by Terry Rogers
On the wall behind Milford City Council members is a replica of Milford’s seal and a flag representing Milford also stands in City Council Chambers. Milford’s flag and seal were the idea of prominent businessman, John H. Mulholland who had only been a Milford resident for 17 years when he developed the two iconic symbols.
It was Mulholland’s belief that the City needed a seal that would be placed before the general public during City activities and used to advertise the town. Mulholland created a pencil sketch of what he felt the seal should look like and sent it to a Philadelphia artist for completion at his own expense. The final sketch was presented to City Council on July 13, 1937 and adopted the same evening.
In the center of the shield, Mr. Mulholland sketched a mill powered by a water wheel at a water ford crossing, representing Milford’s first industry. An oyster shell was drawn above the mill to represent the mouth of the Mispillion River where oysters were cultivated at the time. A ship is depicted representing the Delaware Bay, but also representing Milford’s second industry. A farmer is on the left and a seaman on the right, depicting agriculture and navigation. Below the shield are the words “Milford, Delaware.”
On September 9, 1937, Mulholland presented City Council with a flag, also created at his own expense. The flag bears the seal of Milford and, during his presentation, Mulholland stated that the flag was created to represent the three counties of Delaware. It was made of silk in the state colors of blue and gold. Mulholland stated that since Milford was closest to the hearts of its residents, it was signified by gold.
The original flag had a background of colonial blue with an embroidered seal. It was created from two pieces of silk, each embroidered with the seal, placed together back-to-back , stitched together at the edges and bordered with gold fringe, making two sides that were exactly alike.
Mulholland initially chose Milford to operate his business, but soon adopted the town as his home. He was an immigrant from Belfast, Ireland, who came to America in order to escape the established order of Great Britain for the adventure and opportunity of America in the 19th century. He was born on October 17, 1865 and lost his mother when he was young. His father remarried and had another son, William.
Mulholland left Ireland at 15 and roamed eastern Canada working at odd jobs until he joined the Montreal Garrison Artillery, a local militia branch. He later joined the Northwest Mounted Police where, in May 1885, his unit was dispatched to the Saskatchewan Valley to stop a rebellion by Louis Reil. Reil and a group of Native Americans attacked a group of Northwestern Mounted Police near Prince Albert on March 24, 1885, killing 14 and wounded 25. The militia quelled the rebellion and Reil was captured, later found insane and hanged along with eight others. This battle allowed Mulholland to demonstrate his ability as a soldier and he earned a Northwest Campaign Medal for his service.
In 1887, after mustering out of the service, Mulholland returned to Ireland for a visit and was able to earn his passage by tending a steerage shipment of live cattle to England. A heavy storm during the crossing caused cattle pens to break apart, leading to chaos in the lower part of the ship. British writer Rudyard Kipling was aboard the ship and, in 1894, wrote a poem about the incident known as “Mulholland’s Contract.” When he arrived in England, his employers refused to honor his contract and he lost most of his pay and return passage. He decided to settle in Philadelphia but, instead, returned to Toronto, Canada, where he found a bride, Emma Jean Harper, who he married on May 7, 1890. The couple soon moved to Philadelphia where they worked I the advertising sign business for 30 years. The Mulholland’s had two sons, Harry Harper and Frederick William.
Around the turn of the century, ice cream was served from bulk containers in ice cream parlors. Ice cream was hand-dipped and served on a paper plate printed with the ice cream shop’s logo. A tin spoon was provided to eat the ice cream. Mulholland noticed that the printer’s ink often melted into the ice cream and that the spoon had an unpleasant taste along with sharp edges.
On October 15, 1915, Mulholland filed a patent for a paper dish or plate which allowed advertising to be printed in a sanitary manner. The patent was issued on September 5, 1916. The process he invented laminated glassline lining on the plates with the advertising printed under the lining. In 1918 or 1919, Mulholland developed a wooden spoon for the ice cream trade. On a visit to Delaware, he became fascinated with a veneer process used by canneries to create cheap baskets for drying fruit. Mulholland researched the process and learned that the sweet gum tree, which were plentiful in southern Delaware, were the perfect choice for the veneer process. Because the trees were also tasteless, they were the perfect choice for wooden spoons.
Mulholland traveled to the A.W. Robinson Basket Company in Laurel where, throughout 1918, he perfected the process for stamping and polishing wooden spoons. He developed a stamping die press that cut the design of a flat ice cream spoon from a sheet of sweet gum veneer. In 1920, Mulholland decided to move his business from Laurel to Milford. He sent his son, Harry, to Milford to construct his new factory and headed west with a “spoon in one pocket and a piece of sandpaper in the other” in order to sell his new product.
The J.H. Mulholland Company opened in a small wooden warehouse which burned in 1924. Mulholland later purchased the site of a former cannery at the north end of Marshall Street. The cannery, Reis and Hirsh closed at the end of the 1921 canning season. In 1921, Mulholland received a patent for his “Bentwood Spoon.” Because the original wooden spoon was flat, it made it difficult for dipping into ice cream. Mulholland used a steam and pressure process to “bend” the spoon to make it easier to use.
The spoon company struggled initially as the wooden spoons were far more expensive than the tin spoons, even though the wooden spoon did not have the metallic taste or sharp edges of the tin spoons. Mulholland had developed a relationship with Henry Breyer, President of the Breyer’s Ice Cream Company in Philadelphia, sold the ice cream magnate on the benefits of the wooden spoons and glassline plates.
In 1923, after purchasing a slender peninsula of land overlooking Haven Lake, now known as Mulholland Point, he built a summer fishing cottage. He often took business associates out on the lake, cultivating relationships that helped his company grow. He also built The Bentwood Club, a small cedar-shingled clubhouse, that he often used to entice prospective customers. It was his belief that if customers met the employees at Mulholland Company, they would see they are “sincere and honest,” encouraging them to believe that his products were superior to others. He often used the pretext of fishing to lure ice cream manufacturers to Milford.
In 1926, John and Emma Mulholland purchased the home formerly owned by General A.T.A. Torbert where they lived full time, using the cottage and Bentwood Club as a summer home. Emma Mulholland died in 1932 and her widower married Marie Wimersberger, the office administrator for Harry Breyer, in 1934. The couple moved from the former Torbert Home to the Point. Harry Mulholland took over the business in the mid-1930s Harry served as State Senator and President Pro-Tempore of the State Senate from 1943 to 1945. Eventually, when sweet gum became scarce in the area, the Mulholland plant closed and the plant manager, Clarence Welch, formed the Princess Anne Corporation and opened a factory in Pomonkey, Maryland, creating tongue depressors, popsicle sticks and other wooden items. John Mulholland died September 14, 1958 just a month short of his 93rd birthday.
The original spoon factory still stands at the north end of Marshal Street near the Vinyard Shipyard. It is now owned by Sudler and Joan Lofland.
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