Note that Easterling calls the president-elect “Joe.” Plenty of people here do. Almost everyone, it seems, has had a Joe moment. Several of them.
“If there are Delawareans who haven’t met Joe Biden, it’s because they haven’t tried,” says Democratic Sen. Chris Coons. Dick Carter, chairman of the Delaware Heritage Commission, says this is what it’s like to live in lovely, little Delaware: “Everyone knows everyone. It’s one degree of separation — maybe less.”
This month, Delaware becomes the tiniest state, in land mass and population, a smidgen shy of a million, to have sent a citizen to the White House. (Chester Arthur and Calvin Coolidge were born in Vermont, but eventually hailed from New York and Massachusetts, respectively.)
That Biden will be sworn in as the 46th president is both a big $&%#ing deal here, to use his 2010 hot-mic comment about health-care reform, and not such a big $&%#ing deal. Wasn’t this always his long game after a half-century of public service and a third, exhausting, seemingly never-ending bid for the White House?
It's a small state after all
Delaware is cozy. It is emphatically small. It seems less a state than a fabled land hatched from Aesop or the Brothers Grimm. A microbe on the map, a Mid-Atlantic territory of onlys, we-don’t-have-thats and so much poultry.
Only three counties, two major universities, one U.S. House member, a solitary area code. No major professional sports teams, no major television stations, no mountains, no medical school, one law school. Ninety-six miles in length, 35 miles at its widest, nine miles at its narrowest, and with 609 times more chickens than people.
It’s the first state to ratify the Constitution; often last when recalling all 50. Wayne and Garth in the movie “Wayne’s World” draw blanks when trying to say anything about the state. 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 kind of state that, for many years, featured welcome signs with the winning slogan “Home of Tax-Free Shopping.”
With Biden’s election, 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 related to du Ponts. The state is loaded with 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 dubbed 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 larger metropolis elbows its way to the top. Downtown Wilmington resembles a random exurb, except for the clump of drab buildings blistered with bank logos and Interstate 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. Nearby – everything is nearby – is Wilmington’s handsome, 1907 red-brick train station, designed by Frank Furness, which was named for Amtrak’s most celebrated commuter a decade ago.
Here are some things Delawareans want outsiders to know: The top of Delaware is distinguished by a 12-mile Circle (technically, it’s an arc), which 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 two overlords, Britain and Pennsylvania. It was originally named the Assembly of the Lower Counties of Pennsylvania, which sounds like a colonial religion. It’s been called a Northern state with a Southern disposition. It has glorious beaches: Bethany, Dewey, Lewes, Fenwick and Rehoboth, the last the home of the new summer White House, Biden’s $2 million home on the border of Cape Henlopen State Park.
Bob Marley lived in Wilmington for a while, in a red brick rowhouse on North Tatnall Street, and worked at the Chrysler plant in Newark. (Which is pronounced New-ark not New-work, New Jersey’s biggest city.)
Three years ago, the News Journal asked readers to name the most famous Delawarean. Aubrey Plaza, of “Parks and Recreation,” won by a landslide.
Biden, who moved with his family from Scranton to Claymont, Del., at age 10, came in a distant sixth. This apparently makes Biden “a Claymonster,” the nickname for folks from the town on Pennsylvania’s border.
The state’s political orbit is so minuscule that it’s possible for one man, fellow Claymonster and Democrat Tom Carper, to hit an elective trifecta in less than two decades: congressman, governor and now U.S. senator. Carper basically swapped jobs with Republican 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 2010’s 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.” Ultimately, she lost to Biden ally Coons.
Before Biden’s win, that’s the sort of thing that got Delaware attention.
Delaware holds its traditions tight. Every two years, it celebrates Return Day the Thursday after the general election. At the Sussex County Courthouse in Georgetown, political rivals literally bury the hatchet. In 2020, Return Day wasn’t held because of covid-19, but it might have been harder for both sides to bury the hatchet because ugly politics has managed to infect even collegial Delaware. Last year, Coons’s Republican challenger was a QAnon dabbler, a flat-earther and anti-immigration candidate who made nasty comments about his appearance and specious charges about his family.
The state holds an annual peach festival, even though it ceased to be the nation’s largest peach producer, due to a blight, more than a century ago. That’s when it pivoted to poultry.
Does this make any sense?
Says Coons, “Welcome to Delaware.”
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 their employees. It’s sort of like the post-office box for other 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 tax on anything. Annual property taxes are risible resembling other states’ monthly bills.
Close to everything
Boosters promote how close it is to so much else — New York, Washington, Philadelphia — without being like those other places, making it seem not so much a bedroom community as a bedroom state. People usually don’t fly out of Delaware, due to the lack of a major airport, but fallen soldiers do fly in, due to the presence of Dover Air Force Base.
“Delaware is 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 County (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 slavery state. Founding Father Caesar Rodney, after whom many Delawarean things are named, was a substantial enslaver. Now, the state is having a reckoning. In June, it removed a massive equestrian bronze statue of Rodney from a downtown green, a square that’s still named after him.
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 so Delawarean.
In the mid-20th century, the town of New Castle passed on becoming a national tourist destination and revenue generator, the next Williamsburg, a plan that was rebuffed by town leaders. “Except much of Williamsburg is re-created,” says Cindy Snyder, site manager of the New Castle Court House 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 (broiled and flash fried, served plain or smothered in gravy or barbecue sauce, two sides, $17.95). Of this, Coons will not boast: “It tastes like rat — just gamier.”
Delawareans brag about the state being home to scrapple, pork loaf blended with unidentifiable stuff, though it is far better known as a Pennsylvania Dutch culinary staple. Capriotti’s sandwich shop is noted for the Bobbie sub, Biden’s favorite, that’s basically Thanksgiving on a roll: turkey, cranberry sauce, stuffing and mayonnaise. Another Biden haunt is the Charcoal Pit, on Concord Pike, a diner that doesn’t appear to have changed since its 1956 founding, suspended in amber and burger grease, where the massive sundaes are named after high school sports teams.
Since 1986, Delaware was celebrated for hosting the annual Punkin Chunkin in Sussex County the first weekend after Halloween, a competition consisting of hurling gourds as far as possible by human muscle, catapult, centrifuge, trebuchet or air cannon. That is, until 2016, when two people were injured, one critically. A lawsuit followed, along with challenges to the event’s ability to secure insurance coverage.
In 2019, the contest was staged in Rantoul, Ill. The Chunkin was no longer the state’s own.
Which is fine. Now, after all, Delaware has its own president.