Dover landmark opened as a livestock auction exactly 80 years ago, May 3, 1933.
Historians will tell you the center of Dover is located on the city's famous Green. Wiser folks, however, know better.
The heart of Dover actually is a few blocks to the west, at 559 S. New St., a former fruit farm that for the past eight decades has been home to Spence's Bazaar.
The well-known Dover landmark is celebrating its anniversary today, exactly 80 years after founders Harry and Emmaline "Emma" Spence formally opened a business that now is in its fifth generation of family ownership and operation and shows no signs of slowing down.
Dover Mayor Carleton E. Carey Sr., who has known the Spence family almost his entire life, considers the business a fun and vital part of Dover.
"Having Spence's Bazaar in the city of Dover allows citizens to have a place where they can sell old items they don't need any more and to buy used items they are looking for," he said. "It's a large farmer's market right here in the city, and it's something you don't see much of any more."
Spence's started out as a livestock auction, recalled great-grandson Ricky Spence, who now runs the day-to-day operations of the business.
In 1919, according to the family history, Harry and Emma gave up their Marydel dairy farm and bought the 30-acre spread in what then was a very rural area west of Dover. The land's former owner was Katy Fox, the sister of Walter L. Fox, a World War I casualty for whom Dover's American Legion Post is named.
Even while he turned the resulting fruit farm into a successful business – Spence's fruits were shipped by railroad from Wyoming to nearby cities – Harry still dreamed of starting an auction business. Emma, however, thought the plan was too expensive.
Then Harry heard about a failing business on Route 9 in southern New Castle County.
"My great-grandfather bought this old tomato cannery up at Flemings Landing," he said. "They tore it down, piece by piece, then brought it here and rebuilt it."
Each meticulously marked piece of the old building was laid out over a four-acre parcel of land that had been a grape vineyard and then painstakingly reassembled. Animal stalls were constructed inside with space reserved for selling fruits, vegetables and sundry items. The outside was covered in corrugated metal siding that was painted a dull gray.
The first auction was held May 3, 1933.
The business continued despite the Great Depression and World War II. Harry and Emma eventually turned over daily operations to their son and daughter-in-law, Ralph and Elsie Spence, who then brought their daughters, Anne and Phyllis, into the trade, along with son Gregory and his wife, Joyce.
It was Gregory who in the 1960s had the idea of clearing out the animal stalls and converting the area to rental space for people who wanted to sell various items. He also thought it would be a good idea to repaint the exterior walls, turning them the familiar bright red for which they are famous today.
The red-walled barn continued to stand as the business expanded and Dover grew from little more than a sleepy country town into a busy capital city.
In the 1970s, an Amish farmer started selling meats at the auctions, a move that eventually resulted in the building of a Farmer's Market alongside the barn. Amish men and women in their traditional clothing still sell everything from barbecued chicken and ham to delicate lace doilies. Outside a hitching post gives the local Amish a place to tie up their horses while doing some shopping.
The expansion during the 1970s also saw the construction of an apartment for Gregory and his family, which by then had grown to include Ricky and his brothers, Tom and Tim. The brothers all were involved in the family business from a young age, with Ricky and Tom being sent to auctioneer's school when they were barely teenagers.
Calling the auction house and bazaar home meant the Spence brothers had a life that was somewhat different from their contemporaries, Ricky recalled.
"Tom and I would help clean up after each auction," he said.
"Our grandfather had a pig farm up on Walker's Road, and we'd take all the bad produce left over to the farm to feed the pigs. They loved that stuff."
But the work had its reward in the form of a regular paycheck that could reach $100 a week, he said.
Perhaps the most devastating chapter in Spence's history came the night of May 7, 2000, when an arson fire destroyed the original 60-by-190-foot building. The Dover area had been the site of a number of arson fires that year, and while several people eventually were arrested in those cases, just who set the Spence's blaze has never been determined.
But the family decided they would not let something like a fire drive them out of business. Just four days later, they were talking with city officials about rebuilding the barn on the same footprint as the original building. By August, a small army of Amish farmers and carpenters, businessmen, military retirees and even a local police officer, joined family members in wielding hammers and saws as work began on the 14,000-square-foot replacement.
A grand re-opening was held in May 2011.
By the time the Spence family celebrated their 70th year in business in May 2003, Gregory was seriously ill with cancer. He continued to visit regularly, even greeting vendors from his car when he was too weak to come inside. He died in December 2004.
But time has shown its nigh impossible to keep down a family as resilient as the Spences. Ricky runs the business today, while ownership rests with his mother, Joyce, his uncle, Jack "Scotty" Scott, and his aunt Phyllis. Ricky's kids have worked there, as have Scotty's grandkids.
The future, Ricky muses, seems pretty secure.
"Another 80 years?" he wondered aloud. "Yeah, that would be nice."