Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Plumgrove Farm

In the last post, we took a fairly in-depth look at the life and works of Dr. Caleb Harlan (1814-1902), originally of Milltown. We touched on his family roots, his work as a homeopathic doctor, his poetic writings, and his instrumental role in establishing the Ferris School. To be honest, when I set out to write that post, that was pretty much all I had planned to write about. I either knew or had read little bits about all those topics, and figured that's all the post would be. However, while researching Dr. Harlan I did come across one topic that had eluded me before, and which was mentioned in the post. This in turn led to what I think was the most exciting part of the story, and one that, I believe, even ties into another one of our "ongoing investigations" here on the blog.

To be more specific, the subject in question is Harlan's 1876 agricultural treatise "Farming with Green Manures, on Plumgrove Farm". It's a highly thought-out and fairly scientifically-approached work that advises farmers on how best to use the idea of green manures on their fields. This process involves strategically planting cover crops in certain fields, then plowing this vegetation into the soil in order to replenish nutrients. The concept was not new in the 1870's (heck, it's really just a better version of the centuries old idea of crop rotation), but Harlan approached it in a very scientific way, always looking for better methods to use. The ideas he espoused in his book were not just theoretical -- they were based on years of actual experimentation.

As you could probably guess, this experimentation took place on a property owned by Harlan, known as Plumgrove Farm. There is little actual information (at least that we could find) about Plumgrove Farm, aside from a few basic facts. These are that Harlan purchased the property in 1863, and that it's always described as being "a few miles from the city". This would tend to narrow down its location to approximately most of northern New Castle County. There are, however, two other clues which seem to point to a specific location. First, there is (as far as I can tell) only one mention within the book itself that alludes to the location of the farm (not including references to features within the confines of Plumgrove itself). This comes in a remark about a field trampled by British soldiers in 1777, which sat, "In the north of Delaware, near the head-waters of Mill Creek and about three miles north-west of Plumgrove Farm...". Since we know Gen. Howe's army marched through northern MCH on their way to the Battle of Brandywine, this description fits pretty well with where Caleb Harlan's property is shown on the maps. Oh, did I forget to mention that it's on the old maps?

Beginning with the 1868 Beers map and continuing through the 1893 Baist map, there is a property labelled as "Dr. C. Harlan". As shown above, it lies just west of Mill Creek, directly south of Stoney Batter Road and east of Limestone Road. (The north-south road that runs alongside the farm has been abandoned.) For readers of this blog, if this area seems familiar, it's because I recently wrote about this property, although mistakenly so, because at the time I thought it was one tract over. If you check the 1849 map, the property is labelled as "J. Ball", which would have been John Ball. As outlined in the Joseph Ball House post, I believe John was, at the time, residing in the house now in Arundel. However, due to new information passed along by Walt C. (who has extensively studied old property records), I now agree with him that that house came slightly later to the family.

I now believe that the 103 acre parcel purchased by William Ball from his father John in 1735, and subsequently willed to his son Joseph in 1747 was this property, later bought by Caleb Harlan. The exact movement through, and use by, the Ball family of this property may be sifted through another time, but its leaving the Balls does fit the dates. Regardless of how they used it earlier, I think by the mid 1800's it was probably leased as a tenant property by the Balls. In 1861, the probable owner of both properties, James W. Ball, died. If the family were looking to sell the secondary farm then, it would likely put it available for Harlan to buy in 1863.

All this has, in my mind, two major implications. The first is that we now know exactly where Caleb Harlan did the experimentation that led to his influential book. The second is that we have a tangible link to a property occupied since at least the first half of the 18th Century. As I stated in the Ball House post, the wording of the 1747 will implies that there was a house on this property by that time, and Joseph very well may have moved into it before purchasing the tract to the south, present-day Arundel. But why would I say there's a "tangible" link? Well, because even though the farm has not been occupied for decades, at least, and is now completely surrounded by late 20th Century development, there are still traces of what may be 18th Century structures there.

Springhouse or root cellar

By studying the old maps, I had a pretty good idea of where the Plumgrove/Ball House should have been (and so could you), but I had no idea that there were any ruins. This fact was brought to my attention by Dave Olsen, who has been running and hiking through these woods since the early 1990's. As far as buildings go, there are at least three structures with visible remains, all constructed of stone. The first structure, slightly away from the other two, appears to be some sort of springhouse or root cellar. It's hard to see from the picture above, but it's reasonably tall and built into the side of a hill. Built into several of the walls are niches and contours, possibly used in the storage of whatever was held here.

The other two structures are just a short distance away, and would have been the heart of the farm. Although there's nothing to definitively identify them, both Dave and I agree that the smaller, less intact structure was the house. Just about the only thing remaining of the house is a portion of a corner, seen in the picture at the top of the post. In the thick undergrowth of summer, it was not possible to discern the perimeter of the structure to determine its size, but further investigation in the winter may yield better results.

The final building onsite is the largest and (relatively speaking) best preserved of the group. It was almost certainly the barn. Part of one wall and the foundations of the the other three are still present, and there appear to be window openings in the large wall. Measurements of the barn's size were not made, but could be at a later date. The pictures below give an idea of what is there.

Views of the Plumgrove Farm Barn
As you can see, not a whole lot remains of what was once Dr. Caleb Harlan's Plumgrove Farm. As best as I can tell, many of the fields were turning to forest by the mid-20th Century. Later in the century, suburbia crept in and filled the area with new housing. As for the old housing, unfortunately I'm not able to conclusively date the structures in the woods. Simply judging by the fieldstone construction, they look very old to me -- older than Caleb Harlan's tenure at the site. I think there's a good possibility that all three of these buildings date to the 1700's, maybe even to the early days of the Ball family's ownership of the property. If so, they may be somewhere in the range of 280 years old, and some of the oldest structures (partially) remaining in Mill Creek Hundred.


  1. Kudos, guys! That's a neat little piece of history.

    If this house is where I think you found it, I would agree that it was built by the Ball family, most likely by Joseph. Would this make it more likely that the Arundel house was built by a Robinson, before Joseph Ball took possession in 1769? Is the Arundel house contemporary with the Harlan/Ball house?

    I walked the creek below there just a week ago looking for evidence of old mill races, but I did not spot the ruins.

    Again, nice work to both of you.

  2. Amazing! I have lived in this area all of my life and I now live near this trail. I have walked the trail hundreds of times, noticed the ruins, and always wondered who might have lived there long ago. My husband noticed the bridge abutment and commented there must have been a road there at one time. He happened across your site and it is a wealth of information. I look forward to sitting on the bench near there and reading one of Dr Caleb's poems. Thank you!

  3. In addition to three stone structures is some nice stone wall near the house and barn. The wall only 2 feet high but some 50 ft long likely defines the side of the ancient north-south road going right between the house and barn. Gordon Roth