We’ve all met someone like Joe Taylor. He’s that old guy who wanders the streets. He’s poor, but he’s not homeless, and he’s not begging. He just loves to talk with other people. He’s always on the lookout for a mark who might listen. He’s convinced that his life story is fascinating. He believes deep down that his memories make for spellbinding conversation.
Make eye contact with that guy, or simply nod hello as you pass, and chances are you’ll soon find yourself 20 minutes deep into a conversation full of twists and turns that you don’t understand.
Here’s the thing, though: Joe Taylor was absolutely right to think his life was fascinating.
Back in the 1950s Joe used to pull his act in and around the offices of the Wilmington News Journal. He would even approach reporters, begging them to write up his story for posterity. They ignored him. Or, at least they ignored him until Christmas Eve of 1955. That’s when journalist William J. Schmidt decided to publish a story giving Joe Taylor his 15 minutes of fame. Here is the story he wrote:
Headline: Here’s a Christmas Present For Joe Taylor, Who Is 98
Hard Newsroom Hearts Finally Relent,
Give Him Chance to Tell About His Lifetime in Delaware City Area
This Is a Christmas present for Joe Taylor. It’s a birthday present, too. because Joe was 98 yesterday.
For the past few years Joe Taylor has been a steady visitor in the newsroom of the Journal. He always comes armed with an old candy box filled with papers, clippings souvenirs, plus a never-ending line of stories.
Joe thought his story was good enough to rate some space in the newspaper—and maybe it was—but he didn’t reckon with hard-hearted editors and reporters. There was always a legitimate excuse for not putting Joe’s picture and story in the newspaper. There just wasn’t any space; all the reporters were busy on other stories; the picture wasn’t clear enough to reproduce.
But Joe kept coming back, each time with more papers and clippings in his box and a new batch of stories. And even editors and reporters can’t be hardhearted all the time.
Story of His Life
So happy birthday and Merry Christmas, Joe This is the story of your life as you told it to us.
“‘Yessir,” said Joe Taylor with a broad grin that showed the couple of upper teeth he has left, “I was born in Delaware City on the twenty-third of December in eighteen hundred and fifty-seven. It was right near where the bridge goes over the old canal, only there weren’t no canal then.
“Do I recollect when they dug that canal? Why, I should say I do. That I do. I can recollect sittin’ and talkin’ and playin’ games with Gene Armstrong. It was him that drove the first team of mules on the canal, pulling through the log rafts and the freight boats that was on their ways to Baltimore.
“Yessir, you sure are right. I was born in slavery times. But I don’t recollect much about that. I do know my daddy went away to the Civil War, though. But as far as I can remember we were always free Negroes.
No Regular School
“Schooling? Oh, yes, that I did. I kin read some and write some. But, mark this, it weren’t so easy in them days as it is now. We colored folks didn’t have no regular school. We went to school in a private house and paid a dollar a week for the teacher.
“First school we ever had in Delaware City, I helped raise the money to buy the land and put up the building. That was years before Mr. duPont put up the fine school we have now.
“Oh, I worked some, too, when I was a young fellow. I did farm work for Mr. Reybold. He paid me 50 cents a day. And for a while I worked for a Mr. Clark who had a peg leg. He just give me my room and board and clothes, but that was all I asked for. It was good pay for a young fellow.
“And then I sold newspapers. These here very papers you work for I sold in Delaware City. And when I was selling papers, I used to sleep in the railroad roundhouse where it was good and warm. And I’d make me extra money by helping load wood on the engines.
“Wood, that’s what I said. Wood. The engines in those days didn’t burn coal or run on ‘lectricity.
“No, I didn’t work all the time in my life. I had a lot of fun when I was a young man. I used to go sturgeon fishing out in the river down off Reedy Island. Ummm … they ain’t no fishin’ like that no more. I can remember how we used to catch sturgeon so big we’d have to call on a feller in the next boat to help us pull it in. They’d have 10 buckets of roe in them. …
“But that was all a long time ago. … Then you could walk over to Pea Patch Island at low water. And I recall the first time anybody ever took me to Penns Grove. They was two houses there, I believe.
Christmas on Farm
“Christmas? Oh, that was really sump’n in those days. When you worked on the farms they had you a big dinner. Maybe turkey and ham and just everything. You could eat all day they was so much.
“And folks would like as not slip me a dollar if I was workin’ for ‘em steady and leave me off to go in town. And when I was selling papers, folks would give me an extra penny at Christmastime, and treats, and maybe some good warm clothes.
“Ain’t it still like that? Well no, not ‘zactly. These young folks, they ain’t what they used to be. Some of ‘em will almost walk right over an old man on the street.
“And then you see, most all my family is gone and friends, too. If it wasn’t for that good lady in Delaware City who looks after me, I wouldn’t ever have a place to live.
“They’s only a few people in this world who cares about others. Most just cares about themselves. When I gets to thinking about the old times, this could be the worstest Christmas I ever had.”
There’s our birthday and Christmas present to you, Joe Taylor, the story you always wanted to get “put in the paper.” Maybe this won’t be the worstest Christmas. Maybe there are still some folks who care about others. Don’t you think so, Joe?
