Category Archives: Books

Journal of the Rev. John Milton Purner, January – May 1860

Some time ago I came across this video about the history and restoration of Bethesda Methodist Episcopal Church, located on Wootten Road between Laurel and Gumboro, and was intrigued by the reference to the journal of a minister who preached there. Bethesda is special to me for a number of reasons: It is the closest church to my home, though it has never been open during my lifetime; as kids, my brother and I often rode our bikes to the church and poked around in the cemetery and fellowship hall; and later this year, I’ll be getting married in the church.

Hoping to learn more about Bethesda and its congregation, I searched and found that the journal in question is that of Rev. John M. Purner, and that it is in the possession of Barratt’s Chapel & Museum of Methodism in Frederica. I was delighted to learn that the museum has transcribed copies of the journal for sale for a mere $5, and stopped by during regular hours yesterday afternoon.

The journal was transcribed and edited by Barbara Duffin and Philip Lawton for The Commission on Archives and History of the Peninsula-Delaware Conference of the United Methodist Church in 2004, and opens with a two-page biography of Purner. Born in Cecil County in 1833, he was assigned to the Laurel circuit in 1859 as a Junior Preacher, and subsequently served several circuits on the peninsula before suffering a tragically early death in 1867. His journal covers the period between January and May of 1860, and consists of short, fragmented, poorly spelled entries, mostly covering the churches he preached at, his text, and the local families who welcomed him into their homes for meals and lodging. Without a home of his own, he stayed with a different family every single night.

The entry for Sunday, January 22, 1860, is typical:

St. Thomas, preach Eph. 3 ch 18 – 19 v  plenty of words but no liberty ~  small congregation ~ burbing [?] Ish 40 ch 8 v ~ midling time large congration   supper at Sister Danson ~ with Mr. Rusell the Bible Agent go Concord hear Chaplin tex “The Son of man goeth” very good sermon take sacrated good time, it had been 18 months since I had taken it before. return home with Sister Danson Mr. Rusel stay all Night

Purner preached at many local churches, including Jones, Bethesda, Hepburn (now King’s), St. Thomas, Old Zion (colored), and Sailor’s Bethel.

Several familiar names from the Bethesda neighborhood appear. For example, he spent the nights of January 29th and 30th with Hezekiah Matthews, then spent the following day with Matthews “wrighting out a sermon for Conf” (Conference).

Reading between the lines, one wonders at the amount of attention Purner seems to have received from young women, and how it might have affected him, a young man in his late twenties. Consider the entry from January 18th:

Leave for Br E. Hitches take dinner Miss Collins their visiting spend it after noon in righting ~ spend in eving ‘th the girles vey plesently ~ a day of dark temptation from the Devil.. Spend the even studing Watson~

A number of other entries mention visits from single women, often in groups of two or three — or more, as was the case on February 14th:

Studing Watson ~&c interrupted with visiters Miss E. Cannon, Miss E. Gordy Miss Mary Mathews, Mar Cannon Magge Collens, Kati Collens poor chance to study without a home ~ go to class good tim Reeceve a letter from Sister Marria heare of Rebecca illness ~~ all Night at Cap Lewes the girlle stay all Night to dark to go home.

Though Purner’s brief notes probably contain little of interest to those who aren’t familiar with the churches he preached at or the families he stayed with, they nonetheless offer a rare glimpse into the daily life of a young Methodist circuit rider in the Laurel area and the people who inhabited that life. The fact that he was only here for about a year, and died only seven years later at age 34, makes his journal all the more precious.

– Chris Slavens

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Historic Movie Theaters of Delaware

Grab some popcorn, silence your cell phone, and enjoy the show.

In Historic Movie Theaters of Delaware, published by the History Press, film buff and writer Michael J. Nazarewycz invites readers to take a deep dive into the history of 150 movie theaters in the First State, from the Middletown Opera House—where attendees enjoyed viewing still photographs projected via Sciopticon in the early 1870s—to the multiplex cinemas of today. This is a cleverly cinema-themed book, with punny section titles including Opening Credits, Closing Credits, Fade In, Fade Out, and Moving Pictures, all referring to the life and times of various theaters. Rather than trace the history of individual theaters from beginning to end, Nazarewycz tackles the statewide scene in chronological order, one era at a time. Thus we learn in “Take” or chapter four that T. J. Waller built the first Waller Theatre in Laurel in 1913, but its disastrous burning in 1940 and subsequent replacement are mentioned three chapters later. The Waller (or New Waller) closed permanently after its ceiling collapsed in 1967.

Of the 150 theaters covered, only 22 are open today, a mere “14 of which are full-time movie theaters,” making Historic Movie Theaters of Delaware a valuable and important history of a vanishing part of Delaware’s past.

