From the ashes of the 1909 fire

After the devastating fire of August 13, 1909, a rebuilding effort in the business district was launched almost immediately by those who had the foresight to have insured their property. By all accounts, insurance adjusters settled claims quickly, and the new business district – the one familiar to Milton residents today –  began to take shape. In this posting, we will take a look at four building projects that began in 1909 and were completed that year or in 1910.

New buildings on Union Street, ca. 1910
New buildings on Union Street, ca. 1910 (courtesy Fred Pepper)

The row of buildings on Union Street in the photograph above, just before the intersection with Federal Street, was constructed between October of 1909 and mid-1910. The two on the left, with the ornate parapets, will be familiar to today’s Miltonians as the Irish Eyes Restaurant, and were built by Isaac Nailor. The two-storefront building on the right, no longer in existence today, was built by Frederick W. Pepper and business partner J. H. Davidson.

The latter building was constructed for merchant Charles A. Conner in record time. Conner purchased a lot from James Ponder in September of 1909, for $1500; foundation work was begun in late September, construction in October, and Conner took occupancy around December 7 of that same year. Conner, who lost two stores in the fire, resumed his general merchandise business. Central Cigar and Tobacco Store was the other principal tenant on the ground floor, and an insurance agency occupied space there as well, although any signage of the latter cannot be seen in the above photo. The top floor was occupied by William Warren, formerly the owner of a pool hall, for his “moving pictures” show. In the small space between Conner’s store and the tobacconist, there is a small sign with a bell symbol; one of Conner’s upstairs tenants was the Diamond State Telephone Company, who rented that space for an exchange office. This may also have been an indication that a public telephone was available on the premises; this would be an important facility for the town; few residents had their own telephones before 1915.

The two buildings to the left of C. A. Conner’s store were built for Joseph Black (the Black & Lingo Store), and for business partners Carey and Darby. J. L. Black purchased his lot adjoining Conner’s in September, signed a contract with builder Isaac Nailor in late October, and early in November 1909 began excavation. Black & Lingo took possession in late February 1910. Carey and Darby also signed a contracted with Nailor, in late November, and work was begun on their buildings immediately; their store was completed by mid-March of 1910. By April 15 of 1910, concrete sidewalks had been laid down in front of the Carey & Darby, Black & Lingo, and Conner buildings. There are contradictory statements in the Milton News letter of the Milford Chronicle about who  put the sidewalks down in front of the two leftmost buildings; one week the letter said Isaac Nailor laid the sidewalk, and the next week it was attributed to Frederick W. Pepper.


102 - 104 Federal Street, rebuilt after 1909
102 – 106 Federal Street, rebuilt after 1909. The S. T. T. & S. D. building (occupied today by the Federal Street Gallery and Espresso Cafe), can be partially seen at extreme left. This group of one residence and two storefronts is still standing. Note the unpaved condition of Federal Street. The make of the touring car parked in front of No. 106 has not been determined, nor has the identity of the driver.  (Courtesy of Fred Pepper)

The building which today occupies 102 – 104 Federal Street was constructed for William Mears, one of Milton’s barbers, on the site of his old building which was destroyed in the fire of August 13, 1909. No. 106, with the porch in front, was the Mears’ residence. No. 104, in the middle, became the new barber shop for William Mears. No. 1o2, on the right, became William Starkey’s drug store. Mears engaged a Hurlock, MD contractor named A. O. Jermon to carry out the construction project; excavation was begun in mid-October 1909, and construction shortly after. The project, however, did not go smoothly; by the winter of 1910 it was apparent that something was wrong. Just before March 11 of 1910, work came to a stop.

Thanks to a detailed explanation of the case in the April 1, 1910 Milton News letter, we know to a great extent what transpired.The contract price for the building was $4200. As of early March 1910, Jermon had been paid $2800 for work completed. At that point, the walls were up, the roof was up, floors were laid, and two partitions were in place. The contractor tried to collect an additional $500 from the Lewes Bank, which had financed the project; the latter refused, as it had come to their attention that Jermon had not been paying his suppliers. Upon the bank’s refusal to release funds, Jermon abandoned the project and left Mears holding the bag of the debts due to suppliers.

