I’m wandering through Read House, a grand 1801 federal in New Castle, Del., imagining servants in hemp dress peeling potatoes, kneading dough and sprinkling fennel on lamb chops. I’m finding this particularly easy to do because I’m sure that I detect the distinct aroma of something cooking.
Sure enough, Antoinette Maccari, the house’s education curator, pushes open the kitchen door, and voila: A crowd mills around the room, cooking over an open hearth. Women and men are stirring, chopping, tending the fire. Bread is baking in the wall oven. Lamb turns on a spit.
“We bring in the public several times a year to cook a Colonial meal over the fireplace,” Maccari explains.
Aha. If I’d known, I would have joined them.
But it’s not really necessary to cook a Colonial meal to get that historic feeling in New Castle, a Revolutionary-era town on the Delaware River that still looks much as it did 300 years ago.
That feeling came over me as soon as I stepped out of my car on cobblestoned Market Street on a recent visit. The sun glinted off the river as I glanced around and spied the Green. Laid out in the mid-1600s as a typical town center surrounded by the most important buildings — the courthouse, a church, the sheriff’s house — it still serves as a local gathering spot. On this bright Saturday, it’s quiet but for the blur of runners passing by.
First settled by the Dutch in 1651, New Castle was home to a mixture of Dutch, Swedes and English by the end of the 17th century. The diverse building stock they left behind today composes a historic district in mint condition.
A step from the Green is the Arsenal, an ammunition storage facility during the War of 1812. Horse-drawn wagons would ride into one end of the building, dump their gunpowder and exit out the other end. The arched entry openings are bricked in but still visible.
Nearby sits white-steepled Immanuel Episcopal Church, founded in 1689 and still housing an active congregation. The door opens to a simple Colonial-style interior: unadorned white walls, modest brass chandeliers, door-enclosed pews. Sunlight streams through tall windows onto the red brick floor.
Governors, Revolutionary and Civil War soldiers, and such prominent local families as the Van Dykes and the Kensey Johnses are buried in the adjacent cemetery. I tread softly on the damp earth and the tree roots. At noon, the church bells chime.
Across the Green on Third Street, the Dutch House stands out because it stands small. This adorable diminutive house with its long, sloping roof and its salmon-pink shutters and door is the oldest structure in town, probably built between 1690 and 1710. It was home to middle-class artisans such as blacksmiths and carpenters and today is furnished with Dutch colonial artifacts.
Quite the opposite is the Old Library Museum, an 1892 hexagonal brick building a few doors away. Victorian Gothic Revival in style, it features a wide-open interior with a flat glass ceiling that spills light onto the floor. Ringing the room is a shelved balcony holding what’s left of the original 3,000-book collection.
Strolling the town streets — Second, Third, Fourth, Harmony, Delaware, Market, The Strand — among the finely preserved homes, I feel as if I’m on the set of the “John Adams” HBO miniseries.
Along The Strand, two- and three-story Colonials, cottages, townhouses and Georgian- and Federal-style mansions front red brick sidewalks. One house is marigold yellow, the next slate blue, another forest green. A variety of roofs and ornamentation mark each one.
Narrow passageways, paved with brick and “sleeper stones” — flat stones onto which rail lines were spiked so that converted stagecoaches pulled by horses could move easily over them — run between houses and lead to neat back yards. Broader byways between houses, such as Alexander Alley, lead to the water and riverside views.
The Strand was the commercial main street in the late 1700s and the early 1800s. “That’s why the front windows are so large,” says Michael Connolly of the New Castle Historical Society. “These houses were storefronts, and out back, lining the river, were the wharves.”
We meander down Alexander Alley through a flock of honking Canada geese and toward thrushes fluttering in the leafless shrubs at the water’s edge. The air smells of dark river water and moist leaves.
This is Battery Park, a 21 / 2-mile stretch along the Delaware, home to beavers, turtles and muskrats. On this crisp day the grass is dotted with dog walkers and joggers.
Sauntering out of the park onto Delaware Street, I stop for hot chocolate in Traders Cove Coffee Shoppe, then amble up the street against the slanting sun to antiquarian book dealer Oak Knoll Books, housed in the stunning 1879 opera house.
“We sell books about books,” says bespectacled Bob Cady, who is stacking and packing books in the 26-foot-ceilinged room.
I pull out a book and read the cover: “Register of Middle English Religious and Didactic Verse” (1916, $35). Another is “Printed Cookbooks in Europe 1470-1700.” It’s $125. I’m entranced, but I resist buying.
Some blocks on is the Velocipede Museum, a collection of vintage bicycles, tricycles and high-wheelers, and across the street is the elegant 1738 Amstel House, a six-bedroom mansion that’s spacious even by today’s standards. In 1784, in the handsome white-walled parlor adorned with green dentil molding, the Marquis de Lafayette gave away Ann Van Dyke to Kensey Johns in a wedding attended by George Washington, who, according to diaries of the day, kissed all the ladies.
As the afternoon light wanes, I make my way to the Court House, Delaware’s Colonial capitol and the last stop on my time travel tour. Stately and dignified, it was the scene of high drama on June 15, 1776, when representatives of the Three Lower Counties on the Delaware voted to break from Britain and Pennsylvania and assert their independence.
Standing on its steps, gazing down at the charming town before me, I’m suffused with a sudden sense of pride and nostalgia. I’d come to New Castle looking for a taste of pure Americana. And sure enough, I’d found it.
Hoffer is a freelance writer in Washington.