Thursday, October 4, 2012

The Stanton Mills and Stanton-Byrnes House -- Part 2

In the last post, we looked at the first 150 years or so of the history of the mills and house that sat south of Stanton. We tracked it (as well as possible) from its beginnings in the 1670's until its sale from the estate of James Brian to Samuel Bailey. One pattern that arose (and is shown in the Brian-Bailey sale) is the fact that the mills were very often "foreign owned". By this, I mean that unlike some of the other mill complexes in the area, the Stanton Mills (from probably sometime early in the 1700's) were owned by people who either didn't reside near the mills, or who lived here for only a short time. This, again, is one of the things that makes figuring out who lived in the brick house a bit difficult. I think that much of the time, it was a contracted miller, not the mill owner, who probably lived there.

But back to our story, in 1820 the Stanton Mills were purchased by Samuel Bailey. He was the son of Joseph Bailey, one of the most prominent and well-connected men in Wilmington. How well-connected? His father-in-law was Joseph Tatnall, who may have been the most famous person in the city's first 200 years. Elizabeth Montgomery mentions that Joseph Bailey "succeeded in the drug business", so he may have made his money originally as a druggist. From 1810-1841, he served as the President of the Bank of Delaware. He and his son Samuel probably knew James Brian, and knew of the Stanton Mills. Scharf says that after buying the mills, Samuel Bailey built a new frame mill, presumably to replace the old stone structure. If the stone mill he mentioned was the original mill, it would have been over 140 years old at that point.

Thanks to several newspaper sale notices found and forwarded to me by Donna Peters (thanks Donna!), we have some descriptions of what the mill was like, and what was present, in the 1810's. Below is a notice that appeared in the American Watchman on January 13, 1816. This is the sheriff's sale where ultimately James Brian purchased the property.

Sheriff's Sale notice, January 13, 1816

Since it's unlikely that Brian had a chance to do much with the mills (in fact there's another sale notice from him in December 1817), this is probably what was there when Samuel Bailey took over. We get another glimpse into the operation a dozen years into Bailey's tenure, which gives us some more information. The 1832 McLane Report has an entry from Bailey, from which we can learn a few things (besides the fact that he spelled "Stanton" as "Staunton"). First that they produced flour, kiln-dried corn, quercitron bark, and lumber, as well as making barrels and hogsheads. The other piece of data that I think shows the extent of the operation is the fact the at his Stanton (or Staunton) Mills, Samuel Bailey employed 23 men. That number undoubtedly included the mill and the cooper shop, which made the barrels and hogsheads. There seems to have been quite a bit of action taking place down by the mouth of the Red Clay 180 years ago.

Samuel Bailey is found living in Stanton, quite possibly in the brick house by the mill, in the 1830 Census. Even through the difficult economic times of the era, Bailey seems to have been fairly successful with his Stanton Mills. In 1845, he successfully petitions the State of Delaware to incorporate his mills. According to the Act to incorporate, the mills are "occupied by Joseph S. Bailey". Joseph S. Bailey was Samuel's son, and it appears he may have been living at, and overseeing, the mills then. A look at the names of the "commissioners to receive subscriptions to the stock of the company" shows a few names familiar to those who know Wilmington history: Price, Lea, Canby, Wilson, Starr and others. A few years later, another well-known (and already mentioned) Wilmington name will come into play.

1851 Sale Notice from Samuel Bailey

In 1852, Bailey sold the mills to the company of Tatnall & Lea, which had been the preeminent milling firm in Wilmington for nearly a century. Started by Joseph Tatnall -- Samuel Bailey's grandfather -- the firm in 1852 was led by William Lea and Bailey's cousin, Joseph Tatnall. When Tatnall & Lea broke up in 1864, control of the Stanton Mills went solely to Joseph Tatnall and the newly-formed Joseph Tatnall & Company. Although the property is shown with his name on the 1868 and 1881 maps, it's highly unlikely that Tatnall actually lived there, since he's listed in Brandywine Village (Wilmington) in every census. It's unclear whether either lived in the brick house, but in 1860, the millers seem to be Thomas Jones and James Barton. A deeper study of census records could reveal the names of other millers who worked here for Tatnall & Lea and for Joseph Tatnall & Company.

In case you ever wondered how much they made

Tatnall turned out to be the final owner of the Stanton Mills, however. In November 1885, a fire destroyed the millseat that had been operating for over 200 years. The house and property survived as a farm, but the mill was never rebuilt. With the growing industrialization of the milling industry and its inevitable move westward, relatively small sites like Stanton were on their way out already. Even in Wilmington, the golden age of milling along the Brandywine was coming to a close.

