Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Billion Gallon Border: Part II - The Old Mill Stream

In the last post, guest writer Robert Wilhelm began telling us the story of Hoopes Reservoir by first relating the tale of the Red Clay Creek reservoir that never was. In this post, he tells us of the background and construction of the reservoir that was created, and a bit of what once stood where the water now is.

-- Researched and written by Robert E. Wilhelm, Jr

Hoopes Reservoir, 1933
An alternate reservoir location involved Old Mill Stream, a tributary of the Red Clay Creek in Christiana Hundred and the location of the present day Hoopes Reservoir and Dam. A dam constructed across the Old Mill Stream valley could contain water at a higher level (~ 225’ water surface elevation above sea level) than a dam associated with the Red Clay Creek Valley (~180’ water surface elevation above sea level if a reservoir was to remain inside Delaware; 150-160 feet if not impacting Yorklyn). Holding 2-billion gallons of water, an Old Mill Stream reservoir offered greater water depth at the dam with equivalent storage capacity and less surface area as compared to a Red Clay water pool.

There was little infrastructure present in the Old Mill Stream valley which was not the case for the Red Clay Creek Valley. Within most of the 480-acre footprint of the proposed ‘Old Mill Stream Reservoir’ was the former mill property and farmland belonging to T. Coleman du Pont including Dupont’s summer home. Once an operating water-powered stone mill constructed in 1732, du Pont personally converted the idle mill into a mansion. A smaller stone mill constructed in the 1850s on the property was in ruins and would remain to succumb to the reservoir’s rising waters, while du Pont’s home would be demolished leaving only the stone walls behind.

Thomas Coleman du Pont and his wife Alice Elsie du Pont (his cousin) bought the property in 1906. By 1910 they had converted the original mill building to a rural weekend home to complement their home at 808 Broom Street in Wilmington. Called ‘Old Mill’ the original mill’s stone, quarried on the property, contained quartz, mica, and garnet speckles that the du Ponts left exposed on inside walls. The first floor, below grade and adjacent to the mill pond and millrace, contained the mill home’s water wheel powered electrical generating system. There was central heat with fireplaces in each of the major rooms. The second floor was assigned to the caretaker and family. The du Pont’s occupied the upper two floors with the third floor being open architecture for use as a living space or ballroom. Bedrooms and baths were on the fourth floor.

Thursday, May 16, 2019

Billion Gallon Border: Part I - The Red Clay Creek Proposal

I'm excited and proud to present here another Guest Post from Robert Wilhelm. Bob has done some great research into the origins and construction of Hoopes Reservoir, and in this post and the next relates to us the story of how it came about. But first, this post tells the story of the reservoir that wasn't -- the proposed Red Clay Creek reservoir. I think you'll agree they ended up making the right call.

-- Researched and written by Robert E. Wilhelm, Jr

Hoopes Reservoir today
The centerline of the Red Clay Creek serves as the border between Mill Creek Hundred and
Christiana Hundred. During most days, the creek is only a few tens of feet wide. In the late 1920s, a proposal was seriously considered that would have changed the Red Clay Creek’s width to hundreds of feet for nearly a third of the creek’s length within Delaware. The City of Wilmington, needing another potable water reservoir to support a growing population and industry, studied flooding much of the Red Clay Creek Valley north of Wooddale for a reservoir that spanned both Mill Creek and Christiana Hundreds.

By the early 1900s, it was apparent to Wilmington Council members that any number of events might place the city’s reliance on the Brandywine Creek for potable water in jeopardy. While the city had reservoirs, they were proving inadequate. A study, commissioned in 1919, recommended an additional reservoir of at least a billion gallons be added to the city’s water systems for use during drought, Brandywine Creek contamination, or for emergency use.

