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Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Judge Morris Estate -- Part 2

In the last post, we followed the history of what is now known as the Judge Morris Estate up through the ownership of Thomas Montgomery. I haven't determined exactly when Montgomery sold the house (or if he even owned the current, existing house), but he did pass away in late 1799. According to this DNREC news release, the 2-1/2 story section of the house was built in 1792 by John Barclay, about whom I can find very little information. In 1808, the property was purchased by a member of a prominent Kent County family, Andrew Gray. When the Grays moved into the estate, they named it "Chestnut Hill", and they would own the property for the next 57 years. That same news release also states that it was Gray who, in 1825, built the 1-1/2 story west wing to house a growing compliment of servants. I still think the smaller western section looks older that the larger one, but I'll defer to the state's assessment, since it is their house (more on that in a bit).

Much like his predecessor on the property, Thomas Montgomery, Andrew Gray was very active in public life. He was a member of the state senate from 1817 to 1821, and was instrumental in helping to found what would become the University of Delaware. In 1817, he sponsored and helped pass legislation authorizing a lottery to raise money for the then Newark Academy (lotteries were a popular method of funding at the time). For various reasons, the lottery never took place, and several years later, Gray helped pass new legislation.

This new bill had two important aspects to it, both of which would combine to be his political downfall. First, the bill established a state college to be located in Newark, and secondly, it allowed it to be funded by a tax on stagecoaches and steamboats. Gray saw this as a mostly pain-free method of funding, as, much like today, Delaware was used by travellers heading to and from New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington. This tax was designed to be taken primarily from these out-of-state travellers, not affecting Delawareans very much. However, there was a large backlash against the tax, which seemed to originate from residents and merchants in New Castle and Wilmington, both jealous of the Newark location for the school. As a result, Andrew Gray lost his seat in the 1821 election.

Although his political career was done, Gray remained deeply involved in the early years of the Newark Academy, and in the eventual establishment of Delaware College. The lottery fundraiser he sought, after the law was rewritten in the 1820's, did eventually take place and the money raised was used to build a new college building, now known as Old College. Andrew Gray remained a trustee of the college for over thirty years, and ultimately served as the president of the board of trustees. Although Gray's interest in the school may have been at least partially due to a general interest in education, he did have another more personal reason. Well, three, actually -- his sons who were enrolled there. One of those sons who attended the college and grew up in the house on Polly Drummond Hill was Andrew Caldwell Gray, and he would climb even higher than his father.

Andrew C. Gray
Andrew C. Gray was born in 1804 in Kent County, and came with his family to Mill Creek Hundred in 1808. He studied law, and 1826 began practicing in New Castle. He became one of the most prominent lawyers in the state, and the practice he started is still in business today. Gray retired from active practice in 1854 and turned his attention to business management, becoming the head of a number of large firms, including the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal Company, the Farmer's Bank of Delaware, and several railroads. His son, George Gray, exceeded even these lofty heights. George Gray began as an attorney in his father's firm, but would go on to become Attorney General of Delaware, a three-time US Senator, and finally a Federal Judge.

But returning to the house on the hill, after the elder Gray's death in 1849, the estate was sold by Andrew C. in 1865 to Robert Cook. He farmed the land for nine years, until his death in 1874. From then until the mid 1930's, the house was occupied by a series of tenant farmers, none of whom seemed to put much emphasis on the care and upkeep of the house. Then, just as it seemed that the venerable old home might go the way of many of its contemporaries and crumble away, it was purchased by a man not unlike several of its former inhabitants.

In about 1934, the big, stone house and farm were purchased by Judge Hugh M. Morris and his wife, Emma. The Morris' immediately began restoring the old home, and even added the eastern kitchen wing to it. In many ways, Morris was sort of a combination of all three of the Grays. He had studied and practiced law, like Andrew C. and George Gray, and like George, had been appointed to a Federal judgeship. And like the elder Andrew Gray, he was deeply involved with the University of Delaware. He was a member of the Board of Trustees from 1929-1959, and served as President from 1939-1959. During his tenure, he oversaw a massive expansion of the size and scope of the school. Four years after his retirement from the board, the university's newly-completed library was named in his honor.

Judge Hugh M. Morris

The most recent chapter in the old house's story began in 1998, when the state of Delaware purchased the estate and incorporated it into the White Clay Creek State Park. Now, the historic house is available for tours, as well as meeting and event hosting. Thanks to the loving care given it by the Morris', this two-century plus year old home is still around for future generations to enjoy and contemplate the public service delivered by its many residents.

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