Thursday, May 17, 2018

The Denney-Morrison Farm -- Part II

In the last post we were introduced to the Denney-Morrison Farm, which was located along Old Capital Trail across from the entrance to Delaware Park. We first entered the story in the 1890's, when it was owned by Irvin L. and Clara Emma Ball. We traced its history backwards, going through the ownerships of the Morrisons, the Denneys, the Conners, and ultimately, back to the Balls. And while the property dates back to the early 1700's, I surmised that the house itself may have been built sometime in the the 1820's. The stately home survived until well into the 1900's, but its function (as well as its surroundings) had to adapt to the American Century.

It's fitting that our starting point for this farm was the Irvin L. Ball tenure, because it was at the close of his ownership that the property ended one chapter in its life and began another. On March 20, 1907, for the price of $5600, the Balls sold their 101 acre farm to Joseph Calvin Eastburn. Joseph was, of course, from the same Eastburn family that has been prominent in the area for over 200 years. He was a grandson of the family's patriarch David's eldest son, also named Joseph. Joseph C. grew up on his father's farm in White Clay Creek Hundred. As best as I can tell, it was situated along Salem Church Road, about where Christiana High School is now. I also think they later moved to Red Mill.

There is every indication that Joseph C. (or Calvin, as he also went by) bought the property as a farm, and used it as such for close to 20 years. By the early 1920's though, it looks like he was looking to move away from the farming life. In April 1924, Eastburn sold much of his farming equipment. This was fine, because that same year he began dividing up and selling off his land. The new development was called Eastburn Heights, and Joseph was busy in 1924 selling lots to those looking for a suburban setting. (Not, though, to everyone looking for such a place. In what I'd like to think is more a reflection of the times than the man, all Eastburn Heights deeds had the following restriction -- "No part of the said property shall be subject to the occupation or ownership of any person or persons of African birth or descent." And to be fair, there were also restrictions regarding building porches, houses, and having a business on the lot.) Eastburn held on to the farmhouse for a few more years, carving out about five acres for it on Lot #103 of Eastburn Heights.

I can't say if the two things were related, but in April 1930, a storm blew the roof off of Eastburn's barn. Later that same year, he finally sold the house, along with five other lots, to Robert Parsons of Kennett Township, PA. I believe the Eastburns moved to Elsmere for a while, before purchasing 221 Main Street in Stanton in 1942. The house is next to what was Stanton Methodist, and is now home to a law firm. The Eastburn name lives on through Joseph's progeny, as I imagine many of you have bought flowers from Joseph's grandson, Ron Eastburn.

I don't know if Robert Parsons ever lived in Eastburn Heights, but if he did move into the Denney-Morrison House, it wasn't for long. About a year and a half later, in June 1932, Parsons sold Lot #103 to a Wilmington lawyer named Julius LaPenne Guenveur. The Guenveurs didn't own the house for very long (only about 4 years), but they deserve to have their story told. Partially because the family was very helpful in the writing of this post, but also because Julius LaPenne Guenveur was as interesting a man as his name would suggest.

LaPenne was born on May 22, 1893 to Julius and Mary Guenveur. Julius was a machinist from South Carolina, and Mary was the Delaware-born daughter of Irish immigrants. He was part of the third graduating class of Salesianum High School in 1909 (there were four graduates that year). He then attended St. Joseph's College in Philadelphia, before returning to Wilmington to study law with William S. Hilles. In 1917, he was awarded a Rhodes Scholarship, but as the article below explains he was unable to attend due to the "abnormal conditions". Indeed, the Great War could be a Great Inconvenience. Instead of attending Oxford, LaPenne was admitted to the Bar in late 1917 and enlisted in the Army in 1918. Upon his discharge in 1919, he resumed his Wilmington practice.

