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Thursday, July 28, 2022

The Mills of White Clay Creek Landing -- Part 1: The Byrnes Mill

White Clay Creek Landing, showing
the site of Daniels Byrnes' Mill
Although there hasn't yet been a dedicated post about it here on the blog, I think it's fair to say that 
many people are at least somewhat familiar with the Hale-Byrnes House, which sits along White Clay Creek and Stanton Christiana Road. What many don't realize is that there once was a mill associated with it, that sat right along side it. Actually though, there were two mills -- one Colonial Era mill that was associated with the house, then a later mill in the same spot, not connected to the old brick home. And in fact, I'm sure many of you remember that second one, even if you weren't aware at the time of its earlier history.

We don't need to get too much into the (somewhat debated) early history of the Hale-Byrnes House, but from research by Walt Chiquoine it appears likely that the current brick house was built about 1760 by David Finney. In 1773 it was sold to Daniel Byrnes, a miller and prominent Wilmington Quaker. Byrnes moved his family out to what was then known as White Clay Creek Landing, and built a mill about 150 feet north of his new home. Not only did the site have good water power from a race dug across the large bend in White Clay Creek, but it also had another advantage that the other mill seats on the local creeks lacked -- direct access to shipping. At the time, boats could navigate all the way up the Christina River and White Clay Creek to dock directly behind Byrnes' home.

According to reports, Byrnes used his mill for multiple purposes. Besides grinding grain, he also manufactured wire and spun twine or flax thread there. Of course, the most exciting thing to happen during Byrnes' tenure was in early September 1777, when the Continental Army was encamped nearby and George Washington used the house for a meeting with his generals (including Lafayette, who celebrated his 20th birthday at the house). They were of course preparing for an expected confrontation with Gen. Howe and his British troops. Although the Americans were prepared for a battle along Red Clay Creek, the fight would ultimately take place on September 11 in Chadds Ford, at the Battle of Brandywine.

Daniel Byrnes operated his mill for less than twenty years, selling it in 1790 to a wealthy Philadelphia merchant named Blair McClenachan. McClenachan did not live at White Clay Creek Landing however, because at the time he owned Cliveden (the Benjamin Chew House) in Germantown, then a suburb of Philadelphia. Ironically, although the September 1777 battle did not end up happening near the Byrnes House, a month later the Battle of Germantown was fought, literally, in and around the Benjamin Chew House. McClenachan did not own either house during the war, but it's funny that a few years afterwards he owned two that were or almost were in the middle of battles.

Another not so fun story about McClenachan deals with his dispensing of the Byrnes property. In 1796 he "sold" the house and mill to his son George for $100,000. George immediately sold a half share of the property to his sister Ann for $50,000. If those amounts sound awfully large to you for 1796, you'd be right. And did I mention that Ann McClenachan was about 12 at the time? And that I think the price was "paid" with almost worthless bank notes that McClenachan had gotten from fellow Revolutionary War financier Robert Morris (the two were the largest contributors from Pennsylvania to the war effort)?

If this all sounds might fishy, you'd again be right. Blair McClenachan was a financial victim of poor investment choices and of the first major economic crash in the new nation's history. He then tried to avoid his creditors by making a series of fraudulent transactions with his children, of which the attempted sale of the Byrnes House and mill seem to have been a part. He did not get away with it, and ended up being thrown into debtor's prison.

William T. Smith (left) and Samuel Richards

With the previous sale attempt voided by the courts, the property ended up being sold in 1801 first to Walter Sims, then to John Hallowell -- both sales had to do with sorting out creditors. Then in 1802, Hallowell sold the property (including a grist mill and saw mill) to Samuel Richards, an iron merchant from Philadelphia. The following year, Richards sold a two-thirds share of the property to his father-in-law, William T. Smith. Smith rebuilt the mill, which had not been in operation for about a dozen years, since the time of Daniel Byrnes. Richards may have been more of a silent partner, because he sold his remaining third share to Robert Kennedy in 1817. Kennedy in turn sold the third share to William Overington in 1820. 

Meanwhile, it seems like it was William T. Smith's son Richard E. Smith who actually ran the mill, at least until his death there in 1828 ("there" being the house, not the mill). He died without a will and it took a while to sort out, but his stake in the mill eventually went to his children (Richard had been left his father's shares upon his death in 1812). In 1835 Richard Smith's children sold their shares to George Platt. And here's where I admit to being a little confused by a nagging detail -- I can find only five sales of one-sixth shares to Platt. First, that means that at some point Richard E. Smith must have acquired that other one-third share, although I can't find it. Secondly, there's one more sixth share I can't find, either.

McLane Report (1832) entry for George Platt,
presumably referring to the Byrnes Mill

In any case, by 1835 George Platt seems to have owned the whole thing, but I don't think he was new to the scene. For one, he served as administrator for Richard Smith's estate back in 1828. Also, in the McLane Report of 1832 (essentially a census and survey of American industry) George Platt is listed as the operator of a flour and bark mill that I'm pretty sure is the one next to the Hale-Byrnes House. He lists his firm's established date as 1827, a year prior to Richard Smith's death. This makes me think that Platt had actually been running the mill since then, but didn't formally buy it until 1835.

September 1828 sale of the late Richard E. Smith's
belongings, with George Platt as Administrator

In 1844, Platt fell into debt to Thomas Janvier, owner of the neighboring farm and white house now on the grounds of Delaware Park. Due to this debt, Platt's property was seized by the Sheriff and sold at auction. (Platt must have recovered, because within a few years he himself would serve as NCC Sheriff.) The new owner of the property (which still included the mill, the Hale-Byrnes House, and over 150 acres) was Andrew C. Gray, a prominent lawyer who had grown up in and still owned (although did not reside at) the Judge Morris Estate. Gray lived where he practiced law, in New Castle, and certainly bought the property as an investment.

The mill was presumably still running at this point, but would not be for much longer. Exactly how much longer, I'm not sure, but sometime during Gray's ownership the old mill burned down. Presumably not long afterwards, Gray sold the property to the Farmer's Bank of Delaware. This ended the first era of industry at the site, but it would not be the last. In the next post we'll find out what happened next at the mill seat at White Clay Creek Landing, and see that its story ended a lot more recently than you might think.

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