Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Mitchell Farm, aka, The Woodside Farm Creamery

There were, and still are, many old farms in Mill Creek Hundred. There are many old families in the hundred. There are many new businesses, too. But rarely will you find one venture that incorporates all three of these traits into one enterprise, the way you see with the Woodside Farm Creamery on North Star and Valley Roads, south of Hockessin (and rarely are they as delicious, either, but I digress). It might sound a bit odd to call a business entering its 14th year of operation "new", but in relative terms, this one is. While Woodside Farm Creamery may be less than a decade and a half old, the Mitchell family has been working this same land for well over two centuries. In fact, the current creators of (in my opinion) Delaware's best ice cream are the sixth and seventh generations of the family to live and work on the farm. Through their hard work and dedication to the land, a little bit of old Mill Creek Hundred has been preserved.

The Mitchell family story in America began sometime before 1750, when three children made the perilous voyage from England only, as the story goes, to have their parents die at sea. The children settled in and around Philadelphia, and one of the children, Joseph Mitchell (1725-1815), had a son named Thomas. For some reason, in 1796 Thomas Mitchell (1750-1827) decided to leave his home in Pennsylvania and purchase 1000 acres in Mill Creek Hundred. Very likely, Thomas and his wife Lucy initially built a small log house for their family, but it didn't take long for them to upgrade their homestead. In 1804, Thomas built a two and a half story, three bay stone house for his family, which included a daughter, Hannah, and a son, Joseph. The Mitchell tract was vast and mostly wooded, so the first few generations were spent largely clearing and working the land, and dividing it up between the sons of the next generation.

Thomas' son, Joseph Mitchell (1784-1876), was the next to work the family land. Joseph and his wife Sarah had eleven children, eight of whom survived into adulthood. Of the eight, five were sons, and all of them at one time worked the land on or around their grandfather's stone house. Thomas (1812-1872) lived at one time on the piece of land on the west side of North Star Road, then later moved to Chester County. Stephen (1814-1895) lived in a house a little farther down North Star Road. John (1818-1897) was mentioned in the comments of the Mendenhall Mill post, as he bought (among many other lots) the original Mendenhall homestead near Brandywine Springs. He also briefly owned the house still standing along Little Baltimore Road, just east of the Mitchell house. (Interestingly, he also was married to (not at the same time) two of the daughters of David Eastburn. Those Quaker families were very close.) Abner (1827-1895) lived in the house just south of the main house, along North Star Road.

The youngest of the five sons was Joseph (1829-1919), and it would be he who would inherit Thomas' stone house. Exactly what that house looked like at the time is not quite clear. At some point, a two-story frame addition was added to the west end of the house -- opposite to where the current frame section is. This was probably built by one of the Josephs, my guess being the elder. In the early 1880's, the younger Joseph removed the frame addition, and moved it to another site for use as a tenant house. On the east end of the stone house, where there once was a lean-to kitchen, he built the three-story addition we see today. Joseph also remodeled the interior of the house, removing several fireplaces, among other things.

The house next went to Joseph's son, J. Howard Mitchell (1856-1933). Joseph moved just north to a house on the east side of Valley Road (possibly the relocated addition), probably around the time of J. Howard's 1883 marriage. The next year brought the arrival of their first son, Henry C. Mitchell (1884-1974). At some point in the 19th Century, the farm started becoming prosperous enough for the Mitchells to move beyond simple subsistence farming. They began taking products like potatoes, pork, eggs, and poultry into Wilmington to sell. Their main product, though, was butter. In order to make the butter, the Mitchells had a herd of Jersey dairy cows on the farm. The Jerseys were kept because their milk has a higher fat content, which is desirable for butter-making. (The traditional black and white dairy cows we think of are Holsteins, which are more common. Jerseys are smaller and usually tan. Think Elsie, the Borden's mascot.)

Oct. 22, 1933 obituary for J. Howard Mitchell

In 1928, the Mitchells (probably lead by Henry at the time) decided to change the focus of their farm, and went full-time into the dairy business. They had already been producing milk for use in butter-making, and decided to just sell the milk directly. For 33 years, Woodside Farms (I know it was called that by at least 1933, as the above obituary shows) sold milk from its Jersey cows. By the early 1960's, the dairy industry was a difficult place for a small farm to operate, so they discontinued their milk production in 1961. For the next three and a half decades, led by Henry's son Joseph, the current patriarch of the family, the Mitchells kept the farm alive with smaller-scale operations like selling produce, eggs, flowers, pumpkins, and poultry to local residents, and augmenting their income with off-the-farm work here and there. (Here is an interview with Joseph and Kathryne from 1992.)

That all changed in 1998, when two years after celebrating two centuries on the farm, the Mitchells opened the Woodside Farm Creamery. The fabulous ice cream they sell onsite and at several other outlets is produced on the farm, from the latest Jersey herd to graze Thomas Mitchell's green pastures. From Thomas, all the way down to Joseph (and his wife Kathryne) and their children Jim and Debbie, there is an unbroken line of seven generations, and over 200 years, of Mitchells working this tract. Thanks to the obvious love that this old family has for their land, we have a little piece of historic Mill Creek Hundred to enjoy (not to mention the ice cream, and the fudge, and the pies...).

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