Thursday, March 3, 2011

The Justis Family in Mill Creek Hundred, Part II

Justa Justis' grave, St. James Church
 In the first part of this post, we traced the Justis family all the way from the immigrant soldier/farmer Johan Gustafsson, who arrived in 1642, through his grandson Gustaf Gustafsson, Jr. (Justa Justis) who first moved to Mill Creek Hundred, down to his grandson Jacob Justis. As I wrote in that post, my feeling is that Jacob's home, and probably that of his father and grandfather, was located just south of The Cedars neighborhood on Newport Gap Pike. After Jacob died in 1802, his land was divided between his three sons -- Joseph, Justa, and David. This generation had a very visible impact on our corner of Delaware, but the genesis of that impact may have lain in another, somewhat enigmatic, member of the Justis clan.

Whether or not any of the other local Justises had worked as builders or carpenters before is unclear, but the first local builder in the Justis family that we're aware of was Thomas Justis (c.1770-1841). He was briefly profiled in the post dealing with his house on Milltown Road, and frustratingly enough, even with all the information about the family out there, there doesn't seem to be anything stating what exactly Thomas' relationship to the other Justises is. From his age, he seems to be of the same generation as Jacob, but he doesn't seem to be a brother -- maybe a cousin? Since I can't find him mentioned by name in any Justis family history, my hunch is that maybe "Thomas" was not his given name. Perhaps it was a middle name that he adopted as an adult. Whatever his connection was, he was certainly close to Jacob's family. Thomas is mentioned in several court documents, business dealings, and wills relating to Jacob and his family. Not the least of these is a mention in Jacob's will of a payment to him for "schooling of David, a minor child".

David was Jacob's youngest son, and the "schooling" was very likely related to Thomas' work as a builder. He probably mostly built houses, but was not limited to such. Here is a mention of a payment to him for the construction of a bridge, which, if I'm reading it correctly, was the stone bridge carrying Red Mill Road over White Clay Creek. However, it was a good time to be a home builder in Mill Creek Hundred. Not only was the population growing, but the early 19th Century was a time of rebuilding in the area, with many older log and frame houses being replaced by newer, Georgian-style stone homes. By comparing some of the architectural details, it seems likely that Thomas was the lead builder on a number of local houses, including his own, the Swithin Chandler House at Newport Gap Pike and Faulkland Road, and the Justa Justis House on Duncan Road.

Justa Justis (1786-1836), son of Jacob, was also a prominent builder in the area. Although there's no direct proof of it, it seems very likely that Justa learned his trade from Thomas. Probably because of the boys' ages, Jacob's property was not actually divided until 1810, at which time Justa received a parcel on the west side of the turnpike (which at that time was still in the planning stages). Within a few years, Justa, possibly with the assistance of Thomas Justis, built a home for himself and his new wife, Catherine Springer (no, you're not imagining it -- the Justises and Springers did intermarry a lot). It's said that over the next 20 years or so, Justa was involved in the construction of many houses in the MCH area. Unfortunately, there almost no way to tell for sure exactly what houses he did build. However, I'd say that with any substantial house built between 1800 and 1840 in the area, there's a pretty good chance that Justa and/or Thomas was involved. Justa's most impressive accomplishment, though, was the grand old Brandywine Springs Hotel, built in 1827. For it's quarter century plus existence, it was likely the largest non-industrial building in the hundred.

Brandywine Springs Hotel, built by Justa Justis
Not much is known about Joseph Justis, but David, the youngest of Jacob's three sons, was quite busy in local affairs. David Justis (1797-1843) was only five years old when his father died, and was cared for by a series of relatives and friends of the family. Eventually, it seems it was he who inherited the portion of his father's estate that contained the family home. His tract was bordered on the east by Red Clay Creek, on the north by Hyde Run, on the west by the turnpike, and on the south by the Philips property (the Greenbank Mill). The tract originally contained a two-story log house, stable, and a stone springhouse (almost certainly the one along Newport Gap Pike, pictured in the last post). Sometime around 1830, he added a stone section to the log home, and about ten years later built the Justis-Jones House, which stands on the west side side of the turnpike, just above Milltown Road (he purchased the land on which it sits from his brother Justa). This house was used as a rental property, then sold shortly before his death in 1843.

Both brothers were deeply involved in the community -- Justa served as a Levy Court commissioner; David served as a Justice of the Peace, and was charged with examining the assessment book for MCH in 1838. Interestingly, there are also indications that David may have had some sort of a mill somewhere on Hyde Run. Since he didn't seem to be primarily a miller, I wonder if this could be the old corn grist mill given to his great-grandfather in 1711, or possibly a newer replacement for it. Justis family involvement didn't end with them, though. Justa's son Robert C. Justis (1824-1907) was a businessman in the area, and was elected to the state legislature in 1882. After being named as the administrator of Dr. Swithin Chandler's estate in 1888, Robert moved into a home on the northeast corner of Newport Gap Pike and Faulkland Road (demolished around 1970), where he resided for his remaining years. Robert was also a founder and president of the Brandywine Springs Railway Company (later, the People's Trolley), the trolley line that ran from Wilmington to the Brandywine Springs Amusement Park across the street.

Although it took a few generations for the Gustafsson family to make its way into MCH, this old Swedish family had a large impact on the area. Whether it was as one of the early farming and milling families in eastern MCH, as builders of the new 19th Century MCH, or as public servants and business leaders, the Justis family played a large role in the development of the area.


  1. I read these posts and you keep coming up with familiar names from my past. I went to JDHS with a Roberta Justice from DelPark? and Ed Springer from Arundel There were 2 Dericksons, Worrells and Reynolds in Sherwood 2. I couldn't have cared less then but I wonder now, if these folks are from the families you have mentioned.

    Larry T

  2. That's a good point, Larry. I have no way to know for sure, of course, but I'd be surprised if at least some of them weren't related to the old families. Through this site, I've already been contacted by several people who are descendants of historical people in posts. What I'd REALLY love is to hear from someone from one of these families who has old pictures, artifacts, or just old stories about the area. There has to be some out there somewhere.

    And incidentally, I do the same thing, too. Whenever I see or hear a name of an old family, I always wonder if there's a connection.

  3. I just stumbled onto this site while researching Brandywine Spring. I loved reading this post about my family. So interesting and so much I didn't know. Im looking forward to reading more about MCH. I will send my uncle Justa a link so that he can read it as well. Thank you for all the work you've put into this website.
    Jennifer Justis

    1. Thanks for commenting, Jennifer, and thanks for the kind words. It's always fascinating to me to hear from descendants of the people I write about. It's great to know that the families are still around, and that there are members still interested in their history. I'm also happy to hear that the name Justa is still in use. As you can see, it goes back quite far in these parts!