Monday, October 24, 2011

The Robinson-Highfield House

Once in a while, we get really lucky and we'll have a great deal of information about a particular site -- who built it and when, who lived there, and a nice pile of background information about the residents. This ain't one of those sites. The Robinson-Highfield House (AFART note below), located on the northwest corner of Lancaster Pike and Loveville Road, has several very frustrating holes and ambiguities in its story. Instead of continuing to bang my head against this particular wall, I'll just lay out what I have been able to figure out about it, as well as what I haven't. And while we do know a good bit about this property, this is one of those instances where I'll have to accept that this is just a starting point for investigation into the house and its owners, and not a comprehensive history.

The first of the mysteries surrounding the Robinson-Highfield House is also the most basic -- When was it built? A 1999 DelDOT survey, which included information from earlier work in the area, states that the house was constructed in about 1850. While this is very possible, there are a couple of things that call this into question, although none of them are anything close to definitive. The first is that New Castle County Land Use records list the construction date of the house as 1820. I know that these records are notoriously inaccurate (as far as I know, they just list what someone tells them), but it makes me wonder if the owners have a specific reason for putting the date that early.

The second anomaly is that the 1849 Rea & Price map appears to show a house in the same location. Granted, this could be explained easily by the "about" part of "about 1850", but combined with the fact that someone thinks the house is several decades older than that at least raises the possibility that it is. Another odd thing about the 1849 map is that it does not have a name by the house. My guess is that it's because ownership of the property was in flux at the time the map was drawn. If the house was being built at this time, we do know by whom -- Aaron Robinson. Robinson also happens to be the next mystery in the story.

Loveville area in 1849. Arrow points to house site

Aaron Robinson (1787-1860) was 63 when he either built his new house or moved into an existing one. From the 1850 census, we also know that he lived there with his sister and brother-in-law, Rebecca and James McClellan, and their children Jacob and Margaret. Also in the household was 18 year old Nathan Chandler, a shoemaker like James McClellan, and probably an apprentice to him. There was known to have been a shoemaker's shop somewhere on the property, probably in the form of what was called a "ten footer". These were small shoe shops, usually about 10 feet by 10 feet, with everything more or less within arm's reach for the cobbler. No archaeological evidence was found for the location of the shop, but there are two main possibilities. It may have been located where a newer workshop now sits in the backyard (this would place it about where the 1868 Beers map shows it), or it could have been closer to Loveville Road, where its location would have been destroyed by the widening of the road.

As for Aaron Robinson himself, he's a bit of an enigma. Reminiscent of Thomas Justis and William Montgomery, while Aaron Robinson almost certainly is part of a well established local family, I can't seem to figure out exactly where he fits in. I've been unable to come up with any other information about him, even whether or not he was ever married or had a family. Even his occupation is not quite clear. The 1850 census lists him simply as a "Labourer", while the 1860 census (done months before his death) shows him as a "Fence maker". The only other thing we know for sure about him was that for about 10 years, he served as the postmaster for the Loveville Post Office, taking over in 1851 for the hamlet's namesake, Rev. Thomas Love. Except for what was probably a brief, emergency stint as postmistress by his niece Margaret McClellan, the next postmaster was also the next resident in the house -- Calvin W. Highfield.

In many frustrating ways, Calvin Highfield is much like his predecessor in the house. There are extensive histories of the Highfield family, but none of them seem to include Calvin. I was even sent a letter last year written in 1850 by a local member of the Highfields, sent from Loveville, but whose family's connection to Calvin's is unclear. In 1860, Calvin, a plasterer by trade, appears to be living in Marshallton, as two names down from his is Caleb Marshall, co-owner of the Marshall Iron Works. However, the 1850 census shows him and his family living near Loveville, probably on Old Wilmington Road. In 1862, they returned to this area, purchasing Aaron Robinson's home from his heirs. Soon after moving in, Calvin also took over as postmaster.

Although Calvin was not a shoemaker, the 1868 Beers map continues to show a shoe shop on the property. The 1870 census does, however, list a "boot & shoe maker" named Charles Culder (at least that's what it looks like) in the next household, so he may have been using it then. By 1880, Calvin's son Harlan was working as a harness maker. I don't know enough about the trade to say with any certainty, but it's at least possible that he may have used the old shoe shop for his work before he eventually moved to Hockessin.

