Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Armstrong Family Homestead Tracts at Mt. Cuba -- Part II

The two Armstrong properties along Barley Mill Road
Here is the second of Donald Prather's three posts about the Armstrongs in the Mt. Cuba area and the quest to find the location of his Great-Grandmother Madolene's old photograph. In the first post, we were introduced to the photo and to the family. In this post, we'll look more deeply at the pair of Armstrong properties along Barley Mill Road, and begin trying to match the old photograph to a specific location. Thanks again to Don for his work on the project. Enjoy!

Researched and Written by Donald Prather --

The South Property, Original of the Two Tracts
As mentioned in the last post, the south property of 98 acres was originally purchased in 1817 by Archibald Armstrong. Archibald was a son of John Armstrong and a grandson of Archibald, both of whom arrived in the U.S. from Northern Ireland in the 1740’s (see notes 3 and 4). When purchased by the Armstrongs, the property contained a newer (2-3 year old) stone house and a barn, built by previous owners John and Esther Nicholson.

This south tract of land remained in the Armstrong family for 110 years and passed through four generations of the family:
  • Archibald Armstrong (original purchaser in 1817.. but likely never lived in the house)
  • Sold to his son John Armstrong Sr. (spouse Jane Delaplaine) in 1821
  • Willed to his son John Armstrong Jr (spouse Hanna K Woodward) in 1869
  • Transferred to his living children with son Joseph W. Armstrong (spouse Mary R. Guest) appointed trustee in 1913.
Joseph and his living siblings acquired the property in 1910 under the stipulation that all of his siblings (John Jr’s living children) were allowed use of the property, if desired, and had combined control over, and responsibility for, the operation, ownership, and costs of the property. Joseph was also required, as a part of the transfer, to acquire a bank loan in order to pay off the responsibilities of his father’s estate.

Joseph was the father of Madolene Armstrong of this story and both father and daughter spent all or most of their childhoods on the south property. Historical maps, census records, tax records, and recorded accounts inform us that there were at least two houses on the south property. Probate records, which often provide property inventories, indicate that the main farmhouse, the larger of the two, was stone and the other house, documented as the tenant house, was of frame (wood) construction. Because census records in rural areas often did not contain street addresses, it is sometimes uncertain as to which of the two houses Joseph and family lived in. (see note 5).

We know from property records between 1910 and 1914 and from census records in 1920 that the Armstrongs living on the south property had moved to other locations by 1920 at the latest, though the property was still owned by the family. By the 1920 census, Joseph and his family had already moved off the homestead to a smaller suburban property in Roselle. Joseph’s occupation is listed in 1920 as a guard at the County Workhouse and he had apparently given up full-time farming by then. Madeline, the oldest daughter, had already married by this time had moved away to start her own family.

In 1927, the south property was ceded to Delaware Trust, likely a result of an inability to pay the loan on the property. For the next 20 years, the property was held in a trust by the bank before being conveyed, in 1947, to Harry R. Norman. In 1965, the remaining piece (~78 acres) of the south tract was acquired by Red Clay Reservation, Inc. Today, the portion of the south property west of Barley Mill Road is owned by Red Clay Reservation while that portion east of the road is now part of the Mt. Cuba Center. The house and farm buildings are long-gone but there are some small ruins remaining. Today, the south property is fenced-off and the forest has nearly reclaimed the property.

This photograph shows the south property as it existed in 2008. This picture is looking westerly
 from Barley Mill Rd towards where the house stood. Photo courtesy of Steve Armstrong.
Ruins of various buildings and foundations existed on the property as of 2008. Prior to this date,
ruins of a springhouse (not pictured here) existed very close to the road but were removed
in recent decades due to road widening. Pictures courtesy of Steve Armstrong.
This Google Street View photograph from 2016 shows the south property as it exists today. This
image is from the same location on Barley Mill Road as the 2008 photo above. Nature is well into
the process of reclaiming the property and at least part of the property is fenced and inaccessible.

