View from the top: photos from the cupola

In my last post, I provided you with a highlight tour of the photographs taken by Milton physician Dr. William E. Douglas. The discovery of his photographs in the Milton Historical Society collection identified the source images for quite a few old Milton-themed postcards from the early decades of the twentieth century. The story behind some of these photographs is even more interesting. We begin with an image of the Milton Public School, an attractive structure which captured Dr. Douglas’s attention several times. The story of how that building came to be is a complex one.

Here is a quote from David A. Conner’s Milton letter of April 1, 1892:

The new school building is about ready for the lathers. The stages are torn down from the towers; the weather vein (sic) is up; the sash are in; and when the painting shall have been completed and the scaffolding taken away from the building, it will be a beautiful structure. There has never been a better job of work don in Milton, and I do not think I am exaggerating, when I say it cannot be excelled.

Milton Public School, ca. 1910
Milton Public School, ca. 1910 (Douglas Papers, courtesy Milton Historical Society)

Conner reports on August 19 of that same year that a contract to finish the school building was awarded to Isaac Nailor, a contractor who would be talked about in the Milton letter many times in the ensuing two decades. Work was due to be completed on or about October 1. The old, two-room schoolhouse attended by Milton students south of the Broadkill was sold to the A. M. E. Church for their use as a church.

But what Conner was talking about was not the school (pictured above) that Dr. Douglas photographed. Conner was referring to a school built on Atlantic Street.

The new school building was destroyed by fire on September 20, 1892, before a single student had entered into it. In his Milton letter of September 30, 1892, Conner reports that “the people of Milton are much torn up over the destruction of their school building.” I have not yet found any other contemporary account of the fire, but on November 25 Conner reports that a total of $1500 in reward money had been offered “for the arrest, conviction and punishment of the person who set fire to the Milton school building on September 20th,” which tells us that the destruction of the new school building was believed to be the work of an arsonist.[i] Another consequence of the fire was that the A. M. E. would rent back to the Milton school committee the two-room school building they had just bought for conversion to a place of worship.

The problem now was that the Town of Milton was paying interest to a Georgetown bank on a $5000 construction loan, of which $2500 still remained, but by early 1893 had not taken any action to either erect another badly needed school house or retire the debt. Conner devoted quite a few words in his Milton letter of January 27, 1893, addressed to the School Committee, vehemently urging action of one type or another. His Milton letter of February 3 went further; he devoted nearly two thirds of the column to a summary of the events concerning the school project, with yet another exhortation to “do something!”

Conner’s call to action was more than likely an amalgamation of the sentiments of the majority of Milton’s citizens. In the week following his exhortation, the School Committee drafted a bill to present to the state legislature that would authorize the town to issue new bonds to refinance its indebtedness and proceed with construction of a new school building. While this step was lauded by most, another controversy surfaced: the location. Most were unhappy with the lot that was acquired for a very low price on Walnut Street, a location that apparently was thought to be undesirable. More debate (and procrastination) ensued, and progress had not been made in drafting and presenting the legislation needed for the new bond issue.

The School Committee decided to nominate several sites for the new school, and let the citizens of Milton elect the one they preferred. In effect, they abdicated part of the responsibility that was assigned to them in the first place. Then there was an election for a new school committee, in June, to which John H. B. Mustard, John H. Davidson, David Hazzard, and Dr. Robert B. Hopkins were elected. The candidate sites were publicized in the last week of July: two of them were located north of the Broadkill (the so-called Hazzard and Waples lots) and two were south of the river (the site of the burnt-out school and the Fisher lot). However, a vote on these sites was indefinitely postponed due to problems in securing title to some of them. When school opened in early October 1893, students were distributed among three different buildings, only one of which was suitable for classrooms. A vote on a site for the new school had yet to be taken.

