This is a free excerpt from my book, Eastern Shore Road Trips #1: 27 One-Day Adventures on Delmarva. More info about that and my other books exploring the history, travel, and culture on the Eastern Shore and in Delaware here.
When Eldridge Reeves Johnson graduated from Dover Academy in 1882, the school’s director gave him some blunt advice: “You are too god damned dumb to go to college. Go and learn a trade.”
Soon thereafter, Johnson landed an apprenticeship at a machine shop. But after a few years of following that schoolmaster’s advice by working for other people, he decided it was time to hang up a shingle of his own. Everything was going pretty much according to plan at the Eldridge R. Johnson Manufacturing Company until the day a customer came in and asked Johnson if he might be able to build a motor for a Gramophone so that the early version of a record player would no longer need to be cranked by hand.
“The little instrument was badly designed,” Johnson would later recall. “It sounded much like a partially educated parrot with a sore throat… But I became interested in it as I had never been interested before in anything.”
Johnson has been dubbed “the Steve Jobs of his era,” and the story of how that day sparked an obsession that put Johnson on the path to launching the Victor Talking Machine Company and revolutionizing the American music industry is the focus of the Johnson Victrola Museum in downtown Dover, which is part of the larger First State Heritage Park in the area around the state capitol complex. It’s the first of three stops in this day trip devoted to Dover museums that tell fun stories about the can-do spirit and get-’er-done resourcefulness of everyday Americans.
‘Put a Sock in It!’
I love idiosyncratic little museums that are well done, and I am happy to report that the Victrola museum is a model of the type. Thanks to a great tour guide and an excellent collection, I was fully engaged from the moment I arrived in the story of how a man “too god damned dumb to go to college” started a company that grew into a national powerhouse and made Johnson into a millionaire many times over.
On the first floor is an outstanding collection of so-called “credenza” models, Victrolas that were disguised to look like highly decorative pieces of furniture. That super knowledgeable guide walked me through the collection one by one, pausing now and again to play a record on the old machines. As a country music guy, I was very excited when he broke out the Jimmie Rodgers. It turns out that in releasing albums by the likes of Rodgers and the Carter Family, the Victor Talking Machine Company basically invented the genre of country music.
And who knew that the phrase “put a sock in it” came from people trying to modulate the volume on their Victrolas by, quite literally, stuffing socks deep inside the horn?
Next up on the tour is a recreation of Johnson’s office. Around the bend after that is a photo array telling the story of the company’s meteoric rise after its founding, in 1901. Upstairs, there are more Victrolas, lots of colorful Victrola horns, and a fun tribute to the company’s famous mascot, Nipper.
Amazingly, admission is free, though by the time my tour ended, I was definitely feeling a need to be rather generous at the donation box. Music fans, take note: The Johnson Victrola museum often creates days dedicated to certain themes—at the time I’m writing this, there are days dedicated to Paul Robeson and Fats Waller on the horizon—so be sure to check the museum’s calendar of special events before visiting.
If you are so inclined, leave time to visit some of the other First State Heritage Park sites—a mix of historic buildings, old courthouses, and legislative chambers. As of this writing, the attractions work together to offer free “First Saturday” tours that are often built around a special theme.
The ‘Candy Bomber’ and More
The second one-of-a-kind museum in this Road Trip is the Air Mobility Command Museum. Don’t be put off by the bulky name or jump to the conclusion that a museum dedicated to military supply-chain logistics will appeal only to super nerds already obsessed with the topic. Actually, this is a place full of incredible stories that will appeal to just about everybody.
The museum is housed in a giant old aircraft hangar on the outskirts of the Dover Air Force Base. When you pull up and park, you might well be greeted by fun World War 2 era big band tunes. Inside, you’ll spend your time bouncing from one of those cool stories to the next to the one after that.
In an exhibit dedicated to the Berlin Airlift, there is the story of Lt. Gail Halvorsen, whose method of delivering treats for the children of Berlin earned him the nickname, The Candy Bomber. Over in the section on air refueling, there is the story of wing-walking daredevil Wesley May, who on Nov. 21, 1921 walked out on the wing of one airplane and then crossed over to the wing of another with a five-gallon jug of gas strapped to his back. Yes, both planes were flying at the time. It was the first-ever in-flight refueling success in the history of aviation.
