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Friday, July 19, 2013

The Rotheram (Harmony) Mills House

Rotheram House
This post was massively updated in May 2022.

It's been noted before that the bulk of the mills along the Red Clay seem to have been built on the west (Mill Creek Hundred) side of the creek, especially in the lower Red Clay Valley (Wooddale, Faulkland, Greenbank, Marshallton, Kiamensi, Stanton). I'm not sure if there's any real explanation for it, but it did work out that way. Along the other border waterway of MCH, however, the mills seem to be a little more evenly placed on either side of the power source. The mills on or near White Clay Creek show up on both sides, some in MCH (Red Mill, Roseville, Curtis) and some in White Clay Creek Hundred (Dean, Tweed). One of the oldest mills along the White Clay, long out of service, sat just south of the creek in WCCH, about midway along the southern border of MCH. The mill itself is long gone, but its memory survives through the nearly 275 year old home of its owner, and the name by which it was known throughout most of the 19th Century -- Harmony Mills.

The only standing remnant of this once-thriving complex is the two-story brick Rotheram House, facing eastward on Old Harmony Road just south of Kirkwood Highway and White Clay Creek. The house was built about 1740 by Joseph Rotheram, an English Quaker who had come to America around 1723. Rotheram probably settled first in New Castle, but on August 22, 1739 purchased a grist mill and saw mill at a Sheriff's sale*. The early history of these mills is still frustratingly unclear, but their existence along the White Clay prior to 1739 makes them some of the earliest in the area. After acquiring the mills, Rotheram quickly built a new brick house for himself and his family, which included his wife, two sons, and two daughters.

According to the nomination form (pictures here) for the National Register of Historic Places (to which it was added in 1972), the house was originally a 1-1/2 story gambrel-roofed structure, with five bays on the first floor and two windows on the second. How long it remained in this configuration is unknown, but records indicate that it was raised to a full two stories plus attic by at least 1775. Joseph Rotheram lived the rest of his life here, before passing in 1773. The house then went to his son Joseph, Jr., who remained until his own death about 20 years later. Although both Josephs were members of the Society of Friends, they were not always in good standing with their fellow Quakers.

NE exterior of the Rotheram House, showing the
original gambrel roofline and window (1971)

Over the years, both Rotheram men had their run-ins with their Meetings. Joseph, Sr. left England without obtaining a Certificate of Removal from his home meeting, which may have meant that he was unable to marry in a Meeting here. It was not until the late 1740's that Joseph got his Certificate, but it was not by his doing. His daughter Abigail was being courted at the time by Joseph England, Jr., son of the next miller up the creek. England was concerned about his prospective bride's birthright, and so wrote to Rotheram's Meeting in England to obtain the Certificate, which he did. (Abigail did end up marrying England, and their daughter Sarah later became the wife of Revolutionary War hero Robert Kirkwood.) On another occasion Rotheram was disciplined by his Meeting for failing to pay a debt, possibly to his housekeeper. In the early 1760's he again ran afoul of his fellow Quakers, this time for "purchasing negroes". They may have been the same ones that Joseph, Jr. stipulated in his 1794 will could be freed when they had earned 40 pounds. Their names were Tom and Sam.

Joseph, Jr. also got into trouble with the Friends, even being expelled from his Meeting. His, though, was a more noble offense -- fighting for his country. Joseph was one of the "Fighting Quakers" who joined the struggle for Independence from Britain. He even served as the tax Appraiser for White Clay Creek Hundred in 1777 and 1779. For this, family tradition holds, the British plundered him and his brother of furniture during the war.

1795 ad for the sale of Joseph Rotheram, Jr.'s
property, sold by the executors of his will

After Joseph Rotheram, Jr.'s death in January 1795, the executors of his estate put the property up for sale, with the ad seen above (sorry about the image quality). It was finally sold in October of that year to a trio of prominent men -- Joseph Israel, Henry Geddes, and Thomas Latimer. They were all well-to-do businessmen, and Geddes and Israel had served as officers in the Revolution -- Geddes in the Navy and Israel in the Army. Israel was the Sheriff of New Castle County. Thomas Latimer's family was among the founders of Newport and his father, James, presided over Delaware's Constitutional Convention in 1787. So in a way, he was responsible for Delaware's claim to fame as The First State.

