A look back on the Dover Post's 609 E. Division St. building and its previous uses.
Commercial buildings are more than mere structures. They rise with the hope of the builders that they will bring satisfying prosperity of one kind or another.
An enterprise then rises or falls. If the original business doesn’t work out the building often becomes a place where other dreamers think they can make their mark in the commercial world.
So it is with the plain-looking building at 609 E. Division St. in Dover. It started out in 1933 as a community airplane hangar. It didn’t live up to the hopes of its chief backers, but continued to be used as part of an airfield nonetheless. This was at a time when people across America were a little giddy about the future of air travel following Charles Lindberg’s feat in 1927 of flying alone across the Atlantic Ocean.
A popular myth of the day was that it wouldn’t be long before more daring citizens would be buying airplanes with the same frequency that they bought cars.
The hangar in the small city of Dover was built on what was then the capital city’s outskirts. There was plenty of open land around, property owned by the Wilson family. Their expanse of land already had been used occasionally by pilots who guided their trips with a road map and landed at whatever convenient piece of flat acreage presented itself.
It was this situation that led Miff Wilson and his brother Richard to form Dover Airport Inc. in 1933 and sell stock at $5 per share to local people, many of them the most prominent citizens of the town. Ernest V. Keith was the lawyer who formed the corporation.
It turned out the Wilsons were the only ones who really believed an airport had a chance. While 55 others bought stock, many were in the game for only $5 or $10. This was, after all, Great Depression time. The Wilson family bought 580 of the 6,000 preferred shares offered. Only 125 shares were sold otherwise.
Even so, the Wilsons decided to go ahead and build the hangar, with “DOVER” in capital letters on the roof twice, one sign facing west and the other east, all in the interest of helping pilots know their location.
The dedication of the new airport was a major event, with a dance at the Richardson Hotel, at $1.50 per couple, as the social highlight. Private pilots flew in from Delaware and neighboring states. A special airmail postcard heralded the hangar’s opening.
The Wilsons continued to own the hangar property, having returned to the other share buyers the amount of their original investment plus 10%. And the airfield continued to see activity throughout the 1930s.
John C. “Jack” Lewis of Dover — no, not the well-known Delaware painter — was kind enough to answer my request for comments about the hangar. Jack, an old friend, recalls the event “that is forever etched in my memory.” He wrote:
“I was born in 1926 and reared on Kings Highway, a short distance from the site of the present Dover Post building. At that time it was an airplane hangar for an airport which stretched east along Route 8 from present U.S. Route 13 (not there at the time) for several hundred yards. Its width was from Route 8 north to the present Maple Lane.
“In 1938, the world-famous aviator, Clarence Chamberlin, landed there in a tri-motor Curtiss Condor, and it was quite an event. Several hundred people came out to welcome him, including my family.
“Chamberlin was offering the attendees rides over Dover for $5 each. I don’t know how my father could afford it, but he bought tickets for me and my brother, Fred. Our fellow passengers included Judge Charles Terry, later governor, and Dr. MacCollum, later Secretary of State. I remember the latter because he was our family doctor, and delivered me and my two brothers at home.
“Another memorable event, however, was that when the plane landed, it parked along a fence on Maple Lane and the crowd gathered there. At that time, the pilots hung a couple of wheel chocks on the fence. The plane then taxied over to the hangar. Upon arriving there, the pilots realized that they had forgotten the wheel chocks and were discussing how to retrieve them.
“Being a nosy kid right in their faces, I heard the discussion and volunteered to go get the chocks and did so, running all the way. In appreciation, one of the pilots gave me a quarter — big money at the time!
“I also received a postcard with a picture of the plane and a facsimile of Chamberlin’s signature, which I still have.
“A big event in a small boy’s life!”
Also helping with memories of the early airport was Ed Biter, with whom I share father-in-law status. Ed’s father was a well-known pilot in the 1930s and Ed remembers going to the airport with his father and his older brother, George, who learned to fly at the same time as his father. George was 10 years older than Ed.
Ed has a small photo of the front of the hangar with a large “Dover Airport” sign on it.