In 1924, Wilmington commissioned a study as the first step for a project to eventually construct a large reservoir outside of city limits to store water for augmenting the Brandywine’s supply. Wilmington Water Department engineers considered multiple natural landscape locations associated with the Brandywine, White Clay, Christina, Pike, Red Clay, and Mill Creeks where land might be purchased for a new reservoir. Northern New Castle County’s Piedmont stream valleys are rich in spring-fed tributaries feeding creeks. This combination results in ideal natural opportunities for the creation of water storage lakes and reservoirs.

Thursday, May 9, 2019

The History of the David Eastburn Farm

David Eastburn
When I first started writing this blog nearly a decade ago, I basically just went around and wrote about whatever seemed interesting to me in the moment. I had to think about and decide what my next topic would be. Nowadays, though, it's much more common to have the topics come to me, often stemming from contacts with readers. This particular subject, like the previous one (The Huston-Springer Houses), started with an email from the current owners of the home. In this case, it's the beautiful Italianate-style David Eastburn House on Corner Ketch Road between Paper Mill Road and Doe Run Road. I did a post about it back in 2011 wherein a gave a rough outline of the history of the property and David Eastburn himself, as best as I could determine at the time.

Well, as I stated in the Huston-Springer post, I have a lot more data at my disposal now. Prompted by the contact from the owner, I went back and was able to come up with a much more detailed history of the property, both before, during, and after David Eastburn's tenure there. So much detail, in fact, that I hardly know where to start. So let's start with David, almost certainly the builder of the house but not the first resident of the land. When I asked the current owner what he had heard of the house's history (always a crapshoot because you never know what kind of information has been kept and passed down with a property), he said he'd been told that it was originally owned by several siblings. I'm glad to say that in this case at least, the information seems to be correct.

In the original post, I make no mention of the property and only passingly state that the house was built in the 1850's, possibly around the time of David's wedding in 1857. The reality is so much more complicated than that, but I'll try to keep it as concise as I can. The first thing to understand is that the farm David Eastburn owned at his death in 1899 was acquired in four separate tracts, going from west to east. The four parcels (which I'll call Tracts 1-4) can be seen in the diagram below. My lines may not be accurate down to the foot, but they're pretty close. The house is denoted with a star and is located in Tract 1, the largest of the tracts and the first one acquired by the Eastburn family. And to circle back, it was acquired by the family.

Monday, April 29, 2019

The Real Story of the Huston-Springer Houses

The James Springer House
Author's Note: I apologize for this post running a bit longer than most. However, I felt that these two houses needed to be dealt with together, as their histories are inextricably linked. This is one of those cases where you really can't understand one property without understanding the other, and I didn't see any good place to divide it up into two posts.

There are many reasons why I enjoy researching and writing these posts (the pay not being one of them). Obviously I enjoy the history -- uncovering and giving voice to stories that have either never been told or which have been largely forgotten. I like trying to better understand the past and the people who inhabited it. But there is also the mystery and informational "treasure hunt" aspect to it. I really like starting with just a bare bones amount of information, and seeing how much of the story I can end up filling in. But as with any investigation, my ability to reconstruct the story is limited by the resources I have and the amount of data I can collect. Luckily, sometimes those limits expand over time. With more resources comes more information, and sometimes with more information comes different conclusions.

Yes, this is all going somewhere. A little more than six years ago, I did two posts about the Springers of Northern Mill Creek Hundred. It wasn't until halfway through the second post that I finally got to the two houses I had originally set out to explore. These were what I had called the Stephen Springer, Sr. and Stephen Springer, Jr. Houses, both located in Mendenhall Village, on the south side of Mendenhall Mill Road. At the time, all I had to go on was a misleading passage from Runk, some not-so-helpful censuses, and the usual maps.

From all that, I surmised that Stephen Springer moved sometime in the 1820's from his family's home in Hockessin to the westernmost of the two Mendenhall-area houses, the one off of Village Drive. I stated that this house later went to his son James, while Stephen, Jr. built the eastern house (near Pump House Circle) in 1843, after being given a portion of the family farm. I had no information on what became of either property after the ownerships of Stephen, Jr. and James.