The stories just keep on coming. I walked up to the Clark CA-1 Airborne Tractor wondering how such a humble-looking piece of equipment—it’s not much bigger than a modern lawn tractor—earned such a prominent display space. I stopped wondering when I read on a display panel about how during World War II a construction team armed with these multi-faceted workhorses was secretly flown in by glider behind enemy lines in Burma. It took that team all of one day to build a 5,000-foot-long runway in a jungle clearing.
Quite a few friendly volunteers were hanging around on the day I visited, most of them knowledgeable ex-military types happy to field questions and tell old stories. The airpark outside the hangar is amazing, too, especially at the moment when you find yourself standing under the gargantuan C-5 Galaxy, the biggest and baddest cargo plane in the history of the world. It stands six stories tall. If it were turned up on its back end, it would rise up to 24 stories. From wingtip to wingtip, it is wider than the White House.
The best day to go to the Air Mobility Command Museum is on the monthly Open Aircraft Day, when you can climb into the interiors of a bunch of planes, including the C-5 Galaxy. As of this writing, Open Aircraft Day is held on the Third Saturday of warmer months. Be sure to call ahead to confirm that this is still the schedule, however.
One last note about this stop: The museum also features a sweet little memorial to people killed in the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. It incorporates two pieces of steel from the World Trade Center, a rock from the United Airlines Flight 93 crash site, and a block from the damaged portion of the Pentagon. Please be sure to leave some extra time to stop by here and pay your respects.
Farmland Memories Come Alive
The third and final stop in this American ingenuity tour focuses on rural and small-town life in times gone by. Inside, the Delaware Agriculture Museum and Village has a mix of traditional exhibits and vintage farm equipment. It’s the kind of place that mounts an old crop dusting Stearman biplane up on the ceiling and proudly displays a collection of baseball caps bearing the logos of old seed, chemical, and equipment companies.
Keep your eye out for a special exhibit dedicated to the folk artist Jehu F. Camper—it features more than 40 scenes of farm and village life all crafted by a master whittler. (There is more about on Mr. Camper in the endnote to this Road Trip that appears only in the book.) Kids will enjoy feeding animals in the little petting zoo outside, where the star attraction in the warmer months is a mini-pot-belly pig named Lulu.
Actually, that outside area is where the real action at this little museum is. Here, you will see that the people who put this museum together are all about the work of saving and restoring old buildings. What they have done over the years is rescue one endangered structure after another from obscure corners of Delaware, moving them all here to be laid out as a replica small town from the turn of the 20th century.
The 1864 train station came from Woodside. The postcard-pretty St. Thomas Church (1857) used to be in the countryside south of Georgetown. The itty-bitty barbershop building (1900) came from Magnolia, where barber Harry Gourley charged 9 cents for a kid’s haircut if the kid sat still and 10 cents if the kid wiggled. There is a general store, a one-room schoolhouse, a blacksmith’s shop, and much more of interest, including quite unusual specimens of three and four-seat privies.
I don’t know what it is about Dover that seems to draw in folks who are hell-bent on building these interesting little one-of-a-kind museums. Whatever that secret might be, I sure hope Dover keeps it up as the 21st century progresses.
One last note here: If and when your stomach starts growling during these museum visits, you will find lots of decent chain restaurants out on the busy Dupont Highway. Dover is a big enough town to support an extra bit of ethnic variety in its dining options, too, so you should be able to find Indian, Korean, sushi, and more. The historic downtown area along Loockerman Street is roughly in the neighborhood of our first stop, the First State Heritage Park. If you’re in the mood for a pretty stroll along a winding waterway, find your way to Silver Lake Park.
Kent County (Del.) Tourism
The Johnson Victrola Museum
Location: 375 South New Street, Dover, Del. 19904
The Air Mobility Command Museum
Location: 1301 Heritage Road, Dover, Del. 19902
Delaware Agricultural Museum and Village
Location: 866 North Dupont Highway, Dover, Del. 19901
Nearby Road Trips in the Book
Going Green in Caroline (#8)
Delaware Bay Beach Safari (#25)
Excerpt from Eastern Shore Road Trips #1: 27 One-Day Adventures on Delmarva posted by Claudia Colaprete on August 3, 2022 for Whimbrel Creations LLC/Secrets of the Eastern Shore. All rights reserved. Thank you so much for spending a little time with this story and on this site!