The Laurel Historical Society welcomes Michael J. Nazarewycz to St. Philip’s Episcopal Church on Saturday, March 16th, for a film-themed dinner, presentation, and book signing.

– Chris Slavens

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Book Review: ‘Delaware Beer: The Story of Brewing in the First State’

In 2014, local author and journalist Tony Russo explored the history of brewing on Maryland’s Eastern Shore in Eastern Shore Beer: The Heady History of Chesapeake Brewing. Now he’s back with what is not so much a sequel as a companion volume, Delaware Beer: The Story of Brewing in the First State, published by the History Press.

Outsiders might expect such a book to be all about Dogfish Head, the state’s largest and best-known brewery and the thirteenth largest craft brewery in the nation. But Delaware Beer is, instead, the story of brewing in Delaware, and Dogfish Head is only one (important!) part of that story.

Russo covers the colonial era in a few pages, briefly summarizing the activities of the Dutch and the Swedes along the Delaware River, and referring interested readers to the more in-depth Delaware Brewing by John Medkeff, Jr. Readers might chuckle over the written request of Johan Classon Risingh, governor of New Sweden, for a wife who could make malt and brew ale, in addition to keeping up with other chores. The first chapter covers the 19th and early 20th centuries as well, when there was far more homebrewing and cidermaking going on than commercial brewing, although Delaware’s very own Diamond State Brewery, located in Wilmington, had its roots in the Nebeker brewery founded in 1859, and produced beer of one kind or another (including so-called “near beer” during the Prohibition era) until it closed in 1955.Delaware Beer by Tony Russo

Delaware Beer – at least the part of the story that most readers are probably most interested in – begins in earnest with the founding of Dogfish Head and Stewart’s Brewing Company in 1995. Russo credits their founders, Sam Calagione and Al Stewart, respectively, with setting “the standard for the way beer would be done in Delaware right from the start.” By focusing on quality rather than quantity, and growing sustainably, both survived the craft beer bust of the late 90’s. In addition to crafting innovative beers, Calagione crafted legislation that chipped away at the remnants of Prohibition, and arguably paved the way for the numerous breweries that have sprung up during the last two decades, not only in Delaware, but throughout the nation.

Following a rather extensive examination of Dogfish Head and Stewart’s, focusing particularly on their roles as pioneers in Delaware craft brewing, Russo takes readers on a tour of the breweries currently operating throughout the state, most of which opened during the last decade. Iron Hill, Fordham and Dominion, Blue Earl, 16 Mile, 3rd Wave, Mispillion and others – all have unique stories, as well as unique strategies for succeeding in an increasingly crowded market. However, these stories are presented as parts of a greater story; the individual breweries are not so much separate subjects as they are characters interacting in a plot that continues to unfold.

Delaware Beer is an entertaining, informative read for craft beer fans, but it’s also an important chronicle of an emerging industry. It offers a rare look into the inner workings of numerous competitors (which, admirably, seem to regard themselves more as independent partners) as they evolve from shaky start-ups into stable, young companies. Whatever the future may hold for craft beer – whether the boom gives way to another bust, or the existing breweries continue to prosper – Tony Russo has performed a vital, valuable task in documenting the local movement’s early years.

– Chris Slavens

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Additions to the bookshelf, and a shout-out

A few days ago I received a surprise gift from my brother: Copies of A Brief Account of the Indians of Delaware by C. A. Weslager, and History of Lewes, Delaware, and Vicinity by Virginia Cullen, which he stumbled upon in an upstate antique shop.

The former is a 31-page pamphlet published for younger readers in 1953, but this is no vague, babyish text about wigwams. Even two decades after his death, Weslager remains the authority on the original Delawareans, and this early work not only paints a picture of their daily lives, but includes specifics about different tribes, including the locations of some of their villages.

A Brief Account of the Indians of Delaware, Weslager

The book about Lewes is a bit longer, 78 pages, and was published by the Daughters of the American Revolution in 1956. The format reminds me of another local history book, Folklore of Sussex County, Delaware by Dorothy Pepper, with sections of a few paragraphs or less featuring a particular era, individual, landmark, etc. The book includes local folklore, and concludes with a guided tour of the community with information about numerous historic buildings.

History of Lewes, Delaware, and Vicinity

Both are the sorts of books that one typically finds in noncirculating collections in local libraries. Many of Weslager’s books, in particular, can be very difficult to find, and are treasured by collectors.

While I’m at it, I’d like to give a brief shout-out to Mitsawokett, probably the best online source of information about Native Americans in Delaware from prehistoric times through the present. The site features information ranging from casual speculation to authoritative primary sources, and links to numerous other sites of interest. Someone recently added a couple of my articles about the Nanticoke Indians, causing Mitsawokett to become the top referrer of visitors to this blog (discounting search engines and social media), which I greatly appreciate.

– Chris Slavens

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Filed under Books, Delaware, Delaware history, Sussex County