Friday, January 11, 2013

The Springers of Northern Mill Creek Hundred -- Part 2

Front of the George Springer House
In the first post, we traced the old Swedish family from the kidnapped indentured servant Charles Springer, down to his grandson Nicholas. Through that whole story, though, we only focused on one house -- the Springer-Yeatman House tucked away just below the state line on Limestone Road. In this post, we'll look at four houses -- two built by Nicholas' sons, and two by their sons. Thankfully, like Nicholas' house, all four are still standing, although one has taken a short trip down the road.

The first of these second-generation Springer houses in the area was built (or at least part of it was) by George Springer (1779-1835), the eldest surviving son. George married Esther Johnson of Chester County sometime around 1800, and it's logical to assume that he moved out of his mother's house soon thereafter. He did not, however, move off of the property. Instead, he took his new family and moved into a pre-existing log house situated a few hundred yards south of the family home. The nature of this original dwelling is the biggest mystery surrounding the George Springer House. Joseph Lake, in his Hockessin: A Pictorial History (and again, I can't stress enough how cool a book this is), surmises that George moved into a log home built in the 1760's by John Dixon, from whom Nicholas Springer purchased this part of his property. The DelDOT report (PDF) from the mid-1980's seems to be leaning in a different direction.

The main section of the house standing today is a 2-1/2 story, three bay fieldstone structure, very similar to the Springer-Yeatman House in which George was raised. This block was probably built after 1816, since the county tax assessment that year listed George Springer as having a log house. The interesting tidbit noted by the DelDOT team is that the north wall of the current stone house is actually the south wall of an older structure. They don't say why they reached this conclusion, but I assume the wall is different in some way from the others, either in construction or weathering. But, stating there was an older stone house seems to contradict the idea that the original home was of logs. It doesn't make sense that Springer would have built a stone house, torn it down, and built another one, all in the course of a few years.

My own, very amateur, opinion is that the house George Springer moved into was an older log house. After getting settled into it for a few years, he built a (probably larger) stone addition onto its south end. This pattern has been seen in other houses from the period, when stone began to supplant log as the primary building material in the region. Perhaps the old house was partially stone. Or maybe the present north wall is different from the others because it was originally built as an interior wall, dividing the house segments, and not as an exterior wall like the others. Whatever the nature of the original house, George Springer lived here for the last thirty or so years of his life, farming and being engaged in the community. He served three terms on the county Levy Court, and one term (1833-1835) in the State House of Representatives.

Upon George's death in 1835, the house and part of the farm went to John Springer (1811-1884), the 6th of his 13 children. John owned it until 1878, when he sold the house and his portion of the property to Hamilton Graham. Also dealing with Hamilton Graham (as we'll get to in a moment) was John's brother, George Springer, Jr. (1814-1904). After his father's death, young George spent a number of years living in the family home and helping with the farm. In 1841 he married Rebecca Graves, and they soon started a family of their own.

1852 George Springer, Jr. House
Before long, I imagine the old house became rather crowded. To address the situation, George acquired the southern portion of the family farm in 1842, and about ten years later built a large brick house for himself and his family. This was (at least) the second house on the site, replacing an earlier structure the family would have occupied for the first decade. The house originally stood on the north side of Valley Road, with the farm behind it. In 1997, through the efforts of  Kathleen and George Higgins, the house was moved east on Valley Road to its present location near Southwood Road (very near John G. Jackson's Sunset Cottage), saving it from inevitable razing due to the widening of Valley Road.

Interestingly, George Higgins tells me (and thank you, George, for responding to my email) that before moving the house, the family discovered a 8x8x3 foot covered hole in the basement. Although he has no proof, he suspects one explanation may be that the house was used as a stop on the Underground Railroad. There are also indications that the house was, at some point, enlarged to its present size. The cavity in the basement floor is in the "new" section, so if it truly was put in to hide runaway slaves (a big and as yet unfounded theory), it would date the expansion to pre-1865.

While George Springer resided in his home (which was more than 50 years -- he died at age 90), like his father before him he was involved in more than just farming. Unlike his father, George, Jr.'s interests were more business related. Possibly partly because it came through his property, he was on the original Board of Directors of the Wilmington & Western Railroad. His biography in Runk notes that he took his produce to the Wilmington markets for about 50 years, and that there were kaolin deposits on his farm. In 1878, Hamilton Graham, Jr. (the son of one of the "outsiders" who came to the area to exploit the valuable kaolin clay deposits around Hockessin) decided he thought there were such deposits under the properties owned by John and George Springer. He bought the George Springer, Sr. House from John, as well as part of the Springer land. As it turned out, there was only low-grade clay present, so he soon sold some of the land back to the family. Graham did make some money, though, through a lease arrangement with George and extraction of the less valuable material. Stories state that George would sit on his front porch (that the house apparently once had) and count the clay-filled carts going by, to make sure he got his proper "cut".

