Monday, October 1, 2012

The Stanton Mills and Stanton-Byrnes House -- Part 1

One thing I've found while doing my research -- and I have a feeling it holds true for some of you, too -- is that not all historic sites generate the same feelings in me. Don't get me wrong, I think they're all interesting. It's just that some seem to "stick with me" more than others. It might be because it's in an area I'm more familiar with, or because I find its story more interesting, or it might just be aesthetically pleasing to me. One such site that's always fascinated me is the old Stanton Mills site and the house that stood near it. They were located just south of Stanton, down towards the end of what's now Mill Road. The road, which is really an extension of Limestone Road south of Route 4, stops about half way now, but once extended almost to where Red Clay Creek empties into White Clay Creek.

So if I'm so fascinated by this site, you might ask, why has it taken me so long to write about it? Well, basically because the information about it always seemed rather confusing to me. The mill was in operation for over 200 years, but was destroyed well over 100 years ago (think about that for a moment). In cursory searches in the past, I was never able to find much about it. But as I dug some more, I came up with a decent amount of information, testified to by the fact that this ended up as a two-part post, where I wasn't sure at first that I'd have enough for one. There are still a few gaps in the story, but I now have a much clearer notion of the history of this fascinating site.

One of the reasons this site has special interest for me is that it reaches back to the very early days of European settlement in the area. In fact, the mill erected here may very well be the first one in operation in what would become Mill Creek Hundred (the Greenbank Mill might precede it by two years, but that's far from certain). Scharf (who does call it "the earliest mill in the hundred") tells us that the mill was built on land owned by Charles Rumsey and John Watkins, and was built by a group of their neighbors. On October 14, 1679, Rumsey and Watkins agreed to let the nine subscribers erect a mill on their land. These nine were: John Smith, Thomas Wollaston, Abraham Man, Joseph Barnes, Arent Jansen, Olla Thomason, Jacob Jansen, John Nommers, and Henry Gerritsen. As you can see, they were a mix of Englishmen and Swedes/Finns. Scharf even includes a portion of the original agreement.

It appears from the wording that the mill these settlers (and remember, this area was basically "the frontier" at the time) built was a saw mill. If there was an influx of new settlers in the area -- all looking to build houses and barns and who-knows-what -- it would make sense to have a saw mill to provide them with freshly-cut lumber. Unfortunately, most of the next 100 years of the history of this pioneering mill is pretty much blank. A little can be deduced, though. It appears that early on, there was a bit of consolidation going on with the ownership of the mill. Before his death in 1686, Thomas Wollaston (claimed by Scharf to be perhaps the first settler in MCH) gained control of half of the mill. In 1705, his widow sold his half share to Cornelius and Richard Empson. Cornelius Empson (Richard was likely his son) was one of the most prominent landowners in New Castle County at the time, with multiple holdings totaling over 700 acres. He was also one of the founders of the first Friends Meeting in Delaware, in Brandywine Hundred.

When Cornelius died in 1710, he willed his half of the mill to his daughters Sarah* and Elizabeth. Unfortunately, there is very little if any mention of the mill for the next 50 years. This is especially frustrating because in that time period, a beautiful 2-1/2 story, gambrel-roofed, brick house was constructed on the property, not far from the mill. There seems to be no mention of who owned the property at the time, or who built the house. The only clue was in bricks on the south gable end of the house. There was found, "S W A 1740" in a pyramidal shape, with the "S" in the top row, "W A" in the middle, and "1740" on the bottom. That the house was built in 1740 seems straightforward enough. "W" and "A" are certainly the first initials of the owners, and "S" is their last initial. Everywhere I look, this is surmised to be W. Stanton -- presumably William. The only problem is, I can't find an mention of there being a W. Stanton. I assume he would be related to (father, perhaps?) Stephen Stanton*, for whom the town was eventually renamed. At this point, I honestly don't know if there is any actual evidence that the builder was Stanton (William and Ann, maybe?), or if this is just a "best guess" passed down through the years.

For most of its history, the actual occupant of the house has been even more difficult to discern than the owner. This is because the mill property on which it sits has gone through many hands, often with multiple owners, and often with absentee owners. The next mention comes in 1762, when the mill and property (including the house) were sold at a sheriff's sale. The owners at that time were Thomas Garrett (of the Yorklyn Snuff Mill Garretts) and George Robinson, a carpenter. Robinson was likely Garrett's brother-in-law. Whether it was added by Garrett and Robinson or someone earlier, by 1762 the original saw mill was working alongside a merchant (flour) mill, as well.

The purchaser of the mills in 1762 was a man from Chester County, PA, by the name of Richard Jacobs, Jr. Jacobs operated the mills for eight years, until he sold them in 1770 to two Philadelphia merchants -- Stephen Stapler and Samuel Smith (making them undoubtedly the most alliterative millers in the hundred). Jacobs had added a few smaller lots to the 107 acres he bought in 1762, ultimately selling 116 acres to Stapler and Smith. It would be Stapler, Smith, and another partner who would add the feature most readily visible in the 21st Century -- the long millrace.

Stapler and Smith were obviously looking to upgrade the mill, because within a couple years of purchasing it, they began construction of an enlarged millrace -- about a mile and a quarter long. The millrace, which runs down the west side of Red Clay Creek, begins at a dam all the way up by Kiamensi, just below Kiamensi Road and the former Kiamensi Woolen Mill. For much of its first stretch -- running in the woods behind Powell Ford Park -- the millrace is still visible, two hundred forty years later. In fact, that particular stretch is still to this day a separate parcel, dating back to 1772 when Stapler and Smith purchased the 60 foot wide length for their race.