That’s where Mr. Schmidt’s story ends. Three years later, in 1958, the Morning News of Wilmington did another story about Joe Taylor, this one on the occasion of him being 100 years old. Here are a few tidbits about Joe’s life from that story:
- His parents were Les and Charlotte Taylor.
- Joe was a veteran of Spanish American War.
- Joe was involved in construction work at Fort Delaware. He recalls carrying water for hundreds of soldiers throwing up “batteries” and “huge hills” or earthworks to the north end of Pea Patch Island, site of the fort.
- He worked for many years on the “James Clark farm.”
- He remembered when Delaware City finally took down the whipping post where so many slaves had endured public floggings.
- His uncle, whom he calls “Rev. Brown,” “built a big church on French Street” in Delaware City. I couldn’t find any information about this. If some history buff over that way understands the reference, please feel free to share that info below in the comments.
- Joe moved to Wilmington about the time “Colonel Reybold’s cows got the anthrax.” That might have been 1892, when, according to the Wilmington Morning News:
The fatal disease of anthrax has attacked cows in the vicinity of Delaware City and Reybold. In three weeks about thirty cows have died and two horses which were affected have also died. [Once local physicians figured out what was killing the animals, they] ordered that all the buried carcasses of cows be dug up and burned.”
- In Wilmington, Joe worked as an ash collector, a builder, and for a local bakery.
- When Joe arrived in Wilmington, “the only lights were candle, oil lamps, and gas.”
- Asked about his philosophy of life, Joe summed up everything he had learned in life this way:
Everybody should read the Bible and do what it says.
–Posted by Jim Duffy for Secrets of the Eastern Shore/Whimbrel Creations on Dec. 19, 2021. All rights reserved.
NOTE #1: THE CANAL
The Chesapeake and Delaware Canal opened in 1829, nearly 30 years before Joe Taylor was born. But the original canal didn’t follow the route we know today—it ran straight through the heart of Delaware City. It was much shallower back then, and tow lines were often needed to drag boats through the waterway.
That first incarnation of the canal is what Taylor is referring to when he talks about meeting Gene Armstrong and hearing stories about how Armstrong had operated the old tow line. Armstrong would have been an old man by the time young Joe met him.
When the canal was widened and deepened in the 1920s, the route was changed to bypass downtown Delaware City and meet the Delaware River a little way south of town. That is what Joe is referring to when he says “there weren’t no canal there” when he was born. His birthplace was nearby the revised route that got dug and opened much later, not the original one.
NOTE #2: SCHOOL DAYS
I do not know when the first full-fledged school for black children opened in Delaware City, but I can say that by the 1920s it was in dreadful shape. That’s when philanthropist Pierre duPont set out to reform and improve education facilities for blacks across all of Delaware. This paragraph from the book African American Education in Delaware by Bradley Skelcher describes what duPont’s advance survey team found while trying to decide which towns needed new schools:
The school at Delaware City particularly caught the attention of the survey team. Because of its poor condition, they concluded: “There can be little hope for the education or Americanization of children that are required to secure their education under conditions such as are found in this building.” The school was located in a marsh that was about thirty feet from a canal. At the time of the survey, members of the team reported that, “Upon no part of the school ground … was it possible to walk without wading through water and mud.” They also noted that two new toilet outhouses had been recently “struck down in the mud alongside the edge of the marsh.”
NOTE #3: THE REYBOLD FARM
In referring to the Reybold farm, Joe is talking about a very famous piece of land near Delaware City. The most famous of the Reybolds had passed away by the time Joe was born, but here is the summary from my second book of Eastern Shore Road Trips about how that operation became so famous:
Those wharves [in Delaware City] were often busy as all get out, thanks to an up-by-the-bootstraps entrepreneur named Philip Reybold. The son of a Philadelphia butcher, Reybold was orphaned at the age of 10 and somehow found his way to Delaware as a young man. He bought a farm, but it went belly up. Not one to give up easily, he rented the same farm back from its new owners and made the finances work the second time around by raising livestock and manufacturing castor oil out of beans.
Reybold’s fortunes headed into the stratosphere after he got involved with the C&D Canal. He made a lot of money supplying meat and bread to those 2,600 construction workers. Then he set about buying one little farm after another in the countryside around town. He recharged the tired soils on those farms by covering the fields with “marl,” a rich fertilizing mix chock full of old shells.
Where did that marl come from? It was in the dirt dug up by canal workers.
Somewhere in here, Reybold started experimenting with peach trees. By 1845, that experiment had grown into an array of orchards filled with more than 100,000 trees—his operation helped launch an agricultural boom that spread across the whole state. On the Delaware City wharf in those days, peach baskets were “stacked three tiers high and a hundred yards long to be loaded on three steamboats at one time.” By the time Reybold died in 1854, he was known far and wide as “The Peach King.” (Alas, the boom he launched went bust starting in the late 1800s, thanks to a devastating and contagious peach-tree disease.)
NOTE #4: A REMARKABLY UGLY FISH
If you are curious about the old sturgeon fishery on the Delaware River, here is an excerpt from that same book on that topic.
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