Recently, though, I received an email from the current owners of the western home, which I had labeled the Stephen Springer, Sr. House. After looking back to see how little information I had about it the last time, I decided to take another look, this time armed with, among other things, access to historic deeds and land transfers. And wow, I'm glad I did. It turns out, some of what I wrote was correct, some of it was sort of correct, and some of it was just flat out wrong. I'm here now to correct the record, as best as I can. It's still not crystal clear, but I'll lay out the situation as I now understand it.

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

The Bellew-Cain Lot and the Yarnall Survey Map

The 1850 Yarnall Survey Map
This story all started when Marshallton-area historian Denis Hehman posted an image of an old survey map that he has in his collection. To be honest, he'd shown it to me before, but I never really looked at it very closely or did any research on it before. That was a regrettable error, because when I saw it this time, this little hand-drawn map kicked off a very fun and surprisingly in-depth investigation. And to top it all off, thanks to the wonders of social media it even connected to several descendants of players in the story, something that would never have happened with just an email between friends.

Everything starts with the map. It's very simple, but tricky to understand without any context, of which it gives very little. As its title says, it's a "Draught of Jacob Yarnall's Lots, Surveyed Oct 19, 1850 by I. Lobb." Once I took a good look at it, I knew about where Yarnall's lot was, but I was curious to see if I could determine exactly where it was/is. The biggest clues as to its whereabouts are the roads and watercourses shown. Red Clay Creek is at the bottom, with Ham Run coming down the middle of the map and the west edge of the lot. The road heading off to the right labeled as New Port Road is what we know as Duncan Road today, while the Stanton Road at the bottom is our Greenbank Road. Since Ham Rum does not extend very far, this places our lot somewhere on the left hand side of Duncan Road, if you're driving up the hill from Marshallton to Kirkwood Highway.

The next thing I did was to consult the New Castle County Parcel Search website to see if I could find any properties that might still look like this today. The fascinating thing I've found over the years doing this is that you can often find traces of property lines hundreds of years old still evident on the map today. And when I looked at the current parcels, I couldn't help but notice the highlighted one below, about halfway up Duncan Road between Greenbank and Kirkwood Highway. When I measured the area of the now three lots, they totaled just over 2½ acres -- the same as Jacob Yarnall's lot from 1850. A quick glance at the old maps showed the same name there in 1868, 1881, and 1893, but not Jacob Yarnall's. These were enough clues, however, to get me started in telling the complete history of this lot.

Tuesday, April 2, 2019

The Foote-Pyle House

The Foote-Pyle House today
In the last post, we focused on the portion of John Huey's 1725 tract that became the Mendenhall-Pierson farm. Its early 18th Century house (the county lists it as 1734) still stands on the south side of Graves Road. But just north of the Mendenhall-Pierson House, part way up Sawin Lane, is a house that the county says was built in 1729. This is the smaller of the two homes, but it could very well be the older of the two. And, as best as I can tell, it was part of the same tract purchased by John Huey in 1725. One possible explanation for the two homes is that this northern one was built first, by John, Sr., and the southern one a few years later either by or for his son.

I've done my best to trace the land under this northern house, to varying degrees of success. It may have been part of land that John Wat bought in 1762, or it might not have been. Bolstering that idea is the fact that there is a connection to John McBeath, the man who ultimately inherited Wat's land. In 1810, McBeath's son Robert sold 107½ acres to William Foote, who in 1840 sold it to his son William. The next place I lose track of it is where it intersects with the land of another family mentioned in the Mendenhall-Pierson post-- the Pyles.

In 1861, William Foote, Jr. sold 30 acres (that may or may not be the same tract we'll follow) to Cyrus Pyle. Cyrus Pyle was a leather manufacturer from Wilmington, and the son of Isaac Pyle, who owned land directly north of where we're talking about. Cyrus was also the brother of William Pyle, who was the father of artists Howard and Katherine (Katherine was the mother of Ellen Pyle Lawrence, previously mentioned as a later owner of the Mendenhall-Pierson House). In 1868, Cyrus Pyle sold 77 acres to James C. Jackson, the owner of the Dixon-Jackson House in Hockessin. The main takeaway from this is that I don't believe any of these men lived in the old, small house. The tract was almost certainly leased to a tenant farmer.

