History of Millsboro

Millsboro’s origin, like that of many towns, is an accident of geography. It is situated at the first point on the Indian River, as one proceeds up the river from its mouth, narrow enough to allow for the construction of an earthen dam and bridge with the technology available in the Late 18th Century. Thus the town generally sets the date for its establishment as 1792, the year Elisha Dickerson dammed up the headwaters of the Indian River at the point known as Rock Hole (because of the annual spawning of rockfish there). In fact, there had been a thriving rural farming community in existence in the area for more than a century by that date. Most early white residents were second or third generation residents of the Maryland and Virginia Eastern shore and when they arrived in the area they called “Head of Indian River” the river served as the boundary between the Colony of Maryland and William Penn’s “Three Lower Counties Upon Delaware.”

The area had had a much earlier Indian presence. As English settlement pressures in the area now known as Worcester county, the Indians who had originally been known as Assateaques and who had lived in the coastal area of Worcester began moving gradually northwest during the middle and late 1600’s, stopping first along Assawoman Bay and then near the head of Indian river. Once there they became known as “Indian River Indians” and it is probable that the river was named for them. In 1711 the Maryland Colonial Assembly established a reservation for them on the southwestern side of the river, encompassing much of what is now the southwestern side of Millsboro. Over the years this “Indian Land” was gradually purchased by members of the Burton family and together with their other lands served as a major plantation. It is probable that surviving elements of the Indian community joined with other Indian groups such as the Nanticokes to form the original Indian River Hundred Nanticoke community.

Elisha Dickerson’s large grist mill and saw mill were only two of the more than fifteen grist and saw mills which existed within a four-mile radius of Millsboro in the Early 19th Century. Originally, however, the name “Millsborough” applied only to the area on the northeastern side of the river where Dickerson’s grist mill was located, and it only got this name in 1809 when residents adopted it as an alternative to the earlier “Rock Hole Mills”. The growing community on the southwestern side of the river was known as “Washington” until 1837 when the two villages became a single community under the name Millsborough, later shortened to Millsboro.

The mills were quickly augmented by other industries, prominent among which were a tannery, a thriving business in the shipment of handhewn cypress Swamp, and an iron furnace and foundry which used as its raw material the deposits of crude “bog iron” which occurred naturally in many area streams. The foundry and forge, which operated until after the Civic War, were located at what is now known as Cupola Park. The iron business and one which considerably outlived it was the charcoal business. This continued until shortly before the Second World War. But the great mainstay of the local economy was the same in the 18th and 19th Centuries as it is today – agriculture and timber, albeit with the many changes along the way.

Millsboro had always been a market center for the outlying area because of its river location and thus it was natural for the railroad to be routed through the town when it was developed in the years following the Civil War. This helped growth to continue slowly but steadily through the Late 19th and Early 20th Centuries. In the 1890’s two large lumber mills began operation. One of several Houston brothers, members of a prominent local farming family, was the principal in each mill. The company which eventually prevailed was Houston-White company whose managing partner was William J.P. White. This company continued as Millsboro’s largest industry until the 1950’s.

Another thriving business which began in the Early 20th Century was the manufacture of holly wreaths, which were distributed nationally from Millsboro into the 1950’s. The cultivation of strawberries was also important for many years though this business never reached the overwhelming proportions it did in Selbyville and Bridgeville, which were national leaders around the turn of the century. Tomato canneries were another leading business in the Early 1900’s. Like most of the other agricultural pursuits these were seasonal operations.

From the early 1930’s one dominant “crop” produced in the Millsboro area as in most other parts of Sussex County was the broiler. The poultry business had the major advantage over most other types of agriculture that it could be carried on all year, thus reducing the risk of a particular crop. The leading practitioner of this business locally was Townsend’s, Inc. The Townsend family which had long been involved in lumber, strawberry cultivation, orchards and canneries gradually converted its vast Indian Swan Orchards just east of Millsboro to the production of poultry and related products between the mid-1930’s and the mid-1950’s. By the 1940’s, Townsend’s, Inc. had become the nation’s first fully integrated poultry company, meaning that they had every aspect of poultry growing under their control from the hatching of eggs and the growing of grain for poultry feed to dressing the birds and shipping them to market. Although Townsend’s, Inc. was the largest local poultry company there were and still are many others.

In recent years Millsboro has experienced almost continuous economical growth. One setback occurred when the town’s large national Cash Register plant ceased operation many years ago, but the vacant plant was purchased by First Omni Bank (now M&T Bank), which uses the building for banking operations.

Over the centuries the town has seen vast change, but many of the best things about life in Millsboro remain unaltered as the town enters its fifth century of progress.