Friday, May 4, 2018

The Denney-Morrison Farm -- Part I

The Denney-Morrison House in 1897
We are definitely fortunate to have in Mill Creek Hundred a good number of historic homes still standing and in productive use. That being said, it's also true that the vast majority of structures raised in the 18th and 19th Centuries have since been razed. If we're lucky, some of those few that have been demolished in "recent" times (say, the past 30 years or so) might have had the chance to be documented before their fall. However, countless old homes in MCH and beyond have been torn down with little or no permanent record of their existence, aside from their possible inclusion on one or more of the old maps.

Once in a while, though, we get lucky enough to come across a photograph of one of these long-gone houses. As you can imagine, the difficulty can come in verifying that the house in the photo is indeed the one you think it is, when you have no current structure to compare it with (Don Prather's Armstrong Tract posts are a great example of this). What can really help is another rare event -- finding someone who actually lived in it (or whose family did). In this particular case we do have both -- an old photo of a historic, lost home and confirmation of it from someone with a direct connection to it.

The investigation into the Denney-Morrison House (my name for it -- don't bother trying to look it up) began with an unidentified picture included in a cache originating from Gary Gilbert (and passed along to me by Denis Hehman). Gary is a descendant of the Gilbert/Ball/Cranston family featured in the post about the Edward Cranston House. I had actually had this photo for several years, but I had no idea where it was taken. Being included where it was, I sort of assumed it was in the Marshallton area. But, the more I looked at it the less it looked like any house in Marshallton I knew of. The faces are a bit blurry, but what I could see sure looked like Irvin and Clara Emma Ball. Plus, they did have daughters, and the kids in the photo definitely look like girls.

It was the girls that helped most in dating and placing the picture. The Balls actually had three daughters: Alice (b.1891), Florence (b.1893), and Edna (b.1899). Also included in the same group of old photographs was the shot of the barn, men, and horses seen below. The cropped versions seen here are what I had, but you can see just enough to notice that the framing is the same in each, so I thought it was safe to assume they went together. At the bottom of the barn picture, you can just make out on the left and right, "United States View Co." and "Mt. Pleasant Mills, PA". This company operated from about 1890 to 1901, employing itinerant photographers to go around and take pictures, mostly commonly of people in front of their homes. In the center, it reads "Our Home" 1897.

Irvin L Ball, his farm hand, horses, and barn

So if we assume the two pictures were taken at the same time (in 1897), it explains why there were only two girls present. Again, it's a bit fuzzy, but they could easily be 6 and 4 years old. So, if these were the Balls, where did they live in 1897? The answer is...not in Marshallton. In March 1891, Irvin L. Ball purchased 101 acres of land at a sheriff's sale. His new farm was a bit further west, more or less between what's now All Saints Cemetery and Delaware Park, centered around Delaware Park Drive. Of course, Delaware Park, the cemetery, and even Kirkwood Highway were not yet in place then. Wollaston Road, Old Capital Trail, and Milltown Road were present. In the diagram below, I have mapped out the approximate boundaries of Ball's farm. I'm still learning how to map the metes and bounds, but I'm fairly confidant of the result, with the exception of the northeastern part. Where I have the squiggly part, the boundary line followed the bank of a ditch, which is long gone, so that part is a guess.

The approximate boundaries of Irvin Ball's 101 acre farm

Finding the location of the house itself took a little luck and a sharp eye. I realized that an angled aerial of the then new Delaware Park showed this area in the background. The house sits right in the center of the picture below. The view is looking towards the northwest, with Old Capital Trial running diagonally through the center. The double road coming off and angling away to the left is the entrance into Delaware Park. The house sits in the middle of what's now the Kirkwood Square shopping center -- the one behind Accent Music and Retro Fitness (which are closer to Kirkwood Highway). The farm at the top of the picture would today be in All Saints Cemetery.

