A Place to Call Home

(And a touch of Haunted History!)

There’s Something About Smyrna

There’s something about Smyrna. Nearly everyone who comes to Smyrna, Del., the first time tells of being pleasantly surprised by the warm and charming character of the historic downtown, of the friendly citizens and shopkeepers and the gracious residents who open their historic homes each Christmas season for the Candlelight Walking Tour. Indeed, Smyrna is a welcoming place. Even the ghosts are friendly. They’ll appear later in this story.

Before deciding to buy our historic home in Smyrna, we drove down from Wilmington to see it a second time. We got to Smyrna’s historic district and then couldn’t find the house. We pulled up to ask directions of a guy raking his lawn. He smiled, leaned on his rake, and casually spent ten minutes describing the layout of the town and providing a choice of routes to get to the house. The house, it turned out, was just around the corner.

I was drawn to the town by the historic charm of the red bricks, brackets, gargoyles and lace of the Colonials, Federals, Italianates and Queen Annes. I like to walk the historic brick sidewalks in the shade of grand old maples and walnuts, smell the aroma of a boxwood garden behind a wrought iron fence or of well-seasoned wood on the side of an old barn; I like to see vegetables springing up on a plot of land or flowers frolicking along a wrap-around porch.

Where else of a summer evening can you see a promenade of young parents wheeling kids in strollers on their way for ice cream at the historic Four Corners? Where else can you live when of a summer evening at dinnertime a band parades right past your front door playing patriotic marches, a troop of Pied Pipers drawing families onto their porches and sidewalks and followed by a host of helmeted kids on bikes? The first time I heard the band coming up the street I leaped from the dinner table and raced out onto the porch. I was nine again. They are the Citizen’s Hose Company Marching Band, winners of the Governor’s Cup year after year, practicing. 

There are plenty of family activities year round in historic Smyrna. There’s Autumn in Duck Creek, when kids paint pumpkins and families enjoy fun festivities. My best experience was at Christmas when snowflakes laced the night sky, carolers kindled hearts with song, Santa rode up the street in the back of a pickup, and the sky wore whiskers of wood smoke curling from old chimney pots above the tall rooftops. It was the first year I went on the Holiday Candlelight Walking Tour of Historic Homes, produced by the Smyrna Downtown Renaissance Association, where I settled into a warm 18th-century kitchen, engaged in camaraderie while sampling savory five-bean soup simmered in a kettle over a fire in a brick fireplace nearly big enough to convene the Continental Congress. Ron Sayers, owner of Sayers Jewelers and Gemologists in Smyrna, who with his wife Ellen owned the home then, said, “They came back every year and the first thing they’d ask us was ‘Where’s the bean soup?’”

Smyrna’s downtown historic district is a great place to stroll and shop at any season, but especially at Christmas time. As I walk from home to home on the tour discovering historic Smyrna by candlelight, I am transported to a time of clip-clopping hooves and jangling harnesses, horses drawing carriages bearing folks through the brisk dusk to parties or to the Opera House. You know, a hundred years ago the citizens ran horse races right through the center of town. Ah, but I digress. As I pass shops I can almost hear the rustle of petticoats beneath long skirts as women bustle from shops to home wielding presents and making Christmas preparations, baking cookies at the wood stove with their children gathered round.

Each year for the tour, held the second Sunday in December, residents graciously open their homes ranging from pre-Revolutionary through late Victorian. If you don’t think you’d like to come, well, then, you’ll miss the cookies and mulled cider and the Gingerbread Candyland, but that’s just more for me.

If you do visit Gingerbread Candyland, you can vote for your favorite gingerbread house contest entry. Notice I didn’t say eat you favorite entry. But, if you must, you can bake your own and enter it, allowing you to simultaneously fulfill your historic architectural fancy and enter what visions of gingerbread dance in your head.

Smyrna is a family town concerned with quality living and historic preservation. There’s the predominance of geometric Van Gaskin architecture and the John Bassett Moore Intermediate School recent restoration of large murals by Brandywine River School artists Walter Pyle Jr., Stafford Good and Edward Grant. Painted under the 1930s WPA program, the murals reflect Delaware’s regional life and culture, depicting the shipping industry and scenes of agriculture that built the town.

