Friday, February 23, 2018

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

The South Armstrong property on Barley Mill Road
Here is the the final of Don Prather's three fantastic posts about the Armstrongs of the Mt. Cuba area. It's amazing that it all began with one old photograph and some old-fashioned curiosity. The first two posts (here and here) introduced us to the family and the properties, and attempted to prove the location of the photo. This post looks more closely at the south property and shows some other pictures of the house...or are they? You decide. Finally, we'll get an insight into what the home meant to the surrounding community. I can't thank Don enough for all his work on this. Great job!!

Researched and Written by Donald Prather --

More About the South Property
As stated in the previous post, when the south property was purchase in 1817, a stone house already existed on the property. Additional photographs acquired during our research, courtesy of Steve Armstrong, helps us understand the evolution of the house. I’m unsure whether the changes in the home represent additions to the original house or show a more extensive tear-down and rebuild. As the images below show, these changes were significant and altered the style of the home greatly but the footprint of the house doesn’t appear to have been altered significantly even as the style is updated. So, it’s possible that all of these pictures are of the same structure, but also possible that they are not. Regardless of the number of structures built, I’m certain that the properties pictured are the same because of the terrain, fence-lines, and relation of the house to the large barn and other surrounding buildings.

The earliest known image of the house can be seen in the image below. It shows a basic two-story farmhouse sitting in a fenced yard between two or three other buildings. The small building standing directly between the house and the camera appears to be a small blacksmith building or workshop with a tall chimney that appears to have been extended upwards at some point in time. It’s not hard to imagine a spark from the earlier, lower chimney causing a fire from a wandering spark or hearing the occupant of the bedroom inside that open window just a few feet from the chimney complaining about the constant smoke, heat, and the occasional hot spark. The house itself appears to be of stone construction, perhaps stuccoed-stone, but the image is not clear enough to be sure. When this first photograph was taken, the house had a simple gabled roof and at opposite ends roof are paired chimneys, penetrating the roof near the ridge with one chimney on the front pitch and the other chimney on the rear pitch.

The oldest known photograph of the farmhouse on the south property. The house shown here may or
 may not have been the first one built on the south property. Courtesy Steve Armstrong

There is a small porch on the front of the house and a larger one which appears to extend the width of the house, in the back. Looking closely at the photograph, the house sits on a slope and the property slopes down 3-4 feet from the far side of the house to the nearer side. Due to this slope, the house sits high enough on the nearer side to fit a full-sized window into the basement, partly hidden behind the bushes.

The large barn is mostly hidden from view behind the tall trees in the bottom-right foreground. The property seems abuzz with activity with unidentified members of the family pausing for a moment to look up to the photographer on the hill. The horses wait patiently, hitched to their carriages. In the foreground of the photo (bottom right), one can see the springhouse sitting just a few feet from the road. The background of the photo shows the rolling terrain of the meadow and fields of the rest of the property

The second photo (below) is the source of some uncertainty. The image shows ten unidentified members (eleven if you count the dog) of the Armstrong family, or friends thereof, gathered on a porch. They appear to be a bit too dressed up to be working the farm and one of the men is holding what appears to be a very large book (Bible?) so I’m guessing this picture was taken on a Sunday or, perhaps, on a special occasion. The windows are open and the grass is growing tall so it’s sometime during the summer or early fall. The photograph shows the fence following the contour of the yard which slopes heavily from left to right. The house in this image shows a porch across the full width of the building and at opposite ends of the house are paired chimneys, penetrating the roof on opposing sides, one in front and one in back (sound familiar?)

This may be the backyard / rear elevation of the main farmhouse on the south property
or it could be the tenant house across the street. Courtesy Steve Armstrong
When I received this picture, it was thought to be of the frame (wood) tenant house across the road from the main south property. The Beers atlas (1868) image clearly shows a structure across the street from the main south property, both listed as “J. Armstrong”. My theory, however, is that the house shown in this second photograph is actually the main farmhouse on the west side of the road with the family standing on the back porch. The slope of the yard from left to right is what we would expect in the backyard of that particular home (matching the slope in the front of the house). The configurations of the paired, offset chimneys on the roof match exactly to what you would expect to see from this rear perspective. Granted, it is quite possible that the family simply used similar layouts on multiple houses nearby, but it's also possible that we are looking at the same house in both photographs.