Thursday, March 28, 2019

The Mendenhall-Pierson Farm

General location of the Mendenhall-Pierson farm
After a couple of fits and starts, as well as a few (very fun) distractions, we're back to document the remaining old properties along the stretch of Graves Road west of Newport Gap Pike. However, unlike the Peoples farm we already looked at, these two properties do have historic homes still standing on them. And if the construction dates listed by the county are even close to accurate, they rank among the oldest houses in existence in Mill Creek Hundred. Although the two farms have been separate for a very long time, I'm putting them together here in these posts because originally, they were parts of the same tract. Their chains of ownership get a bit murky at times, but I'll do my best to sort them out.

The trail begins when, on January 20, 1725, a tract of 214 acres is surveyed for John Huey. It was sold to him by Reece Thomas, attorney for William and Letitia Penn Aubrey (William Penn's daughter). The tract was roughly vertically rectangular, lying to the west of the Peoples farm and south of where Sanford School now stands. It extended south of today's Graves Road, which did not exist at the time. At some point very early on, 80 acres on the north end were sold to a John Laugherty, leaving 134 acres for Huey. I've tried and tried to follow that 80 acres, so far to no success.

When John Huey, Sr. dies in the 1750's, his land is left to his son John, Jr. I think John Huey, Jr. moved away from the area, and he sold the 134 acres in 1753 to James Philips. James Philips also didn't stay long, as he sold the property in 1763 to Uriah Blue. (The Philips name would stick around through James' brother William, who owned Ocasson (The Cox-Mitchell House in Hockessin) and whose descendants would later own the Greenbank Mill.) I haven't found much about Blue, except that his wife's name apparently was Mary Jordan. A James Jordan owned an adjacent tract to the original property, so if she was perhaps his daughter, that could be a link to the area. (I admit to being oddly obsessed with trying to figure out why people bought particular pieces of land.)

Friday, March 15, 2019

Fire at the Mill Creek Road Gregg House

The Gregg House on Mill Creek Road
As you may or may not have seen, there was a fire yesterday (March 14, 2019) at the old house on the Delcastle Golf Course property, on Mill Creek Road at the bend. The house is owned by New Castle County and is part of its curatorship program, which allows tenants to rent the property for free, as long as they make substantial improvements to it. The current occupants have been there for about five years. The blaze, which preliminary reports state was an accident started in a laundry room, has seemingly done major damage to the structure. The residents were able to get out safely, but a Minquas Fire Company firefighter was injured in battling the blaze. Please send your thoughts and prayers or whatever it is that you send out to wish him a speedy recovery. I still don't understand the heroic mindset that allows people to run towards a burning building, but I'm thankful for all those who do.

When I saw this story, my first reaction was the same as that of Ann DePace Keen who contacted me -- What is the history of this house? My quick answer to both of us was a resounding, "I'm not quite sure." When I wrote about the earlier history of the Delcastle property almost five years ago, I deftly avoided mentioning this particular house. The reason I danced around it is that the history of the house is not quite clear. As you can see by the pre-fire picture below, the house is clearly old. The question is, how old?

Friday, February 1, 2019

Mill Creek Hundred Tax Books

1839 MCH Tax Book
Sometimes I lose sight of the fact that this might not always be obvious to you, but normally when I consult primary sources (like census records, land transfers, death certificates, etc.) I very rarely actually have the original documents. Like, almost never. Usually when I say something like, "I found the 1875 deed..." what I mean is I've found the image of it on a website like Ancestry. There's nothing wrong with that. I am seeing an image of the original document, so I can gather whatever information I need from it myself, without having to worry about getting it secondhand through someone else. Because, no offence (I'm not talking about you), sometimes other people are dumb. Sorry, I meant unreliable. Still don't mean you.

