Collecting Delaware Books
Packet Alley: A Magic Story of Now and Long Ago by Elisabeth Meg is one of Delaware's most beloved books. Delaware fourth grade school teachers still read to their students from ragged copies of this book published in 1951.
Local book dealers are constantly asked for Packet Alley, often by a woman saying something like, "I loved that book as a child." A fine copy with a dust jacket can sell for up to $170. One with the binding coming apart can still bring $60.
Elisabeth Meg was a pen name for two Delaware women, Elisabeth Wenning Goepp (June 18, 1908 - May 23, 1994) and Margaret Webb Sanders (Dec. 4, 1893 - Feb. 26, 1970). How they came to write Packet Alley and several other books is an interesting story that has not been told before in detail.
The book is the story of twins Cathie and Ted Brandon, who live with their parents and baby brother Josh in present-day old New Castle. Their historian father has been invited to lecture at Oxford for the summer. He plans to take Cathie to England with him but not Ted, because Ted is uninterested in history.
One day the children meet a "little Dutchman" in old-fashioned costume. He loans them a pair of magic eye glasses that enable them to see into the past. Through the next eight chapters, they see New Castle history in the vicinity of Packet Alley during the War of 1812 the great fire of 1824 visits by Lafayette, Andrew Jackson, Louis Napoleon, and Henry Clay encounters with Indians, and the heyday of the New Castle-Frenchtown Railroad.
Returning the glasses to the Dutchman as promised, they find both can still see and enjoy history in the mind's eye. The final denouement comes in a driving rain on the old stone piers in New Castle, where the father discovers the children. Ted demonstrates his new interest in history by showing his father an ancient Dutch clay pipe he found washing up from the mud. He is, of course, invited to join the trip to England.
Margaret Webb Sanders' family was from western Pennsylvania. She loved writing from childhood, calling herself a "scribbler." Thinking that Margaret Webb was too plain a name, she signed her unpublished works as Arlene E. Hamilton. Writing for St. Nicholas magazine was her great (but never realized) ambition. She worked on her high school newspaper and wrote pageants for school and Girl Scouts.
Margaret taught school for one year in Ohio before marrying. She moved with her husband to Wilmington and began to raise a large family. For a while they lived in Union Park Gardens, but moved in 1934 to Shipley Road between Washington and Market.
Elisabeth Wenning Goepp was, it is believed, trained as a ballet dancer. She also took courses in library science at Catholic University of America. She lived with her husband and family at 28 The Strand in New Castle.
The two women met because their husbands (Marshall Thomas Sanders and Dr. Rudolph Maxmilan Goepp, Jr.) worked for Atlas Powder Co. The women learned of their mutual interest in books, writing, and history. Sanders was the avid writer. Goepp loved research.
Goepp saw the historic marker for Packet Alley and went looking for information for her children. Finding none, she proposed writing a book. As Sanders later said, professional authors can just sit down and write a book. As busy wives and mothers, the women had to research and write in bits and pieces in their few moments of spare time.
Sanders said they worked well as a writing team. They planned, argued, wrote, argued again, and rewrote until both were satisfied. When a section was done, it was hard for them to remember who had written which words.
According to Sanders' daughters, Cathie in Packet Alley, was modeled after Goepp's daughter Carla. Carla grew up to be a physician at a Philadelphia hospital. The model for Ted was a boy Margaret Sanders knew from Sunday school. There is no known prototype for the father.
The postman, however, is modeled after "Postman Joe," who served Union Park Gardens for decades. Swarms of children followed him on his rounds and took turns putting mail through the door slots. His name was probably Joe McDermott, and his long career was reported by the News Journal papers upon retirement.
When Packet Alley was done, they tried to interest a publisher. Rejection after rejection followed. In at least one case, the publisher said the mixture of magic and history was not acceptable.
Sanders and Goepp wrote another book while Packet Alley collected rejection slips. It was A Cheese for Lafayette, a much smaller tome. In fact, one of Sanders' daughters, then in her twenties, did a hand-lettered version, complete with attractive watercolors.
However, another daughter, then working for McCall's magazine in New York, told her mother that publishers seldom consider manuscripts unless submitted by a literary agent. She sent a list of agents who sold regularly to McCall's.
