Wednesday, May 9, 2012

The Brown Farm, AKA "The Farmhouse"

As we've seen in through the pages of this blog, there are still quite a few historic houses scattered around Mill Creek Hundred. Most of the survivors are still being used for the purpose for which they were erected many years ago -- as private homes. A few, though, have been repurposed over the years and now serve a commercial function for their owners. Several of them -- like the Meeteer House and the Aquila Derickson House -- have been featured already. Another one that some of you may have visited sits on the south side of Old Capitol Trail, west of Stanton, between Kirkwood Highway and Delaware Park. Now a beautiful setting for weddings and other events, The Farmhouse was once, well, a farmhouse.

Like a few of the things I've written about recently, I don't know nearly as much about this house as I'd like to (yes, after almost two years I've exhausted most of the "low hanging fruit" -- the things there's a lot written about already). For one thing, I don't know exactly how old it is. Dating this house is particularly tricky, since there has been so much new construction added onto it to turn it into the reception center that it is today. What we do know is that a house at this location (in all probability the same house) is shown on the 1849 Rea & Price map as being owned by a W. Rice. At first I thought this might be Washington Rice, a Mill Creek Hundred native who became a successful grocer and businessman in Wilmington. I was probably drawn that way by the "W. Rice's Store" not far away on Old Coach Road. However, after looking through the census records from the time, I now realize it was actually a different W. Rice.

I'm now fairly sure that the (probably first) owner of the house was William W. Rice, who was certainly related to Washington Rice somehow. The Rice family had been in MCH for a while by that point, and was fairly prominent in the 18th Century. The name was originally spelled variously as "Reece", "Reese", and "Reis", along with probably a few other variations. Although they had several successful members, there's not much out there about the family, at least that I could find. I know from the 1850 Census that William W. Rice was born in about 1808, and by 1850 he was single (presumably a widower) with two sons -- 13 year old William and 6 year old Washington. There was also a 22 year old woman named Emma Heart in the household, but it doesn't give a relationship to William. Emma may have been a servant, helping with the boys -- although they are usually listed after the family -- or she may have been a widowed daughter.

Working backwards, the 1840 Census has William living in what is almost certainly the same location, but with a larger household. Larger enough, in fact, that I'd guess there's another young family living there, perhaps a brother or sister. 1830 is a bit trickier to tell, but William is definitely in the same general area, and could very well have just built the house. So going strictly by the historical clues, I think there's a good chance that William W. Rice built the original part of the house sometime in the range of 1830-1840.

I haven't found a death date for William W. Rice, but judging by his absence from the 1860 Census, I assume that he died between 1850 and 1860. It's hard to know for sure who in the 1860 Census is living in the house, but a good guess is 41 year old George Pritchard, and his (presumably) brother Joseph. If not them, then the house was probably occupied by tenants. The next owner we know for sure bought the house prior to 1868, and is listed there on the Beers map of that year.

1870 Census showing John and James Brown

John Brown (1846-1906) was the oldest child of James and Ann Brown of Christiana Hundred. James was born in England, and by 1850 was working as a tenant farmer, possibly for the Latimer family, in the area around Maryland Avenue and DuPont Road. In the next ten years, James either earned or came into a good bit of money, because in 1860 he owned his own farm worth $25,000 --  a very high-value property. It's easy to think, then, that James helped set up two of his sons with farms of their own in Mill Creek Hundred. For not only is John Brown shown on the 1868 map, his brother James, Jr. is listed as the owner of a farm directly south of The Farmhouse. James' farm lay where Delaware Park is now -- his house may actually have been very near to, if not exactly where, the track itself is.

In January 1869, John Brown married Catherine "Kate" Thatcher (c1847-1934) and the couple began raising a family in their farmhouse. They would eventually have five children reach adulthood, including one son, Edward Brown (1873-1952). Edward (like many of us) would work several jobs during his lifetime, including working as a chauffeur on the Carpenter estate in Montchanin, as an auto mechanic, and finally retiring from Continental Fibre in Newark. Notably, at least as an adult, he did not engage in farming. It's not clear exactly when John Brown sold his farm, but at some point he did.

The 1880 Census shows John and Kate (plus three) most likely still at the house. Interestingly, though, the 1881 map and the 1893 map both list the name "Jas. Brown" next to it, for John's brother James. James is listed within the same group of names in the area in 1880, but he's probably still in the house closer to White Clay Creek. If we take the maps at face value, then John sold the house to James in 1880 or 1881. The clip of the 1881 map I have doesn't extend down far enough to see who is listed at the southern farm, but the 1893 map shows James in The Farmhouse and someone else (possibly W. F. Smalley) in the southern farm.

1893 map with The Farmhouse and southern farm highlighted

Unfortunately, since the 1890 Census was destroyed we don't have another snapshot of where everyone was until 1900. By that point John, Kate, and youngest daughter Alice were living in Stanton, with John working as a teamster. Edward is listed three families later with his wife Sara Jane (who went by "Jennie") and son Albert. James is still listed as a farmer in 1900, and may have been living in The Farmhouse. I find the 1900 Census more difficult to figure out exactly where families are living. If he was still there then, he was gone by 1910, when he and wife Mary were living with family on Lancaster Pike in Christiana Hundred.

The Farmhouse property seems to have retained that purpose well into the 20th Century. Although the trailer park behind it began to be built just after mid-century, it appears that at least some of the land was still cultivated up until at least the late 1960's. Like most of the farmland in MCH, though, it was eventually developed. Unlike most of the old houses, it too was developed. Wrapped within the later additions and reception rooms of The Farmhouse still sits the farmhouse once lived in by the Browns, and probably the Rices.

Additional Facts and Related Thoughts:
  • I reached out by email to The Farmhouse, asking if they had any information on the history of the property. I have not yet received any reply, but if they do forward any additional info, I'll update the post.
  • Although my hunch is that the house was built by William W. Rice, I have to at least admit the possibility that it is later. Perhaps with his father's money, John Brown had the house constructed for himself and his bride-to-be in 1868. The family's history does not record this, however.
  • Much of the historical information I did have came from Ken Copeland, a frequent commenter on the blog. Previously, he has provided other interesting tidbits relating to the Stanton area. Ken had information about the Browns because his mother-in-law happens to be the daughter of Albert Brown.
  • Speaking of Albert Brown (grandson of John), there is a picture of him elsewhere on this blog. In the Stanton and Brandywine Springs Schools post, Albert is the boy in the front row in the striped shirt in the 1908 Stanton School picture.

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