Major Changes to the House
A third photograph (below) shows the main home on the south property at some point after major renovations were complete. While the photograph is from 1905, renovations could have taken place far earlier. In the second half of the 1800’s, it was quite popular to add gothic revival elements to existing homes including porches, cross gables, lancet (pointed) windows, and more elaborate ornamentation [2]. Either through renovations to the existing structure (common in the mid-late 1800’s) or through a teardown and rebuild, the home received an update in style and, likely, interior layout. A full-width porch replaced an earlier, smaller porch in front and cross gables were added on the front and rear. If the original house remained rather than being torn down, some of the existing windows were closed up and new windows were added to the ends and the front of the house, including lancet or pointed-arch windows at the ends of the house and on the front cross-gable.

The chimneys appear to have been reconfigured as they now seem to penetrate the roofline at the ridge and straddle the rood ridge, rather than being offset. This chimney reconfiguration can be seen more clearly in the photograph taken from the hill to the east of the house (Madolene’s original photograph). In addition, the earlier blacksmith or workshop is now gone, replaced by a smaller structure now attached to the house. Walk-in access to the basement has been added at the front of the house, beneath the front porch.

As of 1905, the main house on the south property had undergone major styling changes. What was once
a traditional farmhouse became (or was replaced by) a three-bay gothic-revival house with full front
and rear porch. Note that this is the same house that appears in Madolene’s original photograph.
This is likely the final major renovation of the south farmhouse as financial difficulties become apparent from documents a few years later. Note that this revision of the home represents the same layout as in Madolene’s image, though it can be hard to tell given the different angles and elevation between the photographs. The fence in the front-yard (and the obvious snow in this image) shows that the two photographs were taken at two different points in time.

Unfortunately, it is unclear when the house, barn, and buildings were torn down and whether anyone lived here beyond the 1910-1914 timeframe.

Center of Family and Community Activity
Through pictures, census records, newspaper articles, and first-hand accounts, we learn that the Armstrong farms at Mt. Cuba were very active with work, family, and community activity for generations. While the day to day reality of farm life is that of nearly endless work [see note 6], the properties served as much more than just a place to make a living. They also served as a gathering place where, either through formal activities such as family reunions, weddings, or funerals, or in less formal events such as lunches, small social gatherings, and plain old neighborly visits, family members, community members, church brethren, or any number of relations, could get together to communicate, work out issues, and strengthen social bonds.

In late October 1891, twenty-one years after the passing of John Armstrong, the patriarch of the Mt. Cuba Armstrongs the family held a reunion, the first of such in many years according to the Morning News [3]. According to the article, upwards of fifty children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren attended. Present that day were seven surviving children of John Armstrong including John Jr and Archibald, the owners of the Mt. Cuba properties, as well as Rebecca and Mary who had spent their early lives taking care of their father and relocated to Ohio and then Pittsburgh, after his passing. According to the report, “The day was spent in games and all sorts of amusements and all present enjoyed themselves.” One can imagine the laughter of children as they ran in and amongst the chestnut and oak trees of the grove in which lunch was served and through which the cool October air passed. The trees on and around the farm must have been near their peak autumn color, as well.

Family gatherings were certainly not exclusive to the south Armstrong property. A number of family reunions were held on the north property, including one held on July 4, 1904 during which the family celebrated the nation’s birthday with patriotic songs and recitations and an evening concluding with an extensive dinner served under the trees [4]. By this time, the north farm had been given the name “Shady Nook” by the family.

In 1917, another reunion was held on the Armstrong homestead, this time in the orchard of the south property [5]. Hundreds of descendants of patriarch John Armstrong sang songs, listened to recitations, and heard stories of their family history, including the history of the Mt. Cuba farms. On display that day were a large flag which had been in the family since the 1700’s, as well as a family bible that was 140 years old at the time. A four-page program from that day’s reunion, describing everything that was planned for the day, is available HERE.

Starting in 1935, the Brack-Ex church Boy Scout troop maintained a camp called “Camp Wildy on Archie Armstrong’s Farm (the north property). Scouts and scout leaders would spend up to a week on the farm, camping either in tents or in the barn. They would spend their week performing typical outdoor activities like swimming, competitive events, baseball, and hiking. No known pictures exist of Camp Wildy, that I’m aware of, but the camp is mentioned in News Journal articles for 20 years from 1935 to 1955. At one point, the troop built a number of rustic bridges across a stream running through the property and even dammed a portion of the stream to create a swimming pool. I’m unsure if any remnants of these bridges or of the swimming pool remain extant, or even where on the property the camp existed, for that matter.

This investigation was started in order to attempt to identify the location in Madolene’s photograph and while we cannot be 100% certain, the evidence points to the location being the south Armstrong property at Mount Cuba. Along the way, we learned about the multiple generations of Armstrong families who lived there, we discovered that there were actually two adjoining properties on which generations of Armstrong men and women, brothers and sisters, cousins, aunts and uncles lived, worked, and congregated. We also saw how the properties became a gathering place not just for family but for members of the community as well, particularly in later years.

