The charming town of Milton is remarkably unpretentious considering the lofty principles of its namesake. Settled in 1672 by English colonists, the town was first called Head of Broadkiln. The Delaware Legislature renamed the town in 1807 to honor eminent English writer John Milton.
It’s easy to imagine why the town would have chosen to celebrate John Milton. His most influential work, “Paradise Lost,” is an epic poem exploring man’s morality on a grand scale. He was a passionate advocate of self-determination and dedicated to the principles of free speech and a free press. He was a great example of American idealism long before there was an America.
The Town of Milton captivates visitors with striking Colonial and Victorian architecture. The building styles represent Milton’s historic roots and shipbuilding heritage. Proximity to both the Delaware Bay and the Atlantic Ocean made it an ideal location for captains and shipwrights to establish homes and businesses.
Milton became the center for button making when the shipbuilding industry was on the decline. Mother of pearl, the iridescent coating of mollusk shells like oysters, was used for nearly half of all buttons made in the U.S. During the Depression, families working from their homes made button blanks to sell to larger companies. Eventually, plastic buttons became more fashionable and signaled the end of button making in Milton.
Milton also earned a reputation as the Holly Capital of the World, producing more holly wreaths than any other location. From the 1930s to the 1950s, holly was abundant and wreath making could earn a family up to $500 per season. Again, plastic was the downfall of Milton’s cottage industry as synthetic wreaths became a popular substitute for the genuine article.
In later years, Milton was home to Draper Canning, the biggest canner of vegetables on the East Coast, employing more than 1,200 people in its heyday. Now the site of Dogfish Head Brewery, the old factory is once again bustling with activity. In fact, along with creating renowned ales and spirits, Dogfish Head offers tours of the brewery which are extremely popular with visitors and residents.
And speaking of brews, let’s start this armchair tour with a strong cup of joe at the new Suburban Farmhouse. Grab a full-bodied coffee or espresso and a savory cruffin, a cross between a croissant and muffin, as you browse the gifts and home décor items in the shop. Or drop by Cantina Ultima for the bold flavor of Latin-inspired pub food and creatively crafted cocktails.
You can dine in an Irish-style cozy atmosphere indoors or outside with a view of the Broadkill River at Irish Eyes. Choose more casual fare at the Happy Cow Deli with hearty sandwiches (and delicious healthy alternatives), soups and smoothies. Indulge your sweet tooth at The Little Brick Cakery with cupcakes or cookies, and make sure you check out their beautifully designed cakes and fresh-baked pies.
If you’re heading east on Route 16, Milton also offers two exceptional restaurants with distinctive cuisine just a mile from downtown. Po’ Boys serves authentic Creole/Cajun cuisine as well as Southern soulf ood. How can you not love a place whose motto is Make Gumbo Not War? Across the street, the Backyard Restaurant focuses on seasonal and local foods, and puts a new twist on traditional favorites.
Food is not the only allure here. Milton is a town bursting with art and theater. The Milton Arts Guild and Studios on Walnut offer an array of classes as well as space for local artists to show and sell their work. You’ll be astounded at the rich and vibrant talent on display. The Milton Theatre brings premium live shows, including theater, music, magic and comedy to this coastal community. There are shows for all ages and a veritable buffet of talented performers.
Milton is an eclectic shopper’s delight. The Mercantile at Milton, a collective of more than 50 vendors, including artists, jewelrymakers, crafters and antiques dealers, is designed as a modern general store. The mix of old and new, the colors and variety breathe life into each of the distinctive shops at the Mercantile. Ogre’s Grove on Union Street, once the home of Milton’s first hattery, is an exciting mashup of comic books and art.
Stop by the Milton Historical Society and Museum to learn more about the town’s colorful past. The MHS folks bring history alive with fascinating tales of the people who lived and worked in this ever-changing, industrious town.
Take a stroll along the path of The Governor’s Walk from Memorial Park and you’ll find the refurbished Milton Fishing Pier, a popular fishing site for residents and visitors. Relax with your pole or a good book and enjoy the sunshine and serenity.
How will you conclude such a pleasant day? Walk a few yards south into Mill Park and you’ll find a statue of John Milton sitting on a bench with a copy of “Paradise Lost.” Have a seat as you gaze over the tranquil waters on Wagamons Pond. Like so many who know and love this picturesque little hamlet, you may come to believe that Milton is actually Paradise Found.
As always, safe travels and please watch your speed as you travel through our small towns. Speed limits are enforced. To do more armchair exploring of Southern Delaware, go to www.VisitSouthernDelaware.com, then go take a ride.
Jody Dengler is co-owner of Sun Otter Tours in Rehoboth Beach.