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The Millsboro Area Grist Mills - II

Updated: Mar 2, 2023

Like Milford, Millsboro straddles the river that separates two hundreds, Indian River Hundred and Dagsboro Hundred in this case. In my last post I included Scharf's 1888 list of mills in the Indian River Hundred, and below is the Dagsboro list.

Warren's Mill, that I high-lighted last time, is in Dagsboro Hundred just north of downtown Millsboro, and is the location of the earlier Benjamin Burton, Sr. mill listed below.

Steve Childers


Saw and Grist-Mills [1888]

In 1773 Benjamin Burton, Sr., had two acres of land condemned on both sides of Fishing Creek (the first stream above Millsboro') for the use of a grist-mill. In 1848 it was owned by Benjamin Burton, of (Georgetown, and Miers Burton. The latter dying shortly after, his interests passed to his son. The property is now [1888] owned by Burton & Betts.

A grist-mill was operated in 1798 by John Engle. It was sold to James Anderson, and abandoned by him in 1847.

General Dagworthy owned a grist-mill in 1800, which was in operation until 1847. It was situated at Dagsborough Bridge, near the State road.

In 1804 an act was passed enabling Benjamin Burton and Isaiah Wharton to erect a dam on Duck Creek (now Wharton's Creek), for use of a grist-mill, which has entirely disappeared.

In 1800 Colonel W. D. Waples owned a grist and saw-mill, located on "Bell Flower Stream." It is yet in operation, having been rebuilt in 1850 by Benjamin Jones.

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 abandoned in 1882.

About the same time Simon Kollock owned a grist-mill, which he sold to Dr. Simon Wilson, who rebuilt it about 1850. It stands on Kollock's mill-dam, and is now in operation.

In 1816 Samuel Lockwood operated a grist and saw-mill, located on Lockwood's mill-dam. It passed to William Lockwood, who ran it until 1837.

The following persons operated grist and saw-mills in 1816: W. H. Wells, Mary Vickers, Perry Pool, Joseph Morris, John Morris, Joshua Ingram, Charles M. Cullin, Woolsey Burton and Purnell Short.

In 1817 Aaron Marvel established a tannery on the road from Millsborough to Pine Grove, which was abandoned in 1837, and is now called Mar veil's Old Tan yard. In 1875 Notten Marvel established a tan-yard near Pine Grove, which he still runs.

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

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



By Richard B. Carter (circa-late '70s or early '80s)

Sussex County possesses today no more than half a dozen examples of the water-powered grist mill, a relic of that period in American history in which water power was the driving force of industry. Warren’s Grist Mill, a gambrel-roofed frame building situated on a slight rise beside Betts Pond, a short way up the old state road from Millsboro, is a symbol of the abundance of water power which brought the town into being more than two centuries years ago. Like all too many of the old agricultural and industrial structures which once dotted the landscape, it is today in rapid decline and may not be with us much longer.

Warren’s Mill on Betts Pond near Millsboro - Dick Carter c-late 1970s

As one looks at the old mill buildings today standing unused and bypassed by progress, but still perfectly situated and designed for their admirably utilitarian function, one wonders if they might not be part of the future of technology as well as vestiges of the past. Some miles away near the Town of Seaford in western Sussex the Hearn & Rawlins Mill continued to produce by water power a superior grade of stone-ground wheat flour and corn meal until relatively recent times. But that firm was a rare exception in this day of supermarkets and agribusiness. Today, most of the remaining Sussex County millponds sit quietly filling with weeds and providing little beyond recreational opportunities and picturesque backdrops for upscale homes.

Built 82 years ago, the present mill building at Betts Pond is comparatively modern as historical symbols go. It was built in 1929 to replace an earlier mill building that burned in 1924, and it incorporated some technological innovations of a distinctly modern type - a turbine instead of the traditional water wheel, a gasoline generator for periods of low water and a pre-stressed concrete foundation. The pond itself is old enough to suit any historian, however. In its present form it dates from 1773 and there is a good possibility that an even earlier millpond was located in more or less the same spot when that section of the county was still considered a part of Maryland. Betts Pond, like virtually all the other millponds in Sussex County is manmade, taking advantage of low, marshy places in creeks and streams. The use of water power was markedly different in southern Delaware than in northern New Castle County, where relatively fast-moving streams like the Brandywine produced an abundance of waterpower for much of the year.

