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First State National Monument Shines A Light On The Nation's Origins

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The Newcastle Court House where the monument's headquarters is located. NPS photo.

Whether due to oversight, a lack of political expediency, or inadvertent shunning, the country's first state was last in landing a unit of the National Park System within its borders.

And now, though First State National Monument is open for business and shining a light on the country's origins, it continues to struggle. Oh, Eastern National was quick to ensure Delaware's first national park opened with its own Passport stamp, and the monument's three legs -- Woodlawn, Dover Green, and the New Castle Courthouse -- are open for your exploration. But for now there's just one man on the staff, a website, and a hole where there should be a budget to run the park.

"Bruce Sheaffer, the (National Park Service's) comptroller, apparently said there will be no money for First State this year. So, last year, last fiscal year, I was still being paid by Fredericksburg," says Russ Smith, who ran Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park in Virginia until Delaware got its park. "And this year the (Park Service's Northeast) region is just going to have to find the money somewhere just to pay me. There was something in the budget, the president’s budget, that would just cover me and paperclips. But of course without a budget, with the Continuing Resolution, there’s no budget for First State."

Outwardly, that doesn't seem to bother Superintendent Smith, who grew up in Newcastle and was first in line for the superintendency when the monument was established via presidential proclamation.

“Since I’m from here, I’ve been waiting a long time for a park to be established here, and given up hope. Then one Friday my phone rang down at Fredericksburg and Tuesday I was shaking hands with (Vice President) Joe Biden at the dedication," the superintendent explained during a recent phone conversation.

"So, it’s something I really wanted to do. Fredericksburg, in 10 years we made some really good progress there. It was probably time for somebody else to have a chance. So, I thought this would be a good opportunity to get this up and running.”

But that is proving easier said than done.

"I’ve always been a Delaware history nerd, and this is a new, big challenge. I’ve been doing well, although we don’t have a budget, and we’re just trying to get by and trying to keep the Woodlawn property open," says Superintendent Smith. "So far that’s been done with donations. The current donation runs out December 31, so we’ve got some of our friends hustling around, seeing if they can get some more money. So it is an issue, but we’re in operation, and we’re official. We have the Eastern National Passport stamp. That was the big question, Kurt. As soon as I got the job and they gave me a new phone, it started ringing about the Passport stamps. It’s a good program, it brings people to the parks.”

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The rolling hills of Woodlanw and the Granogue mansion off in th distance. NPS photo.

Superintendent Smith isn't exactly starting from scratch in building this park. A foundation, the Woodlawn Trustees, had been managing the Woodlawn property in the northern tip of the state until a way to transfer it to the Park Service could be arranged. Originally acquired by William Penn from the Duke of York in 1682, the 1,100-acre Woodlawn property lies on the banks of the Brandywine River, primarily in Delaware but extending north into Pennsylvania. Nearby, in 1777, General George Washington’s troops defended against British forces in the largest battle of the American Revolution. Since then, the Brandywine Valley’s natural beauty has inspired generations of artists, including acclaimed painter Andrew Wyeth.

Today, though, rapid development is squeezing the pristine open spaces that remain. Thanks to an unprecedented private contribution in excess of $20 million by Mt. Cuba Center, The Conservation Fund was able to preserve the Woodlawn property and champion its inclusion in the National Park System as a national monument or park.

For more than a century, the land has been managed as a wildlife preserve and open space for public recreation. With Mt. Cuba’s foresight and commitment of resources, the Fund was able to donate the property to the Park Service, making its designation as a national monument possible. Located within 25 miles of more than five million people, the national monument at the Woodlawn property is expected to preserve the beautiful natural landscapes and historical character of one of the nation’s founding rivers.

The Woodlawn property straddles the historic demarcation line known as the “12-mile arc,” which established the boundary between New Castle County, Delaware, and Delaware County, Pennsylvania, in the 17th century.

As generous as the donation of the Woodlawn property to the Park Service was, without funding to properly operate the national monument the property will suffer.

"There’s no staff there now, and there needs to be some kind of maintenance and security there even if it’s not fully operational, so we can’t just walk away from it," Superintendent Smith says. “We’ll do what we can, but we really need to do something there.

"It’s going to be very embarrassing if the Woodlawn Trustees, who owned it, walk away, and we walk away. Who’s responsible? There are a lot of people who use the property for picnicking, hiking, dirt biking, just a lot of things, and that will be problematic if we just let it go.”

Operations are not quite so problematic at Dover Green or the Newcastle Court House, even if the websites describing the locations are run by the state of Delaware at this point, not the National Park Service.

It was at Dover Green where Delaware's Legislature became the first in the fledgling country to ratify the U.S. Constitution. Though the Golden Fleece Tavern where that vote occurred is gone, the Green remains for public gatherings. The Court House, where Delaware voted to break away from both Pennsylvania and Great Britain to create an independent state, currently houses Superintendent Smith's office.

"I’m here in Newcastle, which was the colonial capital, and the Newcastle Court House is part of the park and the Green here, and also the Sheriff’s House, which is the only piece we own here," he explains. "It’s (the Sheriff's House) been restored on the exterior by the state, but the interior needs over a million dollars worth of work.

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The Green at Dover continues to be a gathering place, in this case for a market fair. NPS photo.

“So, that’ll eventually be the headquarters and museum. Not much thought had gone into where staff was going to go when they started planning a national monument, so for the summer I was sharing an office with the mayor of Newcastle," he goes on.

"Then finally a group moved out of the west wing of the courthouse, and I was finally able to persuade the state to move over here, and got a little end-of-year money from other parks, and bought some furniture, so we’re up and running. I even finally have a land-line phone. I was using a cellphone for the last four months or so. So it’s progress.”

