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The Mills of White Clay Creek Landing -- Part 2: The Independence Mill

This post is borrowed, with permission, from Scott Palmer's well researched

The Mill Creek Hundred History Blog (http://mchhistory.blogspot.com/)


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The 1865 Independence Mill (with a later addition)

In the last post we looked at the story

of the Colonial Era mill which was located directly north of the Hale-Byrnes House, on White Clay Creek just south of Stanton. Originally built by Daniel Byrnes in about 1770, it was rebuilt by William T. Smith just after 1800 and operated until it was destroyed in a fire. I'm not sure of the date on that, but it was sometime between 1844 and 1861 (probably closer to 1844). The mill, the house, and more than 150 acres were owned by prominent lawyer Andrew C. Gray at the time of the mill's destruction, but he soon sold it all to the Farmer's Bank of Delaware.


The mill seat lay dormant for a time, until Jesse Sharpe came along and purchased the property on July 2, 1861. Sharpe was not a random entrant into the story, but was a prominent and wealthy Wilmingtonian and a director of the Farmer's Bank (among other positions with other companies). It's very possible that the financially wise Sharpe saw the potential of the site and specifically its potential need in the near future. This was only a few months after the outbreak of the Civil War, and though most people assumed the war would be quick, Sharpe may have foreseen the need for mill sites and the ramping up of industrial production for the protection of the Union.


If that was the case (and that's only my theory), it probably took longer than he expected to see a return on his investment. It wasn't until June 1864 that Sharpe sold some of the land he had bought, in three separate tracts. They were basically (1) the land bounded by the Hale-Byrnes House on the south, White Clay Creek, the mill race, and the railroad tracks on the north; (2) the mill race itself; and (3) what is (humorously, to me) called "the Dam Ground". These were sold to William Dean, owner of the Dean Woolen Mills farther up White Clay Creek at Newark (off of Paper Mill Road). Dean, who had government contracts for war materials, was looking for an additional site to increase production.

January 8, 1866 mention of The new Butterworth factory (Independence Mill)

Admittedly, this and the next couple transactions can be confusing, as they all sort of weave together (pun intended). And as great as the above theory is, I'm not completely certain that Dean actually put the site into production. In July 1866, William Dean sold the property to "Ashton Butterworth and John Pilling, Trustees". Trustees of what, you ask? The firm of A. Butterworth and Company. And who did that consist of? Ashton Butterworth, John Pilling, and William Dean. So Dean was just selling the site from his own personal possession to a company he was part owner of. The price though, doubled, from the $6000 that Dean paid in 1864 to $12000 that Butterworth and Pilling paid two years later. That was certainly due to the erection of the new cotton factory noted in the article above. That factory would stand, along with later modifications, for 125 years.


The firm of A. Butterworth and Co. didn't last long, though, and in October 1867 Ashton Butterworth sold his share of the property back to Pilling and Dean. It's also in this indenture that the name given to the new cotton mill is used -- the Independence Mill. At this point the histories are a bit vague, but my best guess is that the Independence Mill was converted from cotton to woolen production soon after the sale from Butterworth. What makes it confusing is that the Dean Woolen Mills and the Kiamensi Woolen Company (incorporated in 1864) were somewhat, um, interwoven -- the Deans and the Pillings had hands in both.


What I do know for sure is that on June 24, 1875, William Dean and John Pilling officially sold their White Clay Creek Landing properties (which were broken up into seven separate parcels) to the Kiamensi Woolen Company (which was almost wholly owned by John and his brother Thomas Pilling). This of course included the Independence Mill.


Notice of the new sprinkler system installed in April 1887

The process for making woolen cloth takes a number of separate steps. Initially each site (the Kiamensi Mill on Red Clay Creek below Marshallton and the Independence Mill) was fully self-contained, performing the entire process. In 1873 (two years before officially becoming part of Kiamensi Woolen), the Independence Mill was refitted to specifically do the carding and spinning parts of the operation. It served as the carding and spinning mill for the Kiamensi Woolen Company for about the next 50 years. The company didn't run exactly continuously during that stretch -- there were times when the mills shut down for a while, but they always came back on line (sometimes with government contracts, like in 1898 during the Spanish-American War). A state-of-the-art sprinkler system was installed in 1887, a move which will later sound ironic.


At some point along the way -- I'm not exactly sure when, but sometime prior to the early 1900's -- the company built worker housing on the other side of the road from the mill, slightly closer to the railroad tracks. That brick structure is still there and occupied to this day.


Worker housing built by the Kiamensi Woolen Company

As noted, the Kiamensi Woolen Company's Independence Mill (later known as just the Stanton Mill) operated for about fifty years, a period of relative calm and stability. The next few decades would be anything but. After the demise of the Kiamensi Woolen Company, the Stanton site would see a series of high hopes and great expectations, followed quickly by disaster and disappointment. It all started when Kiamensi Woolen went into receivership in late 1923, being more than $50,000 in debt.

