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"Mordington" and The Old Mills in Milford Hundred

Milford Hundred extends from the Delaware Bay on the east to what is now Killens Pond Road and Deep Grass Road on the west and from the Murderkill River on the north to the Mispillion River on the south.

1868 map of Milford Hundred

There were quite a number of mills along the north and south border rivers of Milford Hundred. Back on May 14th and May 28 I covered the mills on the Mispillion River (Blair's Pond, Griffith Lake, Haven Lake, Silver Lake and Marshall's Pond.) I also covered Tub Mill, even though it's almost two miles inside the Milford Hundred.

In this post I'll cover two mills, McColley's Mill and the nearby Wilson's Mill, both on Brown's Branch. Wilson's Mill was just upstream of McColleys Pond and the mill-dam was probably located where Sandbox Road crosses Brown’s Branch, just north of Cloverfield Lane.

Less than three miles downstream from the McColley's Pond dam Brown's Branch flows into the Murderkill River at Forks Landing. My readers may not realize that the river below McColley's Pond, as well as Coursey's Pond about two miles north, is tide water all the way up to the dams. This means that both of the mills had direct access to the lucrative Philadelphia market, and it also means that both of the millers were probably pretty well off.

The following two paragraphs are from Thomas Scharf’s 1888 “History of Delaware.”

Isaac White's mill-pond is mentioned in a survey of three hundred and three acres, made October 6, 1740, for the heirs of William Jacobs. It was on Brown's Branch, and very probably occupied the site of the mill now owned by William Wilson, as there have been only two mills on this stream, and the land for the use of the J. L. Smith mill was condemned six years later. In 1816 this mill was owned by Joseph Cheairs, and contained one water-wheel and two pairs of stones. The mill was afterwards owned by John D. Smithers and by him sold to Alfred Newsome, whose administrator sold the mill to Paris D. Carlisle. William Wilson, the present owner, purchased the property of Carlisle in 1863. By him the mill was enlarged, and is a two-story frame building. William Wilson operated the mill till October, 1887, when his son, James A. Wilson, took charge. The grinding is done by burr, and consists mainly of custom work.

On May 25, 1785, James Douglas purchased of John Clayton, sheriff, "all that lot of ground or mill-seat with part of a mill thereon on the south side of Brown's branch,'' which was offered at public sale as the land of Thomas Ogle. The land formerly belonged to John Harmenson, who sold to Thomas Muncy, for whom two acres was condemned for a grist-mill. Thomas Ogle purchased from Muncy. A very large merchant mill was erected by Douglass, which was known as "Mordington Mills." In 1816, it was in the possession of his son, Walter Douglass, and then contained two water-wheels and three pairs of stones. He operated the mill till his death, which occurred in 1827. On May 14, 1829, it was purchased by Charles Kinney, who sold to Samuel A. Short on November 12, 1882 [probably 1832]. While in his possession the mill was burned, and a new one about half the size of the former mill erected. A saw-mill was also built by him. He retained possession till January 1, 1848, when he sold the mills to Joseph O. McColley, who February 23, 1876, conveyed them to Mrs. Eliza B. McColley, wife of Edward B. C. McColley. J. L. Smith, obtained possession on May 8, 1878.


The following is from the National Register of Historic Places Inventory Nomination Form - 1972-76

Mordington represents the lifestyle of a very prosperous eighteenth-century mill owner in Delaware. In 1785 James Douglass bought fourteen and a half acres of lane and ripple (wet lands) on Brown's Branch of Murderkill Creek from William Frazier. This adjoined property at the mill pond dam, which Douglass had bought earlier. It is believed that a frame dwelling was already on the property when Douglass bought it. A family descendent, the late Clayton Douglass Buck, believed that the brick house was built by James Douglass' son Walter. The name "Mordington" is said to be taken from the Scottish title of an ancestor who was created Baron Mordington of Clyde by King Charles I.

The Douglass family built mills at the mill pond dam; by 1822 Walter Douglass had increased his holdings there to more than five hundred acres. It is noted in family documents that the mill seat was used for smelting bog iron. Walter Douglass and his brother William were also involved in several other ironworks in Sussex County particularly the Deep Creek Furnace at the head of the Nanticoke. It is probable that they used the Mordington mill seat to power a bloomery forge, as well as for grinding grain. Certain sources indicate the presence of two water wheels and three pairs of stones in the gristmill. The remains of the stones are found around the house.

