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Thursday, June 6, 2019

Spring Grove Mills and Estate -- Part II

The Spring Grove Mills Estate today
In the last post, we followed the story of the Spring Grove Factory from its beginnings as Henry Brackin's grist mill, through its history as a cotton and woolen mill under various owners. When we left it, the factory had been converted back to woolen production under owner Aquila Derickson. And after Aquila's passing in the early 1880's, the property was sold to one of his sons, Joseph W. Derickson. Although many of the facts are clear, there is a glut of confusing information about what exactly was going on during the 30 or so years the Dericksons owned Spring Grove, especially during the 1880's.

We get some frustratingly incomplete and at times contradictory details from several sources. Of Calvin Derickson, J.M. Runk in 1899 says that he was involved in the manufacture of spokes (which we knew) and in the wool and cotton business with James Ford. I do not know who James Ford was, nor does his name show up anywhere else. Of Joseph, Runk has this to say: "For a period of ten years he operated the Spring Grove mills, manufacturing silk and woolen yarns. The mills were destroyed by fire in 'the fifties', and he sustained a loss of more than five thousand dollars." The last part is just wrong, as we know exactly when the mill was destroyed, and it wasn't in "the fifties". If there was a fire then, it was before the Dericksons were involved and it was rebuilt. But, it does give us our first mention of silk being made here. Now read what Scharf has to say about the site:

From John Thomas Scharf's 1888 History of Delaware

This is Scharf's entry for Spring Grove, although he doesn't use that name. First of all, we know that the Dericksons owned it through all of this, although with mills, the owners and operators often get confused in written histories. And I'll just say straight out, I have no idea who Brielly or Smith are. I can only guess that Gregg might be either Irvin Gregg or another member of that local family. Scharf doesn't even specify which Derickson he's talking about, although I would assume it was Joseph. Since, to the best of my knowledge, all the Dericksons were farmers and had no training in manufacturing, it's not surprising that they would have partnered with others.

Joseph W. Derickson (left), Edward R. Cranston (right). The man
with the fantastic beard in the center is as yet unidentified

Joseph W. Derickson (1833-1898) definitely owned Spring Grove for the last 15 years of his life. He can be seen as the beard seated on the left in the photograph above. Whether alone or with partners, Derickson ran the Spring Grove Mills until 1891, when disaster struck. In the early hours of the morning of August 15, 1891, a thunderstorm rolled through Mill Creek Hundred, with heavy lightning. The Spring Grove Mill was struck and set alight. Although the mill had not been operating for several months, it went up in flames -- flames big enough that their glow was seen as far away as Wilmington. By the time the smoke cleared, Spring Grove Mill was little more than a stone shell, and would not be rebuilt.

From the (Wilmington) Morning News, August 15, 1891
From the (Wilmington) Morning News, August 17, 1891

Joseph Derickson's mill and his barn (for which he got a $2100 insurance settlement a couple months later) were destroyed, but the house just a few dozen yards away seems to have been unharmed. (If this seems like suspiciously good luck to you, you're not alone. However, mills and barns were particularly susceptible to fire.) When photographer Charles S. Philips came along four years later to photograph the mill, only the walls remained standing in front of the house. And as if he wanted to confuse us further, he labeled it as "Woolen Factory burnt 1891 Cranstons about 1 1/2 miles above Milltown, New Castle County, Del on Mill Creek, Nov. 29, 1895." It's quite obviously Spring Grove, but why he called it Cranston's is unknown. It does, however, make me rethink the photograph of the men above, which included Derickson and Edward R. Cranston. Perhaps Cranston was an investor in the mill towards the end, we don't know.

Spring Grove Mill, 1895, taken by Charles S. Philips
(Chester County Historical Society collection)

Although the mill would not be rebuilt, the house continued to be occupied. It would now become primarily a farm, and later a country estate. Exactly who lived there, when the house was constructed, and by whom, is still an ongoing investigation. When more information comes to light I'll be sure to follow up. Whoever it was who built it or lived in it at the time, the ownership of the Derickson family essentially ended with the death of Joseph from a farm accident in June 1898. In March of the following year, his heirs sold the property, now described as "...with the mill seat thereon called Spring Grove...", to Henry R. Kelley.

News of Joseph W. Derickson's death, June 1898

Henry R. Kelley was born in Philadelphia, the son of Irish immigrants. Interestingly, the 13 year old Henry is listed on the 1880 Census as working in a woolen mill in Philadelphia. He married a local Springer girl in 1889, so although I have no proof, I wonder if maybe Henry was familiar with the mill, or if he had worked there. In any case, Henry owned the property, now about 13 acres, for just over 20 years. In June 1919, he sold to Walter K. Jeffers, who along with his brother Roland owned Jeffers Bros. butcher shop in Wilmington. It appears that Walter purchased the farm not for himself (he remained in the city and at a country house he had near the C&D Canal), but for the rest of his family.