In the 238 years since 1773, Betts pond has powered at least three grist mills and possibly as many “up-and-down” sawmills. For much of its history, the impounded waters of the pond were used to power both grist and sawmills operating at the same time, though at certain times of the year in dry years the mills may have had to take turns operating. In some particularly acute periods of drought they may have had to shut down entirely. Betts Pond has had more than twelve owners since 1773 and it has gone by more than four names or variations of names. For its first 120 years it was known as “Burton’s Upper Millpond” and variations thereof, including "Benjamin Burton’s Upper Gate”, “Miers Burton’s Millpond” and several others, all reflecting ownership by the Burton family. The “Upper” portion of the name was used to distinguish it from a pond about a mile southeast of Millsboro known as “Burton’s Lower Pond.” The first two members of the Burton family to own Burton’s Upper Millpond also owned and operated mills on the lower pond. It is located on that point just upriver from Possum Point where two streams join together and enter the Indian River. These were originally known as Indian Branch and Duck Creek but are now referred to as Irons’ Branch and Wharton’s Branch after two early millers named Jacob Irons and Isaiah Wharton, who operated mills on the two streams. The causeway-dam for Burton’s Lower Pond still exists and is now a part of the roadbed of County Road 331 (also known today, incorrectly, as “Iron Branch Road), but the lower pond itself ceased being dammed up in the early 19th century. Oddly enough, Burton’s Upper Pond continued to be referred to by that name for more than 50 years after the lower pond had ceased to exist. But this is no more unusual than the fact that Betts Pond is still known by that name 89 years after Mr. Wilford Warren and his partner, Charles Peck, bought it from John C. Betts in 1922.

The founder of the 1773 “Burton’s Upper Millpond” was Benjamin Burton, Sr. of Dagsborough Hundred. He was a planter, mill owner, merchant, colonial assemblyman and sometime Justice of the Peace who lived from 1718 to 1783. He owned much of the land now covered by the Town of Millsboro and its environs. The year after he built his dam across “Fishing Creek” in 1773 to create the millpond, he was sent as a delegate from Sussex County to the Delaware meeting of the “Boston Relief Committee,” a fore-runner of the first Continental Congress. This meeting was one of the first steps taken by the Delaware Colony toward a state of open rebellion against the Crown (1) . Burton’s involvement in this meeting might seem to indicate that he was a patriot, but one cannot be certain. In the years that followed at least one of the several Benjamin Burtons then of adult age and living in Sussex was an avowed loyalist. (2)

On the other hand two of Benjamin’s fellow Dagsboro Hundred mill owners, Simon Hollock and John Dagworthy, became officers in the state militia and leaders in the effort to control Sussex County loyalists.

In any case, Benjamin Burton was a member of one of the founding families of Millsboro and Sussex County. His father, Woolsey Burton I, was the founder of White House Plantation on Long Neck in Indian River Hundred. His grandfather on his father’s side, William Burton of Accomac on the Eastern Shore of Virginia, had first begun acquiring land in “Sussex Upon Delaware” in 1677. Although William never moved permanently to Sussex, four of his nine sons did settle here. Benjamin’s mother, Ann Leatherbury Burton, was a step-daughter of Robert Burton the Elder of Accomac and Sussex, who settled in Angola Neck in 1691. Robert and William of Accomac were either unrelated or related only distantly but they were the two founders of Delaware’s Burton clan and Benjamin was grandson of one and step-grandson of the other. To make matters even more complicated, the wives of Robert Burton and William Burton were first cousins. (3)

