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Retrospect

The Other Fort Delaware Story

John Conway
Posted 5/13/22

While it would be unfair—and inaccurate-- to say that James W. Burbank got the idea to build Fort Delaware in Narrowsburg because of the popularity of the Walt Disney television production of …

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Retrospect

The Other Fort Delaware Story

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While it would be unfair—and inaccurate-- to say that James W. Burbank got the idea to build Fort Delaware in Narrowsburg because of the popularity of the Walt Disney television production of Davy Crockett, it would be naïve to think he was not at all influenced by the nationwide frenzy that resulted from the telecasts.  

Burbank resigned his position as Sullivan County Historian in 1952 to concentrate his energies on putting together the Fort Delaware project, and the first Davy Crockett episode did not air until December of 1954, but one need only look at how Burbank chose to be photographed in publicity stills for the opening of the Fort—clad in buckskins and a coonskin cap—to recognize the impact the Crockett craze had on the finished product. Fort Delaware opened its gates in 1957.

Of course, that was also the era of the automobile in America, a time when the construction of the interstate highway system during the Eisenhower administration fanned the flames of the country’s passion for automobile travel. Driving became the preferred way for families to vacation, and soon theme parks, amusement parks, and roadside attractions were everywhere, many inspired by Walt Disney’s other unparalleled success of the decade, Disneyland.

Fort Delaware has been operating ever since that first season, except for the past two years when COVID protocols kept it shuttered, initially run by Burbank, and since 1970 by Sullivan County. During all that time, docents dressed in colonial attire—but rarely buckskins or coonskin caps--have consistently told the story of the arrival of the European settlers into the Upper Delaware region, their establishment of the Cushetunk settlement, and the hardships they faced once they were here.

Telling those stories will remain the mission now that the operation of the Fort has been taken over by the Barryville-based non-profit history education group, The Delaware Company, although the Fort’s new director, Callison Stratton, and assistant director, Alexis Patterson, promise a new emphasis on historical accuracy and scholarship and toward that end have scheduled a number of innovative programs for this season, which kicks off with a grand re-opening weekend on Saturday, May 21 and Sunday, May 22.

There will be lots to do at the Fort both days, including several demonstrations connected with the inaugural Festival of the Founding Fish: The Upper Delaware Shadfest 2022 (for more information on this innovative extravaganza, which will feature events from Port Jervis to Hancock over three days, visit https://www.festivalofthefoundingfish.com/). Saturday programming includes demonstrations of how Native Americans—and later colonial settlers—caught shad and how they prepared and preserved them, as well as a presentation and book signing by A.J. Schenkman, author of “Patriots and Spies in Revolutionary New York” and music by Linda Russell.

And, The Delaware Company will be presenting its two annual awards for outstanding contributions to local history, the President’s Award and the James W. Burbank Memorial Award, in a ceremony on Saturday, as well.

It is one of Sunday’s programs, however, that is particularly groundbreaking, as this columnist, your Sullivan County Historian, will tell the story of the creation of Fort Delaware in the context of America in the 1950s. It is the sort of innovative programming one can expect to see more of this season.

“Our goal at Fort Delaware as we enter a new era, is to create a multi-layered interpretation of the Fort and its complex history, examining not only colonial history and life, which will remain our focus, but also where that story fits in our understanding of how America was built, and who we are as Americans,” Stratton says. “Fort Delaware is a unique space because it is relevant to two transformative periods in American history: the pre-Revolutionary era, telling the story of the hardy Delaware Company and the evolution of the Upper Delaware Valley from wilderness to settlement, and also the post-World War II period, when the Fort was built, along with so many other roadside attractions, with the intent of promoting public interest in—and nostalgia for—the founding of our nation.”

The program, “The Other Fort Delaware Story,” gets underway at 1:15 p.m. on Sunday. Admission to the Fort is necessary in order to attend. The Fort is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on both Saturday and Sunday. Admission to the Fort is $10 for adults, $7 for students and military personnel with valid identification. Families of up to four can gain admission for $20. Children five and under are free.

Fort Delaware is located on the Upper Delaware Scenic Byway at 6615 Route 97 in Narrowsburg.

John Conway is the Sullivan County Historian. Email him at jconway52@hotmail.com. He will be presenting the program, “The Other Fort Delaware Story” at the Fort on Sunday, May 22 at 1:15 pm. He will also present a program on the St. Joseph Seraphic Seminary at the Seminary Hill Cidery in Callicoon at 4 p.m. that same afternoon.

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