Thursday, November 18, 2010

Mendenhall House and Mills

Mendenhall House (center) and Mills, c1895
 With all the swiftly-flowing streams within (and on) its boundaries, it's no wonder that Mill Creek Hundred has seen so many mills built along its waterways over the last 300+ years. Unfortunately, though, as manufacturing technology progressed during the Industrial Revolution, steam, and then electric power slowly marched water power towards inevitable obsolescence. By the end of the 19th Century, there were few if any water-powered mills still in operation. Some, like the Kiamensi Woolen Mills, did convert to the newer power sources for a time, but the increasing scale of manufacturing meant that the days of these cozy, secluded millseats were most certainly numbered.

After operations ceased at these mills, unless they were repurposed like Caleb Harlan's old mill, there was usually no reason to keep them around. They were generally either torn down more or less immediately so the building material could be reused, or they were abandoned and left to fall down on their own. Very often, by the early-to-mid 20th Century all that was left was the nearby miller's house and maybe a few foundations. This was exactly the case for the Mendenhall House and mills along Mill Creek, at the intersection of Mill Creek Road and (go figure) Mendenhall Mill Road. In this case, we're lucky enough that we happen to have some photographs of the area while (or shortly after) it was in operation, and the mill remained long enough to be photo'd and studied long after it's mothballing.

The Mendenhall story in Delaware began with Aaron Mendenhall, Jr., who moved from the Downingtown, PA area to a farm, which he called Sugar Loaf Farm*, that I believe was located along Hyde Run, just north of Hercules Road. [Edit: Reader Blinky points out in the comments below that there is a Sugar Loaf Lane in the development of Westminster. Seems like pretty good evidence.] I don't know if this was the reason he left, but it seems he was "disowned" by the Bradford Monthly (Friends) Meeting in 1757, having been found guilty of "unseemly behavior" with a woman (i.e., adultery). At the latest, he was definitely in MCH by 1763 for the birth of his first child, James Aaron. Around 1783, James married and moved into a new house a short distance away on the banks of Mill Creek*. It's logical to assume he built one or both of his mills at the same time, and in 1804 James Mendenhall was listed as owning both a saw mill and a grist mill.

In 1826, James built a new grist mill, this one measuring 35 by 40 feet, three and a half stories tall, with walls made of stone. By later in the 1800's, it was powered by a metal overshot wheel, fed by a pair of 16" metal flume pipes. I think it's likely that this was a later upgrading of an earlier wooden undershot wheel fed by a race. This mill would be standing until at least the mid 1960's. It's not clear what became of the saw mill, but a map as late as 1893 still lists there as being a saw mill and a grist mill at the site. It's possible, though, that the map is incorrect, since the 1868 Beers map shows only a grist mill and the 1893 map also lists I(saac) N. Mendenhall as living in the old house, despite the fact that he died in 1876. This Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS) report does tantalizingly mention "remnants of rubble and mortar wall constructions of undetermined function", so it's possible that this was the saw mill.

Mendenhall Grist Mill, in 1958
When James A. Mendenhall died in 1839, operation of the mill seems to have been taken over by his grandsons, James W. and Isaac. N (their father, John, had died in 1828). These two brothers would run the family mill for most of the rest of the 19th Century. As best as I can tell, James W. lived first in a house slightly to the northwest, then by 1868 had built a new home just south of the Mill Creek Road-Mendenhall Mill Road intersection. Isaac made his home in his grandfather's house, still standing on the west side of MC Road. (In the picture at the top, James A./Isaac's house is in the center, and James W.'s is on the left. The grist mill is the bright building in the foreground.) There is no mention of when the grist mill last operated*, but my guess would be sometime in the 1890's. On James W.'s death certificate in 1900, his occupation is still listed as "Miller", but his home is listed as Hockessin. Likely, the 79 year old James had moved sometime prior, possibly to live with his son John.

As to the fate of the big, stone grist mill, which stood more or less directly across from James A.'s house, it probably was torn down not long after the HABS report in 1965. I've not had a chance to check out the site, but I'd be surprised if some remnants of the mill are not still there. James W. Mendenhall's house, too, is no longer standing. There is, however, what appears to be a garage/barn next to the old house, which is either a restored old building or a newer one built on the old foundation. The whole area is much more heavily wooded now than it was during the mills' operating days, and driving through it today most people probably have no idea of the more than two centuries of history surrounding them.

