Delaware digger reconnects Newark woman with grandfather's history, nearly a century later
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of Joe Biden's first wife. It is Neilia.
Marianne Rodriguez was scrolling through Facebook, killing time during the pandemic, when she was suddenly face-to-face with the name of her grandfather, who died before she was born.
His name, John P. Baccino, was engraved on a well-worn metal hunting trap tag along with the location of "Lancester *(sic) Pike, Delaware."
The Newark woman literally lost her breath for a moment.
"I couldn't even breathe," Rodriguez, 63, said. "I was so upset and just got so emotional. I didn't know him. He died in 1953 when my mom was only 25, but she always spoke of him."
Inspired by 'The Curse of Oak Island'
The story that ends with Rodriguez reunited with a small piece of her family's history began in the summer of 2018 when Wilmington native Kyle Armstrong went out on an expedition.
A couple of years earlier, he bought a metal detector and got hooked on searching for (and digging up) whatever he could find.
He's not the stereotype of a digger. He's 36, not 76. And you won't find him on the beach with a hat atop his head and zinc streaked across his nose looking for valuables left behind on a crowded beach.
Instead, he likes hunting history. He was inspired to dig by watching the History channel's "The Curse of Oak Island" reality TV show, which tracks a team of treasure hunters in Canada.
Armstrong has found the most success in Greenville, the affluent area north of Wilmington that is rich with history and home to both du Pont descendants and the newly elected president of the United States.
He's unearthed everything from coins and musket balls to old buttons and even a silver bracelet bearing the name of du Pont descendant Reynolds duPont Jr.
Then one day 2½ years ago, he got a hit, bent over and dug up the small hunting tag etched with the Baccino name.
'One of the most rewarding moments of my life'
It wasn't until he got bored during the pandemic this past summer and posted a batch of photos to the "Delaware History/All Things Delaware" Facebook group that the tag transformed from a cold piece of metal to a warm family memory for Rodriguez.
She grew up hearing stories about Baccino cooking rabbits in wine and serving them over polenta.
Rodriguez quickly decided to "go for broke" and messaged Armstrong to see if he would return it to her family.
Her married name may be Rodriguez, she told Armstrong in passing along her family's story, but her late mother's maiden name was Marcelline Baccino.
They agreed to meet a week later in front of Kelly's Logan House in Wilmington. Touted as the "oldest continuous family-owned Irish bar in the country," it was an appropriate spot for the handoff.
Armstrong handed over the tag, which was wrapped in a paper towel inside a Tupperware container. Rodriguez's daughter looked on, seeing her mom and great-grandfather connected all these years later, albeit through a memento.
It was the first time he ever reunited a piece he found with a family. And it felt great.
"It was one of the most rewarding moments of my life. I always hoped it would happen and it finally did," said Armstrong, who works in cybersecurity and posts his findings at instagram.com/delawarediggerkyle. "And now she can pass it down to her children."
Mushroom houses and federal agents
Before finding the tag online, Rodriguez had done some minor research about her grandfather, discovering that he lived on Squirrel Run off Kennett Pike in Greenville at the time of the 1910 U.S. Census.
In 1927, when he married Rodriguez's grandmother, he was living on Lincoln Street, according to the marriage certificate she found. And by the 1930 Census, he was living on Lancaster Pike off Centre Road. According to her mother, the family lived in a mushroom house for a few years.
Putting all this together, Rodriguez estimates the "Lancaster Avenue" tag is nearly a century old.
Baccino's mushroom farm advertised in The Morning News, the newspaper that merged with The Evening Journal in 1989 to from The News Journal. "EAT MUSHROOMS," reads the headline of one 1928 ad before continuing, "We are the foremost growers of mushrooms in Wilmington."
He also made the newspaper for being arrested on liquor charges during Prohibition after federal agents found 70 half-barrels of beer under the bottom tier of the mushroom house, something Rodriguez discovered in her research.
"Apparently the beer was coming out of Chester (Pennsylvania) and down into Delaware, and they followed my grandfather from there down to the mushroom house," Rodriguez said.
The tag is just a small piece in a larger family history puzzle she has tried to cobble together, starting with her grandfather, who came to the United States from northern Italy around the age of 13, according to his Morning News obituary, published on Sept. 8, 1953.
He was 63 at the time of his death, living in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, where he lived the last 29 years of his life as a mushroom salesman. At the time of his death, he was two years into being a partner in Tim's Tavern in Hockessin, which is now Tim's Liquors, located at Limestone and Valley roads.
Rodriguez's grandmother, Lucie, ran Tim's until it was sold in 1979, according to her obituary. The location is well-known locally for tragedy. It's at the intersection where President Biden's first wife, Neilia, and daughter Naomi were killed and sons Beau and Hunter were injured in a car crash seven years before Lucie Baccino sold the business.
A thank-you card (and $100)
Before coming in possession of the hunting tag, Rodriguez had only a few items that belonged to her grandfather passed down from her mother, including the luggage chest he brought from Italy when he emigrated.
She was thinking of her mother as much as her grandmother once she got the hunting tag in her hands, rubbing her fingers against the engraving.
Maybe that's why she slipped Armstrong a thank-you card that included five folded $20 bills as a "token of my appreciation."
Rodriguez's note closed with these words about her mother, who died in 2005 at 77:
"I always felt her sadness and wish she was here now to share this with us."
Got a tip? Contact Ryan Cormier of The News Journal at email@example.com or (302) 324-2863. Follow him on Facebook (@ryancormierdelawareonline), Twitter (@ryancormier) and Instagram (@ryancormier).