Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Hickman Blacksmith Shop and House

Hickman Blacksmith Shop and House
 The last several posts I wrote (on the Eastburn-Jeanes Lime Kilns) were about one of the more unique businesses in Mill Creek Hundred. This one on the other hand, deals with one of the most common occupations of the 19th century -- blacksmith. For much of the century, grist mills and blacksmith shops were the two most common industrial sites in MCH, with as many as one in four such sites being a blacksmith shop. But while there are a fair number of mills still standing in one form or another, the Hickman Blacksmith Shop on Greenbank Road in Marshallton is probably the only extant example of a 19th century (albeit barely) blacksmith shop in the hundred. When paired with the adjacent house that predates the shop by about 40 years, it's easy to see why this site was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1994.

The early history of the property on which the house and shop sit is intertwined with that of the Springer-Cranston House on Stanton Road. This property (and much of what is now Marshallton) passed through several hands before being purchased in 1833 by Simon Cranston (1768-1856). In the intervening years before Simon's death, it's not clear whether he still owned the land or whether title went immediately to his son James (1807-1887). In either case, documentary and stylistic clues point to the 2-story, single-pile, side-passage frame house being built around 1860. Likely, this means it was built by James Cranston soon after his father's death. The house was built as a tenement, one of many that the Cranston family owned and rented out. The records I've seen don't indicate who lived in the house for its first 40 years, but my own personal conjecture would be workers employed at the Marshall Rolling Mill on Red Clay Creek. The original house was not particularly large, only about 24' x 19', with one room on the first floor and two bedrooms on the second. For the time, though, it was probably a very comfortable home for a working-class family.

Hickman House, showing rear addition
By 1899, ownership of the house had passed to James Cranston's son Edwin, who in that year sold it to Erasmus Hickman (1858-1943), a blacksmith who had previously resided near Mt. Cuba, among other places. It's likely that Hickman moved to Marshallton because his wife, Bertha Guthrie Hickman, whom he had married two years earlier, was from the village. I could find only a little bit of personal information about Hickman, outside of what was in the National Register report. He was born about 1858 in Kent County, near Milford, and he was previously married to Alverta Mills. If this is the same Erasmus D. Hickman (and come on, how many could there have been?), he also received a patent in 1886 for some sort of harness buckle. I imagine it is the same man, because that sounds like just the kind of thing that a blacksmith would create.

So at age 41, Erasmus Hickman bought a house in Marshallton, and immediately erected a blacksmith shop for himself. The shop he built is a 1-1/2 story frame building with a stone foundation, measuring about 23' x 29' -- actually larger than the footprint of the house. The end facing Greenbank Road has two large sliding doors which were replaced in the 1930's, but are identical to the originals. The whitewashed wall outside the doors still has the metal rings attached that were used to tether horses. By the time Hickman was working in Marshallton, horses were the main focus of his work. At another time I may do a more in-depth post about the evolution of the blacksmith in the 19th century, but for now, suffice it to say that most of the work Hickman did centered around shoeing horses. He probably still did some small manufacturing work (like hinges and other small metal pieces), but primarily the early 20th century blacksmith was a farrier (a shoer of horses).

 Above is a diagram of the layout of Hickman's shop as it was early in the century. Interestingly (well, to me at least), the National Register report twice mentions that elements of the shop (some posts and the stairs to the loft) appear as if they were reused from an earlier structure. I have an idea about that that I can in no way support, but I'll lay it out anyway. It is known that early in the 20th century (presumably by Erasmus Hickman soon after he bought the house) there were two additions built onto the rear of the house. On the back left side (away from the shop) there was a two-story section that housed a dining room on the first floor and a bedroom on the second, and a one-story (raised to two in the 1990's) kitchen. There is no mention of a kitchen wing being present before this, but since the original 1860's house does not seem to contain one, I wonder if there was an attached or separate kitchen present to service the tenement house. If there was, Hickman would have razed it, and may have reused some material for his new shop. Again, this is just my own, very unsubstantiated, theory.

As the automobile continued its rise to prominence over the first few decades of the 20th century, the need for the blacksmith's services slowly faded away. This, combined with his advancing age, caused Hickman to give up his trade sometime in the early 1930's. (For many years, Hickman also used the shop and an adjoining pigeon coop to raise squabs for sale. This fascinating side industry, I think, will be the topic of a forthcoming post.) For a few years in the mid 30's he rented his shop to the state highway department (maybe as a repair shop? I'll have to find out), and in 1939, Charles Connell of Elsmere began renting it for his roofing business. The blacksmith shop, which was sold by Bertha Hickman two years after her husband's death in 1943, has been used and/or preserved by the Connells ever since. In 1959, the house was purchased by the Seemans family, who have resided there and lovingly maintained the old home for over half a century now. Thanks to the efforts of these families, we're fortunate to have the only remaining example of a 19th century tenement house and blacksmith shop in Mill Creek Hundred.


  1. very informative and interesting blog.
    Thanks for sharing:-)

  2. Nice post Scott! Keep up the good work.