Saturday, March 19, 2011

The Johnson-Morris House, Part 2

The house during the Larson years, 1921-1937
 In the last post, we traced the history of the Johnson-Morris House property (Mill Creek Hundred's newest National Register entry) from the Wollaston family through the Johnsons, ending with Samuel Johnson having the land seized in 1843 to pay off a debt incurred by his father-in-law, Simon Cranston. The property next went through the hands of two absentee landlords, who leased the farm to tenants during their ownerships. In 1843, the land was purchased by Samuel Barr, a coal dealer from Wilmington. It is his name that is shown by the two houses on the 1849 Rea and Price map. Ten years later, Barr sold the tract to a dentist from Philadelphia, Thomas Pedrick.

Pedrick owned the house for only two years, and in 1855 sold the property to John Ridgway (1803-1875). Ridgway, along with his wife Sarah, daughter Sarah, and sons David and James moved to Delaware from New Jersey. (Well, if they didn't move directly here, they were at least likely living in NJ in 1850, since daughter Sarah was born there.) Since the addition of the one-room, two-bay extension to the west wall soon after construction, it seems no major changes had been made to the house or the property. Since the two absentee owners probably did not add anything new, it's likely that the next addition to the property was erected by John Ridgway. Just north of the house (behind it), Ridgway erected a two-bay wagon shed. This, like much of the property, would be modified by a later owner.

From all indications, Ridgway engaged exclusively in agricultural pursuits. What became of the mills is unclear, but interestingly, the 1860 census lists James Scott as Ridgway's nearest neighbor. Scott is listed as a "Miller", but I don't see that he's connected to any of the mills further upstream near Old Coach Road. Perhaps he ran one of the mills (maybe the saw mill still shown on the 1849 map) for a while. He was not listed in the area in 1870. Meanwhile, John Ridgway appears to have been actively engaged in the dairy business, and owned a herd of dairy cows. This is quite typical of the region at the time, as small-scale milling in the area declined and dairy production became more prevalent. John Ridgway farmed the land up until his death in 1875. At that point, the property ended up in the hands of a Wilmington storekeeper named Patrick Hughes.

The Irish grocer Hughes certainly did not live on the property, but he may have allowed the Ridgways to remain there. In the 1880 census, the widow Sarah Ridgway, along with adult children James and Sarah, is listed in about the same area. There's no way to be sure exactly where they lived, but perhaps they were forced to sell the land after John's death, then rented it back from their landlord Hughes. It's unclear how much longer they remained there, but there were likely other tenants to occupy the house before ownership changed hands again in 1890/91, ending up with the next owner/farmer, Ezra Pierce.

The 45 year-old Pierce had successfully operated several other farms before moving here, and farmed this land until his death about 1920. In January 1921, the property was purchased by Edward Larson, who had emigrated from Sweden with his family as a boy. During Larson's tenure, he carried on the dairy tradition at the site, engaging in the production of milk for sale. After Edward's death in 1927, his son Ralph carried on the dairy business until 1937. He and his mother also continued the production and sale of eggs, for which they had built a chicken house in the early 1920's. After Ida Larson sold the house and land in 1937, Ralph moved to the Christiana area, where he continued as a dairy farmer until retiring in the 1970's.

One of Judge Morris' additions
The sale of the house in 1937 would result in the biggest change to the property since the days of the Johnsons, because it was purchased by the man who had also recently bought the large tract of land to the west -- Judge Hugh Morris. When Morris first bought the old Johnson house and estate, so the story goes, his intention was to fix it up for use by his daughter after her marriage. The wedding never took place, however, and Morris eventually rented the newly-renovated house out to tenants. The renovations he undertook where quite extensive. First, he added a rear, two-story kitchen wing perpendicular to the main house. Then, in 1939,  Morris added another two-story addition, this time parallel to the main block, and located on the west end wall. He also made modifications to the exterior of the main house, too. He removed the pyramidal porch roof (seen in the picture at the top of the post) that ran along the front and west sides of the house. The door to the c.1806 addition was changed to a window, shutters were installed, and a large surround was placed around the front door. These changes were all in keeping with the Colonial Revival style popular at the time.

Not surprisingly, Judge Morris also remodelled the interior of the original house as well. Walls were removed on the first floor to merge the three original rooms into one large one. Fireplaces were removed or changed, and decorations like chair rails and crown molding were added. Also, an interior stairway to the basement was installed, where previously access was only available via an exterior cellar door. For more in-depth information about Judge Morris and all the renovations he made, see the National Register of Historic Places nomination form, painstakingly researched by the house's current owner.

Finally, to round out Judge Morris' renovations to the property, he made changes to other structures, too. He expanded the mid-19th Century wagon shed for use as an automobile garage. He also covered the property's well and water tank with a stone springhouse, using as a model a root cellar dating from Joshua Johnson's time that stands near Upper Pike Creek Road. After leasing the house for about ten years, Morris finally sold it and a few surrounding acres in 1948. The next few owners would make no major changes to the house, but would make a few modifications to the grounds and outbuildings.

The next owners were Charles and Harriet Perry, whose only major change was to convert the chicken house into a dog kennel, since Mrs. Perry raised poodles. In 1955, the Perrys sold the house to Peter and Alice Furness, who would reside there for 44 years. Most of the additions they made related to their passion for gardening. First, they added a greenhouse to the south end of the garage. Then, taking their cues from the gardens in the restored Colonial Williamsburg, they installed a number of walkways, retaining walls, hedges, and plants and trees. Finally, the Furnesses sold the property in 1999 to the current owners, the Latzkos, who have made a few additions of their own. These include an extension to Morris' rear addition, a wooden gazebo, and several stables, stalls and paddocks.

As we've seen, the Johnson-Morris House is one of the more interesting properties in our area. The property has a dynamic past, reaching all the way back to the original English settlers in Mill Creek Hundred. It has followed many of the economic and stylistic trends of the past several centuries, having been a milling and manufacturing center, then primarily a dairy property, then a Colonial Revival country estate. It, like many, also has ties to a number of the prominent families in the hundred. Luckily, it has also been graced by owners who have taken great care in preserving and expanding the property, up to and certainly including the present residents. And thanks to them, it has finally taken its well-deserved place among the other historic places of our nation.

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