1801 Sale ad for Harmony Mills
(Lancaster Intelligencer)

The way the mill purchase was structured, Israel acquired a half share of the property, while Geddes and Latimer (who also happened to be brothers-in-law) each owned a one quarter share. When the three put the mill up for sale in 1801, as seen in the ad above, there were two things to note. The first is that it was Israel who actually resided in the Rotheram House. The second is that the ad calls the property "Harmony Mills". This is significant because the prevailing wisdom (i.e., everything I had ever read about it) said that the name came from the next owner, James Price, who the histories said moved in in either 1802 or 1803. However, the deed I found states that James Price bought the house and mills in 1805. Although to be fair, because of the multiple ownership I've as yet only found the deeds from Latimer and from Geddes to Price. It's possible that Israel sold his half share a few years earlier. In any case, the Harmony name either pre-dated Price, or he had a hand in naming it several years before he bought it.

James Price (1776-1840), a prominent miller from Wilmington, was born to a wealthy family in Kent County, MD, and moved to Wilmington as a young man. He became an investor in Joseph Tatnall's Brandywine Mills, and not coincidentally married Tatnall's daughter Margaret in 1802, the same year it's said he moved into Rotheram Mills. Whether it was 1802, 1803, or 1805, James and Margaret did move into the Rotheram House so that James could oversee his new mills. The actual miller* would have lived in the "convenient sawed log dwelling house" mentioned in the 1795 ad. The Prices had four children between 1804 and 1809, all of whom were likely born here. It was said that Price renamed the complex "Harmony Mills", after his great-great-grandfather Col. John Hyland's Harmony Hall estate in Cecil County, but now it seems that the name may have been more of a coincidence.

When Price's father-in-law Joseph Tatnall died in 1813, James became one of four co-owners of the prominent man's milling business (along with his brothers-in-law Thomas Lea and Edward Tatnall, and Tatnall relative James Canby). It was also at this time that James and Margaret inherited from her father a large house* in Wilmington, on 16th Street near French. This home (seen below) was across the street from the Brandywine mills, and the Prices moved there from Harmony at that time. James Price lived the rest of his life in Wilmington, where he had a very successful business career. In addition to his milling business, Price served as the first president of the Union Bank of Delaware, and the second president of the Philadelphia, Wilmington, and Baltimore Railroad. In the 1830's, he built houses for three of his children along Market Street between 13th and 14th Streets.

The James Price House in Wilmington

The one child for whom he did not not build a home, daughter Mary, had one built amongst her siblings' by her father-in-law, Price's business partner James Canby. In 1826, Mary married Edmund Canby, a member of what was probably the second most important of the Brandywine milling clans, behind the Tatnalls. Upon James Price's death in 1840, the Harmony Mills passed into possession of Edmund and Mary Canby. Edmund was involved in his family's milling business, but due to a severe case of asthma he did more travelling than milling. With their stately new home at 1305 Market Street, it seems unlikely that Edmund and Mary actually would have lived much (if at all) in the older Rotheram home along the White Clay. In any case they wouldn't have had much time to do so, as Edmund died in 1848 at the age of 44.

In 1858, Mary moved her family back to Harmony, as her son James Price Canby had taken over running the mill. However, James went into the Army in May 1864 and retired from it in 1897, serving most of his career as a Paymaster. As seen below, Mary rented the mills in the 1870's, at least for a while to Samuel J. Wright. It seems that the mills may have been in disrepair for a while before Wright came along, but he got them working again for custom work. The E. L. Canby in the 1876 ad was James' brother Edmund Lea Canby.

A glimpse into Harmony Mills in the 1860's and 1870's

By now the saw mill seems to have fallen into disuse, but the stone grist mill continued to operate, at least until 1876. More specifically, the end came about 11:00 PM on Friday, September 29, 1876. That's when a disastrous fire destroyed the mill, bringing to an end over 140 years of milling at the site. The fire was said to have started from a hot piece of machinery, and the loss was only partly covered by insurance. The mill would not be rebuilt.

Reporting of the demise of Harmony Mills
Sept. 30, 1876

Report giving the precise timing of the fire
that destroyed Harmony Mills (Oct 2, 1876)

In 1886, the 79 year old Mary Canby finally sold the mill property, which included the farm of almost 200 acres. Interestingly, it literally took an act of the legislature to do it. Her father James Price's will stipulated that the property would go to Mary, and then upon her death would pass to her children. Since by 1886 her children were (1) not millers or farmers and (2) spread across the country, she needed to have the will changed in order to sell it. She did, and she did, to White Clay Creek Hundred miller and farmer William F. Smalley. Smalley owned several properties, including the mill west of Christiana (near today's Smalley's Dam Road).

