This presentation is part of Are We There Yet? Preservation of Roadside Architecture & Attractions Symposium, Tulsa, Oklahoma, April 10-12, 2018.

Speaker standing at the podium

Kevin Barni

Kevin Barni: Historical markers were not typically thought of as roadside architecture, represent early efforts to highlight roadside places encouraging motorists to explore roadways while learning about local and regional history. This presentation explores three interconnected themes related to the State of Delaware Historical Marker Program.

First, it examines the early history of the program in the context of the Colonial Revival and Americanization Movements. Second, it argues for an approached preserving legacy markers as artifacts of the eras in which they were created. Third, it discusses the maintenance of Roadside Historical Markers. These markers are still educating passerby about historical sites promoting pride and local history, while offering new opportunities to reflect upon how and why we commemorate, a worthy endeavor in today’s political climate.

The establishment of the Delaware Marker Program was situated firmly within the Colonial Revival Movement. The original list of markers compiled by the Delaware Historic Marker Commission in 1929 focused heavily on Delaware’s revolutionary and colonial history. The chosen sites nearer the interests of the state’s elite commission members who were themselves, undoubtedly influenced by nationwide sentiments that emerged during the Colonial Revival era.

Historians attribute the beginning of colonial revivalism to the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition of 1876, which was intended to highlight modern technology while also celebrating the 100th anniversary of American Independence. The Centennial Exhibition fueled an interest in America’s Golden Age ushering in an era of fascination with the nation’s past. The movement was not however, only about commemorating the nation’s history, but was also about legitimizing places and communities through its ties to the past. This newly awakened interest in the Colonial era arose during a time of great and unsettling change in America.

During the last quarter of the 19th century, economic production shifted away from agriculture to industry. The Industrial Revolution sparked the need for more wage laborers, and to fill demand, an influx of Chinese and European immigrants flooded in, in great waves.

R.T.H Halsey, a leading proponent of the Colonial Revival Movement wrote anxiously, “The tremendous changes in character of our nation and the influx of foreign ideas utterly at variance with those held by the men who gave us the Republic, threaten, and unless checked, may shake the foundation of the Republic.” The promoters of the Colonial Revival Movement hoped to regain and retain the quote Real America. By promoting art and architectural styles of the Colonial era and by preserving sites and patriotic stories associated with America’s history, the movement reached its peak in the 1920s.

During this period, genealogical and historical societies also increased significantly in number, linking their families and communities in towns to revolutionary heroes and to colonial past. A movement known as associationism. It is within this climate that the first Historical Marker programs were created in the United States with the state of Virginia leading the charge. The Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities founded in 1889 erected the first statewide Historical Markers in the country. Their goal, reflective of the morals and ideals of the Colonial Revival Movement, promoted and encouraged traditionalist views of Virginia history, celebrating the Colonial past while promoting the traditions of associationism.

The Delaware Marker Program was also a product, even if indirectly, of the related Americanization movement which sought to show immigrants “the spirit of America, the knowledge of America, and a love of America.” In 1918, a group of 80 prominent Delawareans under the leadership of Pierre S. DuPont formed the Service Citizens of Delaware, a group focused on housing and school reform instituting programs that were often targeted to serve the African American community.

The program also offered Americanization classes during the 1920s teaching Eastern and Southern Europeans immigrants “English and the knowledge of their adopted nation.” Historian Paul C. Viola states that “Delaware’s Americanization class was a soft assimilation program,” but its existence clearly reveals prevalent anxiety surrounding growing foreign-born populations. Anxieties that sparked and propelled the Colonial Revival Movement, Americanization programs, and commemorative efforts like Historical Marker Programs. In a small state like Delaware, the same networks of wealthy philanthropists and prominent reformers were behind many of these statewide initiatives.