Joy Oakes, senior director of the National Parks Conservation Association's Mid-Atlantic Region, sympathizes with Superintendent Smith, in no small part because she has watched Fort Monroe National Monument in Virginia struggle with limited funding and staff.

"How long has it been since Congress actually passed a budget rather than a Continuing Resolution? First State has been caught in the congressional dysfunction with the result being that the Park Service, which has no extra money, is having to take money from here and there and the other place to cobble together a budget to get the park started," says Ms. Oakes. "It’s a challenge when you have a national park and all those national park expectations and you don’t have any money."

At the Delaware Nature Society, Brenna Goggin is optimistic the monument will be OK in the long run.

“The (national) parks have a history of either being created and not funding, or being created and being funded at the bear mininmum, which means they pay for a person and not the actual upkeep of the park, and yet we still have beautiful parks that have been preserved for generations," she says. "This is actually a quite low maintenance park. From that standpoint, I think, yes, the National Park Service can afford it.

"I think with the excpetion of the Woodllanw property, the state and private interests that were coordinating and overseeing the myriad pieces of the national monument were doing an adqueate job and probably could continue doing it," continues Ms. Goggin. "I don’t think they were getting the amount of visitation that now comes along with it being included in the National Park Passport and the National Park Service website, and so it adds a whole nother dimnesion to it."

With the funding woes hanging over the superintendent's head, and the state of Delaware's long involvement with the three properties, it's not unusual to wonder whether the Park Service really needed this addition to the system. It's a question that Superintendent Smith quickly puts to rest.

“I think it’s the recognition factor (of a key part of the country's founding), and the recognition that it’s not all about Jamestown and Plymouth Rock. There were 13 different traditions established in the 1600s that came together in 1776. The designation helps shine a light on that story," says the superintendent. "The way this place differs from other places is the diversity of the settlement. You had Dutch, Swedes, Finns, then the English, the Germans.

"The Netherlands were sort of the melting pot of Europe, you had the Germans there, the French, the Belgians, and all these people were here in the Delaware Valley in the 1600s, so you had that diversity, and you also had a tradition of tolerance," he goes on. "As I tell people, while Virginia was jailing Baptists and New England was burning Quakers, there was freedom of religion on the Delaware River even before William Penn arrived. There’s this misconception that the English were the only ones who had any kind of representative government, and so that’s where we got it. Well, the Netherlands were a Republic. The Swedes were not an absolute monarchy, so there was a tradition of self-determination as well.

“...The whole First State story, the reason Delaware was the first state, was they fully, freely, consented to the Constitution because of the Senate. They won their argument that each state in one of the Houses had equal representation," he adds.

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The Brandywine River flows past part of the national monument. NPS photo.

"I’m sure Rhode Island and other small states argued for the same thing, but that was the big issue and that was the reason Delaware was so quick to confirm the Constitution.”

With that story, a rich and somewhat complicated one, to tell, it's perhaps fortunate that Superintendent Smith has three years to pull together a management plan for First State National Monument. Work on that will kick off in January with creation of a "foundation" document for the monument. From there the superintendent will be lobbying the Park Service's Washington office for funding to address the interior of the Sheriff's House and other development in the monument.

Partnerships outside the Park Service likely will be counted on to help bootstrap First State National Monument, says Ms. Oakes.

"They do have some existing partnerships. A number of these sites, like the Delaware Green and some other sites that were pulled together to create First State, already had a lot of community interest and a lot of community support," she says. "I know Russ is leaning pretty hard on that existing interest as he waits to get some money.”

As more and more visitors come to the national monument, Ms. Goggin is optimistic Congress will take note and properly fund it.

“Hope that as attendance increases there will be a 'Friends of First State National Monument' that can help with funding until we can get better funding," she says. "Hopefully, the more visitation it gets the more attention Congress will pay to it."

All the same, Ms. Goggin went on, "when you consider how long it took us (Delaware) to get a park of our own, consideing we are quote-unquote, the first state, this is progress!”

For his part, Superintendent Smith fully accepts that dollars will be scarce, even if it is for Delaware's first national park.

"I know people are working hard to try to find the money, but I don’t know where it would come from," says the superintendent. "It’s not a matter of the (congressional) delegation persuading the Park Service, or persuading the (Interior) department. If the money’s not there, it's not there. This is the worst time to establish a national park."

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It sounds like Superintendent Smith has a long and difficult journey ahead of him. But it also sounds as if he's full of a pioneering spirit that will carry him -- and the new park -- through and into the future.

Good luck, Mr. Smith, and enjoy the journey.

Supt. Smith certainly has a solid vision for moving forward. Talk about starting from square 1, well actually square 2 since square one was President Obama's task. I read briefly with heightened special interest of the historic cultural significance of the original Delaware colonial settlements and their traditions of diversity and enlightened tolerance. Wow, just as needed today as then. I never new that significance to colonial Delaware and was pleased to learn of it. Supt. Smith has an awesome interpretive story to tell! Those are the significant stories of the First State National Monument waiting to be celebrated, preserved, and told for future generations. I think First State National Monument should have a special significance and profile in the National Park Service's Centennial Celebrations coming soon on the near horizon! The Mission thrives for the next Century.

Conratulations Russ and best of luck (and funding)!

Asst. Supt. Joe Llewellyn, Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve & New Orleans Jazz National Historical Park

Congratulations and Happy Holidays

There is a terrific book about the contending colonial efforts of the Swedes, Dutch and English including this area of Delaware. It is called "The Barbarous Years, the peopling of British North America 1600 - 1675" by Bernard Bailyn. Highly recommended as are all his books about the settling of the early colonies.

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