An agent sold A Cheese for Lafayette to G.P. Putnam's Sons, who published it in 1950. The publisher had it illustrated in black-and-white by Helen Belkin, though the pictures had nowhere near the charm of the watercolors by Sanders' daughter.
The book was a success, and Putnam's asked for more. Packet Alley was submitted and finally published. It was illustrated by Bruno Frost. His name appears on the dust jacket but not in the book. (The illustration on page 1 of this article is Frost's frontispiece for the book.)
Plenty of Pirates: An Adventure Tale on the Barbary Coast, Putnam's 1953, was the authors' next and last published book together. It was illustrated by Philip Kappel.
This book started out with the working title The Dey's Picnic. As research progressed it became obvious this was not just a pleasant story of an African potentate's outing with his family. The book became an action story about Tripoli pirates and their American captives. The material for A Cheese for Lafayette and Plenty of Pirates came to the authors' attention during the research for Packet Alley.
Sanders worked on at least one other book. Alice Steinlein, the first proprietor of the Greenwood Book Shop in Wilmington, owned a journal kept by her father while a drummer boy in the Civil War. The writers tried to develop this into a book, but it was never submitted for publication. One person who saw the manuscript said it just did not work.
Sanders wrote one book alone, The Year of the Mintie May, published in 1954 by Putnam's and illustrated by Robert Henneberger. It is the story of her own family in western Pennsylvania. All the characters were based on people she knew, however she had to imagine them when they were young. She once said the title was a mistake: everyone thinks Mintie May must be a ship, but it was an oil well.
At the time of her death, Sanders was working on another family book. Her grandfather had once been convinced to join a group of farmers migrating from Clarion County, Pa., to Tennessee. The grandfather even paid the wages of a school teacher to go along, as there were no teachers in the primitive country. Expedition members returned home after two years, because the Tennessee land was fertile but there was no place to market the crops.
Working alone, Goepp wrote The Christmas Mouse, and it was published in 1959 under her maiden name, Elisabeth Wenning, by Henry Holt and Company. Wonderful colored drawings were supplied by Barbara Remington.
Goepp, who had been widowed for some time, remarried. As Elisabeth Wenning Goepp Davidson, she moved to Washington, D.C., and later to the Princeton, N.J. area. She made several return visits to Delaware over the years, including one just before her death.
She was one of three compilers of Children's Literature, A Guide to Reference Sources, issued by the Library of Congress in 1966. Her name appears as both Wenning and Davidson on the catalog card.
Sanders and Goepp frequently attended book signings together. Goepp signed the "Elisabeth" part of the pseudonym, and Sanders signed the "Meg," as Meg is a nickname for Margaret. This signature in two handwritings adds much interest to copies of their books.
Goepp was emphatic about the spelling of her first name: Elisabeth, not Elizabeth. It appears incorrectly in at least one book, and it is frequently misspelled on library catalog cards and in news stories. Delaware Women Remembered, edited by Mary Sam Ward, gives the wrong spelling for Goepp's first name as well as the wrong birth and death dates of Sanders.
A grade school class once asked Sanders if she would agree to be interviewed. Questions were submitted in writing. The interview was recorded on 8-track audio tape. For years, her daughters, who live in the area, had no way of playing the tape. Finally a friend transcribed it to audio cassette.
Much of what we know about the writing team came from this interview. Sanders said writing was like travel and vacation to her. She said writing was hard, easy, and fun. The easy part was characters and dialogue. The hard part was building the plot. It was "like solving a tough jigsaw puzzle."
She advised young writers to keep notebooks to record things they see and hear. She said a writer's notebook "is like a sewing box with useful scraps of cloth or a toolbox with nails and scraps of wood."
Sanders' daughters confirm her love of writing. She wrote poetry all her life but published little or none. She did things like getting her children a library book on making marionettes and then writing a marionette play for the them.
There have been attempts to reprint Packet Alley, but none have been successful. Minor problems with the business arrangements need to be settled. There are even those who say the book is too naive for today's children. However, it is still being used as a supplementary text for teaching Delaware history in the fourth grade. There is no doubt another generation of children will be enriched by the story.