Wednesday, February 24, 2016

The Springer-Little Farm

Site of the Springer-Little (then, Ward) Farm, 1868
Since I write this blog for fun, and on my own time, I try to keep it as low-pressure for myself as I can. One way I enjoy doing that is to keep it very free-flowing, as far as topics are concerned. Once in a while I have to look hard to find something to write about, but more often than not the next subject will either pop up somehow, be suggested by a reader, or come directly from the last investigation. In this case it's actually both of the last two.

In the follow-up post about the Trinder and Higgins Farms there was mention made about the family of William Little, and the fact that they resided on a farm on the southwest corner of Upper Pike Creek Road and Old Coach Road. In comments and emails several people noted that there were some stone ruins still present at the site, just off of the road. The old maps clearly show the Little Farm, but provide not much more information. (I was going to say "little more information"...this is going to be a tough one to write.) Luckily, back in the 1990's DelDOT was widening the roads in the area and commissioned an archaeological report of the sites near the intersection. Much of the information here comes from that report, which can be found here (and another one here).

Although our entry point to the property was the Littles, they of course were not the first ones to own the land or to live on it. There may be a story to tell someday about the earlier occupation of the area, but for now we'll begin in the late 1700's when the property was in the hands of the Springer family. Much of the Springers' story will be fleshed out in a future post, but this branch of the long-standing Swedish family seems to have sprung, so to speak, from Charles Springer. Charles, who died about 1796, (as best as I can tell right now) resided just a short ways north of our present area of inquiry. After his passing, his sons Christopher, Jeremiah, and Benjamin continued to reside in the region around Pike Creek. Benjamin remained up in what we now know as the Skyline area, while Christopher and Jeremiah owned property around Upper Pike Creek and Old Coach Roads.

As far as exactly who owned exactly what, the two reports seem to be a bit at odds with each other, and themselves. As best as I can tell, it seems that Christopher Springer originally owned a larger tract here, on the west side of Pike Creek. In 1814 he sold the western portion of his land, but kept the eastern 25 acres for himself. Christopher was often listed as being a cooper, so with farming not being his only source of income a smaller farm would have been sufficient for him. He's shown on a survey done in 1831 for the Johnson property adjoining to the south, so he was apparently still residing there then. At some point, however, the property passed to Isaac Springer. There's good reason to believe that Isaac was the son of Benjamin Springer (therefore, Christopher's nephew). Christopher Springer may not have had any sons of his own, if so then his property ending up in the hands of his nephew makes sense.

Isaac Springer passed away in either late 1848 or early 1849, and the property was seized by the sheriff in order to pay off his debts. In this process, a detailed inventory was taken of Springer's possessions to appraise their value. An auction was held at the home on January 26, 1849, and the record of what was sold, the price, and the purchaser is still in existence. The report found here has a fascinating transcription of the goings-on that day. I won't go into all the details here, but if you do check it out I believe you'll see a fair number of names you'll recognize, like Greenwalt, Hanna, Morrison, Crossan, Justis, Yarnall, and others.

At the time of Isaac Springer's death the property contained one log house, as it likely had since first being settled. In 1850, the farm and its log house were sold to Yorklyn snuff mill owner Isaac Garrett. Garrett certainly purchased the property as an investment, and never lived on the premises. A year later Garrett sold it to Henry Kane, who probably also leased the farm to a tenant. An 1857 tax assessment valued Kane's farm at $750. Three years after that, in 1860, he sold it to Irish immigrant and recent Philadelphian James Ward for $900.

It's possible that Ward overpaid for his new farm, as the tax assessment of 1862 valued the property at only $600. What's of more interest to us, though, is that the house was described as "frame" at that time. I think it's likely that the assessor simply mislabeled the home, and that it was still the old Springer house. James Ward resided on this farm for another six years, before purchasing the old Wollaston mill seat on the other side of Pike Creek. When he finally did sell the old farm, it was to William Little for the much greater sum of $1800. This jump in value seems to indicate that it was Ward, sometime between 1862 and 1868, who tore down the old log house and erected a newer frame structure.

There's a third part of the DelDOT report from the late 90's that deals specifically with the archaeological excavations they did at the Springer-Little Farm. Work was done at several locations, including a spring house, the barn, a set of outbuildings, a retaining wall, and the later Ward/Little House. It's lite on estimated dates for most of the structural ruins, except for a few key items. It mentions a circa 1840's bottle found within a wall that was not part of the original construction (if I'm reading it correctly). This would seem to imply that this bank barn was used for most if not all of the lifespan of the farm, built in its early days and added-to and modified as the years passed. This is consistent with other barns I've seen in the area. If the 1840's bottle was contemporary to a modification, it would probably point the finger to Isaac Springer. The barn is on the western end of the tract, close to Old Coach Road.

A wall of the bank barn, in 1998

A stone retaining wall ran along the roadway, and south of it, to the east of the barn, is the remains of a house. The excavation team concluded that this was the foundation of a frame house, probably the one built by James Ward (or William Little) in the 1860's. Interestingly, among the collection of outbuildings, the archaeologists found a back-filled pit, which among other things contained coins from 1797 and 1837. These and other early artifacts led them to believe that it may have been the basement of the original Springer log house, which was filled in later by either Ward or Little after the old house had been demolished.

Even if there was already an almost new house on the farm when the Littles moved in, there were still several changes to the property to come. For one thing, originally Upper Pike Creek Road seems to have crossed the creek further south and then run through the eastern part of the Springer-Little tract. This can be seen on the 1868 map at the top of the page. By 1881 (as seen below), it was placed in its present course, traveling up the east side of the creek and crossing with Pike Creek Road. (Note: I started this with "seems" because the 1849 map actually shows the current roadway. The report states that the road changed, so I'm assuming it did, too. We might all be wrong, though.)

Another change made by William Little was the enlargement of his holdings. In 1883 he purchased a 32 acre tract on the south side of his original farm. That property contained a frame tenant house, which I think caused some confusion with the DelDOT reports. One mentions the tenement, the other doesn't. One states that later deeds don't mention a house on the original parcel, only one on the southern parcel. However, both the 1893 map and the 1904 topographic map show a house close to Old Coach Road. My guess would be that Little remained in the house he bought, which, remember, was probably only a few years old when he moved in.

When the Littles first arrived, the family consisted of William, wife Mary; daughters Maggie (Margaret), Sarah, and Isabella; and sons (George) Washington and William. Several of this children have shown up in previous posts. Margaret married Alpheus Pennock, Isabella married Thomas Higgins, Sarah never married. Washington ended up on a farm on the other side of Pike Creek, which his widow Florence remained on after his death. William also remained in the area, possibly farming part of the home farm. (He was not, however, as I stated in a previous post, the father of Lora Little. Sorry, I was a little confused.)

After William, Sr. passed away in February 1907, the family rented the farm for a year to Thomas Maclary. In 1908 Maclary purchased the now 59 acre tract for $3200. The Maclary family remained until 1920, when they sold to the Bernhard family for $5000. The property stayed in the Bernhard family until 1981, when they sold a 21 acre plot (most of the original farm) to the University of Delaware. Recently it became part of White Clay Creek Preserve.

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