Walter Douglass' widow Harriet Middleton Douglass sold her dower rights in Mordington to Charles Kimmey in 1828. The property passed through several other owners before being deeded in 1848 to Joseph O. McColley who gave his name to the mill pond. At this point the Mordington Mills included a gristmill, a sawmill and a bark-mill. Only traces of these remain today.

There is not only history, but folklore involved with the house. One of these legends concerns a slave girl who haunts the house, having jumped to her death from an upper floor after being unjustly punished. Another legend concerns a man who came home drunk one night and led his horse up the stairs.

Mordington, built at the end of the eighteenth century, is one of Kent County's outstanding examples of Georgia architecture. Its double-pile plan, unusual for Delaware at this time, is just one of its distinctions. Oriented south, Mordington overlooks McCauley's Pond, at the headwaters of the Murderkill River. The two-and-a-half~story brick house block is extended by a lower frame and brick wing to the east. This wing, once only eighteen feet long, has now been rebuilt and extended to fifty feet. The Flemish-bond brick exterior of the main house block has been subject to few changes since its erection. The two main doorways have been removed to the Henry Francis duPont Winterthur Museum. The front door has been replaced by one from a house in Berlin, Maryland which is not as fine as the original. Wooden keystones in splayed brick lintels surmount each of the twelve-over-twelve windows. A three-brick-wide belt course surrounds the house, but there is no evidence of any watertable. The denticulated box cornice is found on the north and south facades; its architrave and freize details also mark the roof line on the gable ends, breaking at each chimney. The west chimney is enclosed within the brick wall and serves six corner fireplaces. The other end chimney, partially exposed beyond the brick wall, serves a fireplace in the wing.

Mordington, HABS Photo, May 1960

Only one original brick outbuilding remains next to the house. This structure has always been assumed to be a smokehouse, although there is no trace of smoke-blackening on the interior.


Here are a few short newspaper clippings that concern McColley's Mill.

23 August 1867 - Delaware State Journal, Wilmington, Del.

Dams washing out and fires seem to have been a constant problem for early Delaware millers. Try to imagine the work it took to repair a dam in the days before mechanized equipment.

5 February 1894 - The Evening Journal, Wilmington, Del.

11 March 1908 - The Morning News, Wilmington, Del.

This project apparently did happen, as well as a similar project at Coursey's Pond.


Next time I post, in two weeks, we'll move two miles up Rt-15 to Coursey's Pond. Thomas B. Coursey was a miller for about 65 years and he owned and operated the mill and pond that now bears his name for 60 of those. He was a very progressive miller and farmer and he sent many, many well written letters to the editor of the Morning News in Wilmington, Del. Letters about Shad Conservation, about Vote Bribery, about Women's Rights (in 1881), and about White Flour, to name just a few topics. As you read the following preview, if you don't recall who Oliver Evans was, scroll down to my Jan 17th post; "Who Was Oliver Evans."

Of all the mills mentioned today, the only one I have been able to find a picture of it the Wyoming Mill., mentioned just below.

Wyoming Mills, c.1906 - Delaware Public Archives

To the Editors of the Morning News

In the year 1835, just half a century ago, I commenced my experience in the milling business at Wyoming mills, then belonging to General Fisher, father of Judge Fisher. The outfit of a good country mill at that time consisted in a rolling screen with fan blast to clean the grain, a pair of burrs for grinding and a single 27-inch reel covered with No. 8 cloth, a short reel and cloth for rye, which was used at that time for bread, and a pair of rocks for grinding corn. If you had visited all the mills south of the Brandywine you would have found but little variation from this, except that some of them had no rolling screen and depended on hand sieves to clean what wheat they ground.

I remained at Wyoming Mills for five years. (I call them Wyoming Mills for convenience--there was no Wyoming then.) During those five years, by industry and close application to business I made some money. I bought and moved in 1840 to the property where I now reside, known then and now as Spring Mills. This property was much out of repair. The mill was built as a merchant mill and used as such by the proprietor, and later by William Hewlet, Esq., a wealthy Marylander, who bought large quantities of wheat and manufactured for the Philadelphia market. The outfit of this mill differed but little from Wyoming mill—a rolling screen and fan for cleaning, a pair of burrs for grinding, a single 27-inch reel covered with No. 8 cloth, corn stones and rye butt. The flour ran from the burrs into tubs holding about four bushels. These were hoisted to the third floor by a jack-wheel and rope and dumped on the floor near the bolting hopper. The flour, or chop as it was called, was fed into the bolt by a hopper boy. This was the only piece of improved machinery about the mill. Smut machines were not then dreamed of by inventors. Elevators and conveyors, the fruit of Oliver Evan’s brain, were just coming into use, but there was none in this mill.

