Friday, November 19, 2010

Thomas Justis House

Thomas Justis House
As I do these posts, the thing that continues to amaze me is how each site, no matter how routine it seems like it will be, ends up having its own interesting and unique story. (I also like it when they perfectly illustrate a point I've already made, but more on that in a moment.) This was the case again once I started digging into (not literally -- don't worry) the Thomas Justis House, located on Milltown Road next to St. John the Beloved Church. I had always known the house was there (it's right on a main road, not hidden away like some), but I had assumed it was just another old house, without much of a story to it. Why I continue to think things like that, I have no idea.

The first section of the Thomas Justis House was built by its namesake sometime between 1804 and 1816. How we know this provides an excellent example of the rebuilding of the area, as detailed in a recent post. In the 1804 county tax assessment, Justis was shown having a log house and a log barn. In 1816, he was assessed as having a stone house and a wood barn. This new stone house, which is the western (left, as you look at it) section of the house, was built as a typical three-bay, double pile (two rooms deep), side passage Georgian home. Although it's difficult to tell from the street since the entire facade is whitewashed, the section to the right of the door is of frame construction, and was added around 1900. Interestingly, though, a few clues in the basement of the 1900 section (like the construction of the foundation walls, and a large supporting arch with no chimney above it) suggest that the original log house may have stood where it is now. It may have been demolished when the stone section was built, or the stone part may have originally been an add-on to the old log house. Also, the large stone hearth at the back of the one-story, frame, rear kitchen wing is obviously older than the wing itself. It likely was part of an older addition, or possibly a free-standing kitchen building. There's also a possibility that it was originally part of the 18th Century log house, then reused as a kitchen hearth.

And as for the construction itself, this time, when we say "[the] House was built by its namesake", we almost certainly mean it literally. There is actually very little known about Thomas Justis, except that he was born about 1770, married Mary Wollaston in 1799, and died in 1841. The only other major thing we know is his profession -- house carpenter. In fact, it seems that not only was he a builder of houses, but he was a busy and important one in the Mill Creek Hundred area. Details of the houses suggest that Thomas Justis (or at least, men who worked with or for him) was responsible for many of the early 19th Century houses still standing in the area, including his own, the Swithin Chandler House cattycorner from Brandywine Springs, the 1818 section of the McKennan-Klair House, and the Justa Justis house on Duncan Road.

Kitchen wing hearth, possibly from an earlier structure
And through Justa Justis, Thomas very possibly links himself to even more construction in the area. Although Thomas was certainly related to Justa Justis (the Justis family dates back to the original Swedish settlers in Delaware), no concrete link can be found. And with Thomas being about twenty years Justa's elder, it's quite possible that Justa learned his trade (he, too, was a builder) from Thomas. For a time, Justa Justis would be the premier builder in the area, building, among other things, the largest and most lavish building in the area -- the first Brandywine Springs resort hotel, in 1828 (in fact, I'd be surprised if Thomas himself didn't work on the project). This educational link is more than just wild speculation -- there is evidence that Thomas and Mary, who had no children of their own, did house and school a number of children through the years.

After Thomas' death in 1841, his widow Mary was forced to sell the house in order to repay debts. The next two residents were both doctors -- Dr. Alexander Lowber lived there from 1842-1854, and Dr. Watson Quinby resided there for the next three years. Although Thomas Justis had farmed his land in addition to being a builder, it wasn't until William Derickson bought the property in 1857 that the house was occupied by a full-time farmer. William was the son of Zachariah Derickson, and the nephew of Aquila. He grew up on the Derickson Farm on McKennans Church Road. In 1884, the house was bought by farmer John Ball. Aside from being a successful farmer, he was also the father of Lewis Heisler Ball -- doctor, Congressman, Senator, and officer in several companies (including Brandywine Springs Amusement Park). John Ball sold the house in 1899 to his son William, who lived there until his death in 1914.

The National Register of Historic Places  (to which the house was added in 1993, pictures here) form implies that the post 1915 residents of the house did not farm the land, and the house changed hands several times from then until 1941, when it was purchased by Roy and Harriette McClenahan, in whose family the house remained until just last year. There are several interesting mysteries surrounding this house (How did Thomas fit into the Justis family?, Was the east basement built for the log house?, Was the kitchen hearth part of the log house?), and maybe someday we'll find the answers. In any case, this house is unquestionably more interesting and locally significant than I'll bet most people realize.