Since the mill was already ten years gone at Harmony, Smalley bought the property for the house and the farm, to be used as a rental. Its location along both railroads may have been a selling point to Smalley as well. According to an ad for the sale of farm equipment in early 1897, the farm was occupied then by August Carlson (who seems to have been retiring from farming then). Some "modernization" was done to the house in the late 19th Century, probably by Smalley. Some minor work was done inside, including bricking up several fireplaces and adding stoves. A gable was added to the front of the roof, but a fire around 1930 destroyed the roof and the gable was not replaced.

Ad from January 1929, as
Walter F. Smalley was retiring

The Smalleys also apparently operated a general store and had several warehouses either on part of the Harmony Mills property or adjacent to it. When William F. Smalley died in 1910, he passed the farm along to his son Walter. It's unclear to me if Walter resided in the old Rotheram House or not, but I suspect that he did not. By the mid-1920's, the aging Walter F. Smalley was looking to sell his Harmony area holdings, and he finally did so in 1928. The new owner of the house and farm was Frank A. Gifford, formerly of southwest New York State. This Frank Gifford of New York was a farmer, not a football player.

However, even after selling the property in 1928 Smalley continued to live in the Harmony area. He's listed there, right before Gifford, in the 1930 Census and his residence is listed as Harmony on his 1932 death certificate. The 1929 ad above shows the considerable holdings that Smalley still had, and the residence mentioned in it may be where he continued to live. (Also, I love how he just outright said "I am getting old and going to quit.")

Gifford, wife Mary, and their five (soon to be six) sons did actively work the family's farm. Over the ensuing years, the Giffords (first Frank, then Mary after he died in 1937) broke up the nearly 200 acre tract, selling off bits and pieces of it. Eventually, I believe the farm they worked was narrowed down to a 60-some acre area on the west side of Harmony Road, across from today's Harmony Woods neighborhood (the area is now an industrial park bisected by Ruthar Drive). The house that the Giffords lived in sat (until the 1980's) about where Harmony Court is now, eventually stuck between Old Harmony Road and the new, bigger Harmony Road. Mary S. Gifford finally sold her last Harmony-area holding in 1966.

The old Rotheram House, however, was sold away much earlier -- in 1935 to William and Besse Davis. The Davises owned the house until 1961, selling to Robert J. Hunn. It was the Hunns who owned the house when the new Harmony Road was built, essentially through their backyard. The course of White Clay Creek itself was changed at the same time, removing a sharp bend in the creek to alleviate flooding.

The Hunns did restorative work to the house during their tenure, which lasted until 1978. The home went through several more hands after that, and by the early 21st Century was again showing its age. Luckily for us, new owners (who happens to be a friend of mine) came along recently and are doing a fantastic job of restoring this historic home. Although new discoveries are being made regarding the site, there are still mysteries to solve. One of the biggest is the nature of the early history of the site and the mills there. With the disappearance of the 1739 Rotheram deed, determining who owned the site previously and who originally built the mills has been impossible. However, the future of Joseph Rotheram's old home now seems bright.

Additional Facts and Related Thoughts:
  • Although the later 1795 deed references the 1739 sale, this deed seems to have been lost. Some Colonial Era records were lost when Delaware President John McKinly was captured by the British and they took records he had with him, hoping to keep safe. I've found other 1739 sales from the same Sheriff (Henry Newton), but not this one. My off-the-wall theory -- The 1739 deed had to be pulled to settle Joseph, Sr.'s estate in 1774, hadn't been refiled, was available for McKinly to take with him in 1777, and got captured by the British.
  • More research would need to be done to determine who some of the actual millers were who operated Price and Canby's Harmony Mills. The 1832 McLane Report seems to imply that Samuel Stroud may have been in charge, while the 1830 Census seems to have James Stroud in about the right place. In 1850, (presumably) brothers Palmer and Jacob Gheen are listed as millers in the right place in the census to have been working there.
  • By the late 19th or early 20th Century, the old James Price House had been divided up into numerous low-rent apartments. So many apartments, in fact, that it came to be called "Hundred House" for how many people seemed to live there.


  1. I have also asked why mills were located on the west side of Red Clay Creek here in the lower part of the valley. The answers I receive point to the fact that the majority of product to be milled was farmed here in Mill Creek Hundred and it saved the farmer from having to cross the Red Clay.

    1. I thought it was you who had brought it up before, but I couldn't remember for sure. I don't really know enough about the early settlement of Christiana Hundred to know if that could be true or not. If so, it would make sense since most of the millseats were in service before there was much in the way of bridges over the creek.

