Wednesday, November 7, 2012

John G. Jackson

John G. Jackson
In small rural towns and villages, it's probably cliche, but true, to say that pretty much everyone knows everyone else. I think to some extent 19th Century Mill Creek Hundred as a whole can be looked at in this way. With the myriad of familial ties running through it, I've often said that it can almost be thought of as a very spread out small town. This familiarity between residents only grows when you focus your view to an actual village and its surroundings. In this case, where almost no one is a stranger, there is often someone who seems to be even more well-known than everyone else. Over a period of about a half a century, that man in Hockessin was John G. Jackson. Joseph Lake called him "the most famous Victorian to live in Hockessin."

John G. Jackson* was a native son of Hockessin, born into one of the largest landowning families there at the time. He was born in 1818 in the Dixon-Jackson House, which his grandfather James Jackson had purchased in 1771. The child of Thomas (1777-1861) and Jane Griffith (1784-1853) Jackson, John was the second of two sons, two years younger than his brother James C. Jackson (1816-1907). John spent his early years being schooled first at home by his parents, then at the Friends school nearby (the Jacksons, like many of their Hockessin neighbors, were Quakers). Young John had a voracious appetite for knowledge, and supplemented his schooling with hours spent reading books from a local library. It was from these books that he discovered a passion for astronomy that would stay with him his entire life.

In 1832 at the age of fourteen, John was sent off to study at the Westtown Boarding School* near West Chester. After attending Westtown for several years as a student, Jackson became first an assistant teacher, and then a full-time teacher and lecturer in 1838. He spent only one year teaching astronomy and science there, as health concerns forced him to resign and go off to lead a more active life, as Scharf tells us.

Jackson next, after serving a short apprenticeship, went to work as a surveyor and conveyancer (which seems to be a sort of real estate lawyer). After about a year of that, he and another man rode west to Pittsburgh, then took a boat down to Cincinnati. There he spent the winter of 1840-41 working in the US Land Office, transcribing field notes and putting together maps from government surveys of Northern Ohio. It would not be his last contact with a government job. In the spring of '41, Jackson and another teacher set off on a lecturing tour of southern Ohio, speaking on scientific topics and carrying their equipment with them. As for their level of success in this venture, Runks politely and understatedly puts it this way: "Unfortunately the pleasure of teaching was almost their only reward."

After his lecture tour, John G. Jackson eventually made his way back to Hockessin, and in September 1842 married Elizabeth Baily. The two took up residence in the family home, while John began his business career in earnest. As he had done previously elsewhere, Jackson took work locally as a surveyor and conveyancer. He also started a business in the south end of one of his family's fields, south of Valley Road. The land there, it turned out, was rich in limestone. Slightly different than the softer limestone mined by the Eastburns, Jackson's lime was harder and well-suited for building. He even submitted a sample to the committee building the Washington Monument in DC, but was not awarded that prestigious contract.

By 1848, Jackson's quarry and other ventures (including a sawmill) were profitable enough that he was able to move himself and his family out of the Dixon-Jackson House (which remained with his brother James) and construct a new home overlooking his lime business. His house still stands, north of Valley Road and east of Southwood Road. Across Valley Road he erected a large red barn, located right about where the entrance to the Hockessin library is today.

The John G. Jackson House

Jackson's first experience with a public position arose in 1857, when he was appointed as a Notary Public. [Maybe someone knows more about this, and with no disrespect to anyone who holds the title now, but the position seems to have been a more prestigious one at the time.] He was reappointed in 1864, but resigned the position later that year when he was elected to the state legislature on the Republican ticket. In 1866, Jackson moved up to the State Senate, where he served one four-year term. The state legislature was strongly Democratic at the time, but Jackson never seemed to mind being in the minority. By 1878 he had moved even further from the mainstream, when he was named as the Congressional nominee in Delaware for the Greenback Party. None of the major histories mention it, but he was also the gubernatorial nominee for the Greenbacks in 1882. This may be due to the fact that while he received almost a quarter of the vote in 1878, he likely pulled in far fewer by 1882.

Politics wasn't the only place in which John G. Jackson was unafraid to stand up for what he believed in, regardless of public perception. As mentioned earlier, he was raised in the Quaker faith, but as the years went by he slowly drifted away from it. In what I think might be one of his more interesting episodes, Jackson seems to have dabbled in the Spiritualism movement that arose in the late 1840's. Although I have not read through it fully, this work seems to be a defense -- written by John G. and James C. Jackson --  of their interest in Spiritualism from attacks by the Society of Friends. Also involved (this is my fairly informed guess, since only initials are used) are John's wife Elizabeth and his cousin Jane Griffith.

Returning now to more worldly pursuits, there was one more venture, vital to Hockessin, in which Jackson was intimately involved. While seated in the State House and Senate, one of the fields he was active in was the incorporation of railroad companies. One of these happened to be the Wilmington and Western Railroad. Not at all coincidentally, Jackson was also an original member of the Board of Directors of the railroad, and served as its Chief Engineer. He helped to lay out its course, and it was also no coincidence that the line happened to run right by his lime quarry.

