Monday, November 12, 2012

The Diamond State Land Development Company

Map from the Diamond State Land Development Company
In the last post, we took a look at Hockessin's John G. Jackson (1818-1897), a man of varying interests who became involved in quite a number of different fields and businesses during his lifetime. One particular venture, though, was only very briefly mentioned in passing. It's something I'm sad to say I don't really have a whole lot of information about, but it interested me enough that I thought it merited its own post. In fact, most of what I know came from just one picture and its associated caption, included in Joseph Lake's wonderful 1976 book Hockessin: A Pictorial History. (Seriously, it's a great book. If you ever see it anywhere, get it.) Probably the biggest reason there's not a lot of information about the venture is that it never got very far off the ground, or past the planning stage. Still, there are a few vestiges of it remaining today, if you know where to look.

The business venture in question was called the Diamond State Land Development Company, and Lake tells us that it was a joint venture between the Jackson and Mitchell families in 1880. I'm not sure exactly who all was involved, but I'm confident that the main players were John G. Jackson and John Mitchell. As detailed in the post about Mitchell, he had already bought, renovated, and resold a number of properties by then (sort like a 19th Century flipper), so real estate was familiar to him. By 1880, both men were 62 years old (they were the same age) and comfortably well-off. Both were raised with strong Quaker morals and both displayed those morals throughout their lives. As they approached their retirement years, it's not surprising that both men would be looking for a way to use their means and talents to better their community, and assist those less fortunate than themselves.

What these two leading men of Hockessin came up with was a plan to address a problem still very much with us today -- adequate housing for the working class. Their solution was to construct a new housing development and to form a company that, as Lake says, "sold lots to, and secured mortgages for, low income families who, under normal circumstances, could not hope to become homeowners." The idea of workers' housing was not new, but usually it was associated with a particular mill or factory, not as a stand-alone operation. It was (I believe) unusual for working-class housing to be constructed in such a non-urban area. Slightly more common were neighborhoods like Wilmington's Forty-Acres, developed some fifteen years earlier by another Hockessin native, Joshua T. Heald.

One thing that certainly made the concept of the Diamond State Land Development Company easier to implement was that the men involved already owned the land. Jackson and Mitchell's working-class development was to be located southeast of Valley Road, northeast of Evanson Road, and south of the Wilmington & Western tracks. This tract may have been entirely on Jackson's property, although it's possible that the southern part could have been Mitchell's. He (Mitchell) definitely owned land on the other side of Evanson Road. The land appropriated for Diamond State was also adjacent to Jackson's lime quarries and kiln, which it appears he may have sold as early as about 1870.* The quarry remained in operation until 1880, the same year as this venture. If and how the closing of the lime business relates to Diamond State is unclear. The quarry and kiln probably would have been located in the two blank sections on the map, just below the railroad tracks.

The map shows about 120 lots in the development, of various sizes. These were to be sold to "low income families" who would normally have difficulty securing mortgages. I presume this means that Jackson and Mitchell were somehow financing or subsidizing the mortgages, or at least were lending with relaxed standards. It's not stated exactly who these families were to be, but one can make some educated guesses. Lower income families (presumably white, although that's not stated one way or the other*) in the area likely would have included farm laborers, workers in the kaolin clay mines, lime quarry workers, employees in the nearby mills on Red Clay Creek, and various tradesmen. It's hard to tell for sure, since the project never materialized in full form.

Current parcels in part of the Diamond State tract
 That's not to say, though, that nothing was done or that nothing remains of the Diamond State Land Development Company today. For one thing, there are a few "ghost roads", at least as far as New Castle County is concerned. If you look at the area on the county's Land Use website, a few interesting things show up. As you can see above, the eastern end of John Street (presumably named for two Johns, Jackson and Mitchell) is show, where no actual street exists today. Also, St. Mary's Street is shown as well. Traces or more of several other streets are evident, too. What is called Mitchell Street on the old map is what we know as Evanson Road. Grant Avenue is shown on the old map, partially with the familiar name (as Grant Street) to the east, and partially as Hawley Street on the western end. With Jackson's Unionist and Republican ties, I wonder if this may be named for Joseph Hawley, another (like Grant) Civil War General and GOP politician. Elizabeth Street was almost certainly in honor of Jackson's wife.

Murphys Lane
This leaves the short street known as Murphys Lane today, and labeled in a longer form as Valley Street on the old map. On the north side of Murphys Lane are three houses, about which I'd like to know more. Several years ago, someone sent me an email (which I've regrettably lost) saying that he had heard these houses were built in the 1800's by a builder as model homes. He had no further information, and I assumed at the time that this meant they served as models for homes to be built anywhere in the region. Now knowing about Diamond State, it seems logical that they were models (or early enticements) for the development. It's possible that there might be several other houses from the time around Grant and Evanson. At best, this makes six remaining houses from a planned 120.

That raises the biggest unknown about the Diamond State venture. What happened to it? Why wasn't it completed? Was it a larger economic reason in the country or the region? Was it a specific problem that Jackson and/or Mitchell ran into? Were they unable to get funding they were counting on, or was it more difficult than they anticipated to find buyers? Hopefully someday more information will be found about the Diamond State Land Development Company, and more light can be shed on this fascinating piece of Mill Creek Hundred history.



Additional Facts and Related Thoughts:
  • The history of the Jackson Lime Company will need further investigation at another time. In his book, Lake seems to think that it may have been operated by a company called Stone, Thompson, & Co. after about 1870. However, in the 1880 Census John G. Jackson's occupation is listed as "Superintendent in Lime Works".
  • And I wouldn't completely assume that it was meant as a white's-only development. After all, included in the area covered by the map was or would soon be several important African-American institutions, including the Chippey Chapel, the old Hockessin Colored School, and the newer Hockessin Colored School #107C.

3 comments:

  1. On Murphy's Lane, the 2nd house in was the model home for a builder. The owners stopped in to check out a house that I was working on, The Guthrie house on Limestone Rd., to compare the layout. Their house has 3 different trim packages to show the styles buyers could opt.

    They told me there were quite a few houses built by that builder. One of the houses on Corner Ketch, The Dennison house. the 3 on Murphy's, etc. The builder was way ahead of his time. Most housing at that time were custom built. These were production houses which kept prices down and profits up.

    I was going to look into it more but...

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    1. Thanks, Larry. I actually finally found your old email last night, pretty much what you have here. Maybe I'll have to try to contact the owners there -- sounds like they're pretty knowledgeable about it. I admit that I'm only assuming a connection between the model and Diamond State. It's also possible that the builder came along right after Diamond State fell through. Who knows, maybe a mix -- he was to be the builder, it fell through, so he tries to sell his services directly to the area. It'll be interesting to get more information. Thanks!

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  2. thanks for sharing.

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