Delaware is all about legacy.
From its bragging rights as the first state in the Union to the mansions left behind by some of the wealthy families in the country, this state revels in its historic highs and enduring treasures. Wherever you go, it seems, something wonderful from the past has been preserved for the future.
The range of Delaware’s legacy attractions is broad and diverse, and groups visiting the state will find these characteristics on display in a variety of ways. In the small town of Lewes, well-preserved homes and museums tell the story of the first European settlement in the First State. Two mansion estates in Wilmington reflect the du Pont family legacy, with art, architecture and gardens recalling the grandest of European treasures.
Some of Delaware’s legacies are still being shaped. The Air Mobility Command Museum features some of the greatest military aircraft to fly in the 20th century, and Dover International Speedway has been making historic moments in auto racing since the 1960s.
Take the time to tour this small state in the Mid-Atlantic, and your church group travelers will be impressed by what they find.
Delaware got its reputation as the first state in the Union by being the first to ratify the Constitution in 1789. But the town of Lewes’ claim to fame predates the United States by more than 100 years.
“We’re known as the first town in the first state,” said Betsy Reamer, executive director at the Lewes Chamber of Commerce and Visitors Bureau. “It goes back to the 1600s, and we’re known for our historic preservation.”
Dutch colonists first settled in Lewes in 1631. Today, visitors find themselves enchanted by this small community, which sits across the Delaware Bay from Cape May, New Jersey. The town features a blend of local shopping and dining establishments, as well as an active historical society that has helped preserve many of the area’s most notable buildings.
“They have a complex of buildings that are open for tours, and it’s quite an extensive collection,” Reamer said. “They include one of the oldest buildings in the state, which dates back to 1682. There is also an 18th-century farmhouse, an old country store and a doctor’s office.”
Many groups touring Lewes pay a visit to the Zwaanendael Museum. The museum takes its name from the Dutch moniker for the first colony in the area, which translates to “Valley of the Swans.”
“The museum was actually designed after the town hall of Hoorn in Holland,” said Bridget Warner, site supervisor at the museum. “It was built in 1931 to commemorate the 300th anniversary of the first European settlement here by the Dutch in 1631.”
The museum features exhibits that deal with Delaware’s early history and the eventual demise of the Zwaanendael colony. Visitors will also find artifacts from two shipwrecks in the area, one of which was just discovered in 2004.
One of the greatest legacies in Delaware is that of the du Pont family, which rose to prominence in industrial business throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. The du Pont companies remain some of the foremost employers in the state, and a number of historic homes belonging to the family are now open to the public.
One of the most striking of these homes is Nemours Mansion and Gardens in Wilmington, built by Alfred I. du Pont for his second wife, Alicia.
“He was inspired by the palace of Versailles,” said public relations and marketing manager Steven Maurer. “It’s French neoclassical style, and it has an absolutely astonishing collection of art and furniture. They furnished the house with the objects that they liked, so you’ll see beaux arts pieces from France but also objects that they got when they travelled in Egypt or Scandinavia.”
Among notable items belonging to the du Ponts, visitors to Nemours will see a chair from Independence Hall in Philadelphia, a custom-made Steinway piano and an ornate clock commissioned by Marie Antoinette.
The home itself is also a sight to behold — at 47,000 square feet, the palatial estate has more than 70 rooms, among them a bowling alley, a shooting gallery, a billiards room and a power plant that supplies electricity to the estate.
Visitors take tours of the house in small groups accompanied by guides, who point out notable architecture and artwork. Groups can also tour the 222-acre gardens, which are planted in formal style and feature numerous pieces of statuary.
“You’re going to see a statue that’s 12 feet tall and covered in 23-karat gold leaf,” Maurer said. “We also have a reflecting pool with a statue in each corner. There’s a fountain in it now with 157 jets of water.”
Winterthur Museum, Garden and Library
Less than five miles from Nemours Mansion, groups will find another du Pont home in Wilmington. Today, Winterthur Museum, Garden and Library is known as a world-class history and art museum.
“It was founded by Henry Francis du Pont and opened to the public 60 years ago,” said Ellen Hughes, manager of museum, gallery and estate tours. “This was his childhood home. Since 1951, people have been able to come in and see his collection of 85,000 objects made and used in America between 1640 and 1860.”
The mansion consists of about 175 rooms, where du Pont’s collections are displayed according to themes. Many of the exhibits are also decorated with architectural elements extracted from historic structures throughout the 13 original Colonies.
Highlights of the collection include a set of six silver tankards made by Paul Revere, as well as a Gilbert Stuart painting of George Washington. Groups can take a 45-minute overview tour of the house or choose one of several special tours that focus on specific topics, such as art, architecture and family history.
Most visitors to Winterthur also take a tram tour through the estate’s 1,000-acre garden.
“The garden includes a 60-acre naturalistic garden, which is touted as one of America’s best,” Hughes said. “One of the most exciting times to visit is in late April and May, when there’s a huge display of azaleas. Many people take the guided tram tour through the garden and then go back and walk through at their own leisure.”
Groups often make time to have lunch in one of the two on-site restaurants at the estate.
Air Mobility Command Museum
Midway between Lewes and Wilmington, Dover is the capital of Delaware and features a number of more contemporary attractions. The Air Mobility Command Museum at Dover Air Force Base gives visitors an up-close look at some of the most amazing aircraft of the 20th century.
“One of the neatest things about our museum is that we take people inside our airplanes,” said museum director Mike Leister. “We restore them both inside and out, so you can see more than just a shell. One of our airplanes is big enough to park three school buses inside.”
The museum’s collection comprises 29 American military planes that have served around the world both in the Air Force and its predecessor, the U.S. Army Air Force. Of the 29 planes, nine are either the first, last or only ones of their kind left in the world.
Visitors to the museum will see the oldest C-124 cargo aircraft in the world, as well as the first medevac jet airplane that the Air Force used. Other highlights include a B-17 Flying Fortress used as a bomber in World War II and the only surviving C-54 that was used in the Berlin Air Lift in 1948.
One special aspect of the museum is the crew of 124 veterans who volunteer to guide tours there.
“When you come to our museum, you actually talk to real flight crew members who have served with these airplanes,” Leister said. “The history is direct — it’s not interpreted through a third party.”
The museum sits on a sequestered part of Dover Air Force Base with a separate entrance, so groups don’t have to clear security at the base’s main gate to visit.
Dover International Speedway
Racing fans have known Dover International Speedway since the “Monster Mile” hosted its first NASCAR race in 1969. Today, two major races take place each year at the track, and groups can visit on race weekends or during off-seasons.
“We’re excited to host two race weekends, one in May and one in September or October,” said Gary Camp, director of communications at the speedway. “We play host to the NASCAR Sprint Cup series, so the big names will be here, like Jeff Gordon, Jimmy Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr.”
Groups can get special packages to attend the races that include meals, driver appearances and other amenities. In addition to watching the action, many visitors also explore the eight-acre Fan Zone, which has live music, interactive displays and lots of activities on race weekends.
When racing is not in session, groups will enjoy a visit to the less-crowded facility. A driving school at the track offers once-in-a-lifetime thrills for aficionados, and other group members can get behind the scenes on a tour with the track historian.
“You really get to see the inner workings of the track,” Camp said. “You can go into the garages and see the cars. You can get your photo taken in victory lane, go to the media center and take a couple laps around the track.”
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