Wednesday, February 29, 2012

John Mitchell


John Mitchell, c.1870 (courtesy - Seely Family)
 I had the great pleasure recently of visiting one of the oldest and most historic homes in Hockessin. The house --which will be the subject of a future post -- is an amazing piece of history. It's been owned by several of the most prominent families in the area over the past 226 years, including spending the past 144 years in the same family. The house is now owned by Mrs. Gertrude Bell, whose grandfather purchased the property in 1868. Yes -- her grandfather. His name was John Mitchell, and he was certainly one of the most industrious men in 19th Century Mill Creek Hundred.

John Mitchell (1818-1897) was the fifth of eleven children born to Joseph and Sarah Mitchell, and grew up on his family's farm near North Star, the property now known as the Woodside Farm Creamery (featured in a previous post). Presumably, John spent his first 29 years living on the home farm, working alongside his father and brothers. In 1847, John married Sarah Eastburn, the 12th child of David and Elizabeth Eastburn. That same year, he bought a house and farm, the first of at least six he would purchase in his life. In this first home, known as Sugar Loaf Farm and located just north of Hercules Road near Newport Gap Pike, John and family would reside for the next 19 years. The house had previously been owned by Abraham Mendenhall, son of Aaron Mendenhall, and may have been built by him around 1814. After Abraham died in 1833 and several of his children moved west joining the initial westward Mormon migration, his widow Elizabeth Mendenhall continued to live here. Mitchell almost certainly purchased the property from her, and she remained either on the land or in a neighboring house after 1847.*

After moving into the old Mendenhall property, Mitchell set about improving it. He remodeled and expanded the house, and erected a new barn. Perhaps he always had this in mind, or maybe it was because of his success with this house (which still stands today), but John Mitchell would subsequently purchase and renovate several other houses in Mill Creek Hundred. One he would keep as his new residence, but the others he either sold at a profit or leased to tenants. He was sort of a 19th Century "flipper". The next property he bought was one "near the Mecannon [Red Clay Creek Presbyterian] church", as Scharf says. This may have been the J. McCormack Farm just west of his home and Newport Gap Pike, but I have not found anything confirming that. Whatever property it was (and I do hope to pin it down someday), Mitchell soon resold it and purchased another farm, this one further north and west. The new property was the former estate of Dr. Robert McCabe, located directly east of the Mitchell family's farm on Little Baltimore Road. To that house, seen below, John Mitchell likely added the dormers and probably the section on the left, although I've yet to find good information about it. In any case, as with the last property, he again resold the house, presumably for a profit.



Before he would buy another property, changes would come to the Mitchell family. John's wife Sarah, who had born the couple seven children, died in 1861. Their last child, a daughter named Mary, had died in infancy two years before. Their first child, Elizabeth, would pass in 1862 at the age of fourteen. This left John with five children ranging from 5 to 13. Two years later in 1864, John remarried -- strangely to us now, but not as uncommon at the time -- to Margaret Eastburn, the younger sister of his first wife. The arrangement does make sense, though. Margaret was 42 and unmarried, and surely knew the children very well. Margaret would bear John two more children -- Sarah, who died at 15, and John C., the father of Gertrude Bell.

John and Margaret Mitchell, c.1865

A few years after this second marriage, in 1868, John Mitchell bought the next of his properties. This one, the most historically significant of all his homes, is located on Old Wilmington Road east of Hockessin, and is the house I had the pleasure of visiting. Perhaps because of his new family situation, or maybe because he happened to like the home, John decided to move his family away from Sugar Loaf Farm to live in his new acquisition (he also may have been able to foresee that Hockessin would benefit from the forthcoming railroad). Not only would John live the rest of his life here, but the house is still owned by his family today. Known as the Cox House, and built in 1726, it also received the usual Mitchell renovations and enlargements. More details about the history of this house, including why it could be considered the birthplace of Hockessin, will be forthcoming in an upcoming post.

The Mitchells at their new Hockessin home, c.1870

The next property John Mitchell bought highlights an aspect of him not yet mentioned in the story -- his business life. In 1877 Mitchell acquired a house and mill on Evanson Road from George Springer. This sawmill, previously operated by Ephraim Jackson and then his son Haines, was one of the oldest in the Hockessin area. By this time, though, it had fallen into disrepair (it's listed as "Geo Springer" on the 1868 map). Mitchell renovated the house (which is also still standing) and updated the mill. He added a steam engine and converted part of the mill into a creamery. In 1888 he leased it to C.G. Gallagher, who converted the entire thing into a creamery. This structure may or may not have been enlarged enough to be used as a dance hall and as an overflow schoolhouse.* It's very possible that Mitchell purchased the mill because of its relative proximity to the new Wilmington & Western Railroad which had been built through town a few years earlier, and in which Mitchell was an early investor.