Acquisition of North Property Doubles Size of the Homestead
The north property was the second of the two purchased in the immediate area by the Armstrong family. In 1842, John Armstrong (Sr.) [(b) 1786 (d) 1869] and spouse Jane Delaplaine Armstrong purchased the 106 acre tract from the heirs of Henry Wilkins. When John Sr. purchased the north property in 1842, he was the owner of a combined total of around 204 acres of adjoining land. On the north property at the time of the purchase, were a stone house, built sometime between 1797 and 1804 (which still survives), and a frame barn. An earlier log house had been removed by prior owners.

The north tract was handed down as follows:
  • John Armstrong Sr (spouse Jane Delaplaine)
  • Willed to his son Archibald Armstrong (spouse Sarah Springer)
  • Willed to son Stephen Springer Armstrong (spouse Emma Layton and later Martha Peeples)
  • Willed to his son Archie Armstrong (spouse Ellen Bird Hanna)
  • Sold in pieces to the Copelands (added to Mt. Cuba property) and Henry B. DuPont (Red Clay Reservation).
The final remaining piece of the north property was ceded by the Armstrong family in September, 1955 when the remaining 87 acres was sold by Archie and Ellen Armstrong to Henry B. DuPont. This sale ended the 138 year-long presence of the Armstrong family in the Ashland / Mount Cuba area.

April, 1955 classified ad from The Morning News advertising a large public sale of livestock,
 farm equipment, and household goods on the north property. Five months later, the sale of the
 north property to Henry DuPont would take place and the Armstrong presence in the area would
come to an end.

The original stone house on the north property, pictured below, has survived to this day (as of 2017). An early photograph of the extant house on this property can be found in the wonderful first part of the book, “Interpreting the Early Modern World: Transatlantic Perspectives”. Part I of this book, written by Lu Ann De Cunzo and Nedda Moqtaderi discusses the Armstrong family farms in northern Delaware including Coverdale farm and the two farms discussed here. The picture of the extant house from the north property shows Archibald Armstrong, Sarah Springer Armstrong, Stephen Springer Armstrong, and children Archie and Emma standing together in front of the house in the late 1800’s.

Here is a modern view of the Armstrong house on the north property:

South elevation of the extant stone house on the north property. A frame addition on the
far (west) end of the house was lost in a 1971 fire. Today, of all the farm buildings,
spring houses, carriage houses, workshops, and dwelling that once existed on the
properties, only this single building has survived.

The house on the north property was nearly lost in 1971 when a fire of suspicious origin gutted the interior and destroyed the frame addition. The Red Clay Reservation rebuilt the stone portion of the house and it stands in good condition to this day.

This photo from the November 6, 1971 edition of The News Journal shows the suspicious fire that
nearly destroyed the Armstrong house on the north property.

Matching the Photograph to the Property
Returning to the original topic of this post, the identification of the farm property in the photograph, the biggest hurdle we faced in attempting to match it with one of the Armstrong properties in the area was that despite the fact that the current house on the north property is extant and photographed, no known photographs of the southern tract of land or the buildings upon it were known (by us) to exist. We knew that the photograph couldn’t be of the north property but we needed additional information to either prove or disprove the identification of the property in the photograph as the south property.

The first thing to do was perform a digital cleanup of the photograph. Decades of extreme hot and cold temperatures as well as the humidity of a Delaware attic had taken a toll on the image. I wanted to darken the image in order to bring out more of the details and I also attempted to remove any artifacts of the weathering process. This is a challenging process as you have to make the decision of what is an unwanted artifact and what was part of the original image. If you change too much, the image becomes historically inaccurate, too little and you might miss details hiding behind a stain or smudge. I realized later that some things I “cleaned up” in the image were inaccurate. For example, what I originally thought was a small gully or storm drain in the backyard I later realized was more likely the shadow of a fence. Because I made an incorrect assumption when enhancing the image, I inadvertently changed the fence to a gully. The moral of the story here is to enjoy the cleaned up image as an idealized view of the property but for historical accuracy, turn to the untouched image. One positive outcome of staring at an image for hours and hours is that it allows you to recognize details that you might otherwise look over which can help you prove or disprove a picture’s match to other images.

