Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Delcastle Farm


Aerial image of farm buildings at Delcastle
It's probably safe to say that anyone who is at all familiar with Mill Creek Hundred is at least aware of the Delcastle Recreation facility and Delcastle Golf Course on McKennans Church Road. What many enjoying a game of tennis, or softball, or a relaxing day on the course there might not be aware of is that for about half of the 20th century, the land beneath their feet was worked by scores of hardened criminals. OK, maybe not that hardened, but they were incarcerated. For starting in 1915, the land now occupied by Del Rec and the adjoining golf course was owned by the Board of Trustees of the New Castle County Workhouse, also known as the Greenbank Prison.

The NCC Workhouse opened in 1901 on Greenbank Road, on land also currently used for athletic fields. It was the culmination of years of hard work and lobbying by groups looking to modernize Delaware's prison system. As its name would imply, the inmates at the Workhouse were required to work -- both for rehabilitation and to make the prison as financially self-sustaining as possible. Early on, a farm adjacent to the prison was acquired and worked by the inmates. Very quickly, the prison's population grew and a new farm was needed. In 1915, farmland along McKennans Church Road was purchased and christened "Delcastle Farms". (I have been unable to find out from whom the land was purchased, but by looking at old maps, I would assume it was from one or more members of the McElwee family.)

The original mission of the Delcastle Farm was to teach new and progressive farming techniques to selected inmates, with the goal of preparing them for agricultural jobs on their release. Unfortunately, the previously mentioned problems of overcrowding and financial pressures prevailed, and the educational aspect of the farm was quickly abandoned. Presumably in the first few years, inmates working on the farm (mostly short-termers and those with minor offenses) "commuted" the two miles between the farm and the Workhouse. But with the prison's population growing rapidly, a 30-man bunkhouse was built on the farm in 1918. I believe it's the building that still stands just behind the barn and silo. This bunkhouse had sleeping quarters, a reading room, a dining room, a kitchen and a bath. In the basement, there was a storeroom, a carpenter's shop, and a forge. There was electric light and steam heat throughout.

The food grown at the farm was used both as food for the workhouse inmates and sold externally to generate income. Some of it was likely sold fresh, while the rest was packaged at a cannery staffed by female inmates at Greenbank. As the workhouse grew, so did the Delcastle Farm. In 1932, a new and larger dormitory was constructed, this one housing approximately 100 inmates. This newer dorm is the building that currently houses the golf course's pro shop, as well as the Delcastle Inn restaurant. By about 1940, there were 154 inmates living and working on the farm.

1932 Delcastle Farm Dormitory, now a clubhouse

Although I was able to find this information about the beginning and the operation of the Delcastle Farm, I have been less successful in finding out about its demise. It seems as if the farm was operated into the 50's and maybe the 60's, but I haven't yet learned when it was officially abandoned*. Aerial photographs from the early 1960's seem to show that the fields were worked, but whether it was by inmates or not I don't know. The only thing I can say for sure is that the farm was out of operation by 1970, because the golf course opened the following year. If anyone has any more information about the Delcastle Farm, please contact me. I'd love to gather some more information on what has to be one of the more interesting farms to have existed in Mill Creek Hundred.

For more information about the earlier history of the Delcastle property, see this post.

*Edit 12/16/10: As seen below, a reader who grew up in neighboring Sherwood Park II says the farm closed in 1968. That makes sense, since I doubt the county would have held on to vacant, unused land for too long.

27 comments:

  1. The farm was closed in 1968. I grew up in Sherwood Park 2.

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  2. Thanks for the info. I knew A) it had to be sometime around then, and B) there were plenty of people living around there by then who would remember it operating and closing. Thanks again for letting us know this.

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  3. Scott,
    I happened to stumble across your MCH blog the other day...really fantastic!! I'm sort of a local history buff myself and have also spent a little bit of my time at Delcastle(before it was a prison farm).
    My wife has certain branches of her family that have been around here since the late 1600's, so I do quite a bit of local research just to document her family trees.Just curious...do you have old local roots?

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  4. Scott,
    Should have read(AFTER it was a prison farm).