Edit 7/12/16: It was noted recently by several readers that the Justis House is currently (2016) for sale. I've posted below some of the pictures taken from the listing. Needless to say, it doesn't look like the interior is in very good shape. I should say, though, that it may well be all cosmetic. The walls have been torn out in the rear kitchen wing, but dry wall would take care of that. New paint and the floors redone, it could be nice. I have no knowledge of the condition of the house other than these pictures, so don't take my word on it. If you're interested in saving a piece of MCH history, contact the listing agent.







14 comments:

  1. I've driven past this house nearly every day for decades and never realized its history. In fact, there are quire a few homes along Milltown Road that I suspect have interesting histories. Thanks for the post.

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  2. You're welcome. That's one of the main reasons I have this site. There's a lot of history lying around that even most long-time area residents know little if anything about.

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  3. Back in the 70's a woman named Mrs.True lived there..she was in her 70's back than and has passed..the house was very grown over and extremely scary looking but mrs. true was very friendly

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    1. Thanks for the memory. Looking at county records, her name was Katherine McClenahan True -- presumably Roy and Harriette's daughter. She owned the house until 1993. It then looks like it went to a family member, maybe her daughter, who sold it to the current owners in 2009. From the looks of it, they've done a good job with the upkeep.

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    2. I was a frequent visitor in this house in the early 60's. I believe Mrs. True was indeed the daughter of Roy and Harriette. She lived there with her mother. At that time the house was in beautiful shape. Furnished throughout with period pieces, it looked untouched from the beginning. I was told that the big fireplace was once part of the 'summer kitchen', so maybe it was in a separate building, later incorporated into the main house. I remember being very impressed with the wide plank floors, mouldings, and other details of this fine old house. I am glad it has come to people who care for it and love it. It was my dream house, hope it is theirs.

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  4. My Dad lived in this house .......his bedroom was the upper left window on the second floor.........I have a picture of my mother and grandmother taken on the side of the house before my mother and father were married.........also a picture of my two sisters and my father at the entrance of the house taken sometime in the early 60's when they were graciously given a tour of the house by Mrs. True..........I don't know if my father's family owned or rented the house when they lived there.......do you have any further information? Family name is Parsons.....my father, Samuel L Parsons and my grandfather Robert Evan Parsons.........thank you for your post!!

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    1. Might have to get back to this next week, but I can tell you that in the 1920 Census, Robert E, wife Nannie B, son Samuel L., and about 8 other kids are listed on Milltown Road, and it says that Robert owned his home. Trying to find more and I'll get back to you when I do.

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    2. He bought it November 5, 1915 from a William Butler, who bought it in April from Ann Eliza Ball. More next week....

      Oh, I also see that around 1930 he bought and then sold lots in Eastburn Heights, near the library and DE Park.

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    3. Ann Eliza (Lynam) Ball was the widow of William Ball, who had bought the farm from his father John in 1899. William himself "bought the farm" in April 1914, about the same time Ann sold to Butler, who was either sort of holding it or looking to flip it.

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    4. Ok, finally found it. Robert Parsons sold the property to Christian Jacobs on March 5, 1920. After that it must have gone through a half dozen people between then and the McClenahans buying it in 1941. I went back to look and the 1920 Census for that area and it was taken January 19. That's why they were still listed there. Hope this answers your questions. If you're interested, if you email me (mchhistory@verizon.net) I could send you the deeds.

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  5. Was just trolling the real estate ads for this area and saw that this house is for sale. Apparently the current owners started 'renovations'. It is currently fairly gutted. I remember it from my youth and how glorious it was and can only home someone with the skill and the budget to restore it buys it next.

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  6. Here is the real estate listing with photos.
    http://www.pattersonschwartz.com/Listings/601404070

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  7. Many thanks to Bubblankatt and Dirk Harrington for pointing out that the Thomas Justis House is for sale. I went to the listing and added some pictures from it to the post. Seemed appropriate since it ties in so well with the Derickson posts just completed. Thanks guys!!!

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  8. I'm just praying someone buys it with restoration in mind. I was in that house often in the early 60's and remember it well and with great fondness for its charm and warmth

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