The photograph after being digitally cleaned-up and enhanced

After extensively comparing the image to the terrain of the south property and via other circumstantial evidence, I believe that the south property of the Armstrong farm is, in fact, the property pictured in the photograph.

The lay of the land in the photo is correct and matches the topographic map of the area (see below). In order for this to be true, we must assume the camera is pointed towards the property in a generally-western direction from the steep hill just across Barley Mill Road. This camera direction makes the left side of the photograph south and the right side of the photograph north.
  • The photograph shows a rolling property that rises to the north and falls to the south with a noticeable hill west, and slightly south, of the house. This terrain profile from the photo matches the topo map (see below) of the area.
  • In the photograph, the highest point on the property is behind, and to the left of, the house (west and slightly south of the house). The topo map of this property shows the local high point on the property to be west and slightly south of where the house would have been.
  • In the foreground of the photograph is a road, hidden from view, running in a small depression or valley between the camera position and the property. Because of the terrain, the road itself cannot be seen and only the fence on the far side of the road is seen from the photographer’s position (this caused me to initially miss the fact that a road was present). The road can be seen to be climbing a hill from south to north (left to right in the photo). This road would be Wooddale /Barley Mill Road which, even today, runs in a depression as it crosses the property and rises from south to north in that immediate area.
  • The fenced backyard can be seen to be falling away from the house toward the left (south). The slope of the hill is particularly visible in the fence line of the house yard further from the camera (the far side of the house yard). The property slopes away from the house to the south, just as the topo says it should.
  • The photographer is standing on a rise opposite (to the east of) the property. The rise increases from south to north. The rise on which the photographer is standing reaches a high point in the far bottom-right of the photograph. This matches the modern terrain of the steep hill directly across the road from the property. Part of this hill was within the boundaries of the south Armstrong property until the 20th century. Today, this hill is part of the Mt. Cuba Center property.
  • By looking at the porch in the photograph and its height from the ground beneath it, one can see that the house is built on sloping ground falling toward the camera (falling from west to east under the house). The ground falls four to six feet from the far side to the near side of the house, This is most visible by looking closely at the front and back porches (left and right of the house in the photograph) which are nearly level with the ground on the far (west) side and are significantly elevated on the east side. The house sits near a local high point and the ground falls away from the house heading east.
  • One can also see that the right (north) side of the property rises to the point of the fence line which seems to be a local high point; one can see no further than the fence line indicating that the ground either levels out or falls away past that point. This also matches the topo map of both properties.
Here is the topo map of the general area. I have identified in red what I believe to be the general location of the photographer as well as the direction faced. I’ve added, in orange, the approximate location where I believe the house and barn were located. I also added an orange line where the fence line between the south and north properties would have been. This fence is no longer extant. The extant house along Barley Mill road is seen on the north property as a small black square already on the map (not added by me). Notice that the general terrain in the photograph matches that of the topo map including high points, low points, and the rise from south to north.

Modern Topographic Map of the Area

Additional Topographic “Evidence”
I realize the evidence that follows here is not exactly scientific and doesn’t necessarily prove anything but I had a great time playing with this and the results are interesting! Peakfinder.org allows you to specify a location (latitude and longitude) anywhere in the world, a viewing direction (from zero to 359 degrees), an elevation, and a zoom level and it will show you an outline of the terrain profile from that viewpoint. It is primarily designed to help you find named peaks but also works in areas with unnamed hills like the northern Delaware piedmont.

When we place the “virtual” cameraman across Barley Mill Road, about halfway up the hill in front of the Mt. Cuba center, at or near 39°47'11''N 75°38'60''W and we point the camera in a west-northwest direction (~west 27 degrees north), we gets the view of the horizon shown below. It certainly looks close to the terrain elevation behind the property in the photograph!

Conclusion About the Location in the Photograph
While the evidence is circumstantial, I believe that the matching terrain between the photograph and the south property combined with what we know about the location of the family during Madolene’s birth and childhood point to the photograph being of the south property, taken from the west side of the road. Given the perspective and altitude shown in the photo, I believe the cameraperson was standing part of the way up the hill a few hundred feet north of the main entrance to Mt. Cuba Center.