In 1921, LaPenne married Clare Maguyre at Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Wilmington. They lived in Wilmington for a while, but in 1932 moved out to "the country", to Eastburn Heights. LaPenne continued to drive in to his Wilmington office every day, and the kids attended Christ Our King school in town. Son James LaPenne "Penn" Guenveur wrote up several accounts of the family's time at Eastburn Heights, which I hope to be able to post at greater length at some point. Here, though, is his description of part of the Denny-Morrison House:
It was a three story home. The third floor was a real livable floor a very useable space. The stairway went up from the front hall. When you came in the front door, you were in the front hall. On your right was the living room. The living room was the total depth of the house, 25 or 30 feet, with a beautiful fireplace. All the rooms had fireplaces. Other than in the living which was heavily used, they didn’t burn any of them except Mama and Daddy used to burn the one in their bedroom. They were romantic characters. The mantle and adjacent paneling around the living room fireplace were all beautifully hand made as was the paneling around the windows, which had very deep windowsills and side panels. In the front hall was a library table and in the spring, we would have our baby chickens there on the hall table, on newspaper of course, with their regular conical top heater with a light in it to keep the critters warm. They would stay there and get pretty big and finally they would be taken outside. 
The stairway went from the front hall all the way to the third floor. The hall continued along the stairs and out the back door on your left was the dining room and behind that was the kitchen. The kitchen was in a one story wing with a room above accessible by a back stairway, probably used for the hired hand when the farm was active. That room did not hold the hired hand. 
You had back steps up to Daddy’s booze room. There were always a couple of five-gallon oak kegs full of booze up there, and occasionally a big, big barrel of wine that Daddy made from the Concord grapes, red wine. Prohibition indeed! The booze got there one way from the Hathaway Farm down in Maryland. Besides a farmer, he was a bootlegger, or at least a bootlegger distributor. Daddy would on occasion, not every time he went down there, pile some of us in the car probably with one of his buddies, Rinehart or somebody, and we would head down to Mr. Hathaway’s. We kids would be taken care of because it was quite a big farm so there was plenty to look at.  We were kept busy looking at stuff and the men, went down - Hathaway’s (isn’t that a great name for a bootlegger?) basement and tested the wares, made their selections and then whether we brought it home with us or they had some other way of getting it. Don’t remember but we kids could have been cover for those innocent guys! Let’s go back to the kitchen a little bit. You went from the kitchen out to a little room at the end of the hallway that ran through the house from the front hall. It was that’s where the refrigerator was if I remember correctly. Then you went out the back door and there was a little porch there and close by was the laundry building.
Wait, what?!? Respected Wilmington attorney, Rhodes Scholar, and MCH resident J. LaPenne Guenveur was also a bootlegger? Why yes, apparently he was. It was truly a different time. (It's also even more amusing when you remember that Aaron Klair, author of the Prohibitionist Klair Law, lived nearby, as did Federal Prohibition Director for the State of Delaware W. Truxton Boyce.) Apparently, Guenveur's Wilmington friends (including other lawyers) would bring out their ginger ale bottles and siphon off as much liquor as they wanted.

The Guenveurs lived on the farm for about 4 years, before selling in 1936 to Swedish immigrant Oscar Peterson and his wife, Lina. They would actually move back out to the area a few years later, living first just down the road at 4925 Old Capital Trail, the large house sort of across from St. James Church, in the middle of Penn Drew Manor. In fact, it was LaPenne Guenveur who sold the land for Penn Drew Manor. They also lived for a time in the Meeteer House near Possum Park Road, more recently the Yasik Funeral Home.

But back to Eastburn Heights, the Petersons only owned the property for two years, before selling in 1938 to Paul Donovan, a builder from Bellefonte. Donovan turned around and immediately sold the tract to Laurence and Nell Willis. Upon moving into the old house, the new owners gave it a new name -- Willistone. Willis was a salesman for the Horace T. Potts steel company in Philadelphia. He was originally from Kentucky, and moved to Delaware about 1906. If he's the same Laurence D. Willis I think he was, he had a busy last few years in the Bluegrass State.

Here's the short version, as best as I can understand. In 1903, a Laurence D. Willis was arrested for the murder of his uncle, Lt. W.B. Johnstone. He allegedly shot him over a dispute about a will. For various reasons he was tried three times -- resulting in first a conviction, then a hung jury, then an acquittal. In a very odd turn, by the end of the third trial only about two years later, several people associated with the case had died. This included two people (including Willis' mother) indicted with him, two attorneys, and two of the prosecution's star witnesses. It was a case unlike any other ever seen in the area.

Laurence and Nell lived out the rest of their lives at Willistone, passing in 1963 and 1964, respectively. It was they who, in 1949, sold portions of their property to make way for Kirkwood Highway and Delaware Park Drive. Sometime after the Willis' deaths, the property was divided and developed into the retail centers we know today. If the aerial photos are to be believed, the house was still standing in at least 1970. Soon after, it was gone. In the early 1970's, the section closest to Kirkwood Highway was built, with the back section of Kirkwood Square Shopping Center following in the late 80's. All traces of of the Denney-Morrison Farm (AKA, Willistone) were gone. This property and the house that was home to so many families over the years now lives on only in a few old photographs and a handful of fading memories.

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