I worked hard day and night, sometimes until 2 o’clock in the morning, to get the mill in order and obtain a custom, in which I was successful. I made a good hit during the year by inventing and constructing a smut machine, by which I could remove the smut and make good flour out of wheat that was otherwise worthless. This was at that time the only thing of the kind in this part of the country. There was no process known except washing by which such flour could be made into flour fit for food. There was a large amount of what was called bust in wheat that and the following year, some of it averaging one grain in ten. It was soon noised abroad that Coursey had made a machine that could take the smut out of wheat, and as a consequence we had custom from the Bayshore to the Maryland line and even beyond. But I was not to enjoy this monopoly long. A year or so later the Grimes smut machine was put upon the market, followed by a score of others. But I competed with them successfully for ten or twelve years until I found a better, which I bought, and by adding improvement to improvement, additional reels and finer cloths, I kept pace with the times until within a year or so, when roller mill flour came into competition. There is no denying the fact that roller mill flour is whiter than burr flour, but when that is said all is said. The burr flour is more healthy, sweeter, stronger, and the bread will keep moist from twelve to twenty-four hours longer than roller flour bread. Fresh bread from roller flour is very nice, but when it is a few hours old it becomes dry and chaffy, and is no comparison to bread of the same age from burrs. But the people have a white flour craze. Mrs. Jones saw Mrs. Brown’s bread made from roller mill flour, and she determines that the bread on her table shall be as nice as Mrs. Brown’s, and Mrs. Smith is not to be behind Mrs. Jones, and so it goes from one to another. White bread from roller mill flour looks nicer. The old time burr mill burr mill is the more healthy. It is the kind our fathers and forefathers lived on way back to the early ages. Old Mr. Methusalah and the old gentlemen who lived in his day and counted their years by the hundreds never heard of the roller mill. Their bread was made from flour manufactured from the whole wheat ground between stones, on the principle of the present day, and we have no evidence that they had even a sifter to take out the course bran. They certainly had no No. 16 bolting cloth. Physicians of the present day recommend to persons of weak digestion bread made from flour made from the whole wheat without removing the bran. This only goes to show that the old time flour is the most healthy.

Now I am not going to run a tilt against roller mills, for I may have one myself if I have many more years to live, not from choice but from necessity. Competition drives men sometimes to do what they would rather not do. But I, at the same time, think that roller mill outside the spring wheat region have been rather a curse than a blessing. They have rendered almost valueless millions worth of property that was paying good interest. If the flour was more healthy we would have some compensation, but it is not. I heard an eminent physician who now owns a roller mill, say that roller mill flour was not fit to raise children on. If unfit for children, it cannot be equal to the other for grown folks. But the people are resolved to have white flour, health of no health, and those millers who are drivento change will have to sink the present value of their mills in arranging a complication of rolls, scalpes, conveyors, purifiers, aspirators, centrifugals, and an endless array of elevators, bolts and other jimcracks that will necessitate another apprenticeship to milling. Mills of the present day are using No. 16 cloth; then we used No. 8. We are using in our mill No. 12. It seems hardly possible that there can be as much change in the next fifty years.

T. B. Coursey,

Spring Mills, Del. March 3, 1885



If you take a walk at Abbott's Mill Nature Center 0n the Boardwalk Loop Trail below the mill, keep your eyes open for trees that look like this:

These are Ash trees, specifically Green ash trees, (Fraxinus pennsylvanica), and they are infested with the Emerald Ash Borer, also known as the EAB. The trees are doomed, as are all other Ash trees in the entire country. Fifty years from now they will speak of the Ash trees with longing, somewhat as we now do of the long gone American chestnut trees.

We've known for a while that it was just a matter of time, but the time has now come. The damage you see is from the woodpeckers hunting for the EAB larva. The emerald green adult beetles nibble on ash foliage but cause little damage to the tree.

The larvae (the immature stage) feed on the inner bark of ash trees, disrupting the tree's ability to transport water and nutrients. Peel back the bark, as woodpeckers have done here, and the infested tree looks like this inside:

As the woodpeckers do their work the trees will eventually look like this, and worse.

We intend to cut down the ash trees at the nature center soon, before they become a hazard.

To learn more about the EAB, there are a number of web sites you can visit. Here are a couple:

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