The Smyrna Opera House is listed in the National Registry of Historic Places. It is one of more than 490 buildings in Smyrna that qualify. Built in 1870 as the Town Hall to knit together communities breached by the Civil War, the Opera House was damaged by fire Christmas night 1948 apparently ignited by a spark from holiday lights strung along the mansard roof. The clock tower and third floor were destroyed. A fireman got frozen to a ladder for two hours, but they chipped him off and thawed him out. In 1994 the Smyrna-Clayton Heritage Association, a non-profit organization, was formed to offer arts and cultural opportunities to the community. The Association, headed by President John W. Dickinson until his death in May 2001, raised $3.6 million to restore the Opera House, half a million donated by Smyrna-Clayton citizens and businesses. Local craftsmen performed all the work on the Opera House and the new Annex. One of the performers at the opening gala in March 2003 was Frederick Douglass IV, claiming to be the great-great grandson of the famous orator and author who had lectured at the Opera House in the Civil War era. The Opera House hall features a hand-painted coffered ceiling, a balcony, refurbished original stage and sprung hardwood floors. The 18-inch thick walls have been hand-painted and gilded by members of The Smyrna-Clayton Heritage Association. A bell was installed in the tower. The Opera House offers Broadway musicals and other performances, art exhibits and more throughout the year.

Getting back to spectral appearances, are there phantoms of the Opera House? Mary Turner, Opera House executive director and Smyrna native, said, “Most theaters are haunted in some fashion, and seem to acquire more ‘visitors’ with every passing decade. Certainly every one I’ve ever worked in has been haunted to some degree. As for the Opera House, well, I’ve been told by a person with certified psychic credentials that we do have ‘residents,’ and that it is best, perhaps, not to disturb them.

“We also feel that John W. Dickinson, our first president, maintains a benevolent presence here, watching over us, and attending many of our functions. We also believe that he intercedes on our behalf whenever we especially need assistance, or a calming hand.”

“Oh, I have ghosts,” Jane Leverage-O’Hara told me when I caught her raking leaves in front of her home, the Pope-Mustard Mansion on West Mount Vernon Street.

The mansion, built by Samuel Ball about 1767 was subsequently owned by Colonel John Pope, a noted Revolutionary War soldier, and in 1837 purchased by John Mustard, owner of a local tannery, who added the third floor and transformed the commanding residence into the Federal style with Greek adaptations. According to the late George Caley, Smyrna town historian, author and publisher of Footprints of the Past, a history of the historic homes of Smyrna, “During the time [John] Mustard occupied the mansion, tradition holds that the mansion was a stop on the Underground Railroad.”

Leverage-O’Hara, who has lived in her home since 1975, tells of a beautiful, young, dark-haired woman in a long, white dress, walking through her darkened bedroom one night and of a man dressed in a Revolutionary War uniform walking past her kitchen. Both smiled and waved to Leverage-O’Hara. Another time, Leverage-O’Hara came home alone from vacation to find that a squirrel had gotten into the house. The place was a mess. Leverage-O’Hara sat down in the kitchen by the big, brick cooking fireplace and cried. “Then,” said Leverage-O’Hara, “I felt a comforting hand on my shoulder and everything was all right.”

A local psychic once visiting at the home next door to Leverage-O’Hara said she saw her ghost in the long white dress in Leverage-O’Hara’s back yard.

Speaking of the house next door, that architecture represents a transition from the Victorian to the Arts and Crafts, and I can’t get enough of that huge, square kitchen with the built-in writing desk, especially when I go to prepare a meal on our two-foot square counter.

The Italianate Clements Mansion, until recently, served as a bed and breakfast. When you’re done admiring the many stained-glass windows, including the works of noted Smyrna artisan Larry Ford, and elaborate ceiling molding you can look straight up the flying staircase through the three floors to the cupola.

