Monday, July 8, 2013

MCH History Blog On the Road: The Lea-Derickson House

Lea-Derickson House
Take a trip sometime into Wilmington and position yourself on the north end of the Market Street Bridge over the Brandywine. In the 18th and early 19th Centuries, this was the heart of Brandywine Village, and the engine that drove Wilmington’s early economic development. As you stand at 18th Street looking north, behind you were the mills that made Wilmington a force in the colonial economy. The “Wilmington Superfine” flour produced here was known worldwide, and was generally regarded as the best produced in America. From this trade, the men who produced the flour became very wealthy. These men, Quakers mostly, chose to build their homes very near the mills. There were a few on the south side where the first mills here were constructed, but most chose to build on the north side, and created what came to be known as Brandywine Village. Not a part of Wilmington until 1869, the village was simply an unincorporated part of Brandywine Hundred. It had no official political leadership, and any disputes were settled at the home of Squire Elliott, the Justice of the Peace. His house stood to your right, where the small park and historical sign are today.

However, for this post we shall turn our attention to our left, and the wonderful Lea-Derickson House at 1801 North Market Street. This five bay, fieldstone home was built in about 1770 by James Marshall (born abt 1735), who, along with his brother William (1735-1808), was attempting to bring milling to the north bank of the Brandywine. To this point, with the exception of one small bolting mill, all industry was along the south side of the river. The Marshalls had but one major obstacle to overcome - the rocky formations that made digging a race very difficult on this side. However, the excavated stone did make good building material, and this house, as well as the Joseph Tatnall House next door, was constructed from it. Unfortunately for the Marshall brothers, they had gotten themselves in over their heads. The north race proved to be more difficult a task than they could support, so they handed control of the project over to Joseph Tatnall, who in addition to being James Marshall’s brother-in-law, also had more money.

When James Marshall’s capital ran out, he was also forced to sell his home, which he did in 1772 to another miller named Samuel Morton. Morton held on to the property for several years, until he sold it to Thomas Lea (1759-1833). It is not known for sure when Lea bought the house but it may well have been in 1785, when he married Joseph Tatnall’s daughter Sarah. Joseph Tatnall was the leading miller and citizen in Brandywine Village, and soon brought his son-in-law into the family business with him. By 1801 Thomas Lea was a partner in his father-in-law’s mills, and built a second home a block to the north at 1901 Market Street. However, he held on to his first house until 1819, when a massive fire destroyed his largest nearby mill. Lea used the proceeds from the sale of the house to help rebuild his business. He would be quite successful at this, and the Leas would continue to dominate Brandywine milling until late into the 19th Century.

Brandywine Village, Lea-Derickson House
with ivy in the center, c.1905

Sometime in the mid 1830’s, the Lea's old house was bought by a millwright named Jacob Derickson (1772-1840), as a wedding gift for his daughter Martha. Her husband, Amor Hollingsworth Harvey, was an executive in a steam engine company, and would soon be a partner in what would be renamed Hollingsworth, Harvey, and Company. The firm manufactured boilers and steam engines, including locomotive engines. Harvey lived in the house until his death in 1887, when it was left to his daughter Sarah Derickson Harvey, who had married her cousin David P. Derickson (1828-1903).
The house in 1937, during the Bringhurst residency

In 1870 David and Sarah had a daughter named Martha, who in 1906 married a member of another prominent Wilmington family, the Bringhursts. Martha's husband, Frederick Bringhurst (1873-1955), was for many years the vice-president of the Wilmington Savings Fund Society (WSFS). Martha was also involved in the community, serving as president of the Wilmington New Century Club, a women's organization housed in what is now the Delaware Children's Theater on Delaware Avenue. (In case you wanted a MCH connection, here's a note of Martha speaking to the Marshallton Civics Club in 1927.) Martha Derickson Bringhurst resided in the house the remainder of her life, passing away in 1957.

During the occupancy of the last generation of Dericksons, it seems the history of the house was starting to slip away. This newspaper article from September 10, 1944 shows that at that point, Mrs. Derickson didn't even know exactly how old the house was. The photo above shows the house during the Bringhurts' tenure, complete with the front covering that had lead to it being called "Ivy Cottage" in Jacob Derickson's time.
A similar, more recent view of Brandywine Village

In the early 1960’s though, the future of the Lea-Derickson House, and all of Brandywine Village was in doubt. Developers were looking to build up the area, beginning with this stately home. Thankfully, a group of concerned citizens formed the non-profit corporation Old Brandywine Village, Inc. (O.B.V.). They bought the Lea-Derickson House for $60,000 in 1963 and began to renovate and restore the structure. The first step was to remove the thick growth of ivy from the front, and expose the beautiful simplicity of the native Brandywine granite. Next, later 19th and early 20th Century updates were replaced with Colonial and Federal period fixtures and ornaments. Finally, modern plumbing, heating, and electrical fixtures were added. O.B.V. then searched for a group to lease the house, which they found in the Junior League of Wilmington. The organization still occupies the site today. Thanks to the work of O.B.V., this beautiful piece of Wilmington's early past is still with us today.


  1. The Jacob Derickson who bought the house was born in 1772 and died in 1840. He is easily confused with a distant cousin, Jacob Derickson (1781-1851. I have his and his wife's portrait as well as the portrait of his daughter, son-in-law, and grand-daughter.

    1. Thanks, Ann. Since I know your connection to the house, I might have to go back and update this one some day. When I wrote this I didn't even realize the Bringhurst connection to Marshallton. I was right on the cusp, but didn't connect it. I'll have a few things to you shortly (or you'll have them already, depending on when you see this). Thanks again for the correction!