from enemy fighters, with a total of thirteen 50-calibre machine guns on board. (Historical photo courtesy of the U.S. Air Force.)

This painting at the museum shows the Sperry ball turret placed beneath the plane. It was the first successful means of defending a bomber from attack from below. The motorized turret could swivel 360 degrees in a little over a second, and the machine guns could be angled from horizontal to straight down. The fit was very tight, however, and if a gunner was more than 5′ 4″ tall, he had to forgo wearing his parachute.

Here are the pilots and crew of a B-17 after a mission over Antwerp, Belgium. The tall fellow standing on the right is 42-year-old movie actor Clark Gable, who served as a side gunner on a number of sorties. He enlisted after his wife, Carole Lombard, died in a plane crash while returning from a tour to sell war bonds. Although the Army Air Corps intended Gable’s primary mission as making a recruiting film, he saw plenty of combat. Over Gelsenkirchen, his plane received heavy damage from anti-aircraft fire, with pieces of flak tearing through his boot and barely missing his head. Adding to its legendary status, the B-17 returned safely back to base in England. Gable earned a Distinguished Flying Cross and an Air Medal for his service. (His movie colleague Jimmy Stewart trained in B-17’s but piloted B-24’s, leading many missions over Germany and winning two Distinguished Flying Crosses, the Croix de Guerre, and an Air Medal in the process.)

Women were not permitted to fly combat missions, but members of the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots (WASP’s) could and did ferry B-17’s and other aircraft all over the world.

Gliders were used extensively in World War II to carry troops and cargo to battle sites. Only a handful still exist of the thousands that were built by a variety of companies, including piano and furniture manufacturers. The wings and outer fabric covering have been removed from this survivor to allow a view of the pilot’s compartment and interior.

This PT-17 “Kaydet” was used as a trainer in World War II. Students received 60 hours of primary flight instruction and would typically solo for the first time in a PT-17.

You know those familiar and much-loved BMW “boxer” air-cooled motorcycle engines? Imagine one with 4 rows of 7 cylinders each. Add a supercharger, and the 71.5-liter engine would produce a peak of 3,800 horsepower! If you didn’t fire it up correctly, you would foul all 56 spark plugs…

The museum had an impressive collection of Air Force service “coins.”

Moving to the outdoor area of the Air Mobility Command Museum, I found a treasure trove of freighters, along with a few combat fighters. First up, however, was this VC-9C, which served as Air Force Two (for Vice-Presidents and First Ladies) and occasionally as Air Force One from 1975-2011. The current Air Force One paint scheme was created by famed automobile designer Raymond Loewy at the request of President John F. Kennedy, based on a suggestion by First Lady Jackie Kennedy. (Who knew?)

This C-141A “Starlifter” was the first one ever made. Under combat conditions, such as in the Vietnam War, its entire contents could be off-loaded in only 17 minutes. Did I mention that its maximum cargo could be as much as 45 tons?

This is what the hold looks like—it seemed to stretch on forever. (Yes, the museum lets tall, gawky-looking photographers and other questionable members of society into many of its aircraft.)

If I remember correctly, this is the cockpit of a C-130E “Hercules” cargo plane. The instrumentation was more complicated than that of my R1200GS and Z4 3.0i put together! And there were four throttles, instead of one, and so forth. At least there were only two windshield wipers.

Who knew that aircraft intercomm’s had a “listen” mode?

The C-45 “Expeditor” was the military version of a Beechcraft Model 18. They were built during 1939-1945 and used for training, aerial photography, and utility transport.

The KC-97 cargo/tanker aircraft were an outgrowth of the famous B-29 “Superfortress” bombers of World War II. The first ones were built in 1950, but by 1956 they began to be phased out. Some were still in operation as recently as 1978, however. If you look carefully, you’ll see that the “L” version shown here is powered not only by four Pratt & Whitney radial piston engines but also two auxiliary GE turbojet engines.