Millrace parcel shown to the right of the ballfields

Stapler and Smith were not alone in their venture, however. Very early on (I think from about 1772) they were joined by another Quaker, Caleb Byrnes. Byrnes had moved to the area by March 1773, and his son later wrote that he purchased the mill along with Stapler and Smith. Although the first direct evidence of Caleb's involvement is a 1780 purchase of a 1/4 share in the mill, he was likely a partner well before that. About the same time Caleb moved here, his brother Daniel Byrnes purchased the brick house and mill nearby on White Clay Creek -- now called the Hale-Byrnes House. It's not clear if Stapler or Smith ever lived in the Stanton area, but we know for sure that Byrnes did, probably occupying the brick house built by the mysterious W.S.

It appears Byrnes remained at the mill until his death in 1794. The following year, his heirs, along with Samuel Smith, sold their half share of the mill (presumably Smith had 1/4 and Byrnes had 1/4) to Joshua Stroud. Stroud was undoubtedly no stranger to the mill, as he was married to Martha Byrnes, Caleb's daughter. In 1804, Thomas Stapler is listed as being half owner of the mill. I don't think he was Stephen's son, but may have been a brother. Thomas Stapler died in 1810, leaving his two quarter shares to his sons, Stephen and John. (Scharf identifies Stephen and John as the first Stephen's grandson's, but I think that might be incorrect.) So as of 1810, the mill was owned by Stroud (1/2 share) and Stephen and John Stapler. In 1812, John Stapler sold his share to his brother Stephen. The following year, Stephen Stapler consolidated ownership of the mill by buying the remaining half from Joshua Stroud.*

Consolidated ownership didn't seem to work out too well for Stephen Stapler, because in 1816 the mills were seized by the sheriff and sold to James Brian. Brian was a wealthy shipper in Wilmington, who also happened to be John Stapler's father-in-law*. Brian died in 1817, with John Stapler carrying on his business (probably why John sold his portion of the mill). It was then likely James Brian's estate (possibly John Stapler) who sold the Stanton Mills in 1820. It now consisted of "a merchant mill, a saw mill, and all machinery, buildings and tenements, and fifty-four acres". The new owner of the Stanton Mills was Samuel Bailey, who would usher in the final and most productive era of their operation. We'll take a look at that period in the next post.

Additional Facts and Related Thoughts:
  • There is another connection between the Stanton Mill and the Greenbank Mill. Cornelius Empson's daughter Sarah married Thomas Bird. Bird, at some point, purchased the Greenbank Mill. He willed it to his and Sarah's son Empson in 1726. It was Empson Bird who sold the mill to Robert Philips in 1773.
  • For that matter, I can't really find much in the way about Stephen Stanton, either. And to confuse things even more (you're welcome), writing in 1842 the son of Caleb Byrnes says the town was named for Daniel Stanton. If I had anything to offer, I'd put out a bounty on any information about the Stanton family in the 18th Century.
  • I have a feeling there's more to the story of Joshua Stroud. In May 1812 he sold his half of the mill the Jonathan and Daniel Byrnes, the sons of Caleb Byrnes. The next month, he bought it back. Seven months later, he sold it for good to Stapler. He apparently moved to Wilmington, as he was enumerated there in the 1820 Census. He may have moved back to Stanton, though, since I found that he died in 1834 at "Red Clay Mills", and was buried at the Stanton Friends Meeting. His father was probably the James Stroud who built the house later used as the Stanton Hotel.
  • I found some more interesting information about John Stapler and his family. One of John and Ann Brian Stapler's children was a daughter named Mary. In 1844, Mary Brian Stapler married John Ross. Who was John Ross? He was the Chief of the Cherokee Nation from 1828-1866. Here is an account of their story from a descendant. Bet you didn't know a girl from Wilmington was married to a real life powerful Indian Chief? She's buried in Wilmington, as was he originally. He (and John Stapler, among others) is now buried in Oklahoma.


  1. Scott, A possible clue to the 1812 selling and buying back of the mill by Joshua Stroud. I have these records from Wilmington Monthly Meeting of Friends in my database for Joshua and Martha (Byrnes) Stroud.
    From Wilm. MM records for Joshua & Martha Stroud:
    Cert to Philadelphia MM, Southern Dist. 9-10-1800 for both;
    from Philadelphia MM S Dist.(to Wilm.) 8-6-1812 Joshua Stroud, wife Martha and their minor children, Mary and Elizabeth.
    And this one which has no bearing on the question but I find interesting
    Resigned from 11 W St.(Wilm. MM) 1-29-1829 for both.

  2. I ended up accidentally finding some more information today about the Stroud, Stapler, and Brian families, so I slightly updated the post. I believe all the changes are in the last two paragraghs and the AFART section at the end.

  3. Thanks for this good work!

    For related info, also read "Always Your Friend," on the history page of

    Kim Burdick, Hale Byrnes House
    606 Stanton-Christiana Road Newark De 19713

  4. Thanks for interesting history! Having grown up in this area, I am very familiar with the old mill race. It would be great to see the state of Delaware acknowledge some of its past. I find these old mill sites to be very interesting, but Delaware has always been real lousy preserving its history, compared with other states.

    1. How are you related to Doris Crumlish? I live at the Hale Byrnes House and have Doris as on on-line student at DelTech.