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Friday, July 19, 2013

The Rotheram (Harmony) Mill House

Rotheram House
It's been noted before that the bulk of the mills along the Red Clay seem to have been built on the west (Mill Creek Hundred) side of the creek, especially in the lower Red Clay Valley (Wooddale, Faulkland, Greenbank, Marshallton, Kiamensi, Stanton). I'm not sure if there's any real explanation for it, but it did work out that way. Along the other border waterway of MCH, however, the mills seem to be a little more evenly placed on either side of the power source. The mills on or near White Clay Creek show up on both sides, some in MCH (Red Mill, Roseville, Curtis) and some in White Clay Creek Hundred (Dean, Tweed). One of the oldest mills along the White Clay, long out of service, sat just south of the creek in WCCH, about midway along the southern border of MCH. The mill itself is long gone, but its memory survives through the nearly 275 year old home of its owner, and the name by which it was known throughout most of the 19th Century -- Harmony Mills.

The only standing remnant of this once-thriving complex is the two-story brick Rotheram House, facing eastward on Old Harmony Road just south of Kirkwood Highway and White Clay Creek. The house was built about 1740 by Joseph Rotheram, an English Quaker who had come to America around 1723. Rotheram probably settled first in New Castle, but in 1739 purchased a grist mill and saw mill at a Sheriff's sale. The early history of these mills is unclear, but their existence along the White Clay prior to 1739 makes them some of the earliest in the area. After acquiring the mills, Rotheram quickly built a new brick house for himself and his family, which included his wife, two sons, and two daughters.

According to the nomination form (pictures here)for the National Register of Historic Places (to which it was added in 1972) , the house was originally a 1-1/2 story gambrel-roofed structure, with five bays on the first floor and two windows on the second. How long it remained in this configuration is unknown, but records indicate that it was raised to a full two stories plus attic by at least 1775. Joseph Rotheram lived the rest of his life here, before passing in 1773. The house then went to his son Joseph, Jr., who remained until his own death about 20 years later. Although both Josephs were members of the Society of Friends, they were not always in good standing with their fellow Quakers.

Over the years, both Rotheram men had their run-ins with their Meetings. Joseph, Sr. left England without obtaining a Certificate of Removal from his home meeting, which may have meant that he was unable to marry in a Meeting here. It was not until the late 1740's that Joseph got his Certificate, but it was not by his doing. His daughter Abigail was being courted at the time by Joseph England, Jr., son of the next miller up the creek. England was concerned about his prospective bride's birthright, and so wrote to Rotheram's Meeting in England to obtain the Certificate, which he did. (Abigail did end up marrying England, and their daughter Sarah later became the wife of Revolutionary War hero Robert Kirkwood.) On another occasion Rotheram was disciplined by his Meeting for failing to pay a debt, possibly to his housekeeper. In the early 1760's he again ran afoul of his fellow Quakers, this time for "purchasing negroes". He did, however, stipulate in his will that his slaves could be freed when they had earned 40 pounds.

Joseph, Jr. also got into trouble with the Friends, even being expelled from his Meeting. His, though, was a more noble offense -- fighting for his country. Joseph was one of the "Fighting Quakers" who joined the struggle for Independence from Britain. He even served as the tax Appraiser for White Clay Creek Hundred in 1777 and 1779. For this, family tradition holds, the British plundered him and his brother of furniture during the war.

As noted, the younger Joseph ran the mills until his death about 1795. At that time they were put up for sale, and described in the sale notice this way:

No. 1 A valuable merchant mill and sawmill, and plantation or tract of land, situate on White-clay creek, the plantation is said to contain 185 acres more or less; on third, whereof is good woodland, and about 12 or 15 acres of excellent meadow, the residue is arable land, and in very good plight; there is on said premises, a large and commodious two story brick messuage and kitchen adjoining thereto, a well of good water at the door, with a large barn, stabling and other improvements, and a good, bearing orchard; there is also a convenient sawed log dwelling house near to the mill, for the purpose of accommodating a miller and his family; the merchant mill is in good repair, has two water wheels and three pairs of stones, two pairs whereof are dood burrs, the other pair for country work -- the saw mill is in tolerable repair, and in a good neighborhood to get timber for sawing -- the situation of the place must be a very desirable one, being in a healthy part of the country and the mill on one of the best streams of water in that part, it never being known to fail, in the driest of season; within three miles of Christiana Bridge, and about the same distance from White-clay creek landing, about 5 miles from New-port; and about 11 miles from Elkton, a noted wheat market.

It took several years for the property to sell, but finally in 1802 the mills were purchased by James Price (1776-1840), a prominent miller from Wilmington. Price was born to a wealthy family in Kent County, MD, and moved to Wilmington as a young man. He became an investor in Joseph Tatnall's Brandywine mills, and not coincidentally married Tatnall's daughter Margaret in 1802, the same year he acquired the Rotheram Mills. James and Margaret likely moved into the Rotheram House then, allowing James to oversee his new mills. The actual miller* would have lived in the "convenient sawed log dwelling house" mentioned in the sale ad above. The Prices had four children between 1804 and 1809, all of whom may have been born here. Upon moving in, Price renamed the complex "Harmony Mills", after his great-great-grandfather Col. John Hyland's Harmony Hall estate in Cecil County.

