If you pass through historic “downtown” Milton you will see what looks like a charming country church on the west side of Union Street, catty-corner from the library. Its stain glass-windows and bell tower are a dead giveaway. Except, that this former Methodist church i(built in 1837) isn’t a church at all now.
Welcome to the Milton Historical Society (MHS), a vibrant member of the community serving to preserve the proud industrial legacy and heritage of the town. MHS was founded in 1970, just eight years after the Lewes Historical Society (LHS), which focuses much of its attention on Lewes’ role in the War of 1812. The two Societies are very different but complimentary in their respective approaches to the historical significance of Sussex County.
Milton would not be considered a “beach town” since it is about five miles west of Coastal Highway. Its aura is quite different in many ways, but its role in the history of this region cannot be overstated.
Back in the day, Milton was an industrial town that relied on shipbuilding, button making and canning for locals to make a living. The Milton Historical Society traces the history of the resources that many may not know. About. The main exhibit hall features two centuries of Milton under the theme “boats, buttons, beans, and beer”.
Shipbuilding was BIG! In 1737 the shallop “Broad Kill” was the first of over 200 vessels built in Milton and registered in Philadelphia. By the early 19th century, Milton boasted permanent shipyards where ocean-going sloops and schooners were built.
Button making began in the 1920s and flourished through the late 50’s. Workers in button factories cut out buttons from abalone and mother-of-pearl imported from the Pacific. Button making was also a cottage industry with workers and families making buttons at home and at shops. Many are still found in yards throughout town.
Canning (beans) came to Milton in the 1880s when small canning companies operated in town and in surrounding communities. Some took over sights once operated by shipyards. By the mid-twentieth century the Draper King Cole Cannery was the largest employer in Milton.
Of course, beer means home of Dogfish Head.
May 14,1880 proved to be a fateful day for Milton. The Great Fire, as it is called, burned through nearly the entire town in just four hours. A windstorm helped stoke the flames of the fire that started in the Milton Car Works and consuming 625 buildings. Nearly every church, manufacturer, business, school, and home burned to the ground — about 75 percent of the town.
The true origin of the fire is still unknown, but it did $2 million dollars’ worth of damage (about $50 million in current value.)
Milton has bounced back strongly since then with picturesque eateries and live entertainment at the popular Milton Theater.
Charming Victorian homes give Milton a classic small town look in a relatively rural area. Its ice cream parlor (King´s Ice Cream at Union and Broad Street) is housed in the oldest continuously used commercial building in Sussex County. It is just north of the Society’s Museum that is chock-o-block with historical archives and artifacts from yesteryear, including a special exhibit on Milton local hero Bryan A. Stevens whose writings and law work inspired the movie “Just Mercy”
What could be better during the summer than grabbing a butter pecan or chocolate swirl cone and taking a walk down memory lane.
Milton Historical Society always welcomes inquisitive history buffs. With a small staff of two, it relies heavily on volunteers who fill many roles. Learn more and visit for yourself!
By Mary Jo Tarallo, Guest Journalist
Mary Jo Tarallo spent much of her career in public relations with various non-profits and spent 40 years involved with the ski industry as a journalist, public relations director for a national trade association and as executive director of the Learn to Ski and Snowboard initiative. Prior to her ski industry involvement she worked for the Maryland International Center in Baltimore and United Way of Central Maryland. She won a Gold Award for TV programming for a United Way simulcast that starred Ophrah Winfrey. She has been cited for her work by numerous organizations. Mary Jo grew up in Baltimore, attended the University of Maryland and Towson University, lived in Washington, DC for 21 years and has been a full time resident of Rehoboth Beach and Milton since May 2019.