Frankly, I wouldn't be able to do any of this if I had to actually go out and hunt down each document I needed individually. I don't have the time, gas money, or energy for that. This blog could not have existed before the internet, and not just because where would I have put it? Having said that (and having used up about a minute of your life doing so), once in a while I'm lucky enough to actually get my hands on original, true, honest to goodness historical documents. Thanks to the generosity of some wonderful people and the foresight of their ancestors, this is one of those times.

This is also a story of serendipity, great timing, and a fortunate coincidence. After having been contacted by Dick Joyce, and while in the midst of researching the Graves Road area (of which the Peoples Farm post became the first), I got another email that would help to focus my investigating. This one came from Bob Pigford, on behalf of himself and his wife, Patsy. Patsy's mother, Helen Pierson Houchin, had passed away early last year at the age of 96. In going through her belongings, they came across several items they thought I might be interested in. I was, very much, and you'll find out more about two of them in a moment. But first, I'll explain why their contacting me was so fortuitous and coincidental, and it works on at least three different levels, all having to do with Patsy's family.

Thursday, January 24, 2019

New Updates on Harrison Smith, W. L. Edison, and E-Mail

One of the most fun aspects of the investigations I do here is the fact that none of them are ever really
done. For better or worse, there are always more questions to answer and more mysteries to ponder. A regular part of the process involves sometimes going back and adding new information or some additional thoughts, whether it be a few days later or six years later. Here we've got a little of each, plus a technical addition that may or may not be of interest. Either way, I wanted to make sure you were aware of it all.

The first addition was to a very recent post, the one about the Benevolent Order of the Sons and Daughters of Harrison Smith. About a day or so after posting this story, some new information about Harrison Smith was brought to my attention that got me thinking a bit more about him, and his relationship to the group or groups. I also thought a little more about the timing of various events. These musings can be found at the end of the original post, which can be found here. If you read the post when it was first published, go back and check out the additional thoughts I added on.

Sometimes updates happen pretty quickly, and sometimes they don't. The next update was made this week, to a post originally published over six years ago. The story was about William L. Edison, the son of inventor Thomas Edison. I had found newspaper ads stating that the younger Edison had lived near Greenbank and had operated a car dealership, either there or someplace else. There wasn't a whole lot more info, and I didn't even know exactly where near Greenbank Edison had lived. Well, after going back and looking some more (with more access now), I think I've determined where Edison resided for a short time in 1907. The post has more information at the end, but the short answer is a property on the west side of Greenbank Road, just below Newport Gap Pike. The house there now may or may not be the same one standing in 1907, I'm not sure. I'm also pretty sure that his business office was in the city, in a building you may be familiar with today. You can find the original post, with the new information (and maps!), here.

The final update concerns a new box you may or may not have noticed over to the right. At a reader's request, I have added a field to enter your email address if you'd like to be notified of new posts. I tried this out on myself first and, yes, it does send one email if there is a new post. To be honest, the email actually includes the full post. It does not send anything on days when there are no new posts, which of course is most days. So, your inbox won't be inundated with emails. I do plan on posting more regularly this year than last, so maybe this will help you keep up.

Friday, January 18, 2019

More B&O Pictures Around Delaware Park

Old lights along the platform
Last Fall I posted some beautiful pictures taken by Ray Albanese of the former B&O railroad tracks
and related items located near Delaware Park. These seemingly simple photographs ended up being pretty exciting, as they resurrected the knowledge of the existence of track pans (a pretty rare item) along the line near the park. Ray also provided us with shots related to the former passenger platforms that serviced the park from the 1930's until the early 1970's. He also promised us that once the foliage retreated for the season he'd get back out there and take some more pictures. Well, he has delivered.

Ray recently sent me another batch of railroad-themed pictures from the Delaware Park area, and I think they are just as interesting as the first. In true fashion around here, they also raised another mystery. And if that weren't enough, in an email he managed to bring up a whole 'nother set of questions. But first, to the photos...

