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The Millsboro Area Grist Mills - I

Pomeroy and Beers Atlas of 1868 - Indian River Hundred

The Indian River Hundred Business Interests in 1888

Business Interests of the hundred are confined to a few small trading points and the operation of mills by the feeble water-powers of the sluggish streams, flowing into the Rehoboth and Indian River Bays. On the Middle Creek, at the head of Angola Neck, the Robinson family had one of the first mills, different members owning it until 1843, since which time Peter R. Burton [1] has been the proprietor. The saw-mill was abandoned many years ago, but the grist-mill is still operated in a limited way. Higher up the same stream and on Herring Creek, prior to 1825, the Robinson family also had mills, suited to the demands of those times, which have passed out of existence so long since that scarcely a trace of them can be seen. In 1797 Woodman Stockley was authorized to erect a mill-dam across Rood's Creek, probably where was afterwards the Ennis mill. That site was vacated by order of the court, on account of the overflow caused by the dam. In 1806 an act was also passed to enable Joshua Jones to remove his mill and erect a dam on Swan Creek, one hundred and seventeen perches [2] down said creek, and two acres on the west side of the creek were condemned for a mill-site. On this steam Samuel Lockwood operated a mill as early as 1816, which did quite a heavy business for those times. The channel of the stream permitted boats to be loaded below the mill so that flour was shipped from here direct to Philadelphia. Higher up the stream, Robert and Cornelius Waples had a mill, which has also gone down.

On the Deep Branch of the Indian River the Pool Mill did good service for the settlers after 1800, and as the power is constant the mills have since been continuously operated, being later known as the property of Burton Morris. Several miles below, the Frame family had a saw-mill, near which the Presbyterian meeting-house was afterwards built, and which circumstance of locality gave rise to the name "Saw-mill Church." Later, Col. Wm. Waples improved a power, lower down the stream, the breast of the dam being used as a causeway for the road across the river. This became locally known as the Doe Bridge, one of these animals having been killed near this spot. The grist-mill put up became widely known as the property of Col. Waples and later of Robert Morris; but since 1864 it has been known as the property of Benjamin B. Jones. The latter was, also, in 1887, the owner of the mills at Millsboro'. That power was improved at an early day by Elisha Derrickson, and was first made to operate but a small mill; this gave place to a large mill, having two water-wheels on the outside of the building. There was a kiln for drying corn, and much grain was ground, which was loaded upon vessels coming up to the mills. The property was destroyed by fire in 1839, while owned by Col. William D. Waples and while being operated by Henry C. Waples, whose residence near the mill was burned at the same time. The present mill was built in 1840, and soon after became the property of Gardiner H. Wright. In 1852 it was remodeled and has been enlarged within more recent years as the property of Benjamin B. Jones. It has a strong and constant power. The usefulness of a large saw-mill on the Dagsborough side of the stream has been superseded by many portable steam saw-mills, located in the forests of the hundred, among the principal ones being those of J. A. Lingo, near Warwick, and R. Lingo, on the Long Neck.

Source: History of Delaware, 1609-1888, Volume I, by J. Thomas Scharf,

L. J. Richards & Company, Philadelphia, 1888.

[1]-Lewes, Aug. 11, 1891

Peter R. Burton, a prominent citizen of this county, residing at Angola, Indian River hundred, died in Phildelphia on Friday evening last, aged 70 years. Mr. Burton was the last of several sons of the late Myers Burton, who many years ago did a large mercantile business in Millsboro, this county, and amassed considerable wealth. Mr. Burton was quite prominent as a Republican in Sussex county politics , being a candidate several times for office.

Source: Delaware Gazette and State Journal Wilmington, Delaware

Thu, Aug 13, 1891 ·

[2]-Perch, aka Rod or 16½ feet. 117 perches would equal 1914 feet.

The Burtons of Indian River

Scanning over the Beers Atlas of 1868, there are several familiar names. Waples and Burton being most common, but Burton beats out Waples by a mile. The Burtons were everywhere in Indian River Hundred. There was J. A. Burton , G. Burton, W. C. Burton, T. W. Burton, F. Burton, Mrs. P. Burton, D. Burton, J. C. Burton, Miss R. Burton, there was a Grist Mill labeled Wright & Burton and there was (is) even a Burton Island near the Indian River Inlet. But the most common name in the whole hundred was J. R. Burton [John Robert Burton]. So who were the Burtons?

