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Wednesday, December 14, 2011

R. R. Banks: MCH's Automotive Pioneer

Richard R. Banks' Wilmington Automobile Company
 As we've seen in numerous previous posts, there has been a wide range of different industries active at one time or another in Mill Creek Hundred. One industry I'm willing to bet that you haven't associated with the area is the automotive industry (although, to be fair there are/were/will be auto plants in two neighboring hundreds). No, I'm not going to tell you that there was once an automotive plant in MCH, but there is a local connection to the early days of the automotive age. It seems there is good evidence that the first automobile to be built in Delaware was constructed right here in MCH. And the men involved were pioneers in the field, at a time when many thought the car was just a passing fad.

The man at the center of this story is Richard Robert Banks (1860-1952), who started his career in Stanton. He was the son of Jabez and Jane Banks, natives of Yorkshire, England who settled in Mill Creek Hundred sometime in the 1840's. Richard was the sixth of twelve Banks children. For most of his childhood, I believe the Banks family may have been working a farm owned by the Wollastons, in the vicinity of where All Saints Cemetery is now. Eventually, Richard moved off of the farm and closer to Stanton, where he opened up shop as a carriage maker. The frustratingly lost 1890 census would have been a big help here, but going by the 1900, my best guess as to the location of his shop was somewhere near St. James Church, either on Telegraph Road or St. James Church Road. (That's also assuming the shop was close to his residence, which is not guaranteed. It could have been in Stanton itself somewhere.)

I first found out about Banks through an old newspaper clipping (found online here) sent to me by Ken Copeland (Thanks again, Ken). It's from 1938, and recounts Banks' early days, and how he built his first auto. In poking around, I found this article from 1935, which I think the later story was based on. The earlier article also includes an interview with Banks, who was living in Wilmington at the time. According to his story, in 1898 he was working as a carriage maker in Stanton with one of his brothers. It doesn't state which brother he was working with, but my guess is either Jabez (who was living in the area, and whose occupation on the 1900 census is illegible) or Edwin. Edwin was mentioned in an 1884 lawsuit against Richard, and his occupation in 1900 was listed as "Teamster and Livery Stable", somewhere near Newport.

In any case, it seems that in 1898 Richard got bitten by the car bug, and so he decided to build one. He custom-crafted a chassis, and ordered an engine from a New York company. To give you an idea of where the state of technology stood at the time, the engine Banks installed into his first car was a whopping 4 1/2 horsepower. That's not even a particularly strong lawnmower engine now. And, it was a four-cylinder engine, so it was surely a good bit larger, too. According to Banks' story, the only way he could cool his engine was to place a 400 pound block of ice on top of it, and let the melting ice drip down and cool the cylinders. He could only drive, which he did on the roads all around Stanton, until his block of ice melted. Thankfully, better cooling systems were soon developed. As primitive as it was, this car is thought to have been the first successful gas-powered automobile operated in Delaware, and the first to be built here.

It didn't take long before Richard decided that the automotive business looked like a good one to get into. In 1902 he quit his carriage business and moved to Wilmington, setting up shop in a stable on Tatnall Street, above Eighth. While there, he began selling cars for Oldsmobile, the first mass-producer of cars in the US, and the leading seller from 1901-1904. Ransom Eli Olds was the first to introduce the assembly line to auto manufacturing, not Henry Ford (Ford pioneered the moving assembly line.) Banks stayed in his first shop for only a short time, before moving to a larger space at 829 Orange Street.

1903 Olds Curved Dash -- What Banks would have sold

While at his Orange Street location, Richard Banks was involved in another "first" -- he became the first man to hang a "Garage" sign in Wilmington. The article is a bit confusing on how long he remained here, but it seems that it was while on Orange Street that Banks incorporated and formed the Wilmington Automobile Company. Soon after, Banks moved again to a location on Tenth Street, at Delaware Avenue (where the Nemours Building is now). It is this location that is shown in the picture at the top of the post. The Wilmington Automobile Co. was one of the major dealerships in Wilmington for over 30 years, and its prominence is on display in the photograph. The man sitting in the car is Alfred I. DuPont, who was probably the first person in Delaware to purchase a car, and the first to drive in Wilmington. Standing to the right of him, with the tie, is Richard Banks.

A later view of the Tenth Street location, possibly around 1920

Banks' company moved on to selling Fords for a while, then eventually General Motors products. Richard Banks sold his interest in the company in 1918, and retired to his home in Wilmington. The Wilmington Automobile Company liquidated its assets in 1935, and later that year the DuPont Company announced plans to build the Nemours Building in its place. Banks lived the rest of his life in Wilmington, dying in 1952 at the ripe old age of 92.

There is, though, one more player in the story not yet mentioned. John S. Taylor (1879-1928) was another Stanton native, son of Robert and Francine Taylor. According to old maps, he may have grown up on Limestone Road, just a couple houses up from Main Street. I don't know if this was a cause or an effect of his job, but in 1906 Taylor married Richard Banks' daughter Nellie. In the marriage records, Taylor is listed as an "Automobilist". This would seem to indicate that he may have already been working for Banks, and he followed him to Wilmington, as he and Nellie lived with her parents there (according to the 1910 census). Sadly, though, Nellie died of a brain tumor later in 1910 (Christmas Eve, in fact). Taylor remarried, but according to his obituary he continued to work for the Wilmington Automobile Company for several more years, before starting his own garage (he probably left when Banks sold in 1918). Taylor retired in 1924, and lived near Marshallton and Greenbank, probably on Greenbank Road, maybe north of where Kirkwood Highway is now.

Although we don't usually think of automotive history and Mill Creek Hundred together, the story of Richard R. Banks shows that maybe we should. The next time you're driving near Stanton, take a moment and imagine what it must have been like in 1898, seeing Richard Banks puttering over the dirt roads, massive block of ice melting on his engine, scaring the daylights out of horses wherever he went.

Additional Facts and Related Thoughts:
  • One of the things that first drew me to this story was the name "Banks". I was already familiar with Richard's older brother Jabez, through my connection with Brandywine Springs. In the later days of the park, Jabez managed the "Old Hotel", which by that time was primarily a boarding house for seasonal park workers. I don't know the exact dates, but by 1910 he is listed as a park worker, and I think he stayed there until the park closed in 1923. The Friends of Brandywine Springs has several pictures of Jabez and his family, as well as information about them through a descendant.
  • Banks, at various times, is recorded as Richard R., R. Robert, or R. R. Banks. For the sake of clarity and the preservation of my remaining sanity, I'll just call him Richard in this post.
  • This would take more time than I have to straighten out, but it appears that after Banks sold the Wilmington Automobile Company, it was restructured around 1922 as the Wilmington Auto Company by John J. Raskob. Raskob was a top executive with DuPont, and it seems as if the WAC was owned either by him, DuPont, or a combination. Therefore, it's not surprising that DuPont bought the property for their new building after WAC went out of business.


  1. RR Banks was known as Uncle Rob by one of my cousins. Perhaps he went by Rob elsewhere.
    I don't know if the family worked the Wollaston Farm at some point, but I do know that the family worked the farm that is now Delaware Park that was owned by one of the DuPonts as what I imagine are called sharecroppers. I have a picture of the family in front of the big white farmhouse that still stands there and other evidence that they were there until around 1889.

    1. Thanks, Steve. The weird thing is that they're shown as owning their own property in the censuses. I'd love to see that picture someday. Maybe eventually we can nail them down a bit better. Might take a trip to Dover to check out land records.