(AP) — Restoring the old Vinyard Shipyard in Milford has been a labor of love for Sudler and Joan Lofland.
The lifelong Delawareans purchased the historic shipyard in 1995 and have refurbished the buildings to a museum-like quality with hopes of one day turning the historic site over to the city for all to enjoy.
That passion led to Joan becoming one of the leading authorities on the Vinyard Shipyard and the history of shipbuilding in Milford and along the Mispillion River.
Their dedication has inspired a movement that could enhance the city’s Riverwalk along the Mispillion River.
The restored shipyard would be the jewel in the crown of a major extension of the Mispillion Riverwalk, which holds the distinction of being the largest contiguous municipal park in Delaware in terms of acreage.
The project could be an economic driver for downtown Milford, drawing more locals and becoming a destination for tourists.
The rebirth of the last remaining wood shipbuilding facility along the Delaware Bay is the catalyst for the Vinyard Shipyard Project. A study commissioned to gauge the potential of the enhanced Riverwalk idea will begin in January.
The Mispillion River has always been the focal point in Milford. Many cities along rivers that empty into the Delaware Bay were built around ship-building in the 18th and 19th centuries.
“With Joan and Sudler’s work in restoring the buildings and bringing together historic artifacts, you have a wealth of information about the history of shipbuilding in Milford,” said Dan Bond, a leading member of the task force studying the idea.
Sudler Lofland grew up in Milford and the idea of revitalizing its downtown has always been a driving force in his life.
As he was buying land along the Mispillion River to that end, the old Vinyard Shipyard became available and he bought it with the idea it would help revitalize the downtown.
That piece of property was more than just a business transaction for the Loflands. They fell in love with it and built their home there in 2003. Owning the historic site has forever changed their lives and has linked them to Milford’s deep maritime history.
Joan, who grew up in nearby Lincoln, said the Loflands originally planned to refurbish the buildings and restore the original belt-driven equipment in the wood shop and machine shop.
That snowballed, she said. All of the roofs were replaced and the buildings secured, and after the yard was cleared, the boat launching railways were placed back in service and private and commercial docks were rebuilt.
That led to the Loflands’ search for Vinyard yachts. In 2004, the 1938 Kismet was purchased and brought back to Milford where restoration efforts were completed in 2005.
Since then, the 48-foot cruiser Vignette and the 1927 50-foot Augusta, the first Vinyard motor yacht built at the shipyard, were brought back to Milford for restoration. More than 300 people watched the launching of the Augusta in June 2010.
Joan has collected artifacts and research that rivals any maritime museum. It is on display in four rooms in one of the original Vinyard Shipyard buildings.
She also has written a book, “The Vinyard Shipbuilding Company: Delaware’s Only Surviving Historic Shipyard,” published in 2015, and produced two documentary DVDs.
“We felt losing this history would be a crime,” Joan said. “There are teaching opportunities here and this site should be enjoyed by others as it has been by us.”
Gary Emory believes the success of Milford’s downtown starts and stops at the Mispillion River. He’s not alone.
The former longtime Milford Parks & Recreation director said that in the early 1970s a study showed that Milford needed water-based recreation to bring downtown up from the depths.
In 1975, the city started cleaning the Mispillion and acquiring land along its shores with a vision of creating a park.
“The river was deplorable in the 1970s and we turned it around, stabilized it and put in Riverwalk,” Emory said. “The shipyard was a piece of the puzzle I wasn’t able to obtain. It was never a part of Riverwalk because we had to go around it.”
With the Loflands willing to allow access to Vinyard Shipyard and the Mulholland Spoon Factory, another historic site they purchased along the Mispillion River, an enhanced Riverwalk is now a possibility.
The $56,000 study set to begin in January is the first step of this lofty vision.
The small group that makes up the Vinyard Shipyard Project will ensure that the restoration and preservation of the shipyard and old factory continue, while also continuing to raise funds to take Riverwalk to the next level.
The group would like to see Emory’s original vision of a continuous greenway-riverway all the way out Mispillion River, 12 miles to the Dupont Nature Center on the Delaware Bay.
That would include the capability of having kayaking, canoeing, biking and walking, as well as the possibility of a water park being added near downtown.
“This is a community builder,” task force member Sher Valenzuela said. “It’s like the best community sculpting opportunity that you can imagine. We recognize the value of this asset and want to keep those dollars in Milford.”