The Delaware Historical Marker Commission was founded in 1929 after several patriotic societies and citizens began petitioning Governor C. Douglas Buck for a statewide program designed to commemorate and recognize Delaware’s history. Buck’s familial relationship and social connections certainly influenced his civic-minded Marker Program. He married into the influential DuPont family in 1921 when he wed Alice DuPont and his new father-in-law, T. Coleman DuPont was personally responsible for the construction of the first highway to span the entire length of the state, giving Buck the job as chief engineer of that project from 1921 until he was elected governor in 1927. The DuPont Highway created as a private road, constructed and paid for by the DuPont Company, was gifted and dedicated to the citizens of Delaware on July 2nd, 1924.

It’s not surprising that one of Buck’s first gubernatorial commissions centered around the creation of the Historic Marker Program that placed an overwhelming majority of its markers along the newly created DuPont highway. He appointed seven prominent civic-minded Delawareans to staff the Marker Committee, originally called the Historic Spots Commission, and gave them three years to complete a statewide survey of historic places and notable events they deemed worthy of commemoration; after which, they were to write a report with a list of the most important sites in Delaware. His commission worked diligently on their tasks quickly completing the survey of the state’s historic sites and at their second meeting on December 1930, a year after their founding, the commission had established a list of significant locations for historical markers.

Two years after Buck initially formed the commission; the General Assembly of Delaware passed an act authorizing the appointment of the commission to erect historic markers in the state of Delaware. The General Assembly gave the commission only two short years to complete their work. A later addendum mandated that the program was to be disbanded in June 1933.

A pie chart showing the types and percentages of each type recommended for Delaware.

Delaware Marker Commission’s composition of marker types

The commission’s selection of sites highly favored those, which linked places in Delaware to colonial history. Similar to the early days of the Historic Preservation Movement, the Delaware Marker Commission chose to focus the program on heroes of the Revolutionary War. New Castle County, the northernmost and most densely settled county in Delaware contained the majority of the markers. There was a clear brand to the stories established. Remarkably, over one-third of the initial markers in New Castle County, 20 out of 59, mentioned George Washington, a clear attempt to legitimize Delaware’s colonial past while reminding roadside readers of the Anglo-American origins of the nation.

Throughout the state, the landscape presented a narrow scope of content and excluded pieces of history that did not fit within the strict, ideal narrative of the American past. Only three selected sites were significant to Native American history while four sites were dedicated to significant women. None of the first installed markers related to African Americans. This intentional lack of diversity allowed the Marker Commission to create what today would be considered a false historical narrative and context, which they pushed onto motorists.

In his work, The Social Construction of Historical Significance, preservationist Howard L. Green summarizes the issue by stating, “Until comparatively recently, important, was defined in a narrow social and political term and it was uncontroversial. Everyone knew what was important: the homes and other buildings associated with political, military, and business leaders, those who today are sometimes derided as dead white men. Historic usually means important to history, well-known. Historical means associated with things of the past. Simply put, even our label betrays our elitist origins.” The Delaware Marker Commission tapped into the sentiment of the time. The prevailing understanding of historical significance used by the committee is the same one described by Green, inconsistent with the Colonial Revival era.

Colonial Revival Era historical programs, like the Historic Marker Commission, had mostly noble intentions. These commemorative efforts were reaction to turbulent times in our nation and American leaders sought to conjure the nation’s early traditions as a stabilizing cultural force, but also aligning themselves with the past as a way to separate themselves from newly arrived immigrants. However, this need for differentiation and desire to neutralize cultural otherness led to a carefully curated historical landscape adhering closely to where the DuPont highway was now located. In a collection of historic markers that highlighted one heritage and one dimension of history but to the exclusion of many others.

As preservationist John Jaclyn and Keith Shell have pointed out, celebrating the past can produce not a historical awareness so much as a false sense of what might be considered heritage. In others words, heritage speaks not to the past as it was so much, but to the past as people might wish it to have been. Typically such assertions assigned contemporary social or cultural agendas in the name of an imagined past. As L.P. Hartley wrote during another turbulent era, “Heritage activists use the past to find roots to affirm identities, claim legacies, to celebrate collective bonds, and to introduce rivals.”