Jackson Lime Co.'s kiln

Unfortunately for Jackson, not only was he a board member of the Wilmington & Western, he was also a major investor. When the line went bankrupt only a few years after its start, he ended up losing a good deal of money. It seems that by this time, though, Jackson was already looking towards retirement. In 1880 he sold his lime quarry business and surrounding land, which I believe was located where Orsini's Topsoil is now on Millcreek Road.

Right about this same time, he built a new house for himself and Elizabeth called Sunset Cottage, named for its southwest fronting as well as for his own Sunset Years he planned on spending there. The couple had raised two sons in their first home on Valley Road*. William, the eldest, followed in his father's footsteps (well, one of them at least) and became a civil engineer, working with his father on the Wilmington & Western and helping to build the bridges for the line. When John moved into Sunset Cottage, William took over the original 1848 home. The younger son, Thomas, also an engineer who helped build the Wilmington & Western, had by that time moved away, first to western Pennsylvania and then to Fort Wayne, Indiana.

Sunset Cottage

John Jackson's new Sunset Cottage, located on the south side of Southwood Road just off of Valley Road, certainly appears to have been the perfect retirement home for him. It was a little smaller than the old house, but with something the old home didn't have -- its own telescope. For the long-time avid astronomer, his new observatory (at the top of the picture above) was surely a point of pride. From here he observed in 1882 a transit of Venus that he had predicted as a young man in 1837. Also in 1882, Jackson made an observation from his Sunset Cottage telescope that caused a bit of a sensation around the world. He thought he saw a mist or cloud on the moon, which implied an a atmosphere, which to some implied that life might be possible. And in case you think the "around the world" part is exaggeration, the "discovery" was even mentioned in a paper in New Zealand.

Jackson was fortunate enough to be able to spend nearly twenty years in his Sunset Cottage. His wife Elizabeth died in 1894, and John followed her three years later, passing away in March 1897. Sunset Cottage still stands, albeit with a different look today. Sometime several decades after John G. Jackson's death, it was heavily damaged in a fire and rebuilt in a different style, without its signature dome. One source says the fire was in 1922, while this newspaper article from 1940 says the fire was in 1933. In either case, the house now bears little resemblance to the house in which Jackson lived.

Now, 115 years after his passing, not many people know the name John G. Jackson. In his home town of Hockessin during his life, though, I think there were very few who didn't know him. Jackson was many things during his 79 years: scholar, teacher, adventurer, surveyor, engineer, businessman, spiritualist, astronomer, writer, lawmaker, developer and advocate for the working class (to be elaborated upon in the next post). If there's on thing that seems to have been a constant, it's that a lot of thought, care, and passion went into everything he did. It's those qualities that made John G. Jackson one of the most well-known and highly thought of men in history of Hockessin, and of Mill Creek Hundred.

Additional Facts and Related Thoughts:
  • Oddly enough, I don't believe I've found anywhere that states what the "G" stands for. His mother's maiden name was Griffith, a strong and proud family in their own right, so I assume that this was John's middle name.
  • Westtown Boarding School (now just Westtown School) is still very much in operation today near West Chester. This page begins a history of the Quaker school, and has a photograph and drawing of the original 1799 building in which John G. Jackson would have lived, studied, and taught.
  • Runks, in talking about William B. Jackson, states that he "was born at Maple Lawn farm" in 1843. This presumably refers to the Dixon-Jackson House on Lancaster Pike, where John and Elizabeth then resided. This is interesting because I can't find any other reference to this name in describing this house. Perhaps it was a name that only the Jackson's used, and which didn't stay with later owners.


  1. Scott, I find this interesting. Have you seen it?


    Perhaps many who will read this history may not know that the alluvial deposits of our county have for untold centuries been the custodians of the fossil remains here noticed. The elephant and the mastodon have each dropped us a molar tooth as a memorial of their prior claim upon our soil. The former was obtained on the farm of John G. Jackson, in the Hockesson Valley, who has kindly given it to me. He writes, “It was found some five or six feet deep in a meadow, under the black mud, as we call it, in a gravel stratum.” The latter was thrown out by a flood in White Clay Creek, in the meadow of Howard L. Hoopes, near Avondale. The water falling over a ledge of rock made a deep excavation, and the tooth was thrown out among the débris. It was purchased from the finder by the late William Jackson, and presented to the West Chester Academy of Natural Science.

    Quite a number of fossil remains have been found in the limestone caves, and in the rocky strata of the county, but I do not possess the necessary data for their insertion.— E.M. (Ezra Michener)
    Donna P.

    1. No, I hadn't seen that. Pretty interesting. Not surprised that Jackson would know what it was and would make sure it got to a good home. The original owner is a bit outside of the range of history I usually cover here, though. :)

    2. There is a Jackson Ave. in The Cedars - named for Jackson?

    3. Good thought, but since there's also a Washington and a Harrison, I'm guessing it's named for President Andrew Jackson. However, that got me to thinking: Why choose those three presidents? My quick guess is that they represent different eras in the park's history. Washington because of his connection to the site (see Council, or Washington, Oak) or to the name Brandywine. Jackson because he was in office about when the original hotel got started. Benjamin Harrison becuase he was pres around when the park got going. Or it's just random and I've put way more thought into it than they did.