Monday, June 28, 2010

The Harlan-Chandler Mill Complex, Milltown

For my money, one of the most enjoyable aspects of studying local history is when you experience a "So that's what that is" moment. It might be a place name or street name suddenly making sense, or connecting a historical name with a place, or vice versa. It also can be finally learning the identity of something you've seen many times, but never knew the story behind. I had this experience a few days ago.

I've lived almost my entire life very near the Milltown area, and even went to school there for four years (Go Rams!). Countless times have I driven (or run) by the two old houses at the southeast corner of Limestone Road and Milltown Road, but not until recently did I know their true history. Eventually I'll cover both structures that comprise the Harlan-Chandler Mill Complex, but for now, I'd like to focus on the building on the left -- the 3-story fieldstone house. In a later post, we'll look at the brick house.

Although this beautiful structure is currently being used as a house, that is not the function for which it was originally built. Constructed in 1815 by brothers Caleb, Jr. (1770-1840), John (1773-1851), and Joshua (1783-1854) Harlan, this fieldstone-walled mill replaced an earlier mill, likely of wood-frame construction.* Yes, it was originally built as a grist mill. As in, Milltown. This quiet, stately home is actually one of the early mills from which the area derived its name. It is this mill, the "current" one, that Thomas Scharf references in his tome, "History of Delaware 1609-1888":

On January 12, 1747, six acres of land in Mill Creek Hundred were condemned for the use of the mill, at that time in the possession of David Robinson and Alexander Montgomery. The mill was situate on Mill Creek, and in 1804 was owned by Caleb Harlin, Sr. In 1815 the old mill was torn down, and the present one erected. The mill is operated by water-power and the grinding done by burr, and is mostly custom work. The mill is now owned by Samuel Chandler.
As Scharf notes, the mill was powered by the water of Mill Creek (or more precisely, a small millrace diverted from Mill Creek), and did mostly custom work, which means it produced flour in smaller quantities for local farmers, rather than bulk amounts for export. The water wheel itself, instead of being located outside the structure, actually sat inside the mill. The millrace entered and exited the mill through long-ago closed-off sections in the walls.

The mill continued to operate until sometime in the late 19th or early 20th Century (for comparison, the Greenbank Mill did custom work well into the early 1900's), after which time it was used as a storage barn. The biggest change to the integrity of the structure came in the form of a devastating fire in the 1940's, which gutted the interior of the building, leaving only the outside walls intact. It was at this time that the mill was repurposed as a dwelling. Windows, a porch, and an addition in the rear were added, and the old mill became a house. Just about the only other remaining piece of the original structure is the chimney on the right-rear, which likely marked the position of an interior office inside the mill. In the pictures below, you can see the changes made to the mill. The picture on the left was taken in 1936, before the fire, and the picture on the right shows how the current house looks today.

I just wonder how many other people have driven by this intersection, looked over to see this beautiful, native fieldstone house, and never knew that they were actually looking at the shell of one of the original mills that gave Milltown its name. If you'd like to read more about this historical site, check out this DelDOT archaeological report.

[Edit made here, 12/9/2010]:

Here is a bonus that I have just come across. It is from the 1832 "McLane Report" regarding manufacturing in the US. This is the section of the questionnaire returned by John and Joshua Harlan. The mill is listed as J&J Harlan on an 1849 map, so perhaps Caleb Jr. had died or moved away by 1832. If nothing else, it does prove that the mill was, at least in 1832, doing more than just custom work.

* [Edit 7/22/2011] -- Caleb Harlin, Sr. died in 1815, so it seems that after his passing, his sons inherited the property and immediately replaced their father's old mill. When exactly Caleb, Sr. acquired the mill from Robinson and/or Montgomery is still unknown. I've found a few transfers of shares in the mill from around the time of 1747-1749, but it's mostly between members of the Robinson family. By 1748 the mill was "commonly called Robinson's Mills", and may have been built by James Robinson, probably the father of David. More may come at some point in another post.


  1. I've added a little more information (such as dates for the Harlan brothers), as well as some info on the earlier history of the property. If I can find some more, I may do a separate post on it sometime.

  2. This weekend, I finally got around to exploring the area around the Harlan-Chandler Mill complex. I believe I found the remnants of the end of the mill race as it empties back into Mill Creek and noted that the original bridge across Mill Creek at the site still has a passageway for the mill race. Although most of the race has been filled in, you can still visualize some of its course today. I would love to try to find other traces of the race, but I expect development of the area has removed most of those.

    The property is beautiful and well-maintained. Kudos to the owners for the fine work. This is a real gem in the midst of suburbia.

  3. I'm interested in a feature very near to the Harlan Chandler Mill complex. I grew up on Bailey Drive in Limestone Acres, next to the intersection of Bailey Drive and Limestone Road. We could see the Mill from our back yard looking north across a wild area, which later was a dumping spot for excavated soil from the project to make Limestone Road into a four lane. The feature that interests me was (and I think still is there) the remains of a stone structure--two low stone walls intersecting at a corner. It may be the remains of a spring house, because it had a seep flowing into a marsh which emptied into Millcreek further west. Also, there was an ancient apple tree nearby. Signs of earlier culture which I find so fascinating...