According to one source, the Loveville Post Office was discontinued in 1872, with an Eva Highfield as postmistress. This probably refers to Ellen (or Elenor), Calvin's daughter, who presumably took over for her father at some point. These two were the last of the Highfields to reside in the house, and it was likely Ellen who was the daughter who sold the house in 1906, following Calvin's death, to William L. Shakespeare (not the writer). Five years later, Shakespeare sold the property to Harry Archer, and the Archer family still owns it today, although now it is a rental property.

The Robinson-Highfield House certainly has its share of mysteries to go along with its long past. Not even mentioned earlier, the Archers seem to have believed that the house may even have served as a tavern at one point, an idea probably linked with their earlier construction date for the house. Although there was an inn along the turnpike at least by 1820, it seems to have been a bit north of this property. Having said that, the possible early history of this house, much like several of its residents, has many holes yet to be filled in. I hope that over time, some of them can be added to this post.


Additional Facts and Related Thoughts:
  • The DelDOT report refers to this property as the Loveville Post Office, but I don't think that's the best name for it. It only served as a PO for about 20 years, but the Highfields owned it much longer than that. Its function as a PO was always secondary to its much longer use as a residence.
  • The writers of the DelDOT report must not have ever looked at the 1850 census, because they seem to not know who the resident shoemaker was, and James McClellan's name is never mentioned (although his children's are).
  • The more I think about it, the more I think it's likely that Aaron Robinson didn't ever have children, and may never have married. The fact that he is absent from any Robinson family trees I've seen probably is a result of having no descendants to place him there. Sometimes only our children keep us from slipping into historical anonymity. Now, go hug your child or grandchild.
  • The stone wall in front of the house was built in the 1930's, when Lancaster Pike was widened.

6 comments:

  1. Scott P, another interesting, well researched piece. From what I've read about the local taverns in this area, I don't believe that there was ever one on this site. As you pointed out, Jordan's Tavern was just north(a few hundred yards) and Bracken's just down from Jordans. Herdman's(Mt. Pleasant Inn)was just a stones throw away on Old Wilmington road.
    All of those establishments survived for 3 or more generations.
    Starting with Heald's 1820 Roads of New Castle County map you can see that there was not a tavern at this site. The location would have been ideal except for the nearby competition.
    I noticed that mapmaker used a hyphen in identifying the area as Love-ville. Hmm.

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  2. Delaware21 -- I agree. My guess would be that they are confusing it with Jordan's Tavern, which was up where the Lancaster and Newport-Gap Pikes converge (where the T. Hoopes house is on the 1849 map above). However, if they have a specific reason (something they found in the house?) to think this, I'd certainly love to hear it. If there's one thing I've learned from my research, it's that you often don't end up with the answer you think you will.

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  3. Jos. Lake states that this house was used as the western toll gate for the Lancaster Turnpike from 1818 until 1879. that may explain the earlier construction dates.
    John M.

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  4. John M -- I see that, and he even mentions the Archers by name. Personally, I think its unlikely that this was the case. Maybe its possible there was an early toll gate near here, but probably not at this house. Later on, we know there were two gates on the W&L Turnpike -- one on Lancaster Ave near where Toll Gate Liquors is now, and one near the Armour House, between 141 and Centerville Rd near the Masonic Home.

    Although I think Mr. Lake's book is great, I've come across several things in it that don't seem to jibe with what I think I know to be true. Could be the info he had access to in the 70's, or I could be mistaken. Maybe someday I'll have to try to contact him and see what things he has documentation to back up, and what was from stories he remembers or was told. As I've seen many times, very infrequently is everything cut and dried and easy.

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  5. Calvin Highfield, the plasterer, was my great-great grandfather. I would appreciate being contacted by anyone with additional information about his family. I descend from his son Benjamin. Does anyone have a record of Benjamin? Many thanks. davidhighmd@gmail.com

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    1. I've found a little info I can email to you shortly. I found Benjamin in multiple censuses. Does your line come through Edwin or Wilmer? Or another child I haven't found? I can find each one across the years. Feel free to email me (mchhistory@verizon.net) if you want to reply directly.

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