Monday, November 15, 2010

The Early 19th Century Rebuilding of Mill Creek Hundred

Log House common in 18th Century MCH
 It's possible that if you've read a few of the posts on this site, specifically those pertaining to historic houses,  you've noticed a trend or theme regarding the age and construction of many of these homes. In particular, you may have noticed that a number of these houses, (A) were built roughly between 1800 and 1825, and (B) were stone or brick structures that replaced (or expanded) earlier log or frame ones. If you did notice this (and even if you didn't, it's OK, you can say you did. I won't tell), it wasn't your imagination -- this was a real trend at the time in this area.

In the county tax assessment undertaken in 1804, there were listed 99 log houses, 48 stone houses, and 21 brick houses in Mill Creek Hundred. By 1826, the number of stone houses had grown 2-1/2 times to 119. In contrast, there were only about 36 frame houses. Since I haven't been able to view the original documents myself, I can't say for sure exactly what the difference between "log" and "frame" structures is in each of the assessments, but the trend is unmistakable. The first couple of generations of settlers in the area, roughly the 18th century, primarily built frame and log homes for themselves. Population was sparse, and resources were at a premium. As time went by and families became larger, wealthier, and more stable (not to mention the general stabilizing of the country as a whole at the end of the century), subsequent generations began to look for more stability and permanence in their housing, too.

Interestingly, in the 1700's there didn't seem to be much of a social stigma attached to the construction material of one's home. Log homes were the most common type for small landowners and large alike. It really shouldn't be much of a surprise that these were common here, since it's likely that the first log houses in the United States were built in Delaware by the early Swedish and Finnish settlers. The style was common in Scandinavia, and worked well here, too. In fact, the log cabin that now sits at Fort Christina Park in Wilmington was originally located at Price's Corner, just a few minutes' walk from Mill Creek Hundred.

However, as the 19th Century got underway, those simple, early log homes did fall out of style. Seemingly anyone who had the means to began to replace their father's and grandfather's log homes with newer, larger stone and brick models. Mainly because the availability of the material, fieldstone was more common than brick in this area. By about 1825, housing in Mill Creek Hundred looked noticeably different than it did just a quarter of a century earlier. Many of the old log and frame houses were either gone or relegated to the role of tenant housing. Now, all of the early log homes are gone (although there may be a few hidden at the core of larger structures, like Tweed's Tavern in Hockessin) and very few of the frame ones remain. Luckily for us, the upgraded stone houses were much more durable, and many of the historic homes still standing today date from this period of rebuilding. So the next time you read that, "So-and-so built a stone house in 1810, replacing an earlier log home", you'll know that far from being an isolated event, this was part of a decades-long trend that changed the entire look of Mill Creek Hundred.

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