Stanton, 1881, showing mill in bottom right
Similar to an earlier period, after the fire there is a considerable gap in the record for the property. While the mill burned in 1885, the house definitely remained. What became of some of the other buildings like the cooper shop and the storehouse is unclear. One possibility is that they were ultimately taken down and the materials reused for other buildings. The final account we have of the property comes from Esta Donaghy, sister-in-law of blog reader and commenter Ken Copeland (big thanks to both Esta and Ken!). As a child in the 1960's, Esta and her friends often played in and around the various buildings on the property. From her descriptions, it sounds like it was a great place for a kid to play.

The property had been purchased around 1940 by Mr. and Mrs. Walter Pyle, when it was in ruinous condition. The Pyles evidently put a lot of care and work into the 200 year old home, because by the late 1950's it was in very good shape. By the early 60's, Esta remembers them as a very nice, elderly couple who sat on their front porch (which must have been added after 1958) and "would tell us stories and give us goodies". The Pyles told the kids stories of finding Civil War money hidden in the walls, and of things moving for no reason in their "haunted" house. They welcomed the children, who spent lots of time playing on the property, around the apple trees, and in and around the various buildings, like the three-story barn and the Pyle's chicken house.

About 1965 or '66 the Phipps family moved into the house, possibly as renters. They did have young children, so the old mill property stayed a big playground. Sometime around 1970, the big barn was destroyed in a fire. Esta believes the Phipps family moved out a few years after that, and the property may have been vacant thereafter. Not too many years later (so maybe around 1980??) the old brick house, like the mill and barn before it, fell victim to a blaze. By 1986 the Arbor Pointe Apartments were going up on the grounds, encircling the site of the house.

Today, almost nothing remains of the site occupied and worked for 300 years. Esta recalls finding the remains of a stone building in the woods in the '60s, which could have been the mill or the cooper shop. (Even if they were frame buildings, they could have had stone foundations.) I took a walk back through the area recently (there are trails through the woods which are accessible from the apartments), but I was not able to find any traces of structures. Back there now, there is no indication that this was once a hub of activity reaching back more than a century before American independence.


  1. Wow. I grew up in the 1960s with this structure almost in my backyard and never knew it existed.

    It looks like there was a mill pond associated with the mill- would that be the area behind the old post office (now home to the Walgreens store)?

    While we never played on the old Stanton mill site, we once did venture across the Red Clay behind Shone's and explored Bread and Cheese Island. We stumbled across an abandoned house. I had assumed it was an old farm, but given the poor quality of the land, I wonder now if it was not someone related to the old mill property.

    1. Given the proximity of that mill pond to the Telegraph Road intersection, it look like it may have been a bit further east between Dutch Boulden's house and the back of Copeland's Nursery (no, no relation to me!). My question is what was the water source for it (a dried up spring?). I know it couldn't have been the commode that Dutch had sitting in his yard in the 1960s; he had pansies growing in it as a lawn ornament! Speaking of water sources, the (spring fed?) water source for the mill race along Telegraph Road appears to originate in the Manette Heights neighborhood. Or was the mill race in existence before the B&O track was laid, thus allowing water to flow from the Delpark Manor Park area? Now that I think about it, I suppose that all the development, streets, the RR and storm drains have changed the water sources and courses tremendously. Your thoughts?KC.

  2. And after looking closer at the pictures and the maps, I think we were exploring this same house. According to the story, it would have been abandoned around the time we were there. Wish I knew then what I know now so I could have looked around and better appreciated what we saw.

  3. KC....If I am not mistaking, the mill pond may have been filled from a race running from the Red Clay Creek. The race begins just south of Kiamensi Road and still exists, but dry of course, as far as Rt4.
    Hard to believe boats would actually come up that far from the Christiana. I think one of the Cranstons also had a boat building operation somewhere in that area.

  4. Denis-

    During the Colonial Era, boats regularly made their way as far upstream as Christiana. There was even a ship yard on Bread & Cheese Island.

    1. I believe that's more or less why the village of Christiana (or Christiana Bridge) came into being. It was one of the routes (maybe the main one) north-south. You sailed to Christiana, then got on a stage to head over to the Chesapeake. If I recall, one of the very early plans for a C&D canal put it much further north, tying into the Christina. By the time the canal, and a few years later the railroads, got going, Christiana got bypassed.

      And one of these days soon I'll get to the shipyard and the guy who ran it (and his house).

  5. As for the pond, it only seems to be shown on the 1881 map. I haven't studied in this direction yet, but I'd imagine it had something to do with the other mill, the cotton/woolen mill opposite Telegraph Road. My guess would be a mill pond fed by the race that started on Mill Creek, close to Kirkwood Highway. Maybe they only felt like they needed it for a while, or only a certain owner/manager thought it was needed.

  6. My mistake....I was thinking of pond at the Tatnall mill site. I
    I knew ships went as far as Christiana but hard to envision them going up the White Clay. I am thinking it was a Cranston boatyard on Bread and Cheese Island?

    1. Yes, it was a Cranston boatyard, run by the patriarch of the Cranston family in this area. Now that it's on my mind, I'll probably do a post about it/him/them very soon.