By the late 18th century the Burton clan was enormous. Things were made as difficult as possible for future genealogists by the habit among Burtons of frequent intermarriage between members of the two branches. The family was settled along both sides of the Indian River and along Rehoboth Bay. Their in-laws and family connections spread out in all directions. Several of Benjamin’s uncles and cousins on his mother’s side became major landowners in the area of what is now Millsboro. During his life it can be said that almost everyone of any financial consequence for miles around was somehow related to him. :Most of the Burton family holdings in DagsboroHundred on the southwest side of the river were originally assembled by Benjamin’s uncle - his mother’s step-brother, William Burton of Somerset. William of Somerset had settled in what later became Dagsboro Hundred (the old spelling, “Dagsborough Hundred,” was dropped in the mid-19th century) In 1692, the year after his father, Robert, settled at Angola Neck. At the time of William’s death in 1745, he had assembled more than 4,000 acres of land on both sides of the river. (4)

Views of the upper and lower millponds from circa 1840 and circa 1800 respectively, based on Sussex County Orphans Court plots detailing the estates of various Burton family members (sketches by the author).

The term “Somerset” which was affixed to William’s name in an effort to keep him sorted out from all the other William Burtons, comes about because everything in Sussex County that lies south of the Indian River and the Nanticoke River and generally west of present-day U.S. 113 was part of one vast Somerset County, Maryland, until 1742. Somerset originally included not only that part of Sussex but all of what is now Somerset, Worcester and Wicomico Counties of Maryland. In 1742, the section of “Old Somerset” generally east of the Pocomoke River was separated from the rest of the original Somerset to form Worcester County. William of Somerset was one of the commissioners overseeing the division. (5)

Finally, in 1775, the northern part of the area was formally taken into Sussex County as a result of the final settlement of the boundary dispute between the Penn Family, proprietors of “the Three Lower Counties Upon Delaware,” and the Lords Baltimore of Maryland. Though this did not actually occur until 1775, King George III had approved the division in 1769, following the completion of the Transpeninsular and Mason and Dixon Surveys, which probably explains why Benjamin Burton went to pains to seek approval by the Delaware General Assembly for his new millpond. Among the many land acquisitions of William of Somerset and his son, Joshua Burton, in the vicinity of present- day Millsboro, two are perhaps best-known. These are the tracts they purchased from the Indian Wassason and the “Indian Queen” Weatomotonies between 1736 and 1743. (6) William’s tract, “Indian Lands”, amounted to 600 acres in its final form and lay on the southern edge of what is now Millsboro. (7) His son Joshua’s tract, known as “The Queen’s Swamp” in honor of Queen Weatomotanies, lay to the southwest of Indian Lands out toward what is today the area known as Hickory Hill. (8) The stream which bounded these properties on the south was known as Indian Branch at the time, but is now known as Irons Branch. The Indian Lands tract in particular was the same property set aside by the Maryland Colonial Assembly in 1711 as a reser-vation for the “Indian River Indians,” an Indian group which had originally been settled In the general area of Assateague Island and Sinepuxent Neck. In the late 17th century, In the face of ever greater pressure from English settlers, the tribe had moved up to Dirickson’s Creek near Little Assawoman Bay in southeastern Sussex and still later to the southwest side of the Indian River. The sale of these lands to the Burtons is one of the last identifiable acts of this tribe found in Sussex County records before it entered a period of several generations of official oblivion, only to reemerge in the early 19th century with Anglicized names and ways, a gradual loss of cultural traditions and official designation as “colored” or “mulatto.”

These Indian Lands eventually passed into the hands of Benjamin and his descendents, probably by a combination of inheritance and purchase, and formed the basis of their great landholdings around Millsboro. (9)

One other Burton tract which played a great role in the history of the town in these years was “Rock Hole.” This was first patented by Elizabeth Hill of Lewistown In 1714. It lay on the north side of the river at what is today the Millsboro Milldam. It was adjacent to the home plantation of Robert Burton, Jr., brother of William of Somerset and another of Benjamin’s uncles. Robert purchased the 200-acre Rock Hole tract in 1723, the year before his death. (10)

This tract drew its name from the spot on the Indian River at the tip of what is today Millsboro’s Cupola Park, where the estuary takes a turn to the south. This turn creates a deep spot where, historically, rockfish came to spawn at a certain time each year. (11) Decades after the death of Robert Burton, Jr., a portion of the old Rock Hole Tract was acquired by Elisha Dickerson, who used it as the site of his mill dam and mills in 1793, a development which led directly to the establishment of the Town of Millsboro.

