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Philips' Greenbank Mill

Adapted for this blog from:

“Two Mills on Red Clay Creek

in the 19th Century”

By Carroll W. Pursell, Jr. - 1964

Edited by Robert E. Wilhelm, Jr. - 2019


Greenbank Mill and Philips Farm

Before we go further, let’s settle what the name “Greenbank” refers to. Greenbank is an unincorporated community next to Price’s Corner, just west of the intersection of the Kirkwood Highway and Rt-141. According to the late Edward M. Philips (1869-1962,), William Greg Philips built a house on the Newport Gap Pike near Red Clay Creek on a high, grassy bank. He called the residence 'Greenbank," and the name later was used for the community. The Wilmington and Western Railroad Station is located in Greenbank.

The property where Greenbank Mill now sits was purchased by Robert Philips from Empson Bird in 1773. The years between America’s two wars with England were appar-ently uneventful ones at Philip’s mill. Oliver Evans’ machinery was installed at some point, either in advance of, or to keep up with, competition.

It was not until the War of 1812, however, that any real change took place in the Green-bank enterprise. On February 27th, 1811 an advertisement appeared in the Wilmington newspaper “American Watchmen,” signed by John R. Philips and announcing that he “WANTED, immediately, a PERSON who is skilled in the management of SHEEP, and would be fond of taking care of a flock.”

Cut off from the woolen mills of war-torn Europe, American manufactures were already turning to local producers of wool for the raw material with which to make a fortune in a newly protected market. Since merino sheep produced the very best wool for manu- facture, and since the common country breed of American sheep were little suited to this purpose, competitive bidding drove the price of merino sheep to fantastic heights by the summer of 1810. Although the Merino Mania, as it was called, subsided somewhat after 1810, prices remained high as long as the war kept British woolens off the American market, and American manufacturers in a high crest of prosperity.

In deciding to invest some capitol in the woolen manufactory, Philips was following the same path as E. I. DuPont, Peter Daudey, William Young, and others. It was a decision not to be taken lightly, especially by a Quaker miller with no sheep, no factory, no workmen and, (so far as we know) no knowledge of the business.

The flock of merino sheep was in existence at least by the second month of 1811. It was probably at about the same time that Philips tore down the old “Swedes” mill which stood next to the merchant mill, and built on its site a structure to house the new operation. Named the Madison Factory after James Madison, the President of the United States and a life long advocate of American manufacturers, the new structure made a handsome appearance. Built of field stone, the new factory was 45 feet long, 25 feet wide and three stories high, making it nearly as long as the adjoining grist mill (50 x 39’).

Provided now with his own source of raw material and a factory in which to process it, Philips was faced with the problem of finding workmen, a problem which over the years, probably caused him more trouble than any other. During the summer of 1812 he advertised that he, “Wanted, Immediately, several apprentices from twelve to seventeen years of age, to the woolen manufacturing business.” Playing upon parental concern, he pointed out that, “from the high wages paid to manufacturers, parents will only be consulting the interest of their children, by placing them in a situation to acquire a knowledge of this important branch of our own growing manufactures, as the manu- factory now establishing will be upon the most new and improved principles, apprentices will have an opportunity offered to them to become masters of this useful art.”

Once having acquired workmen, it was not always easy to keep them. The Delaware state legislature had passed an act, on January 26th, 1811, exempting “every artificer or workman” employed in a water-powered mill making “woolen yarn, or woolen cloth,” or certain other specified products, from all “militia fines and forfeitures.” Seventeen months later the United States went to war with Great Britain and despite the intention of the law to exempt factory workers from service, one of Philips weavers was eventually called to duty in a Delaware militia company. Explaining that the man, John Rigby, was “poor in pocket but proud in principal.” John R. Philips employed the legal counsel of no less a personage than Louis McLane to discover whether the workman was bound to serve.

Housing was a problem so far from any town. The Philips advertised that they had “Several houses to let.” Since these were at a premium, they stipulated that “None need apply but such as are acquainted with some branch of the woolen manufacturing business and are willing to accommodate borders, or who have large families of children who wish to employ in the factory.” Children represented only one end of the spectrum of Philip’s needs. At the other end he needed, “A person qualified to take charge of the milling, dressing, dyeing and finishing of Superfine Cloths.”

One elaborate solution concocted by Philips involved training their own hands and paying them in graduated installments. They wrote;

“The subscribers, wishing to engage a number of hands, for the various departments of their Woolen Manufactory, take this method of informing their laboring fellow citizens, or those who are not mechanics, that they will take hands into the finishing, carding, spinning and weaving departments, for the term of two years and will give them a proper knowledge of those branches of the Woolen Manufactory, and liberal wages. They would take, immediately, six hands, to learn the weaving business. Those from twenty to thirty-five years of age would be preferred. The terms would be one hundred and fifty dollars per year, with boarding and lodging, in the following payments: for the first months, forty dollars: the second, sixty, the third eighty, and the last, one hundred and twenty dollars -- and by the twentieth of the ensuing March, six more, on the above terms – Two or three young women would be taken to spin for the same length of time, the wages two dollars per week, their boarding and lodging found them. Boys from eight to eighteen years of age will be taken apprentices.”

