May Market's First 80 Years in Historic New Castle
In May 1942, during World War II, New Castle’s Visiting Nurse Association held a Flower Market and Book Sale on the terrace in front of the New Castle Court House. Little did the VNA know that it created an event that would become a beloved annual New Castle tradition for over 80 years and counting!
1942: May Market Begins
The only record I’ve found of the VNA’s 1942 event is a short announcement in the New Castle Gazette.
The article shares a lot of information on this first May Market. Because there’s no mention of this being an annual or returning event, and because there are no news articles on similar events in earlier years, I’m confident that this was the first May Market (the name change came later).
The 1942 event sold plants, books, and what was called an elephant table. (What we now call yard sales or garage sales were called white elephant sales in those days.) There were also games and a children’s table selling balloons and candy. What’s been sold at May Market has changed a lot over 80 years, but there have always been two constants: plants and donated household items.
The 1942 event was chaired by Isabel Booth, president of the Visiting Nurse Association. (Following the tradition of the day, newspapers referred to her as Mrs. Newlin T. Booth.) In 1942 Isabel also chaired Arasapha Garden Club, and a lot of volunteers at the event were members of Arasapha.
In May 1943, the Visiting Nurse Association held a similar event, this time called “the annual May Market” as announced in the newspaper article below. It’s been called May Market ever since, with just a few exceptions. In 1945 it was called New Castle Flower Market; in 1948 it was called Flower Market (probably because it was held in June rather than May); and in 1960 and 1961 it was called a Flower and Plant Sale.
Isabel Booth was again in charge of the 1943 May Market while also still serving as president of both the Visiting Nurse Association and of Arasapha Garden Club. The 1943 May Market sold not only plants but also cut flowers, a bake sale, and fresh eggs (remember this was during World War II, when food was rationed). The event also offered a “luncheon” with sandwiches, coffee, and cake. This second May Market made a profit of $239, which may not sound like much today, but it’s almost $4000 in today’s dollars!
1944: May Market Moves to Arasapha
In 1944 May Market was sponsored by Arasapha rather than the Visiting Nurse Association. An article in the New Castle Gazette explains that “the sale has become an annual affair, this year sponsored by the Arasapha Garden Club for the benefit of the upkeep of Amstel House garden, and the Fund for Soldiers’ Hospitals flowers.”
It’s not hard to figure how why Arasapha would want to take over a successful fundraiser. Arasapha had been founded ten years earlier, in 1934, with two purposes: to beautify and improve New Castle and to take care of the Amstel House garden. Arasapha accomplished a lot in those first ten years, including planting hundreds of trees on city streets. What’s remarkable is that Arasapha planted all those trees without any fundraising! The club relied on donations and occasional grants from the Trustees of the New Castle Common.
The mystery is why the Visiting Nurse Association gave up May Market to Arasapha. The only mention of the transition in Arasapha records is a single sentence in the minutes of the club’s March 1944 meeting: “The May Market is planned for May 13th with Mrs. Booth as chairman.” So all we know is that Isabel Booth, chair of the first two May Markets, clearly had a hand in the move from the VNA to Arasapha.
Another person who played a role in May Market’s move to Arasapha was Edna Deakyne (described at the time as Mrs. Horace L. Deakyne). From 1926 to 1942, Edna owned and operated New Castle’s Court House Tea Room. It was popular with motorists waiting for the ferry to cross the Delaware River. The Tea Room closed in 1942 because of World War II—gas rationing meant fewer motorists.
Edna was not involved in the first two May Markets held by the Visiting Nurse Association, but in 1944 she became president of Arasapha and chaired the May Market luncheon. Her 1969 obituary described her as “instrumental in establishing the annual May Market of Arasapha.” We don’t know exactly what her role was, but she must have worked with Isabel Booth in moving May Market from the VNA to Arasapha.
Arasapha’s first May Market in 1944 was remarkably successful. It raised $432, which is almost $7000 in today’s dollars. The biggest money maker was the lunch, which raised $117, followed by children’s activities, which raised $77. The 1944 May Market included pony rides, games of chance, and a fortune teller! May Market was still on the Court House terrace but some activities were now on the Green.
Late 1940s and Early 1950s: May Market Focuses on Children’s Activities
While the 1944 May Market was a great success, plant sales raised only $20. Clearly there was greater interest in children’s activities and lunch than in plant or white elephant sales. So, over the next few years, Arasapha followed the money, focusing May Market on children’s activities and lunch. And, for a few years, May Market was hugely successful. In 1945 and 1946 it raised over $1200. That’s the equivalent of $19,000 in today’s dollars! May Market has never come close to raising that much in the decades since.