Dickerson died in 1799. In the years thereafter a thorough accounting was made of his estate by the Sussex County Orphan’s Court since Dickerson had minor heirs. It is complete with an extremely detailed description of his grist and sawmills and other holdings. Portions of the document give a very good look at the probable construction and equipment of the earliest mills at Burton’s Upper Pond since they were only a mile or so away and not too much older. It should be noted, however, that the pond created by Dickerson, which is now known as Millsboro Pond—the dammed-up headwaters of the Indian River—is considerably larger than Betts Pond and has four substantial streams flowing into it. Millsboro Pond (or “Head of the River Millpond” as it was known in the early 19th century) was the largest in the area. Where Burton’s Upper Millpond was able to power one grist mill and one sawmill, the Dickerson complex at Rock Hole included a double grist mill, a double saw mill, and a smaller, tub-type grist mill (with a horizontal water wheel enclosed in a wooden tub):

“On the tract. . . called the Rock Hole are the following improvements, viz: a framed Merchant Mill forty-five feet by thirty-six. Built in the year 1793 and now in good order, it is covered with shingles and is three stories in height, and painted on the out side, the sashes [windows] are glazed and the lower windows have shutters. There are to this mill, two water wheels in good order, the shaft of one of them being lately made new. The said mill runs three pair of stones, two pair of which are burrs [this refers to imported French buhrstone, quarried in the vicinity of Paris and considered the finest material for the making of millstones for grinding the finest grade of flour and meal], and the other pair callings [cruder stones used for buck-wheat and other coarser types of flour], two boalting cloths superfine & common [for sifting flour], two roling screens [used to grade the flour by fineness], and one Fann, one Hopper Boy [an invention of Oliver Evans, the Newport, Delaware, native who was the preeminent early American genius of grist mill technology, the device utilized a revolving rake and spreader to lay out the flour for cooling and drying, and then gathered it up for packing], a machine for packing flour, and also scales and weights. On the same premises at the Head of Indian River is a saw mill with two Wheels and two saws, the frame in good repair, the Roof is made of pine boards. There is also at this place a tubb mill, 15 feet by 14, with two pair of Country mill stones [a local term apparently referring to stones of American manufacture probably used for rough work like the grinding of grain for certain types of animal feed] and a country boalting cloath in bad order, the Roof is made of plank and the sides are done up with the same materials...”

[Sussex County Orphan’s Court Volume H-8, Page 368 - Order & Report

on Annual Valuation of Elisha Dickerson’s heirs’ Land, 3 May 1799]

The Upper Mills would have been quite similar to the grist and sawmill described above though on a smaller scale, with only one water wheel in each mill and correspondingly less equipment. Like other mills in the area they were built on very sturdy foundations of brick, perhaps five courses thick at the base and tapering upward to two or three courses at the top of the foundation. (12)

The wood framing in general and the sills and main central beam in particular would have been massive heart pine or hardwood members of twelve by twelve inches or larger. This massive size was required to support the weight of the water wheel and equipment and to withstand the constant vibration of the water passing through the mill race, powering the complex network of wheels and stones and belts. This pressure could wear out a mill building in a relatively short time. That is one reason why the millpond at Burton’s Upper Mills or Betts’s Pond has seen so many different mill structures over the years. The other major factor was the danger of fire. The mills were coated with thick layers of flour or sawdust and fire was a constant threat. As a result, very few mills were heated, except possibly in the mill office, and they must have been somewhat unpleasant in the winter months. Another feature common to grist mills was the granary, an equally stout and well-built structure designed to minimize the ravages of birds, rats and mice which were constant problems for millers. The structure now located across the road from Warren’s Mill, which Mr. Warren converted to his home, was originally the granary at the Upper Mills and once stood on the same side of the road as the mill.