In February, 1815, news of a signing of a peace treaty with England reached New York: a costly and humiliating war was over, but so were the days of almost certain profit for manufacturers operating in a protected market.

February 17th, 1815 - The Gleaner (Wilkes-Barre, Pa)

British goods began almost immediately to flood the American market and many factories of marginal profit were closed about the country. Late in 1815 Robert and John R. Philips began to liquidate some of the capital they had tied up in the Madison Factory. First to go was the flock of merinos which they proposed to “sell, or let on shares, from one hundred and fifty to two hundred merino Ewes, 1-2 and 3-4 breed: they are of the importations of Chancellor Livingston, from the national farm of France. Perhaps this sale was also a response the fact that John R. Philips, son of Robert, and perhaps the person initially responsible for the woolen business, was selling his “Farming Utensils” at the same time with the intention of “removing from the state.“

We cannot be sure whether John R. Philips did in fact leave the state at this time. At the end of 1817 an unsigned advertisement in a Wilmington newspaper declared that “a person well acquainted with the keeping of Accounts, a practical “Woolen Cloth Manu- facturer” and [who] can produce incontestable evidence of his integrity and attention to business, will be received as a partner in a concern of extensive country business.“ Applications were directed to the Madison Factory. The writer of the advertisement appears to have been John R. Philips for, a few months later, he published the news that he was “intending, in March next to engage in the Woolen business and, desirous of extending his capitol,” and therefore was offering his farm at Mill Creek Hundred at public sale.

Philips second fling at woolen manufacture appears to have been unsatisfactory. By March of 1819 he was determined to leave Delaware, with his family, for “the Mississippi, state of Illinois,” and once again put his property up for sale. From this point onward his father, Robert Philips, operated the several enterprises as best he could. Early in 1822 he advertised the premises “FOR SALE, OR RENT, or a partner could be taken in the concern.” The description which followed was notable both for the exactitude of information it contained and for evidence it gave that Philips was open to almost any suggestion as to its operation:

“About 7 acres of land on both sides of Red Clay creek, about 4 ½ miles from Wilmington, and two from Newport, New Castle County, whereupon is erected a large mill house, 50 feet long and 39 wide, 3 stories high, with an addition on one side of 45 feet long and 25 wide, 3 stories high, with 2 large sheds, and a sheer shop. There are 2 large water wheels and water sufficient to drive them both at all times (or nearly so) to run five feet stones powerfully. There is likewise a sawmill and sufficient water (exclusive of what is necessary for the grist mills) to drive it eight or nine months in the year. One water wheel in the mill is now employed in a woolen establishment, which is carried on pretty extensively, the other wheel in the milling business. There is house room (by evacuating the grist mill machinery, etc.) sufficient for two thousand cotton spindles, with all the machinery necessary for them, besides the woolen establishment, and water sufficient for both establishments. There is a large, tight dam, a short head and tail race, with twelve feet head and fall, a large stone mansion house and kitchen, 2 stories high, cellared under the whole, a good frame barn, with stables under it, and six tenements for families to live in. It is a healthy neighborhood and handsomely situated. More land can be had convenient.”

In June of 1819 two of Robert Philips neighbors, Thomas Latimer and William Murdock, entered a claim against him for a debt of $6,977. County Sheriff John Moody seized Philips’ “Land on Red Clay Creek & Merchant mill, Saw Mill & Factory, five tenant houses etc.” This property remained unsold until December 2nd, 1830 when Robert’s son John C. Philips was declared the highest bidder at public auction and the property was sold to him for $6,300. The length of time to settle the property sale was most likely affected by Robert Philips’ death in the winter of 1828-29.

John C. Philips, who was described as a Merchant Miller, retained possession of the property until March 24th, 1852, when the title passed to two sons, William G. and Isaac D. Philips. These two owned the mill for over a quarter of a century, [and] it appears to have been operated only as a gristmill under the proprietorship of yet another son, Calvin Philips. This son moved to Philadelphia and I. D. Philips was called to active participation in the firm. It was under his supervision that the new enterprise of manufacturing spokes, felloes [the outer rim of a wheel, to which the spokes are fixed] and general bentware was undertaken.