By 1948, a New Castle newspaper described May Market as “designed primarily to appeal to the children of the community.” In the 1950s there were pony rides, hay wagon rides, surrey rides, movies, a puppet show, midway-type games, and a merry go round. A fire truck came for a few years, and the William Penn School band performed a couple of years. One year there was a bicycle parade. May Market was really more a festival than a sale.
1950s: Children’s Activities Decline, and Plant Sales Grow
But after the war, profits started to decline, from over $1200 in 1945 and 1946 to less than $500 by 1954. I suspect two things happened. With the end of World War II and gas rationing, local residents could once again travel elsewhere for children’s entertainment. And television was emerging as a new way to entertain children.
May Market faced another blow in 1952. In its early years, May Market offered some games of chance and raffles. One raffle for a ham raised $47! (That’s another indication of the impact of food rationing during World War II.) But in 1952 the Delaware Attorney General determined that all games of chance, even those by charities, violated the state’s anti-gambling laws. May Market would not have another raffle for over 35 years.
May Market has almost always been held on the first Saturday of May. In 1953, for the first time, plants were also sold on Friday. Friday plant sales were started so Arasapha members had a chance to buy plants before staffing other sales tables on Saturday. Through the 1980s, only plants were sold on Fridays. Other items were gradually added to Friday sales, but it wasn’t until the early 2000s that everything sold at May Market was sold on both days.
Speaking of plants… until 1954, plants sold at May Market were donated by local greenhouses and nurseries and Arasapha members. The year 1954 was the first time significant money was spent to purchase plants for resale at May Market. By 1957, May Market’s biggest sellers were plants and the bake sale table. So the club began discussing eliminating children’s activities and the luncheon.
1960: Arasapha Abandons Children’s Activities to Focus on Plants
In 1960, the plug was pulled on them. Publicity for the 1960 May Market emphasized that May Market would be aimed at gardeners’ interests, although May Market still included a white elephant sale, bake sale, and flower arrangements made by Arasapha members.
May Market profits plummeted to only about $200 in 1961. But profits then grew steadily through the 1960s. The photos below show a bustling May Market.
1971: May Market Moves to Market Square
By 1971, there were complaints about May Market creating traffic on Delaware Street in front of the Court House. So May Market moved to Market Square, behind Town Hall, where plant sales have remained ever since.
City staff were first mentioned helping May Market in 1981, when they erected a storm fence around Market Square. They have helped May Market ever since. Today they erect banners, store and deliver tables, and store and deliver plants. They are a joy to work with!
1980s: May Market Adds New Money Makers
By the 1980s Arasapha faced increasing financial challenges. The club was committed to maintaining the Amstel and Dutch House gardens, but costs were increasing. With more Arasapha members working outside the home, fewer were available to work in the gardens, so Arasapha now had to pay someone to help with maintenance of the gardens. The club wasn’t raising enough money at May Market to do so.
A white knight entered: Leona Galford, who introduced two new money-makers to May Market.
Herb plants had long been part of May Market plant sales. But in 1988 Leona came up with the idea to have a separate table for herbs and to expand the number and variety of herbs sold. Today May Market continues to sell hundreds of herb plants. People come for varieties they can’t find elsewhere, including eight varieties of basil and seven varieties of thyme.
In 1989, someone donated a petit point fire screen to be raffled during May Market. It raised quite a bit of money, which got everyone thinking. In 1992 Leona launched a project in which Arasapha members handstitched a quilt to be raffled. Yes, that meant no machine stitching at all! The first quilt, which Leona designed, was raffled in 1993. Because handstitched quilts took two years to complete, for a time there were two teams of volunteers working on quilts, so one could be raffled each year. The quilt raffle was May Market’s biggest money maker for twenty years.
Eventually, though, both ticket sales and volunteer interest in making quilts declined. The last quilt made by Arasapha members was raffled in 2017.
For a few years, May Market raffled donated quilts and art work, but volunteer interest in chairing raffles declined, and the last raffle was held in 2021. What’s been sold at May Market over the years has always been fluid, with new items added and others dropped as shoppers’ interests and volunteer interests evolve.