The company's properties (both Kiamensi and Stanton) were finally sold in April 1925 to Max Lipschutz, a New Yorker who owned other textile mills on the East Coast. There was great fanfare at the time, as the mills were to be refitted and renamed the Novel Woolen Mills. Lipschutz said the mills would produce Jersey cloths, bathing suits (yes, wool bathing suits), and sweaters. Something must have gotten in the way of those plans though, because that was early May 1925. By January 1926 Lipschutz had received a charter from the state for a new company, Marshallton Woolen Mills, Inc. I feel like the mills never actually ran for him, because in early December 1926 all the Kiamensi and Stanton properties (including contents) of the Marshallton Woolen Mills, Inc. were up for sale at a public auction. This included "six three-story brick dwellings" at Stanton, which must have been the housing by the mill.


Unfortunately for the New Yorker the properties did not sell then, as "the only offers made were so low that the auctioneer refused to consider them". It's not real clear to me whether the Novel Mills/Marshallton Woolen Mills ever actually operated, but in March 1927 Walter Foraker was convicted of stealing eight sweaters and two bolts of cloth from the Kiamensi Mill. The report stated that he was not an employee of the company, which seems to imply that there were employees. It also stated that, "The mill was open but not operating, it was said, and many persons living in the vicinity of Marshallton helped themselves to sweaters." Sounds like Mr. Foraker's only mistake was getting caught.


Notice of the sale of the Stanton Mill to the Ad Tissue Corporation (3/11/1929)

In April 1929 the Kiamensi property and contents were again for sale, as were the contents of the Stanton mill. The Stanton property, however, had just been sold to the Ad Tissue Corporation, finally severing the link between the Stanton and Kiamensi sites that had been in place since the Civil War. Odd as it sounds, Ad Tissue, a locally-owned company, did pretty much exactly what it sounds like they did -- "manufacture and print advertising matter on toilet tissues". The article said they held the patent rights on the product and were the only company of their kind in the world.


A newspaper article from March 1930 said that the plant had been running ten hour days since the beginning of the year. All seemed to be well, but sadly their good luck wouldn't even make it to the middle of the year. On the morning of June 19, 1930, a fire tore through the factory, gutting the inside and destroying their entire stock. The president and general manager, William J. Appleby, had to cut the screen in his office window and jump ten feet to the ground to escape the blaze. No one was hurt, but the losses crushed the company. A big part of that was the fact that the company had let their insurance coverage lapse as of June 1. Oops.


The property was sold the next year, but it seems to have remained idle for another six years. To be fair though, this was during the height of the Great Depression, so there wasn't really a lot of capital flying around to rebuild an old, burned-out mill. The next owners of the mill would not only rebuild and restore it, but would take it back to its roots. The newly chartered Stanton Worsted Company bought the remnants of the old Independence Mill in September 1937 and began renovating it to again produce woolen cloth.

1955 photo of the Independence Mill (far end) with the 1939 addition (foreground). The Hale Byrnes House can be seen in the distance

They soon had it up and running, and two years later added on to it, doubling the size of the mill. It wasn't until reading that last part that I understood what I was seeing in the photograph above. Although taken a few years later in 1955, it clearly shows the original section of the mill (far end, slightly higher roof, narrower windows) and the 1939 addition (closer end, lower roof, much larger windows). The Hale-Byrnes House can be seen in the distance.


Stanton Worsted operated until July 1954, but by June of that year the site was already listed for sale. In early 1955 it was purchased by the Corman Bag Company, which also had a site in Chelsea, MA. Corman refitted the mill yet again, this time to manufacture cloth bags, mainly for the feed industry. The firm's name seems to have been quickly changed to the Delaware Bag Corporation, and the factory produced bags (I think first mostly burlap, but later other materials) for the next 30+ years. I don't know if there was always a retail store there, but by at least 1972 you could go and purchase fabrics of many types from Discount Fabrics by The Blue Eyed Devil.

1972 ad for Discount Fabrics by the Blue Eyed Devil

I'm not sure on the exact date, but Delaware Bag seems to have ceased operation sometime between 1984 and 1988. After that there was apparently a waterbed store briefly in the building, which also was used by neighboring Shone Lumber as extra storage. The building was vacant for about two years by March 1990, when the 220 year history of industry at the site came to an end.

Newspaper coverage of the March 1990 fire

Shortly after noon on March 29, 1990, a fire broke out in the abandoned building. The fierce blaze that destroyed the structure was quickly determined to have been set by three teen boys, who were arrested and charged the next day. And though the site had had numerous ups and downs over its history, which dated back to before the Revolutionary War, this was truly the final straw. What remained of the old mill and the newer factory were torn down and the property was soon sold. The current medical building was built just behind the footprint of the mill, which sat more or less where the parking lot is now. Today, the only remaining links to the historic mills are the Hale-Byrnes House and the worker housing up the road. Both sit in quiet testament to a time when this peaceful and hidden area was alive with industry.

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