Monday, July 11, 2016

The Lost (?) Pilling Houses of Kiamensi

Was this one of the Pilling Houses?
This was just going to be a reply to a new comment in an old post, but the more I thought about it the more I realized that it needs more. This is mostly questions without answers at this point, but there's enough new information that there's a hope that it might lead to more someday. The comment in question came from Dave C. and was posted on a story I wrote about Powell Ford. Dave shared with us an interesting newspaper article he found, which originally appeared in the September 2, 1910 edition of the Wilmington Every Evening. I'll repost the article in its entirety in a moment, but first a refresher on the people involved.

Englishman Thomas Pilling (1836-1905) was, along with his brother John, one of the founders of the Kiamensi Woolen Company in 1864. The Kiamensi Woolen Mill sat on the northwest corner of Kiamensi Road and Red Clay Creek, just south of Marshallton. The company eventually owned more or less all the land between the B&O (now CSX) tracks and Kiamensi Road, from Stanton Road to just east of the creek. They also owned a good amount of land south of Kiamensi Road, too. Just how much, we'll get to shortly.

The Kiamensi Woolen Company was very much a Pilling family business, with them owning almost all the stock in the firm. Both John Pilling, Jr. and Thomas' son Richard T. Pilling (1864-1951) joined into the family business, with Richard succeeding his father as President of the company. The Pillings were hands-on owners of the mill, and both Thomas and Richard lived nearby. Where exactly nearby they lived is really the point of the rest of this story. Here's the full text of the newspaper article. It's a bit long, but full of interesting information. (I'm just not going to bother trying to separate out the paragraphs, sorry.)

A most mysterious and disastrous fire occurred between 3 and 4 o'clock this morning, at Kiamensi, about six miles southwest of Wilmington which destroyed the old Thomas Pilling mansion and damaged the dwelling of Richard T. Pilling, son of the late Thomas Pilling, causing a loss estimated at $7,000. The mansion evidently caught fire first, but from what source is not known, and while it was ablaze a fire was discovered inside Richard T. Pilling's house, which was closed and which could scarcely have been ignited from any outside agency. The fire in the second house appears to have started in the cellar and it was burning its way through the parlor floor when it was discovered. The Pilling mansion was occupied by the late Thomas Pilling up to the time of his death, about five years ago. It is directly cross the road "from the residence of Richard T. Pilling, a distance of about 50 feet, and has not been occupied recently, except as a summer house, being used largely by the children of Richard T. Pilling as a playhouse during the day, but it has not been occupied for some time. Occasionally Mr. Pilling's family. which comprise himself, Mrs.Pilling and their four children sleep at night in the upper portion of the office of the Kiamensi Woolen Mills, about 300 yards away, and last night the family was sleeping at the mill office. When Mr. Pilling was seen by a reporter of Every Evening this morning he said his house and the mansion were securely fastened for the night last night about 10 o'clock, and as far as he knows no person was at either house at that time, and it is believed there was no fire in either house. The first intimation of the fire was given about 4 o'clock this morning, when Mr. Pilling and his family, as well as other residents of the town, were awakened by the shrill blasts of the whistle of a Baltimore& Ohio locomotive. The crew of a passing train had seen the fire and chose this means of giving the alarm. Mr. Pilling and the members of his family, as well as many other persons hastened to the scene of the fire. At that time the mansion, which was of frame, was all ablaze, and those who reached the house first noticed smoke coming from Richard T. Pilling's house, on the. opposite side of the road. Mr. Pilling- and several other persons rushed into the latter house and found the parlor floor in flames, which had evidently worked their way from the cellar. With fire-fighting apparatus from the mill this blaze was soon extinguished and without serious damage, but it was impossible to save the mansion, which was nearly destroyed by. that time. But as other buildings, including the mill, were in danger, a telephone message was sent to Wilmington for help and the Union and Reliance apparatus quickly responded and saved nearby buildings. Mr. Pilling was unable to advance any theory for either fire this morning. It was suggested that the mansion might have been fired by a spark from a passing locomotive, but as the railroad is 300 yards away Mr. Pilling did not give much credence to this theory, in view of the fact that the barn is much nearer the railroad and he believed that if there had been any sparks flying the barn would have seemed more likely to have caught them, though there was a high wind from the railroad last night. Some of the town residents expressed the belief that both houses were set on fire by thieves or tramps, but so far as Mr. Pilling had been able to discover, there was no trace of thieves or evidences of robbery and he is at a loss to find an explanation. Both houses contained furniture. That in the mansion was destroyed, while a piano, carpet and some other articles in the second house were damaged. Mr. Pilling could not estimate the loss, but he said he thought it would be covered by insurance. Both housing were of frame. They are owned by the Kiamensi Woolen Co., of which Mr. Pilling is treasurer. The Kiamensi Woolen Mills are closed temporarily, while repairs are being made. They have been idle for several - days.
So, the short version is that there were two Pilling houses (Thomas' and Richard's) near the Kiamensi Mills, one of which was damaged and one of which was destroyed by this fire. The questions we have are: 1)Where exactly were these houses, and 2)What, if any, connections do they have to the two historic houses that are/were in the area (the recently razed house across from the park entrance and the Mansion House). Making this more difficult is the fact that we don't know for sure the builders and construction dates for the Mansion House (the one south of the road and east of the park) and the torn down house (which I'll call the Kiamensi House).