Touring the United States in the mid nineteenth century, Sir Joseph Whitworth noted with astonishment that “every man in America who is able to keep his [own] wagon is free to do so, unfettered and unquestioned, consequently their use is so general that it may be said to be almost universal. Their manufacture is one of great importance, and supports a vast number of wheelwrights and artisans of that class, who from the nature of their employment attain great skill and aptitude, enabling them to turn their hands to almost any variety of work, and rendering them a most useful and important class.”

April 11th, 1865 - Delaware State Journal and Statesman

In the years after the Civil War, the manufacture [of wagons] had grown so in Wilmington it was called “the queen city for carriages.” There were reportedly operating, within the borough in 1872, twenty firms making carriages, and employing 35 proprietors, 625 journeymen, 189 apprentices and 14 clerks. It was to serve this already growing trade that Wm. G. Philips & Bros. was formed in 1851.

William G. Philips & Co. did not limit itself to making parts for carriage and wagon wheels. Among other products, it made wooden forks which were disposed of "to the farmers in the vicinity who call at their establishment.” At the 1874 Industrial Fair in Wilmington, the company displayed various of it’s products, including “the firms celebrated folding camp chair, probably the best in the world, together with folding stools, step ladders, felloes for wheels, croquet mallets, &c."

August 24th, 1874 - Wilmington Daily Commercial

A letterhead from the firm dating to the 1870s also lists “Carpenter and Ship Turnings, Scroll and Circular Sawing, House Brackets” as being among the products of the mill. At about this same time the firm name was changed to J. P. Wells & Co., the company being John C. Philips, son of Isaac D. Philips, and the enterprise was moved to occupy a part of the D. H. Kent & Co. building in Wilmington.

John P. Wells was the undoing of this part of Philips enterprises. One day in the spring of 1879 it was discovered that he had “left the city, ostensibly to attend a funeral in Baltimore, and has not returned.” The spoke and falloe factory was closed by Sheriff Pyle at the insistence of creditors representing a debt of $15,000 to $20,000. “Much sympathy” was expressed for Philips, who was left to bear the brunt of the debts. A former partner (a Mr. Carver) reportedly lose $1,200 and an otherwise unidentified “lady living on King Street” lost $1,000. Furthermore, it was reported that rumors were current to the effect that Wells had “forged the name of Isaac Philips, his partner’s father, to notes amounting to $3,000; and his protracted absence was taken as corroborative evidence of the truth of this charge." Philips bentware business, like the Fell spice enterprise, came to an ignoble end.

March 8th, 1880 - Daily Republican

The demise of the spoke and falloe business did not mean an end to activity at the Greenbank mill. The gristmill, which had antedated and at least partially financed the wooden and bentware ventures, continued in what we must presume was a satisfactory manner. In 1872 the new Wilmington and Western Rail Road brought increased transportation facilities to the mill and, in fact, the first way freight [delivered] by the road was a shipment of four kegs of nails from D. H. Kent & Co. delivered at Greenbank Station. The firm of I. D. Philips & Son, which operated the mill, also maintained a store at 115 East forth Street in Wilmington. In 1883 the mill was taken over by the newly incorporated Diamond Milling Co., and thereafter meetings were held at the mill in Greenbank, under the supervision of John D. Philips, Secretary of the Corporation.

Then William, at the age of 59, and suffering for some time from malarial fever, died intestate [without a will] on October 12th, 1876, leaving a widow and two children.

October 13th, 1876 - Wilmington Daily Commercial

Acting on a petition by Isaac Philips, the Chancellor of the State of Delaware decided that the property could not be divided and Benjamin Nields of Wilmington, was appointed trustee. Nields then proceeded to sell the entire property to Philips for the sum of $15,000. On August 22nd, 1888, Philips sold the property to James and Ellis M. Clark. The following year Ellis sold his half to James. Exactly four months after buying his brother Ellis’ half of the mill, James Clark sold him back the whole enterprise.

Greenbank Mill - Historic American Buildings Survey, 1958

Greenbank Mill - SAH Archipedia

The new tenant of the property had little luck with his operations. On March 16th 1891, Ellis Clark sold the mill to Joseph W. T. Watson, in trust for $50, to be resold in an effort to pay off the former’s bills.

February 13th, 1900 - The Sun

In November Watson was able to sell the mill for [10,675] to Harmon McDonald, of Unionville in Chester County.

October 30th, 1891 - The Evening Journal

After McDonald died, his widow sold the mill finally to John Lynn of Elsmere.

In [the twentieth] century the mill and property continued to change hands, but in 1964 Historic Red Clay Valley, Inc., became the owner.

Greenbank Mill now belongs to Greenbank Mill Associates, Inc. a non-profit organization dedicated to preserving the Greenbank Mill National Historic District as a public museum, and expanding public knowledge of Red Clay Valley industrial, agricultural, and social history through on-site educational and recreational programming -


Footnotes from the original manuscript can be found at:

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