Meanwhile, a bill to allow the town to raise funds for the new school was introduced early March, 1893, as reported by the Wilmington Morning News. The same newspaper reported on April 6, 1893, that the bill had passed. The town was authorized to raise $8000 through a 20-year bond issue, a larger sum than was originally discussed.  The events that followed the passing of the bill were not reported in any of the newspapers of the time that survive today, until the Wilmington Morning News report of August 21, 1894 that “Milton’s Public School is nearing completion and will open when the school season begins.” The site on which it was built was not among the four sites nominated by the school committee; it was the site one on which the old Milton Academy had stood – adjacent to the Goshen Cemetery. How title to that plot of land was conveyed to the School Committee is not know. The blueprints for the new structure were the same as for the one that burned in 1892.

View of Milton Public School ca. 1910
View of Milton Public School ca. 1910, from the corner of Mill and Walnut Streets (Douglas Papers, courtesy Milton Historical Society)

The new school had six classrooms, an office for the principal, an auditorium (often referred to as “School Hall”) and storage space. It would remain in service until 1933, when a new building on Federal Street near the railroad tracks replaced it; that building still serves the community as an elementary school.

Dr. Douglas ascended to the cupola of the school building, one of the highest points in Milton, and took several photographs, as shown below.

A composite of two photographs taken by Dr. Johnson from the school cupola, ca. 1910.
A composite of two photographs taken by Dr. Johnson from the school cupola, ca. 1910. Because the photos were very easy to align, I believe he had his camera on a tripod, took the left most view, then turned it a few degrees to his right for the second view, without moving the legs. He may also have started from the right and turned the camera left. A very small sliver of Wagamon’s Pond is visible on the extreme right (composite by P. J. Martin, from photographs in the Douglas Papers, courtesy Milton Historical Society)


View from the school cupola over the front of the school, flagpole visible in foreground. Houses on Chestnut and Federal Streets are visible, but not the streets themselves. A portion of Wagamon's Pond is visible in the background.
View from the school cupola over the front of the school, flagpole visible in foreground. Houses on Chestnut and Federal Streets are visible, but not the streets themselves. The two homes in the foreground are 210 and 208 Chestnut Street, both still in use today. Slightly to the right and at about the midpoint of the flagpole is the tower portion of the ornate home at 205 Federal Street, also in use today. At extreme upper left, just below the sky, the roof, one wall and a small portion of the windows of the old Goshen Church on Federal Street are also visible, as well as the turreted home on Federal and Mill Streets, which still stands. A portion of Wagamon’s Pond is visible in the background. (Douglas Papers, courtesy Milton Historical Society)


Detail showing roof, one wall and the tops of several Gothic Arch windows of St. John Baptist Church; note the absence of the brick façade from the wall.
Detail showing roof, one wall and the tops of several pointed arch windows of Goshen Church.


Detail showing tower of Second Empire style 205 Federal Street and the house across the street from it with two dormers (201 Federal Street)
Detail showing tower of Second Empire style 205 Federal Street and the house across the street from it with two dormers (204 Federal Street), both still in use today.


View from the cupola of Milton Public School ca. 1910; photographer uncertain
View from the cupola of Milton Public School ca. 1910. Probably the best known of images from the cupola, this print was not found in the Douglas Collection. The identity of the photographer is not known. (courtesy Milton Historical Society)



[i] On October 4, 1895, the Wilmington Evening Journal reported that Isaac Nailor was suing former Governor James Ponder for slander, seeking $10,000 in damages. Ponder was alleged to have said that Nailor, a well-known building contractor who was engaged to finish the new Milton school in 1892, in fact burned it down. Ponder admitted that “he believed that Nailor was the damned scoundrel that set fire to the school house.” The two had a history: in 1893, Nailor was prosecuted in Federal court for allegedly having mailed an obscene letter to a Milton woman, Jennie Creamer, and Ponder appeared as a witness for the prosecution. Other leading citizens appeared for the prosecution as well, including Capt. George E. Megee, William Starkey, and J. Frank Wagamon. Nailor was acquitted and returned home to a grand reception. There is no report on the outcome of the slander lawsuit, which may have been settled out of court.


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