Carolyn Palo, now president of the Newark Historical Society, was surprised to see a piece of her own past when she walked into the Newark History Museum for the first time.
“The first time I walked into the museum I said, ‘that pump organ looks awfully familiar,’” Palo said. “It turns out it was the pump organ we used when I was growing up.”
For the past four decades, the Newark Historical Society has given Newark residents like Palo the chance to see their own history.
The museum will celebrate its 40th anniversary Oct. 12 with a 7 p.m. event at the Newark Senior Center. The event will feature a presentation on Newark history, light refreshments, a 50/50 raffle and a silent auction.
The event is free and open to the public, but attendees are asked to pre-register at www.eventbrite.com/e/newark-historical-societys-40th-anniversary-tickets-177354731777.
Founder Bob Thomas helped create the society in 1981 after seeing how much of Newark’s history was being lost. Thomas said he came up with the idea at age 20 in 1970 after spending time with his grandfather and other older residents of the community, giving him knowledge of the past.
He said one of the biggest changes to Newark is the population of the town.
“When I was a kid, there were 7,000 people in Newark. Today, I think it’s 33,000,” Thomas said.
Early on, the society met in people’s homes.
Thomas said the big turning point for the society was when its current home, the 1877 Pennsylvania Railroad Station on South College Avenue, opened for exhibits in 1990. The property is owned by the City of Newark, which allows the society to operate a museum inside the space.
“That really took the historical society to new levels,” Thomas said. “We could meet with small groups, we could have presentations there.”
Curator Mary Torbey’s favorite pieces in the collection are the costumes, which show the evolution of fashion in Newark.
“We have athletic gear; we have a wedding dress,” Torbey said. “We have a man’s duster that he would have worn in an early automobile with goggles. My favorite part of any exhibition is creating mannequins that tell the story we’re trying to tell.”
The museum even has a “Zoom meeting” mannequin representing the modern era, dressed in professional attire from the waist up and pajamas from the waist down.
Torbey said Newark began as an agricultural community and a market town for local farmers. Newark then morphed into an industrial center with the arrival of railroads, becoming home to a Chrysler factory, vulcanized fiber plants and other industries. Now, Newark is a college town based around the University of Delaware, a transition that reflects similar changes across America, with many former industrial towns becoming more dominated by education and other knowledge-based industries as manufacturing declines.
Torbey said that despite the changes that have come to Newark, there are still elements of the historical past, such as Elliott Hall on Main Street, which dates back to the 1700s.
“My favorite thing about Newark history is that there is still so much of it around,” Torbey said. “Everybody focuses on the new development that has come to town, but if you know where to look, there’s history in every corner around Newark.”
Torbey said the biggest challenge for the historical society in recent years has been cataloging objects that were placed in storage but never organized.
“We have 2,700 objects that are in our computer system right now,” Torbey said.
She said that the museum also rotates more of its exhibits each year than in the past.
“We want people who live locally and have seen the museum before to have a reason to come back,” Torbey said, adding that the society is particularly interested in objects older than the 1880s.
The society offers online virtual tours of museum exhibits, along with self-guided walking tours online. Torbey said the museum had started to record virtual tours before the pandemic, but when the lockdown hit, volunteers tried to get information on the website as quickly as possible.