Monday, December 19, 2011

The Cedars

Ad promoting the sale of lots in The Cedars
If asked to describe Mill Creek Hundred today, I think the word near the top of most people's list would be "suburban". Obviously, this was not always the case, and the transition from a rural area with a few interspersed villages to full-blown suburbia had to start somewhere. For the most part, the suburbanization of MCH took place after World War II, when all those returning servicemen (and women) wanted to move out of the cities and have room to spread out to raise their generation of Baby Boomers. I happen to live in a house that was part of that first wave of post-WWII building (it was first sold in March 1947).

However, even my neighborhood was not even close to being the first planned housing development in the hundred. A full 45 years prior, streets were laid down and lots drawn up for a housing development right next to one of the busiest places in the area. This was not a coincidence, for while the post-war flight to the suburbs was made possible by the automobile, this earlier wave was enabled by that great turn of the century aid to commuting -- the trolley. The development of The Cedars, located on Newport-Gap Pike and backing up to Brandywine Springs Park, was an example (though not a prototypical one) of what was called a trolley (or streetcar) suburb.

Trolley suburbs generally began in about the 1880's, when newly-electrified trolley lines made it possible and economical for workers to live outside the city, while still working in it. They were usually not very far outside the city, in places like Elsmere (the first trolley suburb of Wilmington, started in 1886 by MCH native Joshua T. Heald), Bellefonte, or Richardson Park. The Cedars was a little different, in that it wasn't created by "developers". As mentioned before, it was no coincidence that The Cedars was located next to Brandywine Springs Amusement Park -- it was owned by the same men who owned the park, lead by president Richard Crook. Access between the development and Wilmington was provided by the Peoples Trolley line, also owned by the same people. Crook and his group (which also included Dr. L. Heisler Ball, then a Congressman and later US Senator) were quite busy around the turn of the century, to be sure.

The 85 acres on which The Cedars would be built had been owned by David Justis until 1855, when it was sold to John Robinson. It went through another couple hands before being sold in 1900 to the newly-formed Cedars Land and Improvement Company. This company, lead by president Richard W. Crook, laid out a few streets, divided the tract into 229 lots, and began selling them in 1901. Although a few were larger, most lots were about 58 by 125 feet. And what the company was selling was just that -- lots. It was up to the new owners to build their own houses, which they did either by hiring a contractor, or by building it themselves. This, I think, is what gives The Cedars its distinctive feel. If you drive through there, you'll see a wide variety of styles that you just won't find in later housing developments, where every house is one of a handful of set plans.


While the Cedars Land and Improvement Company did not build the houses for the residents, they did service their own mortgages. Above are two pages from the mortgage booklet belonging to Joseph L. Bennett, who purchased lot number 23 (the images are courtesy of Mike Ciosek, and the Friends of Brandywine Springs). One unusual clause you might notice in the contract is that once Mr. Bennett pays off his $200 (in monthly payments of not less than $5), he will receive a deed that contains a provision that "said lots shall not at any time be used for the purpose of maintaining thereon a saloon or other place for the sale or gift of intoxicating liquors of any kind." This is not too surprising, given that Richard Crook was a supporter of the temperance movement, and neighboring Brandywine Springs was a "dry park". (Although we have found quite a few period beer and liquor bottles when excavating there -- they must have been brought in by accident.)

Newspaper ad from July 1902

Even if it couldn't sell "the good stuff", the new community would still need a small local store to service it. As it so happens, the store was run by Joseph Bennett's father, John W. Bennett. Bennett's Store, seen below, sits on the corner of Jackson Ave. and Newport Gap Pike. The store is still there (across from the Shell station), long since converted into a dwelling. Bennett's Store, incidentally, was on lot #24, and the family may have lived in a house across Jackson Ave., where the Shell station is now (lot#33). Joseph's lot was next to the store, followed, I believe, by the O'Rourke family in the larger blue house that faces Newport Gap Pike. Thomas O'Rourke was the chief carpenter for the amusement park, and many of his children can be seen in the Brandywine Springs School picture from 1905.

John W. Bennett's Store

Like Mr. O'Rourke, some of the residents of the Cedars worked in the amusement park, but by no means did all of them. The 1910 census lists about 45 separate households in the Cedars (it's actually designated as such on the census), with most of the working residents employed in various trades, or as laborers. I assume that many worked in Wilmington, commuting back and forth via the Peoples Trolley line. I do know, however, that some park workers rented houses in The Cedars during the summer, while keeping their primary residence in the city. Even if they were living in The Cedars during the summer, they likely would have appeared on the census at their primary residence, not here. Therefore, there were probably more people in the neighborhood (at least during the park season) than the census would indicate.

It's not quite clear what Richard Crook's original intent was for The Cedars -- whether it was meant as a summer cottage community, a living space for park workers, or as an independent neighborhood. Whatever the intent, it filled up fast. In addition to the lots sold initially, there were about 68 land transactions in the decade between 1903 and 1913. Judging by the present location of homes, I surmise that many people purchased two adjoining lots, to give themselves room for their house and a yard (that would create an almost square lot of 116 x 125 feet). And remember, since the company was only selling lots, not houses, it wouldn't have affected them financially if there was only a house on every other lot.

Map of The Cedars, 1912


The general store was not the only community-oriented building in the neighborhood, though. In 1908, lots 107 and 108 at the corner of Maple and Harrison Avenues were purchased by the community, and a small church was erected. It was originally a non-denominational church, but in 1911 the congregation voted to become a Methodist church. The Cedars Community Church then became the Cedars Methodist Church, which is still going strong today.

One other structure that deserves mention is the largest house in The Cedars, formerly called Spring Hill, but more recently known as the White House Bed and Breakfast. This large home south of Washington Avenue was built in 1902 by Richard Crook, and covered 24 lots. It sits right about where the old Justis-Robinson House was (which may have been razed by Crook), and will be profiled in depth in a future post.

Sales of lots in The Cedars continued until well into the 1920's, and the community continued to thrive. Of all of Richard Crook's business ventures in the area, this one has been by far the longest-lasting. The amusement park closed in 1923, and the trolley line ceased operation shortly thereafter. By that time, though, the automobile was beginning to make outlying communities like The Cedars more and more practical. Once the Great Depression and World War II had passed, many more people, and many more housing developments, would pop up in Mill Creek Hundred. The Cedars still remains as an early indicator of what the area would eventually become.

5 comments:

  1. In case anyone had looked at it already, I made some slight adjustments to the Cedars post. I modified where I thought the Bennetts might have lived, and I replaced the three pieces of the map with a full picture of the 1912 map of The Cedars. Thanks again to Mike Ciosek for the excellent scan of the map!

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  2. Nice job. I know a young couple who bought a house there a couple years ago and they will be fascinated by this information.

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  3. Great article. Looking forward to the post on Spring Hill (White House B&B). I have passed this for many years, thought it was very special and wondered about its history

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  4. This is fascinating. As the pastor of Cedars UMC at Harrison and Maple, I have been impressed by the unique character of the Cedars and the commitment of families to buy homes there through many generations. It truly is a special place.

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  5. Rosemary Presley ReicheltJanuary 30, 2016 at 12:16 PM

    I lived at 2605 Newport Gap Pike from 1964-1977. What a wonderful place to grow up. We had a lot of fun playing at Brandywine Springs Park which I consider our "backyard." If anyone out there has any photos of 2605, please share them with me at reicheltrose@yahoo.com This was and always will be home to me. Thank you!

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