Saltwater Portrait

Lucien Lenhart: Celebrating a century in Sussex

Slower lower style key to long life for Millsboro man
Lucien Lenhart sits by the kitchen window of his home overlooking Betts Pond in Millsboro where he has lived since 1950. BY DENNIS FORNEY
December 10, 2013

Lucien Lenhart. It's the kind of name that could carry a man for 100 years or more.  And it has.

A Sussex County resident since he was 6 years old, the mild-mannered Millsboro resident celebrated his 100th birthday Nov. 7. With his daughter living in a house on one side of his, and his granddaughter living on the other side – all overlooking pretty Betts Pond – the centenarian has few regrets.  If any, it's that his wife, Ruth, is no longer here to help him celebrate.  "She died when she was 79," he said during a recent interview.  "That was awfully young."

In his 10 decades of life, Lenhart has watched Sussex County grow from a region of small subsistence farms, dirt roads and no electricity to the county of more than 200,000 that we have now.

"When I graduated from Millsboro High School in a class of seven boys and seven girls, I went to work for the county roads department.  In Indian River Hundred alone there were 150 miles of dirt roads.  Another fellow and I had a truck and some shovels and we filled lots of holes."

Lenhart's kitchen window looks over a bird feeder and fields where Indian River Power Plant coal trains pass. A line of hardwoods borders the back of his property along the southern edge of Millsboro Pond. These days, he spends many hours looking out the window at birds, squirrels, deer and ground hogs that come by regularly. In years past he spent leisure time fishing for bass in Betts and Millsboro ponds. He also did some hunting, but not much.  "I always felt too much for the animals," he said.

In the Army during World War II, Lenhart served in an ordnance evacuation division.  His platoon went back and forth to the fronts in France, Germany and Belgium, hauling tanks and other heavy gunnery needing maintenance and repairs. One part of his service he's especially thankful for: "I never had to shoot at anyone, thank goodness.  I never had to fire my gun."

Remembering his first night in Sussex

While we talked, Lucien traced his fingers along ridges in the red cloth place mat where he sat.  In his mind, the ridges became dirt roads in Oak Orchard as he remembered his first night in Sussex County, when his father met the young family at the train station in Millsboro and drove them to their new home. He was 6 years old.  The spring of the year.  Eight o'clock at night and dark as pitch.

"There were no lights in Millsboro back then, and car lights weren't much either. You practically had to light a match to find them. Dad got lost.  Finally he saw a light up a lane and walked to the house.  Left us stay in the car. There were all kinds of sounds.  Crickets and other things.  I had never heard such a chorus. I asked my mother: 'Are there any bears in these woods?' She said: 'No, no bears.'  But I could tell she was uncomfortable too. Finally my father came back and we started again.  There was a big puddle near the gut.  He just put the car in gear and went slowly across."

Lucien traced another turn on his place mat. Another turn in the woods.  "Then my dad said: 'There's that stump where Nels [his nephew] and I cut the tree down.  Now I know where we are!'

"My dad had sold his hotel in Essington, Pa., on the Delaware River. He had a saloon in the hotel, but the prohibition against alcohol was coming, and he knew that would cut into his income.  So he came down to Sussex County in 1918 and bought 180 acres - a lot of it was marsh - just beyond Emily's Gut, on Indian River, east of Oak Orchard. It was the old Emily Burton farm."

That farm, which eventually became The Peninsula golf-course community, gave the family the opportunity to grow crops and chickens.  The emerging chicken industry and the arrival of trains that gave access to northern markets was opening a new world to Sussex County. Finally people had cash to buy things with.

Lucien's mother took a correspondence course on raising chickens and ordering through catalogs. "One year she would get Rhode Island Reds.  They produced brown eggs.  Then the next year she would get white leghorns, because they produced white eggs, and that's what the markets wanted." He would help collect the eggs and place them in metal crates - "three, four and six dozen to the crate" - and put them on trains to reach customers they still knew in the Essington area. "She would get 1,000 baby chicks in the spring.  Half of them would be pullets for laying eggs.  The rest would be roosters that she would grow to one and a half or two pounds and sell."

A career with Collins and Ryan

Valedictorian in his class when he graduated from Millsboro High School in 1930 at the age of 16, Lucien had wanted to go to college.  "But everything was on the bum in the country then.  The Depression. There wasn't any money and no way to get any."

So after a few years repairing roads, Lucien went to work for a classmate's family. Two men named Collins and Ryan in Millsboro had a grocery store. When Lucien went to work for them in 1937, the country was coming out of the Depression and Collins and Ryan started expanding.  It was families just like his own that eventually provided Lucien with his opportunity. "Collins and Ryan sold a lot of things on installment: furniture, battery radios and TVs for rural families where there was no electricity.  My job was to go out on the road and collect.  Sometimes $1.25 a week; or $5 or $10 a month.  The store grew to the point where they could furnish a house from the cellar to the attic."

When World War II demanded service from men like Lucien, he had to take a leave from Collins and Ryan.  When he returned, they hired him back.  In the intervening years the company had expanded further, into propane gas and appliances.  Back then, stoves and refrigerators both ran on gas.  For the next 33 years, until he retired in 1978, Lucien served an expanding Sussex County for Collins and Ryan, supervising the men who were on the road delivering gas and repairing appliances.

Lucien and his wife, the former Ruth Lawson, met at Millsboro High School and married in 1939.  They raised their children, Lucien Jr. and Aleta.  Ruth earned her teaching degree from Delaware College for Women - predecessor to University of Delaware - and taught in Millsboro schools.  Lucien taught too, in the Sunday School at St. Mark's Episcopal Church, where he eventually took on superintendent and lay reader duties. When Ruth died in 1989, the couple was just shy of celebrating their 50th anniversary.

"She was a wonderful woman," he said.

Lucien said he was always hopeful he would make it to 100. "After I got out of the work I was doing I thought I might be able to make it. I always had good friends, and my mother taught me to be respectful to everyone – don't be overbearing."

So what is Lucien's secret to longevity? His daughter, Aleta, answered for him:

"He's always been easy going. Never gets riled.  I've never seen him mad or heard him raise his voice."

At 100 and counting, and Sussex still changing, Lucien Lenhart continues to take life as it comes.

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