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  5. First of all, glad to hear your "time" at Delcastle was post-prison. Only trying to break par, not rocks (OK they did that over closer to the workhouse, but its just a joke). No, I actually don't have old roots here, but I was born and raised here. One side of my family has been in Sussex County for about 200 years, and the other is from the NY area. My wife's family goes back a ways in Brandywine Hundred, but my family has only been in MCH for about 45 years.

    That being said, if you have or ever come across anything you think is interesting that you don't mind sharing, I'd love to see it. An area's history is at least as much about the people in it as it is about the things they build.

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  6. A local reader just sent me a really cool article titled A Visit to the Delcastle Farms from July 1919. It gives a good account of what the farm was like when it was new, including a good picture of the barn and silos, recently built. This same reader tells me that the barn burned down in the 1970's (when it was the golf course), a fire reportedly caused by local teens. It looks lke the original foundation was reused and a new upper portion built on top, which is there now beside the one remaining silo.

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    1. I knew the clowns, or the group, that burned the barn down and it was in the mid 1980s

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  7. I grew up not far away from the workhouse farm. We had a large lawn and garden and we used to get an occasional worker to come and help us with the gardening. This was in the early 1960's.
    As a small boy I was fascinated by the men - they were unlike anyone I ever met. I was especially thrilled to be able to have my lunch with them at our kitchen table. When I would imitate them by slurping my soup or sighing with satisfaction after eating my mother would tell me that I was eating like a convict.
    We had a burro and some goats that proved to be too much work for my parents - they were donated to the prison farm in the late 50's.

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  8. Thanks for the great story! I know that the inmates there were generally the more trustworthy ones, but that's interesting to hear that they came and worked, and even ate at your house. I can imagine how fascinating that must have been fro a small boy.

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  9. Our family has been associated with the Workhouse and the Farm, my grandfather was a Captain of the Night shift Guards when the Workhouse closed. My Great Grand father managed the Farm until the early 60's, the house next to the 4th Tee is where they lived as part of the job

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  10. Thanks for sharing! I haven't played there in while - do you mean the house facing Mill Creek Road? If so, and if I remember correctly, the county is trying to give it away to anyone who'll take care of it. I'd love to know if you or your family has any old photos of the area, or if you know anything else about the house. It's odd that it doesn't show on even an 1881 map, but I'm sure it's older than that. Maybe it was a tenent house for the Greggs?

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  11. Yes, facing Millcreek Rd, on the outside of the curve if your headed away from Mckennan's Church Rd, I think one of the Grounds Keepers lived there when the Hacketts ran the Course. We have pictures of my Grandmother when she was a baby, with my Great Grandmother, sitting on the front porch, about 90 yrs ago and pictures of my Grandfather and Uncle in their WWII uniforms before they went overseas, 1942

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  12. Great article by you along with the amazing article from 1919. Hopefully more people will post history on it and send you pictures of the farm.

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  13. My family moved into Sherwood Park II in 1957 when it was just on the south side of McKennons Church Rd. The north side was still farm land that may have been owned by a family by the last name of Derrikson. They had a good size home on the north side and a large barn on the south side that was demolished in 1957. Frank Robino later purchased the rest of the farm, less the house and a few acres, and finished Sherwood Park II.
    The Delcastle Farm bordered Sherwood Park II on both sides of Mckennons Church Rd. The part where the Golf Course is was a working dairy farm and the other side was crops. As kids we all used to play and wander that surrounding area all thru the late 50's and early 60's and had permission to hunt game there in the late 60's.
    You may want to search the land records from back in the early 70's and see who conveyed the land that is now Arundel Developement to the Robino Co. that built it. The original owners house was on Limestone Rd nd his property included the back 9 holes of DelCaste Golf course. The property extended from the north side Of Sherwood Park II to the property that was Camp Matahoon of the Boy Scouts.

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    1. Thanks, M.E., for the thoughts and info. There could probably be a whole book written about the area in and surrounding the roughly triangular area bordered by McKennan's Church, Mill Creek/Stoney Batter, and Limestone Roads. A lot of interesting history there that I haven't come close to touching on yet.