Isaac Nailor, a respected contractor well-known in Milton, took over the project in April of 1910. Work then progressed quickly. By May 6 Nailor was installing counters and shelves into the Starkey drug store; by early June, William Mears had reopened for business in his new shop. At the same time, William Starkey was stocking his shelves and fitting out the store; he opened his new drug store on July 1, 1910.


No. 101 - 107 Federal Street after 1909
No. 101 – 107 Federal Street after 1909 (courtesy Fred Pepper)

Directly on the south side of Federal Street, across from the new William Mears building, four connected stores were built between 1909 and 1910. I believe that locals referred to this lot as “the Ponder Block” (even though it was owned at the time by the Palmer family). H. E. Elliot of Rehoboth was engaged to do the construction in October 1909, and by mid-October work was under way. Coincidentally, bricklayer and mason H. E. Elliot, formerly of Seaford, was also the photographer who produced the group portrait of the W. C. T. U. ladies; he pursued the vocations of photographer and mason concurrently. He would also be contracted by S. J. Wilson to produce and lay the cement blocks for his new building at the corner of Front and Federal Streets.

The Milton News letter of December 10, 1909 indicated that work on the Palmer building was to halt for the winter. Work resumed in the early spring, and the Milton News letter of April 22, 1910 reported that “The Palmer block of buildings is beginning to look nice, with its upper glass front and fancy entablature.” The correspondent speculated that the building would be completed in early summer. He reported on May 15 that all of the rooms were rented. In the June 17 letter, Conner reported that boxes of paraphernalia for the new post office–one of the tenants–had been brought into the rented space and occupancy was anticipated on July 1, pending inspection and approval by the responsible government officer. This proved overly optimistic; the inspection was not concluded until September of that year, and Postmaster Black moved into the new post office around September 15. Another tenant, Mason & Davidson, took occupancy of their space in mid-July. The pavement in front of the stores was completed in early August. No other report of tenants taking occupancy of the other two storefronts can be found.

All of the structures visible in this photograph are still standing except for one: the small wooden building between the new construction and the turreted residence in the right third of the picture. That is now the location of Strawberry Alley, one of the shortest and narrowest streets in town.



6 thoughts on “From the ashes of the 1909 fire

  • Judy Fisher

    What a great posting of Milton restoration after the fire. It’s wonderful to see these photos and compare them with the buildings today. Thanks for this.

    • Phil Martin

      I’m glad you found the posting interesting – but you are already a committed Milton history buff! You may want to check out the latest posting – Riding the Circuit, which is about the circuit riding minister Adam Wallace, who served Milton at one point, and made friends with former Gov. David Hazzard.

  • […] an earlier post I talked about the disastrous fire of August 12, 1909, one that destroyed many of the businesses along Front, Union and Federal Streets. In the […]

  • […] The northwest corner of Federal Street where it intersects with Union Street has been photographed many times, and I have previously posted about the rebuilding of the Mears property after the fire of 1909. […]

  • Richard Wells

    Way before the day of Verizon, AT&T, and Sprint, I have read stories you have about phone exchanges being in the upper floor of the Comics Store on Union, another next to Irish Eyes and one at the base of Federal St. Did the phone company move around? Was Milton able to pick service providers? How many phone companies did the town have?

    • Phil Martin

      There was only one phone service provider in 1907 and for decades beyond that. It was Diamond State Telephone, one of the companies that later were part of the Bell system. There were only two or three phone customers in Milton in 1907; it was still a newfangled curiosity. The whole exchange could be run out of a closet by one person. The office did in fact move several times, once because of the fire of 1909 and later because Eva Smith managed to snag the contract somehow; she would run the phone exchange for many years.
      Good observation on your part; I hope I answered your question.

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