* -- Please see this post here for new information about the early history of the area, and about the later years of the mill.


  1. Scott-
    Great work. Now I know how "Sugar Loaf Lane" in the development of Westminster (apparently the location of Sugar Loaf Farms) got its name.

  2. Thanks, Blinky! I hadn't even noticed there was a Sugar Loaf Lane there, but sure enough, there is! That would be where they got the name (of the street). Just south of there, on a cul-de-sac on Constance Drive, is an old house. Scharf says John Mitchell bought the property and did extensive renovations. I haven't researched it yet (a future post someday), but that house was either built by Mitchell, or is the old Mendenhall house that he added on to.

    1. I don't see an old house on Constance Drive?

    2. The house is closer to Constance, but the driveway is actually off of Newgate, on the right. It sits back a ways with a lot of trees around it, so I don't think it's very visible from the street. If you look at Google or Bing maps, you can see it.

  3. That's just down the street from me, I'll have to check it out. I would have never thought that the old farm house was still around as the entire area is surrounded with much newer homes.

  4. You'd probably be surprised how many houses like that there are in the area. At least I was when I started poking around and began finding them. It's actually an idea I have for a future post. "Old Houses I Know Very Little About Except That They're Old and Tucked Away in the Middle of Newer Developments Where Nobody Knows They're There". Although I'll probably clean up the title a bit.

  5. This is very cool! I just found your blog.
    I am a MCH native, local history geek, and believe it or not grew up in the Mendenhall house. The garage/barn you refer to is in fact an early structure and can be seen in both photographs above. It has new siding, windows, and roof but is framed with hewn lumber with pegged mortis and tenon joints. Also the foundation of the large barn seen to the right in the panoramic image remains. Based on my investigations it seems the saw milling took place at the same site either in the lowest level of the mill building or in an adjoining structure. I have also read of earlier mills on the site dating from the revolutionary period. This seems likely also because the house dates to well before the arrival of the Mendenhall's in Mill Creek.

  6. Stephen -- Wow! Thanks so much for commenting, and sorry it took me so long to respond. I suspected that the garage was old, but I wasn't sure. Thanks for clearing that up. I'd love to hear anything else you know about the property (or about anything else interesting you've found). If you ever care to, email me at the address found on the "About" page linked to above. Thanks, I'm glad you like the site, and thanks for stopping by!

  7. I recently came across the earlier history of the site, for those interested. According to county deeds,

    Aaron Mendenhall purchased 196 acres and a mill from Daniel Nichols in 1763. Nichols purchased same from John Buckingham in 1751. Buckingham purchased the land (no mention of the mill) from William Emmitt in 1744. So it would seem the earliest mill was built 1745-1750 by John Buckingham.

    To fully close the loop, William Emmitt purchased the land in two parcels (1727 and 1729) from William McMechen. McMechen was apparently a physician living at Christina Bridge; he purchased 961+ acres from the original Letitia Penn Aubrey grant (Letitia's Manor).

  8. Walt -- I think I may have gotten some incorrect info before. New info I've found plus what you wrote sends me in a different direction. The deeds you found ... is there by any chance anything you could send me about them? Links or scans? Or did you se them in person? I think I need to rewrite a Mendenhall post soon. Thanks.

  9. Nevermind, Walt, I found it. And regarding your comment on the Forum, I agree that they have lots confused -- several of them, I think. Part of it may be the Stoney Batter-Mill Creek area, but the Mendenhall properties with the mills are almost certainly this (the post) property. I think they have pieces of the entire area from Stoney Batter up to Mendenhall Mill Rd, on both sides of Mill Creek. In their defense, though, it's really confusing. I'm not sure there's any way to definitively determine exactly what spot every transaction in refering to.

  10. For the record, with respect to the Mill Creek mills, the DELDOT report connects the northern property at Aaron Mendenhall's mill with the southern property at Mermaid-Stoney Batter Road. Not hard to do, but not correct. Scott's posted information has been dead-on, IMO.