Saltwater Portrait

H.O. Brittingham: His legacy lives on

Educator, farmer dedicated to work
October 24, 2017

For many, the name H.O. Brittingham conjures up an image of a brick-and-mortar school on Mulberry Street in Milton, where a new elementary is now under construction on the same site.

But there is a man behind the name.

Born in 1897 near Millsboro to Jesse and Cora Brittingham, Herman Oscar Brittingham was one of 14 children. He and his siblings grew up on a farm, deep inside Sussex County's rich agricultural tradition.

Those farm roots took hold of him early, and never left him.

“He worked himself from nothing to something,” said Lee Brittingham, one of H.O. Brittingham's six grandsons. He also had two granddaughters for a total of eight grandchildren.

Attending grade school and high school in the Millsboro area, grandson Ken Brittingham said Pop-pop Britt – the name affectionately given to H.O. Brittingham by his grandchildren – attended a one-room schoolhouse. “He may even have started teaching there,” Ken said.

The year H.O. Brittingham began his education career may never be known. He was famously taciturn, with a no-nonsense personality. Ken, an educator himself, said he never had a conversation with Pop-pop Britt about why HOB became an educator.

“He just always was,” Ken said. “He was English. He didn't talk a lot about his feelings.”

Still, H.O. Brittingham caught the education bug early and after graduating from Millsboro High School, he enrolled for a bachelor's degree at Rutgers University in New Jersey. H.O. Brittingham went on to earn a master's degree from University of Delaware and took graduate classes at University of Virginia.

“Mom-mom said he would leave in a horse and carriage and be gone for weeks,” Ken said.

At age 19, Elizabeth Mumford, later known as Mom-mom, married a 20-year-old H.O. Brittingham. The couple had two boys, Leon and Linden, and a daughter who died at birth.

Grandsons Ken and Don Brittingham recall growing up across the field from where Pop-pop Britt built his home with his own hands. “He was dedicated to whatever he did,” Don said.

Don and his wife Karen now live in the home that sits on about six acres on Federal Street Extended next to the Brittingham’s Produce stand, famous for its fresh fruits and vegetables.

“He dug the hole for the basement by hand,” said Don. “He used a horse and a scoop.” The extra dirt helped build up the lot, said Don Allan, a great-grandson.

The home H.O. Brittingham built is as sturdy as they come, said Karen. “Some would say overbuilt,” she said. Remodeling the home was a chore for their carpenter, who struggled to cut through its thick framework. “He said this was put here to stay,” Karen said. “That's how Pop-pop built everything. It was solid.”

Grandson Lee Brittingham remembers staying with Pop-pop Britt for a year when Lee's father was in the army and his mother was in Chicago. There was a lot of work to do in the garden, digging potatoes, he said. But there was also some downtime, playing checkers on a board with pieces Pop-pop made by hand. “I tried my best to beat him, but I won very few games,” Lee said. “I still have that checkerboard.”

Lee went to school in the Millsboro area, so he never attended school with his Pop-pop. But both Don and Ken remember their Pop-pop as a no-nonsense educator. “He made it well known that you walked the line,” Don said.

At only 5-feet-2-inches tall, he was wiry but strong as an ox. H.O. Brittingham commanded authority, always dressed in a sharp suit with great attention to detail. When Ken was in seventh grade, he said, he remembers some wrestlers practicing and shouting out to H.O Brittingham to join them so they could pin him. “I saw him go up and pin two kids,” Ken said.

Another time, Don said some students were practicing headstands when H.O. Brittingham decided to join in. “He let his hands go and balanced on his head,” he said.

Using school yearbooks and newspaper clippings, the Brittingham family has pieced together a history of their patriarch. By all accounts, he worked 15 years as a teacher in what were known as Sussex County rural schools. At some point, he moved to Milton and spent 23 years teaching industrial arts for the Milton Consolidated School District. He became chief school officer in 1956, a position equivalent to superintendent, which he held for 13 years.
“He had 51 years in education. More than half a century,” Ken said. A running joke with the family was whenever someone asked where was Pop-pop Britt, the pat answer was, “He's at school.” He practically lived there, Ken said.

H.O. Brittingham retired in 1969 before the creation of the Cape Henlopen School District. In a newspaper article written when he retired, H.O. Brittingham recalled three great changes in education that he experienced.

The first, he said, was in 1932 when nine one-room schools were consolidated into the Milton Consolidated School District. “This was the greatest change in the geographical area of Milton School District to that date,” the article states.

A second change occurred in 1965 when schools were desegregated. Two small school districts, which served area African-American students, were phased out and a 12-room elementary was built on Mulberry Street in 1966 – site of H.O. Brittingham Elementary that is now being replaced yet again. The district named the school after H.O. Brittingham in 1977.

The third change was in 1969, the year H.O. Brittingham retired, when the Cape Henlopen School District was formed by merging Milton, Lewes and Rehoboth school districts.

In H.O. Brittingham's letter of retirement to the school board, he thanked them for helping improve the instruction and welfare of Milton's school children. “I have been here a total of 36 years – 1933 to 1969 – without missing a day for illness. The last 13 of the 36 years have been as chief school officer of the Milton District without taking a vacation. So, I am thankful to the board for my long tenure and very thankful to God for my excellent health for all these years,” he wrote. The board responded, reluctantly, and with “humble regrets.”

H.O. Brittingham tackled his retirement with the same vigor that he ran Milton schools.

He started growing tomatoes on his Federal Street farm with his wife. After Elizabeth polished up the tomatoes, Lee said, H.O. removed the back seat of a 1971 Chevy sedan which he would load up with produce and then drive into Rehoboth to sell to restaurants. H.O. Brittingham's reputation for fresh vegetables has outlived him. Now, restaurants go to Milton to buy produce, Ken said.

Don chalks it all up to his Pop-pop's dedication. Even as his body grew frail, H.O. insisted on doing things right.

“He crawled out there to show us how it's done,” Don said. “He was dedicated to whatever he did.”