However, demographics were not the only thing rapidly changing during Delaware in the 1920s. Concurrent with the evolving social and cultural scene in the state was the quickly expanding transportation network. Bolstered by a booming automobile ownership … I’m going to repeat the same statistic that we’ve heard for the last three presentations. By 1930, as the Delaware Historical Marker Programs were being established, there were 23 million cars on U.S. roads. The National Good Road Movement sought to stimulate road improvements through better road construction methods and materials, and to provide local governments with information conducive to improving farm to market travel. Privately financed roads like the monumental DuPont highway, which spanned the entire state of Delaware after 1923, facilitated the first efforts to create comfortable long distance motoring. At the same time, highway associations sought to attract motorists to specific routes that benefited all locations along the highway through the infusion of money from tourists. They marked roads and published maps to aid navigation. So I actually brought a copy of their 1933 tour guide that I’m about to talk about. If you would like to see it, please let me know.

The Delaware Marker Commission seized the moment and produced a small guidebook in 1933 for the newly marked historic sites. The booklet was small enough to use while traveling and included a foldout map and full length inscriptions for all of the markers. The booklet also contained information about monuments and markers erected by other groups prior to the founding of the program. It laid the groundwork for attracting automobile visitors to the state, and within a year of publishing, over 200 handwritten requests for the pamphlet were received.

Roadside signage might also be interpreted as an effort to establish a cultural narrative on a new landscape that lacked a sense of place. Although placelessness, which refers to a location indistinguishable from other places in appearance or character, is often associated with post World War II roadsides. There can be little doubt that the new DuPont highway created a long wide swatch of concrete that blurred a sense of place, especially as automobiles facilitated more rapid movement through the landscape. Historical Marker’s, by slowing down drivers and infusing localities with narrative, provided travelers with a sense of place and heritage. The carefully selected history on the markers not only cultivated a sense of place and relayed a particular narrative, but also legitimized the newly created roadside environment through historic events that were no longer evident on the landscape.

Delaware’s early historical roadside markers are physical and intellectual artifacts of the early 20th century. As an assemblage, they represent a landscape of selective heritage designed by the wealthier class as a way to impose American ideals on the shifting and increasingly placeless national roadside. They sought to legitimize the history of the state through association with what was considered the Golden Age of the nation. This legitimization located just off the roadway ensured that word of mouth or a guidebook would help foster a stronger state and national identity.

How might we evaluate, interpret, and conserve these culturally charged objects 100 years later? The earliest Historical Marker are now, themselves, historically significant. Since they embody a national historic trend at a statewide level. Furthermore, early Historical Markers are among the last vestiges of the earliest roadside architecture that dominated the landscape in the early to mid 20th century in Delaware. So their conservation and curation is an important historic preservation question and one that becomes more pressing with time.

Delaware Historical Markers have had their share of condition issues based on inherent vice of materials used in fabrication. It’s unreal to expect that a marker will remain pristine in perpetuity while outside and only surveyed once a year. Not all the primary component of all the marker’s quickly erodes in the presence of water. Given that there is often no shelter for these objects, little can be done to slow the degradation of these artifacts. Additionally, markers face mechanical threats. Cars and snow piles are often the cause of their untimely demise. To date, the state of Delaware is currently missing 136 or 20% of its total Historical Markers. And additional 202, or 30%, have a condition issue require a repair or restoration. Estimates as of December 2017 show it would cost the state between 325,000 to 500,000 dollars to adequately address all the necessary repairs to the existing catalog markers.

The remaining cast iron markers present an additional challenge as current treatment involves sandblasting to remove rust. With each restoration, more material is lost and it begins to wear away the lettering. This means the more times the marker’s refurbished, the harder it is to read. Therein lies the issue.

What is more important when assessing a Historical Marker? As of now the iron markers are artifacts. They represent the best practice and standards set forth by the initial Marker Commission and as previously discussed, represent ideas and topics deemed most relevant and important during the earliest days in the program. However, the Marker Programs mission is still to honor and commemorate sites and events important to Delaware in the nation’s history. They are in essence informative tweets from the Delaware public archives. Markers, therefore, should be as accurate as possible.