The 1920 Census shows Walter's parents, Roland, and two other brothers residing on "Mermade Road". Walter's mother, Laura Hinson Jeffers, died in March 1922, and her obituary specifically noted that she "...moved to the Spring Grove Farm, near Marshallton, about three years ago...". Soon after, the family put the farm up for sale, as seen in the ad below. The ad gives a great description of the property, including the surprising fact that the stone tenant house, built years earlier for the mill workers, was still intact at the time.

The Jeffers' (the ad says Roland was the owner, it was in fact Walter) were successful in selling the estate, which they did to Walter W. Melson, a superintendent at the fibre mill in Marshallton. Melson owned Spring Grove Farm for six years, during which I think he used it as a summer home. He doesn't appear to have sold his home in Marshallton, which (although I can't be sure yet) may have been the Bringhurst House that stood across from the fibre mill on Greenbank Road. When Melson sold Spring Grove in 1929, it marked the beginning of a new era for the site, and the start of a string of interesting residents.

Melson sold the farm on November 23, 1929 to Daniel Cauffiel. If that name sounds familiar, so will the corporation Cauffiel sold to four days later -- Renappi. In the recent post about the Huston-Springer Houses, we discussed that Cauffiel was a real estate manager for the du Pont family, and how he purchased land for the Renappi Corporation owned by Donald P. Ross. Ross was married to the former Wilhelmina du Pont, and along with brother-in-law William du Pont, Jr was the co-founder of Delaware Park. Ross ultimately purchased nearly 2000 acres along Limestone Road for his horse farms, and Spring Grove was a special part of it.

It's not likely that Ross himself lived at Spring Grove, his MCH home was elsewhere. What he did was to lease the other houses (there were about 15 on the farms he bought) to people he knew -- the kinds of people that run in du Pont circles (not to be confused with Dupont Circle, a neighborhood in DC), as well as people he knew through horse racing. For instance, in 1958 the home was occupied by Joseph Chinn, Jr., President of Wilmington Trust Bank. From 1959-1963, the estate was home to Phillip Bryan Field, who knew Ross through his horse racing connections. Field was a sportswriter for the New York Times, an early voice of horse racing on television, and a general manager of Delaware Park. But Field's biggest contribution to American culture is in popularizing the term "Triple Crown". His use may have been the first in writing, and his columns certainly cemented the term in the American consciousness.

Bryan Field at the 1961 Kentucky Derby

During the tenure of Dick and Vivienne Ehret (1963-1967), a fire broke out on the cedar shake roof, sparked from burning leaves. Luckily, Mill Creek Fire Company was nearby on a training exercise and extinguished the blaze before more damage was done. From 1967 until 1977, the home was occupied by Ross's son, Donald Ross, Jr. It was he who built the family room addition to the house, seen on the right of the photo at the top of the page. In 1968, Ross married Susie Dent, former wife of a grandson of A.I. du Pont. Donald Ross, Sr. died in 1973, and the family sold the estate in 1977 to a member of another prominent family, Winton Blount III.

Blount was from Alabama, the son of Winton "Red" Blount, Jr., cofounder of building contracting firm Blount Brothers (now Blount International). Red's company built, among other things, the Louisiana Superdome, the first nuclear power plant in Tennessee, and the first USAF missile bases. Blount also built Launchpad 39A at Cape Canaveral, from which Apollo 11 began its journey to the moon in 1969. Red Blount served as the last Postmaster General, having been appointed by Richard Nixon in 1969. He oversaw the transition of the Post Office from Cabinet-level position to the quasi-governmental agency it is today, and was the first director of the US Postal Service. Blount sold his company in 1999 for $1.35 billion.

Red did visit his son Winton at Spring Grove on several occasions. Winton Blount III served as CEO of Blount International, and mounted two unsuccessful gubernatorial campaigns in Alabama. He was also a former chairman of the Alabama Republican Party.

The Blounts sold the property in 1981 to Frederick Crary, a veteran of both World War II and Korea, the later in which he served as a paratrooper. The current owner, Major General (DE ANG Ret.) David Deputy, served 41 years in the Delaware Air National Guard, as well as retiring as a Captain after nearly 25 years with the Delaware State Police. He now works for the State Legislature in Dover. David has accumulated copious amounts of research on the property, much of which went into the writing of these posts. I personally thank him and his wife for their hospitality, their assistance in the research, and their care for this fascinating, beautiful, and historic estate.


  1. This is great. I found some interior and exterior photos of the house here https://www.zillow.com/homedetails/3200-Stoney-Batter-Rd-Wilmington-DE-19808/73015495_zpid/?

  2. So where was the mill exactly? Up on the hill towards what is now Cayman Court in North Pointe?

    1. The mill was directly in front of the house. You can see the burned out shell in the 1895 photo. The foundations and remains back in the woods were part of Caleb Harlan's Plumgrove Farm next door