Side view of the Stephen Springer, Sr. House

Now, after 1-1/2 posts, we finally get to the original two houses I set out to learn about. If you recall from the first post,  Nicholas Springer's son Stephen (1785-1842) eventually obtained ownership of his father's house near the state line. Census records seem to indicate that he moved out of this house before 1830, well prior to selling it to Thomas Yeatman in 1837. When he did move, he took his family not far south, to a new property east of Limestone Road, south of Mendenhall Mill Road, in what is today Mendenhall Village. Stephen's wife's family, the Hustons, lived somewhere in this vicinity, so that may have played into his decision to move here.

Aerial views of the Stephen Springer, Sr. House

As of yet I don't have much solid information about the house, but some logical conclusions can be drawn. If the census clues are correct, and Stephen built his new home when he moved, then the oldest part of this house dates to the 1820's. Of course, it could be a bit older or newer, if he moved into an existing home or built a replacement home later (like his nephew George). From the pictures above, it also seems obvious that the house has three distinct sections, likely built at different times -- the main block which faces south, a rear ell off of the northeast end, and an addition on the east end of the ell. (However, if there were a major renovation, it's not out of the question that the rear ell could be the oldest part, with the larger southern-facing section built later.)

Fortunately, we do know a little more about the people who lived in the house than about the house itself. Stephen, well before moving here, served in the Delaware Militia during the War of 1812. He and Margaret raised seven children in the house (at least one other died young), five girls and two boys. (One of the girls, Mary Ann, married Robert Morrison and is the great-grandmother of our friend Rich Morrison.) After Stephen died in 1842, the house and farm went to his oldest son, James Springer (1820-1882). Although it appears that James retained ownership of the house and probably farmed the property for a while, by 1870 he had moved to Newark. There he engaged in several undertakings, including owning a dry goods store (as shown in 1870 Census) and working as a surveyor (1874 state directory). He also served several terms as a Justice of the Peace, was a Notary Public, and for three years served as one of the five Commissioners that governed Newark. Since even 11 years after his death the house is still shown with his name on the 1893 map, it appears his widow Sarah may have held on to the property, possibly until her death in 1907. What became of it after that is as of yet unknown.
Stephen Springer, Jr. House

The last house we'll look at in this long tour of the Springer family is that of Stephen Springer, Jr. (1822-1895). It sits just east of his father's house, also currently in Mendenhall Village. Runk states that the young Stephen stayed in his father's house until the age of 21, at which time he was given a portion of the family farm. It may not be a coincidence that this would have occurred in 1843, just months after the passing of Stephen, Sr. It may be that this was a natural time for the brothers James and Stephen to divide the land between them, or it may have been divided by their father's will. In either case, Stephen, Jr. soon built a stone house, similar to the one in which he was raised. He may have done this when he first obtained the land, or it may not have been built until after he was married in 1848.

Stephen Springer, Jr.

The woman Stephen Springer married in 1848 was Mary Elizabeth Love, the daughter of Rev. Thomas Love, the pastor of Red Clay Creek Presbyterian Church. As best as I can tell, Stephen, Mary, and their five children did initially live in his house above Mill Creek, identified on the 1881 and 1893 maps as "Hillside". Eventually, though, it looks like they may have split time between this home and Mary's father's house in Loveville. In the 1860 and 1880 Cenuses they seem to be listed in Stephen's house, while 1870 shows them in Loveville. All indications are that by the end of his life, for sure, Stephen and Mary resided in Rev. Love's old home, although they seems to have still owned Hillside.

Like his brother James probably did, Stephen may have leased his farm to a tenant, at least part of the time. None of his four sons became farmers, so the the property probably left the family's hands soon after 1900. While none of them farmed, all four of Stephen's sons found success. Robert was a carpenter, Thomas followed in his maternal grandfather's footsteps and became a minister, and Willard and Francis both became successful doctors. Not bad for a family whose origins spring (no pun intended) from a kidnapped and enslaved Swede.

So there we have the (abridged) story of the Springers of Northern MCH. As I said, I originally meant only to focus on the Stephen Jr. and Sr. houses, until I became aware of their connection to the Hockessin houses. Then it seemed more appropriate to tell the whole story, and put all the houses and family members into context. I apologize for the length of the posts, but this was one of those investigations where I ended up having much more to say than I ever expected. But as in every historical investigation, there's always more to discover.

1 comment:

  1. Re: North/ South-Interior/Exterior wall question. A simple explanation-Fire! Reconstruction would have been influenced by space, cost, family needs, etc.