Monday, May 16, 2011

William Montgomery House

Sometimes, it seems as if all of the surviving 18th and early 19th Century houses in Mill Creek Hundred were, until recently at least, the anchors to large properties. Today, some still sit on relatively large tracts, while others have sold off all but an acre or two, leaving the old home nestled in the middle of a newer suburban neighborhood. There seem to be relatively few examples of old houses from smaller properties (or properties long since whittled down) surviving the years. And since most of the remaining old homes are farmhouses, it sometimes gives the impression that 150 years ago everyone in this part of Delaware was engaged in agriculture.

While it is true that most residents were farmers or farm laborers, there were many others who engaged in a multitude of other occupations. However, someone like a blacksmith, a cabinet-maker, or a shoemaker didn't always need as large a property as did a farmer (although some did do both). These smaller tracts and their accompanying homes were more vulnerable to being lost, leaving us with fewer examples of homes of 19th Century artisans. One that did survive, though -- The William Montgomery House -- has also been protected by the fact the the main road it was once on was shifted years ago, leaving it quiet and secluded (relatively speaking).

The William Montgomery House (placed on the National Register of Historic Places -- photos here --in 1988) sits on the west side of Old Limestone Road in Milltown, which incidentally was once a true little community, and was known as "Milltown" at least as early as 1777. The house is a 2-1/2 story, three bay design constructed of native fieldstone. Best estimates say it was built around 1805-1810, with a 2 story addition added to the south end in the 1950's. This 20th Century addition, though, sits atop an earlier 19th Century foundation, most likely from a long-gone lean-to wing. The exterior, with its symmetrical three bays and left-side door, shows a definite Georgian influence, while the interior is more like the earlier Penn Plan design. Like many homes in rolling Mill Creek Hundred, the Montgomery House is a bank house, built into the land sloping down to Mill Creek behind it. Ground access is to the first floor in the front, and into the basement in the rear. And while the house now sits on a small plot, it once was part of a larger property.

The original owner of that larger property, William Montgomery (1770-1838), is one of those figures about whom there is precious little information. The Montgomery family was a prominent one in MCH in the 18th Century, and William was no doubt part of this family. However, I haven't been able to definitively nail down just where in the family he fits. One interesting possibility though, is that he may be related to an Alexander Montgomery. Scharf relates that the nearby mill (later the site of the Harlan-Chandler Mill) was first erected by Alexander Montgomery and David Robinson in 1747. Going by the dates, this makes it possible that Alexander could have been William's grandfather, but I can't find proof of that. All we do know for sure is that William was not listed as a landowner in the 1804 tax assessment, but was shown as owning a stone house in 1816. A stone on the front of the house has inscribed in it the date "1789", but unless the house was built and owned by someone else first, the date likely does not commemorate the construction of this house.

Montgomery, with his wife Jane and seven children, lived in the house until his death in 1838, at the age of 68 (he is interred at Red Clay Creek Presbyterian). The property at the time included a little more than 150 acres -- a sizable estate, but not the largest around. After William's death, about 40 acres (14 around the house and another lot of 26 acres) were given to Jane, his widow. The remaining 117 acres were sold to Zachariah Derickson, the husband of the Montgomery's daughter, Martha. (Zachariah was also the brother of Aquila Derickson.) Three years later, in 1842, Jane Montgomery gave the house and its 14 acres to Derickson, as well. This ended the Montgomery's ownership of the house, although I think that Jane may have still owned the other 26 acre lot, as the 1850 census shows her still as a landowner in the area.

In 1842, Zachariah Derickson, son-in-law of the late William Montgomery, sold the house and its surrounding 14 acres to George P. Allcorn, who also happened to be his brother-in-law (so presumably, George's wife Elizabeth was a Derickson). The property now contained only 14 acres, too small for a profitable working farm, but perfect for Allcorn -- he was a shoemaker. It was Allcorn who then added the last major structure on the property. In 1852, the property was shown as containing a frame stable, built by Alcorn and probably used by him as a workshop for his shoemaking. The building has been modified a few times over the years, and is now used as a garage. Oddly, like the Montgomerys before them, the Alcorns also had a family of nine in the 21' x 28' house. (People needed far less room then than now.)

The National Register paperwork states that Allcorn then sold the house in 1855 to George Harrison, a 62 year old farmer from Maryland. Alcorn didn't move very far, though, since he's still listed adjacent to the house in the 1860 and 1870 censuses; the 1868 Beers Map shows his house on Milltown Road, just east of McKennan's Church Road. (Perhaps the 26 acre lot previously owned by Jane Montgomery?) Harrison may have been a semi-retired farmer by that point, so a smaller property would have been just right for him. The Harrisons only occupied the house until 1867, when they sold it to Lemuel Jones.

The Joneses lived there until Lemuel's death in 1887, when William Montgomery's old home was sold to George Gebhart. Gebhart occupied the house until 1899, when he, in turn, sold it to Jonas S. Klair. We know Klair did not live in the house himself, since he resided in the McKennan-Klair House on Limestone Road. The house stayed in the Klair family until 1933, and the next owner would reduce the house's lot to 4-1/2 acres. A few owners later, in 1957, the house was purchased by Mr. and Mrs. A. Felix DuPont. It was the DuPont's (who did not live in the house themselves) who added the frame addition to the south end of the house. For most of the 20th Century (and really since George Allcorn's residency), the house was more or less a quiet country home, with a small working farm (until 1937, at least).

The house today, along with the Harlan-Chandler Complex, is the only remaining reminder of old Milltown. Its chances for survival were greatly helped in the early 1960's when Limestone Road was rerouted to its present configuration slightly east, making Old Limestone Road a quiet residential street, and not a major thoroughfare. Even more recently, a proposal to build a strip mall on the land between the house and Limestone Road was defeated, ensuring that the property will remain relatively quiet for the time being.


  1. By the way, for what it's worth, I was looking over the old aerial photos, and I'm pretty sure the house George Allcorn moved to stood in the area that is now in between Milltown Road and Old Milltown Road. It was across from the Cynwood Club Apartments, about where there is a bus stop now. I don't remember the dates of the pics I looked at, but I think it may have been there up until the 1960's.

  2. I've found out that William Montgomery served in the War of 1812, and apparently rose to the rank of Captain. In the 1820 census, he is listed as "Cpt. Wm. Montgomery". I still have to believe he was related to Alexander Montgomery, who was in the area by at least the 1740's, but I've still yet to find a definite link.