These shots can be neatly divided into two groups, the first of which shows remnants from the passenger platform used by riders of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad for almost 40 years. It was (and remains of it are) on the north side of the racetrack, between the track and the Kirkwood Lot. The picture above and the two below show the lights that once lit the platform, as well as some of the rolling gates. Ray says there are about six of these light poles still standing. I know it's private property, but I'm a little surprised that they are still there.

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

The Benevolent Order of the Sons and Daughters of Harrison Smith

From the Wilmington paper, February 21, 1889
This story is a little different than most here, because it doesn't really involve Mill Creek Hundred or any specific site elsewhere. It's the story of an investigation I joined in at the request of someone a half a country away, but which may have helped uncover a forgotten piece of African-American Delaware history. Like many great adventures, it all began with a book.

One day out of the blue I received an email from a former attorney and current antiquarian bookseller in Texas named Adam Schachter. The owner of Langdon Manor Books in Houston, Adam contacted me hoping for some assistance with a 19th Century ledger he had acquired. It had belonged to a group called the Benevolent Order of the Sons and Daughters of Harrison Smith (hereafter called, "the group"), and mostly covered the years from 1871-1874. Never heard of them? Neither had I. The only reason Adam found me was that one of the few clues available was that the group had connections to an Ebenezer Church. He found my post about the Ebenezer Methodist Church on Polly Drummond Hill Road, but we both quickly realized it was not the same one. I initially searched, but could not find another Ebenezer Church that fit the criteria.

Although I didn't have access to the whole book, I was told that it specifically mentioned New Castle County, and possibly St. Georges. The only other thing Adam had found at that point was a reference to the group being incorporated by the state in 1889. This is what the article above is detailing. Mr. Maull (Charles H. Maull of Lewes) introduced the bill, and the group was named for Harrison Smith, "a well-known colored man". It was an African-American group organized for the purpose of caring for the sick of their community and burying their dead. Many groups like this from all communities popped up in the later half of the 19th Century, in the days before both health and life insurance were common.

Friday, January 4, 2019

The Peoples Farm

Peoples House and Barn (courtesy Dick Joyce)
Considering the number of years I've been at this and the relatively small size of Mill Creek Hundred, you'd be forgiven for thinking that I would have had time to get to just about every corner of the hundred by now. It turns out that there are still areas with deep histories that I've yet to delve into. One such area was brought to my attention a while back by an email from a gentleman named Dick Joyce, who lived there for much of his younger years. (It'd be impolite for me to reveal his age, but let's just say that at the time much of the country Liked Ike.) The area in question lies along Graves Road just west of Newport Gap Pike. In the 19th Century, there were three distinct properties lying along the road, all within a half mile or so of the turnpike. All three farms are long gone, of course, but two houses still remain, both of which date back well into the 18th Century.

We'll take a look at all three properties eventually, but we'll start with the one that sat closest to Newport Gap Pike -- the Peoples farm. No, this wasn't some sort of Hippie commune (not that there's anything wrong with that). It was owned for over 150 years by the Peoples family, from 1854 until 1995. The main part of the former farm is now occupied by the neighborhood of Wyndom. Although of course the history of the land goes back further than 1854, we'll start with the Peoples family, since I know there are folks around who still remember them.

Their introduction into the story of Mill Creek Hundred took place on April 10, 1854, when William Peoples (1811-1868) purchased a little more than 64 acres of land from William Strode (we'll get back to Strode in a bit). William Peoples was born in Ireland, the son of Hugh and Mary Peoples. Although his father later resided (and died) in Tyler County, (West) Virginia, since several other of his siblings lived in Delaware I would assume the family came here first. At some point prior to 1838, William met and married Mary Ann Morrison. The couple lived in Wilmington, eventually increasing their family to include six children. The 1850 Census listed William as a carter, which meant that he drove a cart (two-wheeled as opposed to a four-wheeled wagon).