Saltwater Portrait

Noble Prettyman: Noble Miltonian knows his town

He’s served community on school board and town council
Artist Olaive Jones, left, donated her painting of Noble Prettyman to the Milton Historical Society. The painting shows Noble indicating where a sidewalk should be constructed in front of H.O. Brittingham Elementary School in Milton. Allison Schell, right, historical society executive director, said the painting, titled 'Put it There' is now part of the society's permanent collection. Jones said she wanted to capture Noble's personality and pay tribute to his leadership on issues affecting the quality of children’s educational experiences. BY HENRY J. EVANS JR.
June 24, 2014

Noble Winder Prettyman’s roots in Milton extend back to his great-great grandfather James, who immigrated from Trinidad in the mid-1800s and became a businessman and landowner.

“He bought a lot of property on Chestnut Street,” Noble said, adding he doesn’t know whether his grandfather brought money with him from Trinidad or made it after his arrival

J. Handy Prettyman, Noble’s grandfather, started the family the ice business, and he built an icehouse next to a mill pond in town. In those days, ice wasn’t produced in a plant.

Noble said ice was cut from local ponds beginning in September, wrapped in burlap and buried in the ground inside the icehouse for storage.

James Prettyman, Noble’s father, built a second icehouse near his father’s. He sold ice to local chicken processing plants, which used it to dress birds transported by the truckload to metropolitan areas throughout the East Coast.

“Our family stayed in the ice business for over 100 years,” Noble said.

His grandfather built a brick house on Chestnut Street that still stands today.

Noble was born in 1945 in a house on Mulberry Street that’s still standing, not far from where he now lives.

Although people had less money in the 1940s than today, Noble said, they had more time and cared for one another.

“It was interesting,” he said about growing up in Milton. His mother, Katharine, taught from 1921 until 1945 at Milton’s 196C, a two-room schoolhouse built by  Alfred du Pont, who paid to build dozens like it throughout state. The C indicated the school was for colored children during decades of segregation in Delaware.

Du Pont built the schools because he observed that being educated was the best way for blacks to improve their quality of life.

Noble said, as he and his brothers would leave home, his mother would open the screen door and tell them, “Remember, you’re a Prettyman. The whole town is watching you.”

And because they were Prettyman, Noble said, many white people in town treated them kindly.

“It also might have been because people needed ice, and they knew where it was coming from,” he said.

Noble went to 196C, and from 1957 to 1963 he was a student at William C. Jason High School in Georgetown.

Jason was the area’s only secondary school for blacks. In 1967, when school segregation ended, Jason closed, and the building and surrounding complex became Delaware Technical and Community College’s first campus.

Noble said 196C and Jason students and teachers were special.

“As far as education in a two-room school, it was superior; the high school was superior, too.

“Our teachers were very proud; the students were very proud. Students and teachers dressed. They prepared us for today. We were always told we could be whatever we wanted to be.”

Noble left Milton in 1963 to attend Livingston College, a historically black school in Salisbury, N.C.

“It was a religious college, and I liked that. Every morning before breakfast we would go into the auditorium for prayer,” he said.

In 1965, during the Vietnam War-era, Uncle Sam sent Noble a letter insisting he come live with him a while.

After the mandatory time with the Uncle Sam, Noble went back to college, this time to Rowland State University, formerly Glassboro State University in Glassboro, N.J. He graduated with bachelor’s degrees in secondary education in and law/justice.

After teaching junior high school in Woodbine and Atlantic City, N.J., and several years after earning his undergraduate degrees, he continued his education and graduated from Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J. This time he earned master’s degrees in criminal law and justice and in clinical psychology.

For a while, he worked as a law enforcement officer in Salem, N.J., with the Salem Police Department.

In his last position in the Garden State, he spent 18 years as residential director for the American Institution for Mental Students.

“They hadn’t had a residential director for a hundred years. I lived in a nine-bedroom mansion, and they purchased a new car for me every year. It was a good time,” he said.

In 1983 he left New Jersey and returned to Milton to help his mother in the family’s home on Collins Street.

In Milton, he worked at the Draper-King Cole cannery as a U.S. Department of Agriculture inspector.

He’s proud to say that in 2003, he was the first African American in the Cape Region to simultaneously hold two elected positions: a member of the Cape Henlopen School District Board of Education and Milton Town Council member.

For nearly 20 years after Milton’s H.O. Brittingham Elementary School had been built, there was no sidewalk in front of the school along Mulberry Street, an issue that drew Noble's attention.

Noble said Mulberry Street is state owned and maintained. So, he said, he did what made sense; he asked the state to help pay for the sidewalk, and it did, assisting in coming up with $125,000 in federal funding for the project.

Noble calls students in kindergarten through 12th grade “My young scholars.”

“I couldn’t have had a better education. I want them to have the best education possible,” he said.

Like Noble, his brothers went on to successful lives. His brother James Anthony Prettyman became an executive with Eastman Kodak in Rochester, N.Y. William Joseph Prettyman became a truck driver. John Bernard Prettyman worked as business manager at Weidner University School of Law and was later business manager at Roger Williams University School of Law in Bristol, R.I.

How did they do it? Noble said their iceman father and schoolteacher mother made it all possible. And because they helped him, he has tried to do the same.

“The things that I’ve done, I’ve done for others,” he said.

Before refrigeration, no pond was safe

Historical accounts of ice use in America say that in the early 1800s, supplying ice from natural sources became a large industry unto itself and an increasing number of companies entered the business as ice prices decreased, and icebox refrigeration became more accessible.

By 1879 there were 35 commercial ice plants in America, and more than 200 by 1889. By 1909 there were more than 2,000.

In 1907, 14 million to 15 million tons of ice were consumed, nearly triple the amount in 1880.

No pond was safe from ice harvesting, not even Henry David Thoreau’s Walden Pond in Concord, Mass., where in 1847, every day 1,000 tons of ice were extracted.

Noble Prettyman portrait added to Milton's collection

Inspired by a photo of Noble Prettyman she saw in the Cape Gazette, Lewes artist Olaive Jones said she had to recreate it.

The photo accompanied an article that appeared in an October 2009 issue of the newspaper. “I saw the article when it came out and I saved it,” she said.

The photo showed Noble standing in front of H.O. Brittingham Elementary School pointing toward an area where a sidewalk was needed. As a member of town council and Cape Henlopen School Board, he helped acquire $125,000 in federal funds to construct the sidewalk. He said he was also successful in getting the school district to put air conditioners in its older buildings.

In the summer of 2011, Olaive started the painting, recreating Noble’s pose in oil on a 20-by-20-inch surface. She gave him a giclée copy and recently donated the original to the Milton Historical Society where it is part of the museum’s permanent collection.


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