Vintage photos help bring stories to life

This photograph from 1936 shows Steele's chicken farm in Ocean View, which just so happens to be where the poultry industry began. SOURCE DELAWARE PUBLIC ARCHIVES
January 9, 2012

We tend to forget it, but the stories and photographs we work on at this newspaper are part of history the day after they are printed. Decades from now, people will be doing research and run across our work.

Since I was a kid, I've been interested in old photographs. It's the only way we can visualize the stories we are told about what it was like growing up 75 to 100 years ago.

It's hard to believe some of the industries that once flourished in Sussex County, especially along the rivers,which were the lifeline for the county's economy until trucks, automobiles and trains made water travel obsolete.

For example, shipbuilding was big in towns like Milton, Bethel, Milford and Seaford. Along the coast, fishing was big business. In addition, canneries and shirt factories operated in every town. Yet today, there is little to no evidence that any of that existed.

Fortunately, we have photographs to remind us of what used to be.

In the scheme of things, photography has not been around that long. The first photograph of a person was taken by accident in 1838 by Frenchman Louis Daguerre. During a long exposure to capture a street scene, a man stopped long enough getting a shoe shine to be captured on the photographic plate. The first film was introduced by George Eastman in 1884.

When I first started taking photographs back in the 1970s, the choice of equipment was limited; only the best 35mm cameras had built-in light meters. I thought I was working off the top shelf when I received a used Nikon F and then an F2 to shoot with. The first SLR I purchased was a Nikkormat F.

I can't begin to recall how many negatives I processed between 1973 and the early 1990s. Although I have saved some, many I had stored in boxes were destroyed in a fire at the Milford Chronicle office. Life's lessons are usually learned the hard way. Now, everything can be stored away safely on hard drives and CDs.

Photography has come a long way over the past three decades to the extremes of digital photography. Our cameras are now complicated computers.

One of the best places to see old photographs from this area is the Delaware Public Archives. Recently, more than 2,000 images of Delaware life in the 1920s and 1930s were added to it on-line files.

Many of the additions are from the 1930s and deal with the state's agriculture industry, but users can also view photos of people, schools, factories, automobiles, popular attractions and historic sites throughout the First State. The Board of Agriculture collection is critical because there is little photographic documentation of Delaware during this particular era.

The online home for this collection of photos is the Delaware Heritage Collection, which was established under the auspices of the Delaware Division of Libraries in late 2010 for the purpose of making digital images of interest to the public more readily available. To date, the vast majority of the 10,000 images accessible through the Delaware Heritage Collection has been provided by the Delaware Public Archives.

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  • Ron MacArthur has lived and worked in Sussex County all his life. As a journalist for more than 40 years, he has covered everything from county and town meetings to presidential visits. He also has a unique perspective having served as an elected official and lived on both sides of the county.

    Contact Ron at