Closeup photo of the metal roadside marker

Original “Captain John Cladwell” marker, c. 1934.
(Delaware Public Archives)

Of the original cast iron markers in Delaware, 101, or 66%, are now considered missing. The vast amount of loss makes preserving the remaining markers all the more worthwhile as they are the actual end product of the Marker Commission and a snapshot of early 20th century commemorative efforts. With this in mind, the Historical Marker Coordinator has to reconcile the preservation of historical artifacts and the material with the advancing scholarship of the topics discussed on the markers. The marker text is dated and reflects the era in which it was written while continuing to stand as the official interpretation of the site by the state program for modern day readers. Staff of the Delaware Markers Program are currently considering whether to replicate the missing markers as they were originally created or to update their text to reflect current scholarship.

In keeping the historic text and replacing the markers, the historic landscape created by the commission is faithfully recreated. New motorists would confront these sites as they were presented in the 1930’s. Yet, without an understanding of early context of these markers, they may be dismissed as relics of an earlier time and the opportunity is lost to interpret the historical formation of the markers and the curated message they present. One solution to this problem might be to create a new guidebook to the historical markers like the one created in 1933 except with an analysis of each marker and it’s site that incorporates modern scholarship and it’s interpretations. In 2001, a new book on markers was published but it includes only marker inscriptions and some new photos.

Reproduction markers if chosen, would contain the same text but would not be the same materials or display the same finish of those initially installed. This has long been a concern from a preservation perspective. Faithful reproduction of the historical signs is now impossible. The Marker Program shuttered during World War II due to lack of iron available for production. By 1945, at the close of the war, citizens were upset that 16 markers were missing and the state archivist, Leon DeValinger, set out to replace them. Upon reaching out to the foundry, DeValinger was dismayed to hear that the marker molts had been sold and in the process were melted down. Any marker produced post 1933 is made from a non-original mold from an entirely different manufacturer with completely different materials. The result, then, is modern science with old narratives.

When an original marker needs to be replaced, it provides a valuable opportunity to update the interpretive text and provide better scholarship. For example, a Delaware marker replaced in 2017 near an area called Coin Beach for the shipwreck of the Faithful Steward, was updated to reflect new information learned over the past 80 years about the shipwreck.

The initial text stated, “Bound from Londonderry, Ireland to Philadelphia with 249 immigrants, the Faithful Steward ran aground on a shoal where she was destroyed by stormy seas with a heavy loss of life.” The revived text reads, “The Faithful Steward, bound from Londonderry, Ireland to Philadelphia, ran aground on a shoal September 1, 1785 with 249 passengers aboard. Stormy weather drove the vessel towards the shore where it became stranded in 4 fathoms (24 feet) of water within 100 yards of the shoreline. Strong winds capsized the ship and 181 passengers, including 93 women and children, perished. Looters soon arrived, carried off trunks of personal cargo, and picked the pockets of the deceased. The ship carried 400 barrels of British copper halfpennies and rose gold guineas. The coins redeposited along the shore after a strong storm, giving rise to the name, Coin Beach.” This is the only marker from the original lot that features updated text. The opportunity retained the historic intention of the marker while providing today’s reader with better historical information.

The selection process for Historical Markers has also changed significantly since the initial program was founded. Now, instead of a committee of social elites choosing the sites, the general public can apply to have sites commemorated. Applicants must ask their state representatives to fund each project. This has led to a more democratized marker landscape but still results in self-selected narratives. Instituted only with the required political backing, yet, to be sure, modern day markers are more diverse in topic and are more inclusive of different histories.

