Collecting Delaware Books
A definitive history has been published for almost every city, town, and unincorporated village in Delaware. From Hockessin in the far north to Fenwick Island at the very south, amateur and professional historians have told their towns' tales. Newport, Smyrna, and Lewes each have several written histories.
However, Delaware's third most populous city, Newark, has largely escaped the historian's attention. Its story is scattered in many books. Perhaps the dichotomy of "town and gown" prevents any one person from being interested enough in the city as a whole to write its story.
The title of Francis A. Cooch's Little Known History of Newark, Delaware and Its Environs (The Press of Kells, Newark, 1936) promises to be that history but disappoints us. Instead, we find a collection of 33 essays on points of interest in and around Newark as well as nearby areas of Maryland and Pennsylvania. However, as reading about bygone days in Delaware, the book is well worthwhile.
Little Known History of Newark … is a compilation of articles that appeared in a weekly paper in the early 20th century. Cooch says in his preface, "In the beginning I had no intention of writing a book. I just wanted to know how 'Corner Ketch' got its name. Then our good friends, the Derickson sisters, told us the story of 'When the Hessians Came to Mill Creek Hundred.'
"These stories seemed too good to keep and I sent them to The Newark Post, which printed them with flattering display.
"Followed then 'The Iron Hill Irish' and, before I knew it, I was embarked upon a sea of research into local history … ," he concludes.
Historian George H. Ryden says in the book's introduction, "The reader will look in vain for extraordinary events in Delaware history in these articles by Mr. Cooch. On the contrary, they deal with the common and homely things of life, which have been too long neglected by competent observers and writers."
Francis Allyn Cooch was born into one of Delaware's oldest families in 1873. His stories resulted, in part, from automobile rambles with his wife, whom he called "Mother of Men," on the dirt roads and byways of northwestern New Castle County during the first third of the 20th century.
The book has a great deal of charm but is not encumbered by historic rigor. Indeed, one gets the idea that Cooch never let lack of corroboration or primary sources stand in the way of a good yarn. However, he pictures a way of life that was soon to disappear in Delaware with the advent of Word War II and the postwar building boom.
Why is it called "Corner Ketch?" At one time, six roads came together within a few hundred yards, giving the area the name "The Corners." A tavern was built for the refreshment and entertainment of stagecoach travelers. It was so popular that people were warned, "Look out! They'll ketch ye at The Corners." The article does include solid information about people living at Corner Ketch and the nearby Union School House.
Cooch's story of the Iron Hill Irish includes a bit of Roman Catholic history. There was no Catholic church in Newark when the Irish immigrants first came. Fasting families trudged the seven miles to Elkton, Maryland, to attend Mass. Later they used a railroad hand car to travel between Newark and Elkton. In 1866, the Catholics bought the property of the Village Presbyterian Church at Main and Chapel Streets in Newark. St. John the Babtist Church was erected in 1883 at a cost of $20,000, quite a sum for immigrants to raise. The church remained attached to the Elkton parish for some time.
The lengthy chapter on Newark's African Americans is patronizing. Despite this, it does give useful information on slaves owned by Cooch's ancestors as well as his family's servants in more recent times. There are also chapters on Newark in the 1880s, the early days of Brandywine Springs, the Glasgow-Summit area, and Cooch genealogy.
Old homes, industries, and taverns are well covered. Many snapshots picture structures that in most cases no longer exist. It would be an interesting project for a modern researcher to catalog buildings described by Cooch and determine if they still stand and, if not, when and why they were demolished.
Little Known History … may not be an organized history of Newark, but it is full of charming tales and historic tidbits. It belongs in any complete Delaware book collection. Copies in nice condition with the dust jacket often sell at over $100. Reading copies are sometimes found for less. And bargains can always turn up in unlikely places. — JPR