Ed also remembers seeing what he thought was a machine gun from a German warplane in the rafters of the hangar. I did find out later that there was a plane’s cannon of some sort up there for a while but it was removed.
The Murray Era
Early in the 1940s, the hangar building saw a new kind of activity. The late Thomas W. Murray Sr. and two of his partners used it as the office for U.S. Airplane Carriers. Special carriers to transport military gliders were assembled here. The gliders were used in World War II to land both soldiers and equipment. While the gliders themselves were not assembled in Dover, the all-important special transport carriers were.
Murray, a dynamic man full of ideas, sought old cars in junkyards for the parts to build the carriers. Because of war restrictions, buying the needed parts wasn’t possible.
Also requiring hauling were Civil Air Patrol planes that crashed in the line of duty while patrolling the East Coast during World War II.
Murray grew his business by then specializing in hauling airplane sub-assemblies to different factories and by moving various aircrafts, including planes that had crashed.
With the help of Richard duPont, a glider enthusiast for whom he had worked, Murray asked the Interstate Commerce Commission for permits to operate in all 48 states and Alaska. As George Frebert writes in his book Delaware Aviation History, “the head of the ICC thought for a moment and responded, ‘Give him the permits. After the war is over they won’t be building any more airplanes anyway.’”
Not such a great prediction.
As the war was ending, Murray started buying the small Steerman BiWing and Fairchild PT planes from the Army Air Force. At one point the number of planes on the field grew to 150. An aircraft repair shop operated in the hangar and went over the planes as they were sold.
So many planes were coming in that Murray had four women from the wartime WASPS (Women Airforce Service Pilots) ferrying these planes from various bases around the country to the Dover airfield.
By the time the war was over the work done in the hangar was getting to be too much for the space to handle and Murray, with son Tom Jr. having joined the business at that time, built a new hangar and landing runways a mile and a half north, on the site of the present Dover Downs Hotel & Casino.
Young Tom had learned how to fly at 13 and flew small planes from the Wilson’s hangar to the new operation.
The aforementioned book by the late George Frebert gives many more details about the Murray enterprises, which have an active offshoot today in Dover — TNJ Murray Worldwide Service, Inc. — which was started by Tom Jr. and is now run by his son John. The overall story is too long and involved to record here but a separate story is likely later on.
His first name was actually Ejner — Ejner C. Larsen — but everyone knew him as Pop — Pop Larsen. After buying and remodeling the building he ran the Dover Roller Rink from 1949 until 1973. He died in 1974. Son Bob continued to run the place for some years after that but eventually got tired of the confinement of the seven-day-a-week schedule.
Bob Larsen lives in Lewes and we talked about the days when the roller rink was such a big part of the entertainment life of Dover.
The rink was open from 7 or 7:30 p.m. until 11 p.m. seven nights a week, with a live band on Friday nights. When the band was playing, the activity turned to dancing.
The rink was also open from 2 to 4 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays.
Bob described his father as “stern” and possessing unusual upper body strength. He had lost part of one leg just below the knee as a young boy while playing around a train yard. The train ran over his leg. So while he provided roller skating as a pastime for others, he was not able to enjoy it himself.
Lenny Bolognini is one of the many current Dover residents who remembers his skating days fondly. He came to Dover at age 9 in 1964 as part of a General Foods family. He says he couldn’t wait to skate and especially remembers when his father gave him a pair of new skates and he “was so proud to be in the building to show off my new skates.”
Bob Larsen owned the building when the Dover Post Co. bought it.
Prior to the Dover Post coming in 1978, the hangar building saw use as a plant for manufacturing extruded plastic products. Bob Larsen, who was renting it to the plastic business, remembers hearing from the Dover Police that someone was moving equipment from the building in a way that made the police suspicious.
Bob drove up from Lewes the next day and found some of the equipment removal in progress. The men doing it left at Bob’s insistence and he took over the equipment left there because the operators of the business had simply left.
Later a multi-store retail business assembled window decorations and other items the business needed.
Finally, a manufacturer of little sheds had them built in the hangar but that business folded.
And then came the Dover Post Co.
And now a new CVS pharmacy is in the wings as the coming new tenant for the site.
But the old hangar building will be gone.