With a quick look at one of the truly odd airplanes o’ history—in this case, the C-119 “Flying Boxcar” used in the movie Always with Richard Dreyfuss and Holly Hunter—it was time to move on. The AMC Museum was a fantastic place, whether or not you’re a fan of vintage aircraft.

A little south of the Dover airbase, I found this abandoned house, complete with satellite dish. I guess the roof antenna just wasn’t good enough…

Before long I crossed over the Murderkill River (really!), arrived in Milford, DE, and found an endless supply of beautiful old mansions, including the 1890 Grier House and 1870 Draper House, respectively, in the top row below. Milford is full of historic old buildings and other sites and really deserves a more thorough visit. On this day, however, I was running well and truly late (even by my usual trip standards), and I needed to press on.

Eventually I reached Lewes (pronounced “lou-is”). It was founded in 1631 by Dutch settlers who named it Zwaanendael (“Swan Valley”). Things didn’t work out so well, however, since the local Lenni Lenape Indians massacred every man, woman, and child in the settlement the following year. When the next ship of Dutch settlers arrived, they decided it was best to continue on to New Amsterdam (which eventually became New York City). About all that’s left of the colony is its history, as shown in the decorative Zwaanendael Museum. The building is modeled after the city hall in Hoorne, Netherlands.

For some reason, this area was slow to resettle… However, the Dutch gave it another try in 1662, only to have the settlement burned to the ground, again, but this time by English colonists from Maryland. Ten years later, the Dutch made one last attempt in this area, only to have the English level the town yet again. By 1682, the area had become an English settlement named Lewes. Since Delaware is “The First State,” and Lewes was the first settlement, Lewes is know as “The First Town in the First State.”

The Lewes Presbyterian Church was built in 1832, substantially expanded with Italianate and Gothic styling in 1869, and further adorned with the tower and belfrey in 1886-1887. The surrounding cemetery dates back to the earlier brick church in 1727.

The Ryves Holt house was built in 1665, making it the oldest building in Delaware. It’s now the home of the Lewes Historical Society. My poor Z4 was so loaded with road salt that I had to park it around the corner to keep from offending the local citizens.

Cape Henlopen State Park adjoins Lewes and, having been established by William Penn in 1682, was possibly the first land ever set aside for public use in the original thirteen colonies. Its beaches and hiking trails continue to be a favorite in this area.

In my case, however, I was interested in seeing what was left of the World War II-era Fort Miles. It served as an observation post and shore battery guarding against German warships and submarines. As I set off to see what I could find, I first encountered a happy group of skateboarders taking advantage of a downhill section of one of the paths. These guys were easily going 25 mph!

Before long I found one of the original Army observation towers, still standing ready for duty after more than 70 years. The towers were used to spot enemy ships in the Delaware Bay and Atlantic Ocean. Communications among the towers allowed the observers to triangulate coordinates, which were relayed to the batteries. Somewhat surprisingly, the 16-inch and other shore guns were only fired once, even though 14 U.S. ships were sunk by the Germans in just the first 6 months of 1942. The list included the WWI-era destroyer USS Jacob Jones. (This ship met a particularly unpleasant end when a German U-boat torpedoed it, exploding the ships munitions and instantly breaking it into three sections. As the Jacob Jones sank, its depth charges went off, killing many among the small number of survivors in their life rafts.)

The towers’ original wooden floors and connecting ladders are long gone. Tower No. 7 has been renovated and opened to the public, with a circular staircase made of (rusting) iron—you might want to visit here sooner, rather than later…

From its height of 75 feet, Tower No. 7 had a commanding view of the entrance to Delaware Bay. The lighthouse at the left, incidentally, was built in 1885 and fitted with a fourth-order fresnel lens—which is still in place. Use of this lighthouse was discontinued in 1996. I believe that’s Tower No. 8 to the right.