The good news is that the article gives us three pieces of information about the locations of the dwellings. The bad news is that I'm not sure how much I trust that information. This was an article in a Wilmington paper 100 years ago, written for people, most of whom would never come anywhere near Kiamensi. I have my doubts as to how accurate the reporter bothered to be. Nevertheless, let's look at two scenarios -- one in which the distances are accurate and one in which they're accurate-ish.

Approximation of 300 yard distances

The two main pieces of information we're given about the locations of the houses are that the Thomas Pilling Mansion was 300 yards away from both the woolen mill and the railroad. The fact that the same distance is given for two measurements raises a red flag right away for me, but let's take the report at face value first. In the diagram above, I've marked out an approximately 300 yard radius perimeter from the mill site and a 300 yard distant line from the railroad tracks. As you can see, no house stands where they intersect. As far as I know, no house has. The Kiamensi House is tantalizingly close to the 300 yard mark from the mill, but way too close to the tracks. The article seems to say that Thomas' house was 50 feet away and directly across the street from Richard's. Even if the Kiamensi House were Richard's, it still wouldn't put Thomas' nearly far enough from the tracks.

In my opinion, there doesn't seem to be any way that the 300 yard distances given can be actually accurate. I'm ok with this. I think the reporter was using "300 yards" as an approximation, not a precise measurement. Kind of a placeholder value meaning "a ways away", not a literal value. So if we allow ourselves to wander away from the 300 yard marks, what are we left with? I still think the house was probably about equidistant from the mill and the tracks. Unfortunately, I don't have a map showing what structures were in place in 1910 (although it's possible that there might be such a thing out there, like a Sanborn Fire Insurance map). The closest things I have are the two map segments below, which although earlier may still help us.

Kiamensi area 1893

Kiamensi area 1904
The top map shows the area in 1893, and clearly shows what appears to be the extent of the woolen company's land holdings. The south-westernmost structure shown (south of the road) seems to be in the same location as the Mansion House, down to its being set back from the road. There also is what appears to be a house directly across the street. Anecdotal evidence would place the Mansion House's construction later than this, but we're not sure about that. Could these two be the two Pilling Houses?

The 1904 topographic map shows the same two houses, but now seems to also show the Kiamensi House farther down the road. Since it was built later, it couldn't be Thomas' house. Since there's no house across the street, it wasn't Richard's. From land records it does appear that the company (aka, the Pillings) purchased the rest of this western tract between the road and the tracks. The Kiamensi House was almost certainly connected to the mill, and may have been a supervisor's house of some sort, but I don't think it's either house we're looking for here.

Overlooking part of the village of Kiamensi, c.1905

That leaves us with the Mansion House, or at least its site. Since we don't have any follow-up stories to this, it's at least possible that the Mansion House could have been a replacement for the burned-down Thomas Pilling House. Some photographic evidence would surely be helpful, but the only photo I've ever seen that shows any of old Kiamensi is the shot of the B&O station, shown above. The mill is the long building in the far background, and several other structures, including what looks like a church, can be seen. Unfortunately, the spot where the houses would have been is directly behind the station. So, we're left with more information than we had, but not enough to draw any firm conclusions. My hope is that somewhere out there, there's another piece or two to this puzzle that will allow us to firmly place these houses and determine the true history of two (now one) of the last houses standing.


  1. I always wanted to own the one that was torn down when I was little.

    1. I know what you mean. It really was a pretty house. That's one of the reasons I wanted to make sure I got a bunch of pictures of it before it was torn down.