History & Heritage in the 1800s
Delaware's agricultural industry greatly benefited from improvements in transportation. In 1815, steamboats were common on the Delaware River. In 1829, the Chesapeake and Delaware canal opened, linking the region's two major bodies of water. And in 1832, the launch of the Delaware Railroad eventually linked Wilmington in the north with Delmar in the south by 1859. All of these developments helped farmers to more easily transport their goods to market. Railroads transformed Delaware's rural heritage and contributed to the economic growth of the communities they served.
The Supplee-Wills-Jones milk station at Nassau was built in the 1920s as a rail shipping point for the Lewes-Rehoboth area. Until it was built, producers had no ready market for their milk. They soon established a daily "milk express" to the company's Philadelphia plant.
The peach industry directly profited from the expansion of the railroad system, with new orchards planted as the railroad progressed southward. In 1832, Isaac Reeves had planted the first orchard of "budded" fruit trees in Delaware – a technique of propagation by grafting that ensured that a whole planting produced the same variety. By the 1840s, Major Phillip Reybold from Delaware City had become the "peach king," shipping peaches by sail and steamboat.
Blossom Pie: But the peach market eventually declined. In the 1890s, a mysterious disease called "peach yellows" affected the crop, causing a plunge to 2.4 million trees by 1900 and just over 300,000 by 1920. Fruit production gradually shifted to strawberries and apples.
Canning was also a major industry in Delaware. The Richardson and Robbins Company, established in 1855, was the first cannery on the Delmarva Peninsula. The company, located on Kings Highway in Dover, canned fruits and vegetables, deviled ham, and its specialty, plum pudding. The company was sold to the Underwood Co. in 1959 and closed in 1976. The building now houses the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control.
By 1889, Delaware had 49 canneries spread across its three counties, with fresh locally grown tomatoes, sweet corn, peas, lima beans, and other vegetables canned and shipped by rail all over the country. National canning firms came to the state, attracted by its consistently high-quality vegetables. The Libby, McNeil & Libby Plant in Houston operated for more than 30 years; Stokely Van Camp, Green Giant, Campbell's Soup and Vlasic Foods all have operated plants in Delaware.
John G. Townsend had a major impact on Delaware agriculture. Starting as a railroad telegrapher in 1894, he became involved in timber, shipping, and apple and peach production. He was influential in assisting T. Coleman duPont in acquiring the land and constructing the Sussex County portion of DuPont Boulevard. Well-known throughout Delaware, Townsend was elected Governor in 1916 and U.S. Senator in 1928. Townsend Hall, the main agricultural building at the University of Delaware, is named in his honor.
In 1890, Delaware State University was established in Dover as a land-grant college for African-American students studying agriculture and the mechanical arts. It has grown from a small school into an important, fully accredited university.