John Burton's White House - Longneck, DE

In 1888 J. Thomas Scharf had this to say about the early Burton's

In 1677 William Burton received a warrant from Governor Andross for the survey of one thousand acres, called the "Long Neck," of which he sold five hundred acres to Thomas Bagwell, October 9, 1679. This tract, at a later day, became the property of Bagwell Burton. William Burton had eleven sons, whom he settled along the Indian River, principally on '' Long Neck," where the family owned thousands of acres of land. From them have descended the numerous Burtons of the county, and to each generation belonged a number of John Burtons, there being at one time more than thirty persons bearing that name in the hundred. On the Indian River was built the ancestral home of one line of Burtons, which became widely known as the "White House," and for more than a century it was owned by successive John Burtons. In 1887 it was the property of Mrs. John M. Houston, a daughter of the late John Robert Burton. The main part of the house is of brick, one and a half stories high, and was whitewashed; hence its name. It is believed that the house was built as long since as 1722. This home farm embraced two hundred and sixty acres in 1887, and was one of the best-known landmarks in the hundred.

Some of the Burtons became eminent in the affairs of the State, Dr. Wm. Burton being the Governor at the breaking out of the Civil War.

Robert Burton, another well-known member of the family, was born near St. George's Chapel in 1772. He was a man of unusual sound judgment and purpose to benefit the public. Through his efforts the general act was passed by the Assembly to ditch the low lands of Baltimore Hundred. But this measure was at first so violently opposed by some of the citizens, who claimed that it would produce oppressive taxation, that they threatened to do him bodily harm, if he should appear in their midst. Yet most of them lived to see time justify his wisdom. That system of drainage has made the lands of the hundred the most productive in the county. [Robert Burton] died at Lewes in 1849, having rounded a good and noble life.

Source: History of Delaware, 1609-1888, Volume I, by J. Thomas Scharf,

L. J. Richards & Company, Philadelphia, 1888.


Millsboro - - Millstones, Mill and former Miller By IDA CRIST (1975)

Warren's Mill - photo courtesy J&J Photography, Millsboro, De Jeremy Smeltzer @ J&J Photography

THIS GRIST MILL ground mostly corn before it ceased operation in the middle 1940s.

A water powered mill was first established in Millsboro in 1773.


THE MILLPONDS were vital to the town from 1773 when the first water powered mill went into operation until the middle of this century when the last two mills went out of business. The ponds, millstones on Rt. 13, and old mill on State St. extended are visual reminders of the town’s heritage.

ALLEN WARREN, who now lives on [M]illsboro Pond, along with his older brother, operated the last standing mill from 1931 until 1941 when he was drafted for the U. S. Army during World War II.

When he came back from the war in 1946, the mill was no longer in operation. Warren’s father, Wilford B. Warren and Charles H. Peck of Ellendale, bought the millpond from John Betts in 1922 soon thereafter Peck sold his interest to Warren.

MY FATHER never ran the mill much, He leased it out before I started running it, and he leased it to William Aires when I went in the service.”

However, the older Warren, who died last year, took an interest in the mill. “Six years ago when he was 80 he put a roof on it.” Now the mill is owned by Warren’s children – Allen, Gladys E. Hearn of Laurel, Roland of New Jersey, Ralph of Millsboro and Ruth Wilson of Seaford. The mill which Warren purchased from Betts, burned down in about 1923. “I can just barely remember that, but the two bridges of the pond were wooden and one of them was partly burned in the fire. “My father put in concrete bridges in 1928 and built back the present mill in 1931.

“THE OLD ONE was both a flour mill and a corn mill, but the newer one only ground corn. Another mill which got its power from Millsboro Pond was owned by Charles Godfrey and stayed in operation after the war. It was both a flour and corn mill.

Grist mills in Millsboro go back before the signing of the Declaration of Independence when Benjamin Burton Sr. had two acres of land condemned on both sides of Fishing creek, the first stream above Millsboro, for use as a grist mill in 1773.” In 1792 an act was passed which allowed Elisha Dickinson to erect the milldam across the headwaters of Indian River near Rock Hole in Indian River Hundred. It was from this milldam that Millsboro derived its name. A SMALL PIECE of land on the south side of the river was also condemned for use as a gristmill and log yard, according to Thomas Scharf’s History of Delaware. Dickinson Pond is what is now Millsboro Pond.

The Warren mill building is located on the [East] side of State St. extended across the road from Betts Pond from which the mill got its power.

“I’ve been told there were two mills on Betts milldam at one time - a sawmill and a grist mill.” When Joshua Burton owned it , it was known as Burton’s Upper Mills. The name of the pond would change with each change of ownership, but when my father bought it, it remained Betts Pond.

Warren recalled that in the 30s there was a millpond at Ingram’s Pond which runs into Betts Pond. Betts pond runs into Millsboro Pond at the Warren owned dam and in turn goes into Indian River.