When Price's father-in-law Joseph Tatnall died in 1813, James became one of four co-owners of the prominent man's milling business (along with his brothers-in-law Thomas Lea and Edward Tatnall, and Tatnall relative James Canby). It was likely at this time that James and Margaret inherited from her father a large house* in Wilmington, on 16th Street near French. This home (seen below) was across the street from the Brandywine mills, and the Prices probably moved there around that time. I think it's likely that James Price lived the rest of his life in Wilmington, where he had a very successful business career. In addition to his milling business, Price served as the first president of the Union Bank of Delaware, and the second president of the Philadelphia, Wilmington, and Baltimore Railroad. In the 1830's, he built houses for three of his children along Market Street between 13th and 14th Streets.

The James Price House in Wilmington

The one child for whom he did not not build a home, daughter Mary, had one built amongst her siblings' by her father-in-law, Price's business partner James Canby. In 1826, Mary married Edmund Canby, a member of what was probably the second most important of the Brandywine milling clans, behind the Tatnalls. Upon James Price's death in 1840, the Harmony Mills passed into possession of Edmund and Mary Canby. Edmund was involved in his family's milling business, but due to a severe case of asthma he did more travelling than milling. With their stately new home at 1305 Market Street, it seems unlikely that Edmund and Mary actually would have lived much (if at all) in the older Rotheram home along the White Clay. In any case they wouldn't have had much time to do so, as Edmund died in 1848 at the age of 44.

The Edmund Canby House, 1305 Market Street
The 1850 Census still shows Mary residing in Wilmington, but interestingly 1860 has her listed in WCCH. Her son James is listed as a miller, so it seems the family was still operating at least the grist mill at that point. According to Scharf in 1888, the saw mill had fallen into disuse, presumably a number of years before that time. The grist mill burned sometime in the 1870's never to be rebuilt. I was unable to find a miller listed in the area in the 1870 Census, so the mill may have been out of service for several years before it was destroyed. After Mary Canby's death in 1886, the property was sold to William F. Smalley, who built a warehouse on the site.

Some "modernization" was done to the house in the late 19th Century, possibly by Smalley. Some minor work was done inside, including bricking up several fireplaces and adding stoves. A gable was added to the front of the roof, but a fire around 1930 destroyed the roof and the gable was not replaced. When the house was purchased by a new owner in 1961, some restoration work was done. In recent years, however, the house has fallen into disrepair. Hopefully someday this survivor from the early days of White Clay Creek Hundred can be restored to its full glory.

Additional Facts and Related Thoughts:
  • More research would need to be done to determine who some of the actual millers were who operated Price and Canby's Harmony Mills. The 1832 McLane Report seems to imply that Samuel Stroud may have been in charge, while the 1830 Census seems to have James Stroud in about the right place. In 1850, (presumably) brothers Palmer and Jacob Gheen are listed as millers in the right place in the census to have been working there.
  • By the late 19th or early 20th Century, the old James Price House had been divided up into numerous low-rent apartments. So many apartments, in fact, that it came to be called "Hundred House" for how many people seemed to live there.


  1. I have also asked why mills were located on the west side of Red Clay Creek here in the lower part of the valley. The answers I receive point to the fact that the majority of product to be milled was farmed here in Mill Creek Hundred and it saved the farmer from having to cross the Red Clay.

    1. I thought it was you who had brought it up before, but I couldn't remember for sure. I don't really know enough about the early settlement of Christiana Hundred to know if that could be true or not. If so, it would make sense since most of the millseats were in service before there was much in the way of bridges over the creek.

  2. As a previous owner of the Rotheram Mill House - a few of your "facts" are incorrect. In September of 1994 the house was purchased by Ernesto (not Earnest) Marra and his wife at that time Clara Simpers Marra. The property (first level) had been boarded up for approximately two years. Previous owners were the Ashby's (relocated to Lewes, DE). The Marra family were the ones that had the metal roof installed and cleared most of the property. In 2001 the Marra's separated and subsequently divorced. Ernesto Marra maintained ownership of the property and still does - however he now lives in Landenberg, PA. Hopefully - someone will restore this property.

    1. I certainly don't mind going back and correcting things. Sometimes the sources I find are wrong, sometimes I make incorrect inferences. Let me know what's not right and I'll make it so. You can email me if you'd like (mchhistory@verizon.net). Thank you for filling in some of the more recent history of the property.

      I agree with you in your hope that someone will take care of the property. It's a shame to see a historic spot like this be neglected. Plus, I have some friends in the surrounding neighborhood and I know they'd like to see the property restored.

  3. Is there still a marker for historic designation on the property

  4. The house is on the market and there is no mention of it's history...perhaps that will inspire a restoration.

  5. My wife and I have purchased this home.