  2. As a previous owner of the Rotheram Mill House - a few of your "facts" are incorrect. In September of 1994 the house was purchased by Ernesto (not Earnest) Marra and his wife at that time Clara Simpers Marra. The property (first level) had been boarded up for approximately two years. Previous owners were the Ashby's (relocated to Lewes, DE). The Marra family were the ones that had the metal roof installed and cleared most of the property. In 2001 the Marra's separated and subsequently divorced. Ernesto Marra maintained ownership of the property and still does - however he now lives in Landenberg, PA. Hopefully - someone will restore this property.

    1. I certainly don't mind going back and correcting things. Sometimes the sources I find are wrong, sometimes I make incorrect inferences. Let me know what's not right and I'll make it so. You can email me if you'd like (mchhistory@verizon.net). Thank you for filling in some of the more recent history of the property.

      I agree with you in your hope that someone will take care of the property. It's a shame to see a historic spot like this be neglected. Plus, I have some friends in the surrounding neighborhood and I know they'd like to see the property restored.

  3. Is there still a marker for historic designation on the property

  4. The house is on the market and there is no mention of it's history...perhaps that will inspire a restoration.

  5. My wife and I have purchased this home.

    1. Will you put the shutters back up?

    2. I guess I will never know?

    3. Will you put the shutters back up on the front and elsewhere and paint white on 1st and green on 2nd floors?

  6. can not find much about the house or mill when in Joseph Rotheram's or his sons name. Will have to work up the energy and go to Dover to see what can be found.

    1. Sorry I haven't been much help. The old Rotheram deeds don't seem to be part of the digitized collection on Ancestry. I know some 18th Century stuff was lost and/or destroyed, so maybe it was part of that, or maybe it's sitting in Dover waiting for you to find it

  7. This comment has been removed by the author.

  8. wow, dont be sorry I was just making an observation. Swear I saw somewhere there was a cabin along with the mill when Rotheram purchased the property. also, thought I saw previously a copy of the original 1795 ad you included above. not many Delaware newspapers then...maybe it was an out of state ad or maybe it was a broadside(?)

  9. The sale to Price and the name of the mills is interesting but a head scratcher

  10. I am a grandson of Frank A. Gifford. I am in possesion of family history and letters written by Mary Gifford. I can provide additional details and corrections to the information for the years this farm was in our family 1928-1950. Sorry, I was not successful in registering my name. I am David S. Gifford and would be glad to correspond Scott Palmer. I am ds.gifford55@gmail.com

    1. Thank you for reaching out! I will definitely be emailing you soon

  11. Frank A. Gifford and his youngest son, Richard are both buried in the White Clay Creek Presbyterian Church cemetery in Newark. (posted by David S. Gifford)

  12. This is to confirm that the house fire, affecting the second floor and attic, occured on January 30, 1934 according to a letter by Mary Gifford to her sister back in Southwest New York. The Giffords rebuilt the damaged portion of the house. Submitted by David S. Gifford

  13. Why are the back windows boarded up?

  14. History states the house was built in 1740, a year after Rotheram purchased the property along with saw and grist mill. While going through some online files from The Delaware Historic Society I came across a 1916 certified typed copy of the 1739 deed from Sheriff Newton to Joseph Rotheram.
    From what I can make from this three page deed is:

    1. The property was purchased by Jacob Rogers in 1716
    2. At some point Rogers became in debt to Thomas Ogle …. I don’t know for how much or if Ogle owned property prior to Rogers
    3. To settle debt the 185 acre property was seized and put up for Sheriffs sale in 1739.
    4. Current history states at the time of sale in 1739 Rotheram purchased the property with a saw and grist mill. History also states he built the house in 1740.
    5. The 1739 Rotheram deed shows Newton had taken in and executed a Plantation with good Brick house, Saw and Grist mill
    5. So, was house built between 1716 and 1739 or was it built in 1740?


  15. Does anyone have any information about the equally old or older house that used to be 330 Old Harmony Road and was on what was the old mill site? So many additions were added that you couldn't tell the age from the outside, but the oldest part was clearly early 1700s from the inside with random width floors, small, curving staircases , large fireplaces. It was two floors and an attic, each floor one room. I always wondered if it was a home for the millworkers or an owner before Rotherham. It was demolished about 2001. Under the plaster coving what would have been an outer wall was wood, probably original, with bark still on it. The reason I'm so interested is that I used to live there! Thanks.

    1. Hi, The house I believe you are referring to was known as the M.T. Canby House. When the property was purchased for development a lot of research was done. The link I will include will take you to the County page where you will find a good amount of documentation including some photos. I dont know the date of construction but it was built after Rotherams sold the mill and farm around 1795. Yes, at one time this parcel was part of The Rotheram Farm/Millsite.
      Please try this link .... https://www3.newcastlede.gov/Project/Details/Default.aspx?ProjectKey=512943