MORRIS POND, north of Millsboro, also goes into Millsboro Pond. A dam and mill are still there, Warren said. Warren remembers the Ingram ‘s Pond Mill, but Bell Flower and Martin’s Pond are before his time. “Bell Flower is where Country Living Mobile Home Park is now,” I understand. SCHARF SAYS, “In 1800 Colonel W. D. Waples owned a grist mill and saw-mill , located on Bell Flower Stream.” In 1888. When the history was compiled, it was still in operation but had been rebuilt in 1850 by Benjamin Jones. Scharf also mentions a sawmill near Stockley. “Joseph Marvel operated a saw-mill in 1816, located on Sabrey Branch, about a half-mile from Stockley. It was rebuilt in 1840 by John P. Marvel and abandon in 1882.” The dams of the ponds control the water level of the ponds.

THE WASTE gate is for the overflow. This gate which is further north dumps int Millsboro Pond. The other gate used to control the water flow into the mill.

“The higher the water level the more power you’d have. I never remember the water level being too low to operate it.” The further you opened the gates of the bridge the more power you had had.

However, Warren remembers when the water was too high. In fact, heavy rains caused a crisis at the Millsboro ponds in 1935. [The Great Labor Day Hurricane of 1935]

“The state had put in new tiles at Ingram’s dam that weren’t big enough. The dam broke and three feet of water came rolling down into Betts Pond. They notified my father and we drained the pond into Millsboro Pond. It still filled up and washed half the road away. We lost part of the dam but not all of it. They sand bagged the Millsboro Pond and pulled the gates. The road from our mill was closed for over a year after that.”

Asked about the cost of operating the water powered mills compared to the electric-powered one. Warren said, “there was no cost to it! A nickel’s worth of oil a day and a new belt once in awhile were the only expenses to it.”

The whole operation was practically automatic. Elevators carried the shelled corn from the storage bins to the millstones where it was ground up. The ground corn came out a chute into another elevator which carried the meal up to another bin. “We had a sheller to take the corn off the cob and a crusher to grind the cob up.” Most of Warren’s work was done for John Cordrey’s feed company. “He’d buy and store the corn and I’d work all winter grinding up the corn which would be mixed for layer mash or some other kind of feed.

“ON SATURDAYS we did a lot of work for individual farmers , grinding up their corn. They’d pay us by cash or toll” Toll meant the farmer would give the mill a certain portion of it’s product to pay for the grinding process.

“A regular day’s work was easy. I could turn her on and take a nap in the morning. Then in the afternoon I’d bag up the meal.

“You could hear it when the hopper was getting low of corn. It would sound differently. The corn bins held 20 tons and the meal bins held five tons, so it only ran out about once a month.

“THE CORN would come down into the shaft that extended to the center hole of the millstones. When the corn was ground it would be forced out to the edges of the stone. The wood encasing would then force the grain out the [chute].

“The hardest part was unloading the corn and loading up the bags of meal.” But one day a month the mill wouldn’t run. “About every thirty days you had to pick the mill stones. It would take two men all day to pick out both the lower stationary stone and the upper stone which rotated.

“You’d use a chisel and a steel pick to deepen the grooves. The constant grinding of the corn would make the stones smooth and they wouldn’t operate so efficiently.”

We ground mostly corn meal of crushed corn, from one and a half to two tons a day. Sometimes we’d have a little soybean, but mostly corn.

“THE MILLS that ground grain into flour used steel rollers which could grind much finer. In the mill that burned down there were big roller and a fine screen to sift the flour. “My father got the millstones and elevators from a mill at Trap Pond.

“The house that’s across the road from the mill was used as a store house for buckwheat and wheat when the mill that burned down operated. My father moved the building away from the road and added the gables to it.”

A BAD STORM in the 40s brought an end to the operation of the Betts mill. It washed out the wood encasing around the water wheel . the turbine water wheel was parallel to the water level rather than perpendicular. “I wasn’t there at the time but ai don’t think the mill ever operated after that storm. “

Water powered mills still operate in Sharptown, Md., and Hearn’s Pond near Seaford. Warren said there are no plans for the building. “When there are five owners, it’s kind of hard to get together to do something with it.”

“It would make a nice restaurant, “Mrs. Warren observed, “but there’s no place for parking.”

By Ida Crist, Delmarva News, Selbyville, Delaware 14 Aug. 1975

My thanks go to Ed Carey (Carey's Frame Shop, Millsboro) for the cup of coffee and his research assistance, as well as the Town of Millsboro's Museum for their help.

Thank you, Ida Crist, for the use of your story about the Warrens and their grist mill.

Thanks also to Jeremy Smeltzer for the use of his excellent color photo of Warren's Mill. That was not the original photo that Ida Crist took back in 1975.


Millsboro Area Grist Mills will be continued in two weeks.

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