A couple of large guns can be seen at Fort Miles, although most were removed long ago. The original concrete bunkers are still in place, with one having been renovated recently for use as a museum.

With a last look at Tower No. 8, it was time to press on. The sun was starting to set, and I was still miles away from the possible location of the Potato House. (You do remember the Potato House, right?)

Imagine my surprise, however, when 10 minutes later I spotted another pair of World War II observation towers. Surprisingly, they were situated directly next to each other, which would seem to greatly limit their effectiveness at triangulating enemy ships. Moreover, they weren’t anywhere near the coastline. How strange.

As I headed west toward home, I still had a list of places that I wanted to see. First up was the 1854 Cool Spring Presbyterian Church. The congregation dates back to 1737, with this being the third of its churches over the years. It looks like it can handle another 159 years without too much trouble.

Not unlike Annapolis, MD, the city of Georgetown, DE was designed and built around a circle. Once just a swampy field, the town was laid out in 1791 at the site of “James Pettyjohn’s old field or about a mile from where Ebenezer Pettyjohn now lives,” as the original deed specified. While looking for the Georgetown Railroad Station, I encountered this imposing structure, which turned out to be a chartered lodge of the Ancient Free & Accepted Masons.

Prior to my trip, I wasn’t aware that the town’s railroad station had been extensively renovated in 2003-2004 or that it had suffered a devastating fire on May 7, 2011 (photo courtesy of the Historic Georgetown Association). Thankfully, its exterior repairs appear to have been completed, and the old station looks great once more. It was originally constructed in 1868, and a full-height second story was added in about 1912. What became of the second story isn’t clear—theories range from a hurricane or an earlier fire—but by 1940 it was gone.

Interestingly, after all this time the Pettyjohn family seems to be alive and well in Georgetown. Brian Pettyjohn recently served as Mayor of Georgetown and is now a Delaware State Senator!

Despite the fading light, I found the Old Brick Hotel on Georgetown’s main circle without difficulty. It was built in 1836, converted to a bank in 1955, and then converted back to a hotel in 2008. These days, it has 14 guest rooms and an excellent restaurant.

Well, for those of you who have stuck with me for this long, you must now be asking “What about the freakin’ Potato House? Who cares about towns, and state parks, and train stations?? We want the Potato House!”

My but you’re a testy lot… Anyway, we’re almost there. First, however, I discovered the Old Christ Church, which was built in 1772. Until recently, its exterior wooden walls had never been painted. The interior remains unpainted, I believe, and the longevity of this structure speaks well of the quality of its construction. (Historical photo from the Library of Congress.) The church is near Laurel, DE—although this land was originally considered part of Maryland, prior to the Mason and Dixon survey that resolved a number of boundary problems.

And finally, yes finally!, we come to the Potato House, arriving as the last of the sunlight was disappearing. Delaware experienced a major sweet potato boom during 1900-1940, before the crops were wiped out by a potato blight. Joseph Chipman and his brother Ernest operated a successful mill in this area and decided to grow sweet potatoes to cash in on the craze. They stored their potatoes in this house, which they built in 1913. It had slotted floors so that they could vary the air circulation, and two furnaces kept the potatoes from freezing in the wintertime. The Chipmans’ potato house is one of the last such structures anywhere in the nation. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1990.

The Chipman brothers’ mill was destroyed by a fire in 1986—but its substantial mill pond remains. Depending on the direction in which you looked, the reflected light offered the following perspectives:

And, just down the road, another magnificent sunset crowned a most enjoyable day of touring!

Driving the remaining 99 miles back home in the dark wasn’t as interesting as it would have been in the daylight, and I missed several other intended sites, but I enjoyed all the twinkling lights while crossing the Chesapeake Bay Bridge. I arrived back home at 7:30 PM with 364 miles on the trip odometer. Such fun… but it’s time for another trip!

Rick F.

PS: Yes, the faithful Z4 received a thorough washing, top and bottom, as soon as I was back home!


Written by Rick

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