Farming, dairy, real estate, and railroads weren't the only things John Mitchell had his hands in, though. He was a member of the local school board (presumably the Hockessin District #29 school) and acted as the general assessor for Mill Creek Hundred. In 1872, the year the railroad was built, Mitchell opened a lumber and supply store with his brother-in-law Stephen Wilson. Located along the tracks at Lancaster Pike (it's what was later Hockessin Supply, now Casual Marketplace), the Mitchell and Wilson Company was successful enough that they sold it in 1879. But perhaps the venture that best showed his standing in the community was actually in the financial world, in Newport. Mitchell was a founding member of the Board of Directors of the Real Estate Bank of Delaware in 1859. In 1865 it became the Newport National Bank, and erected a new bank building in the town, which is still standing on Market Street, next to the ramp down from 141N.

The only one of John Mitchell's property purchases that I am totally lost on is his last one, about which Scharf writes, "...[H]e has purchased the Dixon farm, on which he has repaired the tenant house and made other improvements." I haven't found any other references to what house this might be, I don't see his name anywhere else on maps, and there are just too many places around that could be described as "the Dixon farm". If I find anything more, I'll certainly update.

Throughout his life John Mitchell was strong in his Quaker faith, and when he died in 1897 he was interred at the Hockessin Friends Cemetery, just a short walk from his home. As a practicing Quaker, John Mitchell was likely a simple man in the best sense. His life, as we've seen, was anything but simple. With ventures ranging from farming to real estate, and banking to retail sales, he was surely one of the most diverse businessmen in 19th Century MCH. The fact that at least four (and maybe all six) of his housing acqusitions are still standing 140 years later shows his eye for a good property. He is certainly one of the more interesting characters that made up old Mill Creek Hundred.



Additional Facts and Related Thoughts:
  • Elizabeth Mendenhall is listed directly prior to Mitchell in the 1850 census, but is not shown as owning real estate. She may have rented a tenant house from John Mitchell, or there may have been a provision in either Abraham's will or the deed for the property granting her a place to live.
  • In Hockessin: A Pictorial History, Joe Lake talks about the creamery and traces its lineage back to Samuel Dixon in 1750. From the ownership info, plus John Mitchell's name on an 1881 map, it's clear that it's the property on Evanson Road. However, it seems like this creamery might be being confused with another one in "downtown" Hockessin, which is the large one used as a dance hall and school. There's a picture of it in the book, which states it was on the southeast corner of Lancaster Pike and Valley Road, which would place it across from the school (Lamborn Library). The old Dixon-Jackson mill was south of there, away from the center of the village.
  • The Newport National Bank became the Newport Trust Company in 1928, but the following year became the first state bank in Delaware to fail during the Depression.

6 comments:

  1. hi scott, in the near future i'm gonna' go to the barn at delcastle gc at the managers house and try to read the date stone that i've seen on the side facing the house. probably sunday. i'll let ya' know what it says.
    mark j.

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    1. Hi, I have pictures of the date stone. How can I get them to you? I just don't know how to attach to this website.
      My email is markjulian@comcast.net.

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  2. I am a direct descendant of William Cox and would like to know how and when I can visit the Friends Meeting House and the Cox Mitchell house. I would like to be there in June.

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  3. Great blog. I am a direct descendant of John and Sarah Mitchell (great, great grandparents) and I used live on Pike Creek Road in Newark. Now that I'm older (and no longer live in DE), I'm learning so much more about the great family history that I have in DE. I'm really liking your blogs - several have been about distant relatives.

    Thanks!

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    1. Chris,
      I am from the Bell family that owns the Cox farmhouse; my Mom's Dad is
      John Comly Mitchell & his parents were John & Margaret E. Mitchell.
      Which of John Mitchell's children are you from? It would be fun to identify
      all of his descendants. Carol M.

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    2. My father was William Stinson Eastburn and his sister, Iva Mearns Eastburn married John Dennison -- all from that area. I remember as a child, in the early 1950's, visiting a Mitchell family farm, where good friends of my father's lived.

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