Friday, April 13, 2012

The Robert Graham House

The Robert Graham House
While some of the (I'd say, to most people) surprisingly large number of 150+ year old homes in Mill Creek Hundred are relatively well known and fairly visible, others are a bit more "off the beaten path". And while these hidden gems may be less well known and less viewed, they are by no means less significant. In fact, one such house -- the Robert Graham House (entered into the National Register in 1997) -- tucked away on Crossan Road north of Corner Ketch hides within its walls an interesting and, to the best of my knowledge, pretty rare example of a building type that was common in its time. When looking at the house, the section that most looks "old" is the stone wing on the west end, closest to the road. However, it's actually the center section, hidden beneath a weatherboard exterior, that's the oldest part. To get the full story, though, we have to go back even further.

In 1714, a Quaker named Daniel Worsley purchased 250 acres from William Penn's son, and about ten years later erected a brick house for his family. This house, now known as Penn Manor, still stands about a half mile north of the Graham House, in the development of Thistleberry Farm. (If I can find a bit more info, I'd very much like to write a post about this house, too.) Upon Worsley's death, the estate passed to his daughter Sarah, who married another Friend -- James Thompson. In 1750, Thompson purchased an adjacent 100 acre tract to the south of the original 250 acre farm. It was on this 100 acre lot that the Graham House would be built.

When James Thompson passed away in 1783, both the 250 and the 100 acre tracts went to his son Daniel (after Daniel bought out the half share of the larger plot from his sister Grace and her husband, Moses Pennock). James' 1783 Will made no mention of any structures located on the 100 acre portion. However, in 1798 Daniel was assessed for, among other things, three log tenements. It is believed that one of those log tenements was the center section of the Robert Graham House. This would put its construction date somewhere around 1790, give or take a few years. At this time, more than half of all dwellings in MCH were log, and I would surmise that an even higher percentage of tenements and secondary housing were. What's hidden under that white siding was a very typical home for its time -- one that would have dotted the rolling hills of the hundred. But due to the nature of the material, changing styles, and the fact that many were secondary rental units, very few have survived the centuries.

The original log house was a one room structure with a loft, and a lean-to on its east side. It was oriented north, facing toward Penn Manor, where this section's door still faces. The logs are almost completely covered now, with a few of them visible only from the basement. Only the deep set window sills hint at the presence of the logs beneath.

Fireplace in the original log section

At his death in 1809, Daniel Thompson bequeathed (that's a word I don't use nearly enough) the 100 acre tract to his son Joshua, who resided in Chester County. In 1814, Joshua sold 24 acres of his 100, including the log tenant house, to a man named Robert Graham. In addition to giving it its name, Graham also added the most visual part of the structure -- the two story stone wing -- around 1820. It seems likely that at the same time he built the stone section, Graham also raised the log house up to a full two stories. In doing this building, Graham made two decisions that were not typical of the time, possibly because of his financial situation. First, he opted to add on to the log house, instead of just demolishing it, which many were doing around this time. (The trend in the early 19th Century in MCH was to upgrade from log to stone, but more often than not the old log structure was removed.)  Second, he chose not to symmetrize (yes, it's a real word) the sections, keeping the rooflines separate. This may also have been due to the topography of the lot, too.

My feeling is that Graham's decisions all came back to his situation at the time. He needed a larger home (there were 11 people in his household in 1820), but may not have been able to build a stone house large enough. Remember, he had only a 24 acre farm, so he probably didn't make his living from farming. What exactly he did do is not quite clear. The NRHP form speculates that he was likely a merchant of some sort, possibly a shoemaker, but provides little else. Scharf offhandedly mentions a Robert Graham who kept a hotel on Polly Drummond Hill around 1834. If the timeframe was a few years later, it could possibly be the same guy, but there's no way to know. In later censuses, there's a Robert Graham who was born in Ireland around 1790, and who died in 1881. Again, it's only speculation as to whether it's the same person.

In any case, after more than doubling the size of the house and residing there for 23 years (as well as erecting a frame barn, the stone foundation of which is still present in the backyard), Graham sold the property in 1837. It's not stated to whom he sold the house, but it's thought that for a while, at least, the property was again utilized as a rental property. Sometime before 1849, it was purchased by a Pennsylvania farmer named John Parker, whose family would own it (more less) for the next 65 or so years. Records seem to imply that Parker was not a particularly wealthy farmer, so it's not surprising that no major improvements or renovations were undertaken during his ownership.

Rear of the Robert Graham House
 After John Parker's death in 1886, the property ended up with his son Samuel, who resided there until his own passing in 1912. Two years later, it was sold to Clara Crossan, who owned it for the next 18 years. Presumably it was during this time that the road in front of the house, which doesn't even appear on maps through at least 1881, was given it's name. Crossan sold the house in 1934 to James Lee Pryor of Wilmington. Pryor apparently didn't live in the house, but did initiate the first construction on the house in over a century. In the two years he owned in, Pryor added the frame addition onto the rear of the stone section. The next owners, Samuel and Margaret Rogers, added the frame wing on the east end, which originally included a three-car garage. Sometime in the past 15 years, the garage seems to have been converted into a living space.

The frame barn, built by Robert Graham in the 1820's, survived until the mid 1950's when it was struck by lightning and burned. The ruins of the stone foundation were incorporated into the landscaping of the property by the Larsons, who purchased the house in 1945. It seems that it wasn't until the 1990's that the true historical significance of the house was discovered, when the nature of the log section was determined. After the stone block was built about 1820, the house as a whole was always described as "stone", implying that the log section may have been stuccoed soon after, hiding the original log construction. The Robert Graham House was never one of the larger or more impressive-looking homes in the area, but it is surely important nonetheless. Each of its three easily-distinguished sections tells its own unique story of the progression of Mill Creek Hundred.


  1. Hello, would you know if Lee Pryor, who bought the house in1934, had an Indian Motorcycle dealership in Wilmington, Delaware? Thanks, Klaus.

    1. Maybe, but I haven't found proof. After some quick digging, I found that this James lee Pryor was born in MD in 1904, probably to Harley and Olilia (Olivia?) Pryor. In 1929 he married Eleanor. In 1930, they lived in Wilmington and he was a salesman for an auto company. In 1940, they lived north of Centerville in the household of Harry and Jane DuPont Lunger, at their estate of Oberod.Eleanor was a private nurse for the family, and James was an antiques merchant.

      Later, Pryor owned an appliance dealership in Wilmington and was active in national trade groups. I even found a later reference to him having to do with real estate management in Newport.

      I found one reference to a Lee Pryor having an Indian dealership in Wilmington (and a son named John), but I can't be sure it's the same guy. However, Pryor did seem to have a hand in multiple businesses, and he did have an early automotive connection. Very well could be him, but I haven't found good proof yet.

  2. I never realized that you had sent me a response, many thanks for that! The Lee Pryor I am looking for indeed had a son named John. Interesting that you found out that Lee Pryor lived in the household of Harry and Jane DuPont Lunger. John Pryor sold an old Indian motorcycle to a Paul DuPont. Almost seems to be too much of a coincidence. Do you think it would be possible to somehow get in touch with John Pryor? Thanks again, and I promise to respond quicker this time.

    1. I'm glad I seemed to be on the right track. I don't know how much more help I'd be, though. I don't recall finding any more or recent info on John.