Looking at the Armstrong descendants who owned and passed down each of the two properties, it makes sense that the photograph is of the south property. John Armstrong Sr., who at one point owned both the north and south properties, passed the properties to two of his sons, John Armstrong Jr. and Archibald Armstrong (both are pictured below). The south property went to John Armstrong, Jr and ultimately to his descendants. The north property was passed to John Armstrong Jr.’s brother, Archibald, and records show that the north property remained in the hands of Archibald’s descendants until the property was finally sold off. Madeline, the daughter of Joseph and the owner of the photograph, was more than likely born and raised on the south property.

Brothers Archibald, left and John Jr., right inherited the Armstrong farm tracts from their father, John Sr.
 Archibald inherited the north property and John Jr. the south property. Left picture courtesy of Rich Morrison

Approximate locations of the three houses on the two tracts. The house on the north property is the only
surviving structure on either property. Locations of the houses on the south property are a best guess.
The location of the main house (south) is based on photographic evidence. The location of the tenant house
across Barley Mill Road is a best guess based only on the location dot placed on the Beers 1868 map.

In the third, and final, post in the series, we'll take an even closer look into the South Property, including some addition old photographs. Some of these raise their own questions about whether they are all of the same house, greatly renovated, or of different houses. Don also gives some greater insight into the farm's place in the community.

Research Notes:

Note 3: Many Armstrongs in the area around County Fermanagh, Northern Ireland were actually displaced Scots. After the 1603 Union of the Crowns ended centuries of war between Scotland and England, the Crown ran campaigns across the border regions to purge families which had been considered troublemakers. The Armstrong family (known as Clan Armstrong) was one of these families and, as a result, many Armstrong family branches moved away from the border to the Northern Ireland province of Ulster for safety. The Armstrong progenitors in this story (Archibald, b. 1695 and John, b. 1730) are both recorded as having been born in County Fermanagh. For more information on the history of the Armstrong family in Scotland see Collins Scottish Clan & Family Encyclopedia by George Way and Romily Squite. (1994).

Note 4: Note that Archibald’s father (John Armstrong) is not the same John Armstrong who was a member of the Continental Congress but they’re likely related as they come from the same county in Ireland. I need to do more digging on the relation between the Armstrong lines in Colonial America.

Note 5: Evidence points to at least three houses on the two Armstrong properties along Wooddale/Barley Mill Road. The 1868 Beers map of Mill Creek Hundred clearly shows one house on the north property and two houses on the south property. The houses on the south property appear to be right across the street from each other. It is difficult to tell in which house each family resided when looking at census records because the houses were on rural mail routes and likely not numbered. Or, if they were numbered at the time, the house number is not listed on the census reports.

In John Armstrong Jr’s probate records from 1910, he is shown as having owned two farms at the time of his death. “Home Farm no 1” is the south property and is listed as having “one eight room stone farm house, one five-room frame tenant house” among other farm buildings. “Farm no 2” was located immediately southwest of the intersection of today’s McKennans Church Road and Newport Gap Pike. This second farm is not discussed in this post.

In a 1917 family reunion, Archibald’s daughter, Ada Jane, stated "Uncle John, born in,1831, married Hannah Woodward, and they lived across the road from Grandfather". The “Uncle John” she was referencing was John Armstrong Jr and “Grandfather” was John Armstrong Sr.

In the 1900 census, Joseph and his family were one of three consecutive Armstrong listings along with John Jr (and family) and Archibald (and family). Each of the three families is clearly listed in a different house, indicating three different houses in close proximity to each other. Interestingly, Joseph is listed as a renter of his house while Archibald and John Jr both show as owners of their respective houses. Interestingly, while John Jr’s and Archibald's census entries show their properties to be "farm", Joseph’s entry shows his property as a "home". This indicates to me that when Joseph was married to Mary Guest in 1893 or possibly when their first child, Madolene, was born in 1896, he moved out of his parents’ house but didn’t go far, ending up right across the road. So, Madolene may have been born either in the main farmhouse or in the tenant house across the road.

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