1990s: May Market Features Donated Plants and Adds the Lions’ Iconic Tents
One new idea was launched in 1995. Arasapha members have always been asked to donate plants from their gardens to May Market. But in 1995 donated plants were featured on a separate table. In 1996 the table was called “From Our Garden to Yours,” and in 1997 Kitty Burris began chairing it. Sales were initially very low (just $19 in 1999). But, under Kitty’s leadership, sales grew steadily. Today donated plants are one of May Market’s top revenue generators.
May Market saw some other changes in the 1990s. The year 1990 was the first time the Lions Club loaned May Market its tents. They’ve now been an iconic symbol of May Market for over 30 years.
1998: May Market Outgrows Market Square
In 1998, the White Elephant sale moved from Market Square to inside the Sheriff’s House. In 2007 it moved to the Presbyterian Church’s Christian Education Building, and in 2021 it moved to the Arsenal.
Also in 1998, some scenes from the film Beloved were filmed in New Castle. Arasapha was offered two wooden booths that had been constructed as props for the film. During May Market the booths were placed in front of Town Hall. They’re pictured below. One was used for the bake sale, and the other was used to sell snacks. Because they were built as props, they lasted only a couple of years before they fell apart.
21st Century: May Market Evolves Into What We Experience Today
In the 2000s May Market continuted to evolve into the May Market we see today. The green and white checked tablecloths used on today’s sales tables—another iconic symbol of May Market—were purchased in 2003. The aprons that May Market’s sales volunteers wear were first purchased in 2007. And in 2014 May Market started accepting credit cards. Today 44% of May Market revenue comes from credit card sales!
One of the biggest changes to May Market in recent years was in 2019, when publicity moved largely online. For decades before then, May Market relied heavily on posters and articles in New Castle newspapers to publicize May Market. The result was that May Market’s customers were largely local residents. A 1981 newspaper article about May Market noted, “May Market is almost entirely supported by city residents. Few outsiders were observed on hand for the occasion. New Castle takes care of its own.”
In 2019 Arasapha began publicizing May Market primarily through Facebook and online regional calendars of events. As a result, attendance and profits have soared, with most May Market shoppers coming from outside New Castle: Wilmington, Newark, Bear, and even Middletown. Because May Market now attracts shoppers unfamiliar with the event, Arasapha has changed how it describes some things it sells. “My Garden to Your Garden” has become “Donated Plants.” White Elephants (which the dictionary defines as useless items that are difficult to get rid of—not an image May Market wants!) is now “Donated Home and Garden Treasures.”
May Market Proceeds Have Supported a Variety of Projects
Arasapha has always used the funds raised at May Market to support its two purposes: supporting the Amstel and Dutch House gardens and beautifying and improving Historic New Castle. Most funds have gone toward the Amstel and Dutch House gardens, but May Market proceeds over the decades have supported many other Arasapha projects, including
Wreaths decorating the Historic District each December
A new boiler for the Amstel House
Veterans Triangle Park at the intersection of Chestnut Street and East 4th Street
Trees on the Green and on the streets of Historic New Castle
The playground in Battery Park
Battery Park concerts
The walled garden behind the Sheriff’s House
Garden education programs offered by New Castle Public Library
May Market Today
Today May Market remains a beloved New Castle tradition. It is also the product of enduring partnerships with the City of New Castle, the State of Delaware, the Trustees of the New Castle Common, the Friends of New Castle Library, and New Castle Historical Society. May Market could not happen without these longstanding partners. In recent years New Castle Community Partnership has identified sponsors whose contributions have added to May Market’s bottom line.
Arasapha’s 2023 May Market will be held on Friday, May 5, from 10 AM to 5 PM and on Saturday, May 6, from 9 AM to 3 PM. Plants, Herbs, and Donated Plants including Native Plants will be sold along Market Street behind Town Hall at 201 Delaware Street. Donated Home and Garden Treasures will be sold inside and outside the Arsenal at 30 Market Street.
Linda Suskie is the current Chair of the Arasapha Garden Club board, and chairs the annual May Market event, through which she first came to the club as a volunteer. She is also a writer, penning the popular ‘Delmarva Backroads Blog’ and most recently cataloguing her journey ‘Experiencing Route 66.’
Linda loves learning about Historic New Castle, where she lives with her husband.
Thanks to Linda for her thorough research and for sharing this fascinating history with New Castle City Topics and The Weekly (it will be in this week’s issue).
For an audiovisual version of the story, you can also check out the seminar given by Linda last year in partnership with New Castle Historical Society, on which this article is based: ‘80 Years of May Market’ (on NCHS’s Youtube channel).