Interesting to me are the parallels between the Armstrong families of Mt. Cuba and so many other farming families and communities of northern New Castle County in the 19th and early 20th centuries. We see that the start of the Armstrong occupancy begins with a father purchasing a plot of land that, ultimately, gets worked by his children and his grandchildren. We see the early success of the farm parlayed into growth of both acreage and number of buildings. We see the success reach its peak in the second half of the 19th century and begin to decline shortly after the turn of the 20th century. And we see men and women who once planted crops and tended to livestock leave the profession, relocate to suburban homes on much smaller lots, and move into non-farming industries. In this sense the growth, peak, and eventual decline of the Armstrong farms mirror that of so many others in New Castle County.

The parallels between our Mt. Cuba Armstrong families and other farming families in the area are not the only parallels we can draw. If we turn our attention to the land itself and away from the individuals who lived and worked it, we see many parallels between these plots of land and much of New Castle County. We see early, large plots of land which were a mixture of farm, meadow, and woods, divided over time into smaller plots with a growing percentage of the wooded land and meadow converted into crop-producing land. The styling of the houses and buildings on the properties also follow trends similar to those of county. We see the log homes of the 18th century replaced with larger stone farmhouses in the 19th century which were further enlarged, restyled, and/or rebuilt. With the tenant house built in themid-19th century, we see the transition from stone to wood frame construction. And like so many old houses in the area, we see two of the three houses across the two properties eventually torn down. One major difference between these properties and other properties across New Castle County is the ultimate fate of the properties. Unlike so much of New Castle County land which has been subdivided into neighborhoods and shopping centers, the Armstrong properties retain many of the same undivided boundaries which existed hundreds of years ago. Were it not for the acquisitions by the DuPont family in an effort to maintain the character and open space surrounding their estates, the plots would most likely be subdivided and filled with homes today. We are lucky in that the north house remains standing and that the land, for the foreseeable future, will not be further subdivided and developed. Other than the house on the north property however, very little remains on either property to tell of its history.

Huge thanks go out again to Don for his amazing work on this story. There are still a few details and a few mysteries remaining (aren't there always?), but he's done a fantastic job in bringing all this to light. I strongly believe that all of these old properties and families have meaningful stories to tell, and I'm very grateful to Don for telling this one to us. As a final note, Don also prepared a spreadsheet detailing the succession of ownership for both properties. This timeline was too large to include in the post, but for those interested here is a link to the document.

Research Notes:

Note 6: For an extensive description of the farm activities on the Armstrong farms at Mt. Cuba, including the day to day activities of both the male and female family members, I recommend checking out part I of the book, Interpreting the Early Modern World: Transatlantic Perspectives. Part I of this book, written by Lu Ann De Cunzo and Nedda Moqtaderi, contains an extensive history of these properties and goes into greater detail around the farm life of the family. I recommend this book for anyone interested in the history of the Armstrong family in Delaware.


[2] For more info on the architecture of houses in the Red Clay Valley, see Red Clay Historic Resources Planning Study March 1989,

[3] “Armstrong Family Reunion”. The Morning News, 31 Oct 1891, Sat, Page 2

[4] “Fourth at Shady Nook”. The News Journal (Wilmington, Delaware), 5, Jul 1904, Page 4

[5] “Armstrong Family Meets at Reunion”. The Evening Journal (Wilmington, Delaware), 16 Jul  1917, Page 10


  1. Thank you so much Donald Prather and Scott Palmer for such a wonderful and enlightening three part series on the Armstrong family at Mount Cuba. Thanks to Steven Armstrong our cousin for also supplying more insight into out Armstrong family and Hanna relations. This series was fantastic. I wish we had known some of this information Forty years ago as we would have very much enjoyed conversing with our family connections on so many subjects. My hope is that all of our MCH family connections through the past will be inspired to write more of their own stories to share with each of us in our lifetime. Cudo's to all on a great job! Best regards - Frances A. Clancy-Green

    1. Thanks, Frances. And I agree with you whole-heartedly. When I first started the blog, I just hoped that there might be a few other people who could find this stuff interesting. Once I saw that there was a "market" for it, my next hope was that I might inspire some others to research and write, now that they saw that others were interested. And I'm thrilled that people like Don, Walt Chiquoine, Dave Olsen, and others have done so, whether it was due to my presence or not. I'm proud to have a platform to show their work to others who care about it. And if anyone else thinks they might have a story to tell, I'd be more than happy to help in any way I can.