Recently, markers and monuments have shifted from solely uncontroversial mainstream narratives and now sometimes commemorate uncomfortable histories and stories of underrepresented groups. Early in 2016, the program began work on a marker to commemorate a racially motivated bombing in a Wilmington suburb during the late 1950s. While the information presented is unbiased, it still churned up a few long buried feelings. The local paper ran an article on the new marker lauding the program for the inclusion of such divisive topic within living memory. However, not everyone had such an open mind. There were numerous emails and phone calls from people upset over the marker making it clear that many, mostly white residents of the neighborhood, were resentful that the story was being revisited. In that moment, it was clear that historic markers and the information they contain still have an important role in promoting historic awareness and generating productive dialogue.

Yet it also begs the question how the sites, events, and individuals we commemorate during our generation reveal our priorities and prejudices in the next generation. Keeping in mind that nothing is written in stone but markers are cast in metal and will mark the landscape long after we’re gone.

Thank you.

Speaker 1: Who has a question for Kevin?

Speaker 2: Thank you for a fantastic presentation. My question is do you know of other states who are doing similar inventories on their Historical Marker’s and having similar conversations? I know they are in New Mexico.

Kevin Barni: There have been a couple of states when I was the program coordinator who had reached out to ask about inventories and even manufacturers. I’m not sure if they have the same intentions of revamping their catalog or not. But I think it really truly depends on when the program was founded. There are some that are further West that don’t pop up until the 1950s, so their influences are different than earlier programs.

Speaker 2: I don’t want to misspeak because I don’t know all the details of the New Mexico effort, but I can imagine it would be a fantastic conversation for you all. If I recall correctly, they inventoried. This is within the last five years, I think. They inventoried all the markers.

You know, New Mexico has always relied heavily on tourism for its economy. The signs were put up typically in the 1930s. They’re in a position where the markers are wood-frame with metal displaying the messages so they have the opportunity to change them out while still maintaining the historic framework of the marker. But they can update the text to reflect today’s thinking and research. But anyway, I’m sure it would be a fascinating conversation between states to see how each state is handling things.

Speaker 3: Great talk but it makes me wonder. So, do this group of elites who decided to mark the landscape and identify very specific stories to that place, is there a precedent in doing this? Clearly you’ve linked it to the establishment of the road, the automobile, and the opportunity to take advantage of that symbiosis. Is there an earlier tradition of marking sites with text? It just strikes me as very odd thing to do.

Kevin Barni: There were, in Delaware and I’m sure nationally, there were groups that were marking sites. The notable one is the Wilmington Fountain Society and they would go out and put a fountain of drinking water with text inscribed as to why that site was important. You go and drink water and read about the site. In Delaware, there was no one group doing this. So, the commission itself was formed as a way to start unifying these sites and sort of have them all under the same umbrella. But Virginia came first with the statewide marking program. So that is the grandfather of marker programs. That’s where a lot of the precedents come from.

Speaker 4: Do you have a favorite marker?

Kevin:  I actually do. It was the first one I had done when I came on to the job. It had been a problem from the previous marker coordinator and she was, in fact, my boss. She said somebody has been wanting this and I didn’t really know what to say about it. It was bridge over the Brandywine River, which is a really scenic area of Delaware. She was like, he said at some point in time a significant person had to have crossed over this bridge and that’s why it should have a marker. He’s like, it’s just up to you to figure out who crossed this bridge. The answer is we’re not here to mark places where George Washington slept so we’re not gonna do it. We’ll figure something out.

She gave it to me and she said here’s a problem, can you solve it? It’s my first day of work. I recently graduated from school. It is my first day on the job. I said, yeah sure. I get back to her two hours later. When the bridge was constructed, it was the largest open spandrel arch bridge in the nation. So it was the longest actual spandrel arch stretch at the time of its construction. So that was the angle that we went with.


Kevin Barni is a Policy Scientist at the University of Delaware’s Center for Historic Architecture and Design, and the former Delaware Historical Marker Program Coordinator. He received both his B.A. in Art Conservation, 2012, and M.A. in Historic Preservation, 2016, from the University of Delaware. Throughout his career Kevin has explored and documented historic sites throughout the Mid-Atlantic region, and his primary interests include funerary landscapes and architecture, and the communities these sites serve.

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