St. Peter’s Episcopal Church is one of the oldest churches in the area. The stained-glass windows are said to rival any in Europe. The church was originally built in 1827 with bricks brought in tall ships as ballast.

You won’t feel like you’re slogging ballast when you shop in historic downtown Smyrna, though. It’s nearly as easy as pushing a button. It’s conveniently located and parking is free. It’s a good chance to buy your significant someone something that someone else hasn’t already gotten them at the mall. No cookie-cutter stuff here; only tax-free, stress-free shopping combined with historical adventure.

“I try to sell things that you just can’t get at Walmart and with utmost customer service,” explained Jackie Vinyard, proprietor of The Gathering Place, 34 South Main St., in the historic Odd Fellows building she extensively renovated. There you can buy herbs, spices, teas and oddities, along with books by local authors, like Ed Okonowicz’s folklore and tales of ghosts and James Milton Hanna’s tales from Delaware Bay. While you’re there, Vinyard might hand you a recipe for lavender cake. She handed me one. I’ve baked it. It’s excellent. Plus it makes your house smell almost good enough to eat. I don’t know if it dispels or attracts specters, though.

Vinyard gathers conversation and lore, too. “I wanted to learn about the local history of the town so I could spread the news and keep the memories alive,” she said. “The customers create the warm atmosphere in my store. They come and gather and tell their stories whether it be stories of yesterday or what’s happening in their worlds today.

Smyrna historic homeowners are only too happy to step forward and share stories about their ghosts – tales of candy dishes strangely relocated, a child’s dusty handprint mysteriously appearing on a handyman’s jacket, sounds of footsteps when you’re alone in the house, and a real child entering her parents’ newly-purchased historic home for the first time and declaring, “There’s a ghost in here.”

Vinyard loves what she calls Smyrna’s “basement dirt history” – stories that an alligator once lived in the historic Tilghman Building basement and that the Underground Railroad ran right through town: “The wall of the closet on the third floor of the Phillips Building doesn’t meet up with the back wall of the building and there is a space large enough for three men to stand shoulder to shoulder,” Vinyard observed. “We little businesses contribute funds and merchandise to other organizations without [corporate] delays,” said Vinyard. “We are the watchful eyes to keep our downtown clean and safe for the community.”

The village begun on the banks of Duck Creek around 1776 as a small farming and shipping community named Salisbury but popularly known as Duck Creek was renamed Smyrna in 1806, after the thriving Turkish port, about 70 years later becoming a noted center for grain, peaches and lumber.

“We should offer festivities for the children, so that they will have warm fuzzy memories that will bring them back to Smyrna when they get older,” foresees Vinyard. “You know, the children are our future as well. They will become the doctors and nurses and lawyers that will take care of us when we are all older. They are our future historians.”

Well, there are more beautiful historic structures in Smyrna than I could capture for this story, and more ghost stories. Pretty much everybody who comes to Smyrna notices the ghosts. Ghost stories abound among owners of historic homes. These spirits seem to casually or mischievously – a lot appear to be children – intermingle with the living.

So, it seems there’s something about Smyrna that makes some residents want to hang around – forever. They’re friendly spirits, though.

A Word from the Author

Some things have changed, as they will throughout the history of a place, since I published this story in 2008: The Pope-Mustard Mansion and the Sayers’ historic home have new owners, The Gathering Place has become The Odd Fellows Cafe, though Jackie Vinyard still owns the Odd Fellows Building, and sadly in 2016 Mary Turner and author/publisher James Milton Hanna passed on. Other long-time and prominent residents have gone, too: although they have passed on and left us behind to tend the town, they have left their footprints, contributing to the charm of the town, keeping it the family friendly place it always has been. The Woman in White visited my house at least once. A guest who knew nothing about her saw her in the entrance hall, headed for the staircase, and described her definitively. I believe the Woman in White came to comfort my ailing mother. Now, in 2017, new businesses have opened downtown. And, new residents have arrived, historic home rescuers and stewards, adding their contributions to the warm, friendly ambience of our town. – Carol Child