This presentation is part of Are We There Yet? Preservation of Roadside Architecture & Attractions Symposium, Tulsa, Oklahoma, April 10-12, 2018.
By Kevin Barni
Historical markers, while not typically thought of as roadside architecture, represent early efforts to highlight roadside places, encourage motorists to explore more roadways, and educate citizens about local and regional history. The first part of this paper explores the creation of the Delaware Historical Markers program and the choice to first implement the program along the state’s newest and most innovative highway. Secondly, this paper explores Delaware’s markers as roadside historical resources that are now, themselves, historical, and which must be conserved and interpreted.
In 1931, a group of concerned citizens petitioned their governor to “mark and memorialize Delaware’s most vulnerable and important historical sites,” an effort that led to the creation of the Delaware Historical Marker program. Just eight years before, a new road that spanned the length of Delaware was completed and gifted to the state by T. Coleman du Pont. The aptly named DuPont Highway connected farmers from rural Sussex County to markets in New Castle County and Pennsylvania, and opened the state to increased automobile tourism. This paper examines the complex network of personal and professional interests that went into selecting and placing Delaware’s first 153 historical markers—all of which were placed along or adjacent to the DuPont Highway.
The second part of this paper addresses the conservation, maintenance, and stewardship of historical markers. Delaware’s program now boasts 657 historical markers—one for every three square miles. Delaware’s small geographic size makes examining these markers, and periodically reevaluating their content, relatively manageable. Yet their placement along the roadside makes markers susceptible to damage or loss from car accidents, snow plows, road widening, and weathering. Many of the markers, being greater than 50 years old, have become artifacts in their own right and determining how much of a “patina of time” should be retained is a significant complication to their conservation. Further, the earliest text of historical markers—sometimes outdated or incorrect—represents the information deemed “worthy” of commemoration to their contemporaries. Using a combination of photographic documentation, historic maps, and period tour books, this paper situates these markers within the larger context of early automobile culture and explores the ethics of replacing and rewriting markers that are now historic in their own right.
Kevin Barni is a Policy Scientist at the University of Delaware’s Center for Historic Architecture and Design, and the former Delaware Historical Marker Program Coordinator. He received both his B.A. in Art Conservation, 2012, and M.A. in Historic Preservation, 2016, from the University of Delaware. Throughout his career Kevin has explored and documented historic sites throughout the Mid-Atlantic region, and his primary interests include funerary landscapes and architecture, and the communities these sites serve.