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State of Delaware Has Its Own Nostalgia Nutt

Charles Hillinger's America

December 07, 1986|CHARLES HILLINGER | Times Staff Writer

GEORGETOWN, Del. — Delaware farmer Nutter Marvel, 84, hates to see anything old destroyed.

He bought and moved two turn-of-the-century Pennsylvania Railroad depots, an 1890 Methodist church and an 1852 one-room school onto his 60-acre farm. In each case the structures were condemned and about to be torn down.

"I'm a pigeon for nostalgia," Marvel said.

Known affectionately as Nutt, he is one of the small state's best-known and admired characters. If there's a parade in this 96-mile-long state, Marvel is sure to be there--in tails and top hat, driving one of his more than 100 original horse-drawn buggies.

He began collecting carriages in 1914 when his father paid $38 for a new wire-wheel buggy with an umbrella on top that young Marvel used to get from home to high school and back. He still owns the carriage, which has been restored to its original condition.

During the 1920s and early '30s, when Marvel ran a Delaware Ford dealership, many of his customers traded their old carriages in for Model Ts, Model A's and other flivvers.

He parked the trade-in buggies in barns on his farm where they remain to this day, restored to mint condition, along with horse-drawn drays, an elegant silver hearse, milk wagons, phaetons, landaus, wagonettes and other rigs.

When Marvel heard railroad depots in Frankford and Selbyville, Del., were about to be razed, he persuaded the Pennsylvania Railroad to spare the ax and paid to have the stations hauled to his farm. The depots are now filled with buggies, 19th-Century wicker sleighs and Delaware memorabilia.

Epworth Methodist Church stood idle and abandoned for 10 years. Marvel moved it to his farm, hired carpenters to bring it back to its original shape and opened it to the public.

"Since we moved the church here four years ago it has been used for 28 marriages, one funeral and numerous religious services for Catholics, Protestants and Jews," Marvel said.

Weathering Away

When the farmer saw the abandoned one-room Ellis Grove schoolhouse weathering away in the country, it reminded him of the one-room school he attended for eight years as a boy.

And once he saw it, he recalled, "I knew I had to save it." Each of the original desks, sitting on a warped hardwood floor, contains 19th-Century textbooks such as "The New Normal Mental Arithmetic," "Carpenter's Geography" and "New Barnes Reader." Maps on the wall show the world as it was in the 1880s.

Children and their teachers from throughout Delaware are invited to visit the one-room school and to see and ride in his horse-drawn carriages. For Nutter Marvel likes nothing better than to show off what he has saved from being destroyed.

"A lady called me a while back and insisted I promised her husband that when he died I would drive his body to the cemetery in my horse-drawn hearse," Marvel said.

"Well, I didn't remember making a promise like that, but I certainly wasn't going to disappoint that fella. So, we gave him a royal send-off."

As for the funeral in the church in his barnyard, it was for a man who never had been a member of any church except Epworth Methodist. Marvel could not turn him down, either.

One of Many Marvels

Marvel was born in 1902 at Marvel's Tanyard, Del., a hamlet named after a great-great-grandfather who was a tanner as were Marvel's great-grandfather, grandfather and father.

There are many Marvels in Delaware. In fact, Marvel mused, "there is one solid 12-mile stretch of farms in southern Delaware all owned by Marvels."

Nutter Marvel has farmed all his life, in addition to running a gas station, garage, Ford agency and operating an oil company distributorship.

His only child, Nutter Marvel Jr., died of uremic poisoning in 1964 at the age of 36; his wife, Willie, died of lung cancer three years later. He has five grandchildren.

He says he saves anything old and worthwhile that he can lay his hands on "so future generations will know what life was like before automobiles, radio, television, airplanes and flights to outer space."

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