      An example is the farm on the north side of MCR you mentioned. The house is still there, and I know I remember seeing a picture of the barn one time -- just have to remember who had it. Interesting that you think it may have still been in Derickson hands. It definitely was in the 1800's. Just one of the subjects I'm eager to get to at some point.

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    2. Camp Matahoon was a Boys Club camp, not Boy Scouts.

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  14. My family moved into a new house in 1958 on Bardell Dr. which was built by Frank Robino. At that time there was a creek behind our house. I went to St. John the Beloved School in first and second grade. Does anyone remember this? At that time you could walk to the school by crossing over a wooden bridge which was built over the creek. Lot's of good memories there.

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    1. Yes, as kids we crossed that bridge many a time...in the 1970`s going to the Carnival at the church.

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  15. I grew up in Arundel...in 1969 the houses were all newly built.
    I do remember the farm being refered to as being Derickson`s Farm as well.
    Did McKennon`s extend past Bardell Dr to the North., or was it a dead-end at that time ?

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    1. McKennon's has been there for ever. I'm sure it is older then the church. The widened between '68 and '70 when the county built the golf course.

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  16. My Husband grandfather own the Derickson Farm , I m sure if you would like photo of the farm or any information about it would gladly help you out

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    1. That would be great!! I'm excited by the fact (assuming from your name) that it's still in Derickson hands. Any information he could give me about the property or the family in general would be greatly appreciated. If you have the time, you can email me (mchhistory@verizon.net), and maybe I can contact him and set something up. Thanks!!!

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  17. my family moved into Parkwood in 1959. We lived near the old stone barn whose ruins still stand by Duncan Road across from the tennis courts. I remember as a child around 1961 or 1962 standing at the corner of Yearsley Drive (the lower corner because the upper corner was not yet in existence) and Duncan Road near the woods and talking across what was then a very narrow road to prisoners who shepherded the cows that were there. My dad called them trustees. He said they were drunks and vagrants and not dangerous. I also remember walking through the barn that still stands at the golf course entrance, with a friend and his parents. There were cows in the barn as we walked through but I have no recollection of us actually encountering and talking with anyone as we walked through. As a child I frequently played with my friends in the field along Duncan Road. I also remember that McKennans Church Road running through the farm was a very narrow road with no shoulders and a small steep hill on both sides with barbed wire fence at the top. I think around 1968 the barns were abandoned and I used to play around there with my friends. I also remember playing around the building that you identified as the newer dormitory. The was a stairwell that had a big pile of unpeeled potatoes in it at the bottom. Between the barn that still stands and the barn that burned down there was a big bucket hanging from a monorail. Some of us would climb up into the bucket and others would pull the bucket along the rail. We gave each other monorail rides in that thing.

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  18. My father was the farm boss at Del castle farm..we lived there from approximately 1946, to 1951 ish...I have pictures of the house and dormitory, spring house, the barn before it was burned down, the milk house with me and a prisoner...the prisoners built me a cart, and hitched a goat up for me to travel all over the farm...I loved it there and have been back a few times to walk around and remember the beautiful time I had there...I would love to know if anyone has any info..or if anyone remembers my dad, or has anymore info would love to read about it...will go anonymous for now, but will be happy to tell my story, when I see an answer...

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    1. Hi, thanks for swinging by! I have no doubt that you have some pretty interesting stories. This property fascinates me, maybe because I've been around it most of my life, but only recently learned some of its history. There just literally is nothing else like it around. I'd love to hear some of your recollections and see some more old pictures of the site. In addition to myself (and lots of my readers), I know a few people who would be especially interested to hear what you could pass on. If you'd like to jump "offline" for the time being, feel free to email me at mchhistory@verizon.net. But even before that, I have to ask if you know anything about the stone troughs and where they came from. If you're not sure what I mean, check out the most recent post. Also, I added a link at the end of this post to another one about the earlier history of the farm. Hope to hear more from you!!

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  19. Great article.. I'm a Paranormal Investigator in Maryland. I love exploring abandoned places.
    Are you allowed to go onto this property?

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    1. Yes, but it's not abandoned. It's still an operating golf course and restaurant.

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