Aerial showing the Denny-Morrison House in the center

After posting my guess as to the location on Facebook, I did get confirmation that I was right (more on that in the next post). But as you can probably tell by looking at the house, Irvin Ball didn't build it in 1891. The previous owner was John C. Morrison, who purchased the property in 1860/61. For the first ten years or more that he owned it, I think Morrison may have leased the farm to a tenant. He was the son of Irish immigrant James Morrison, who was listed in the 1850 Census as a hotel keeper in New Castle Hundred. They lived near the Hares Corner area, and John was still farming one of the New Castle Commons farms until early 1872. It seems that's when he moved into his MCH farm. However, while in the New Castle area Morrison also followed in his father's footsteps. An article noting his death in 1895 states that he "was proprietor of the Hare's Corner hotel for more than 20 years."

It does not appear that John was related to the nearby Morrisons who lived on the other side of White Clay Creek near Harmony Mill. However, he was related (by marriage) to the previous owner of the farm, James Denney (1773-1856). In 1855, John C. Morrison married James' daughter Marietta Denney at White Clay Creek Presbyterian Church. James Denney had purchased this particular farm in 1828 from John Conner, but it was not his first, or main, farm in the area. Denney was originally from Kent County, but in 1814 bought a 147 acre farm just southwest of this one. His farmhouse (or a later one on the same spot) was just recently torn down, and stood just off of the western-most parking lot of Delaware Park.

One side note with Denney. While searching his name for land records, I came across something that I don't believe I've come across before -- a manumission record. In November 1836, James Denney officially freed his four slaves...sort of. He actually agreed to free them as they each reached age 28. At the time, they were 24, 22, 16, and 9, so he wasn't giving them up too quickly. Although to be fair, I don't know if he later sped up the process. The 1840 Census doesn't show any free persons of color in his household. However, the 1850 Census does list four black members of his household. Two are children and two are young men. The older man is a 21 year old named William. Close enough in age that it could be the same William who was nine in 1836. All the people listed on the 1850 Census should be free, so if it was the same William, he was freed ahead of schedule.

James Denney manumission notice, 1836

After James' death in 1856, it appears his son James, Jr. held on to the main farm, but several years later the heirs sold the northern farm to Morrison. I noted earlier that Denney had purchased from John Conner in 1828. Conner had bought the property eleven years prior from what were members of the original family of owners of the land -- the Balls. More specifically, the sellers were John and his son Joseph Ball, who apparently retained land just to the north, above Milltown Road. (Yes, they were from the same Ball family as Irvin. Joseph was probably something like a great-great uncle of Irvin.)

The property (which was only 90 acres at the time -- the extra 11 acres could be explained by a later purchase or by a resurvey) was part of a 202 acre parcel purchased in 1703 by John Ball, Sr. This was part of an even larger tract called New Design. To be perfectly honest, the Balls are one of those families that are difficult to work with, mostly due to multiple uses of the same names (they really could have used a baby name book). Suffice it to say that the John and Joseph Ball who sold the southern portion or their land in 1817 were a couple generations down the line from the first John Ball.

The 1817 deed to Conner makes specific mention of the Balls' house, and makes clear that they did not live on the land they were now selling. This will have to be pursued at a later date, but I believe the Balls may have lived on the site shown as Robert McFarlin's on the later maps. This house was along what's now Old Milltown Road where the Jesus House facility is now. There is an old house on that property, but I don't know at this point how old it is.

The point of all this is that there's reason to think that the tract which John Conner bought in 1817 may not have had a house on it yet. Looking at the photograph of the house, it seems to me to be consistent with a build date around 1820. Whether Conner built it or it was Denney's construction, barring further evidence I think a date of 1817-1830 is fair for the house later owned by Irvin and Clara Emma Ball. That would have made it about 150 years old by the time it was torn down.

In the next post, we'll examine the post-Irvin Ball history of the house. It's not really as in-depth as the early history, but there's one last name that everyone will know and one owner who seems to have been quite an interesting man.


  1. Have you any information on the Jesus House. I believe it was once owned by a Mr. Putney owner Wilmington Blue Print. This was in or around 1960.

    1. I don't have time to go too deeply into it right now, but a quick look shows you are absolutely correct on all points. On November 27, 1940, Ellison Withers Putney and Richard D. Ward bought two tracts, one of 72 acres and one of 12 acres from Elizabeth Murray, widow of William Murray. This included where the Jesus House is now. Richard Ward was Ellison's stepfather, and the founder of Wilmington Blue Print, which Ellison later ran. Ellison died in 1982, so I'm pretty sure it was he who sold the land to the Jesus House in 1975.