The first Benjamin Burton to own the Upper Mills died in 1783. He left the mills and “mill seat” to a son, Joseph Burton, who apparently died without heirs. (13) Within a few years the property had passed to a younger Benjamin Burton, grandson of the first one, who was the son of Benjamin Burton, Sr.’s eldest son, Woolsey. Woolsey administered the mill property until his son, Benjamin, came of age in 1799 and then the younger Benjamin took over. (14) Based on existing will and deed records it would appear that the first Benjamin Burton may only have put up a saw mill at the pond and that no grist mill was erected until his grandson took over, and then not until after 1803. In his father, Woolsey Burton’s will, which was probated that year, Woolsey refers to a stream on which “my son Benjamin’s saw mill is located” but makes no mention of a grist mill. (15) If that is the case, the mill is even closer in date to the Dickerson mill at Rock Hole described above.

This second Benjamin Burton to own the mill and millpond became a prominent local citizen in his own right. During the War of 1812 he led a company of Dagsboro Hundred men in the defense of Lewes when it was bombarded by the British in 1813. He was captain of a company in the 10th Regiment of the Third Brigade of the Delaware Militia.(16) Benjamin was also an early member of the board of directors of the George-town branch of the Farmers Bank of Delaware after it opened in 1807, and was a well-known merchant with one of the first stores in the new village of Rock Hole. In 1822, upon the death of his younger brother, Daniel, a planter and miller in Lewes & Rehoboth Hundred at what is now known as Rabbit’s Ferry, Benjamin became the co-guardian along with another brother, Miers Burton, of Daniel’s young children, including five sons under the age of twelve. (17)

Benjamin the younger died in 1824 without any children of his own. He left most of his property to his surviving brothers and to these young nephews. (18) One-half interest in Burton’s Upper Mills was left to his brother, Miers Burton. The other half went to his fourteen-year-old nephew whose name was also Benjamin Burton, the third person of that name to own the mills. This Benjamin Burton was sometimes referred to early in life as “Benjamin Burton of Daniel” to distinguish him from all the others. Although the Burtons of Sussex weren’t the only family with a penchant for perpetuating the same names, generation after generation and sometimes in the same generation, they were among the worst offenders locally. There were, for example, said to have been 30 persons named John Burton living in Indian River Hundred of Sussex County in 1860.

Young Benjamin Burton of Daniel spent three years at a boarding school in Wilmington, returning to Millsboro at the age of 18 in 1828 to go to work for his uncle Miers Burton as a clerk. He held this job until he reached the age of 21 in 1831 and could take over the management of his own property. (19) By the 1850’s, Benjamin of Daniel had outlived two wives and was married to the third, Catherine Green, daughter of General Jesse Green of Concord in western Sussex, a hero of the War of 1812, who had commanded the Delaware Militia in that war. Benjamin owned and operated a large general store in Millsboro and was the owner of parts of three mills, including the Upper Mills, Head of the River Mills at Millsboro Pond and the mill his father had owned at Rabbit’s Ferry on Love Creek. This last pond, which is no longer dammed up, appears on modern maps as either “Goslee’s” or “Gosling’s” millpond.

The center of Benjamin’s activities was his 1,000 acre plantation on the south-western edge of Millsboro. This farm had originally belonged to his great-grandfather, Benjamin Burton, Sr. and included part of the Indian Lands. Millsboro ‘s present-day “Old Landing Road” follows the course of the plantation road from the main house and buildings down to the Burtons’ landing on the Indian River near the lower millpond. The plantation was, like many of the larger Sussex County farms of the mid-19th century, a miniature village consisting of “mansion house,” the barns, stables, granaries, wood house, meat house, homes for tenants and slaves, detached kitchen, sheds, store houses, ice house, milk house, etc. The farm possessed enough structures so that it was referred to on the Ray & Price Map of Delaware, published in 1850, as “Burtonville.”*

Benjamin Burton continued to own his half of the upper mills until his death In 1888, but the other half, the half which had been owned by his uncle Miers Burton, changed hands several times. Miers died In 1838, leaving an estate so large and so many heirs that it took four years and two separate acts of the General Assembly to settle it. (20) His son,

Benjamin D. Burton, ultimately acquired Miers’s half interest in the mills and mill seat from the other heirs and held the property until 1860. Thus, for a period of some two decades the mills were owned by two Benjamin Burtons at the same time. (21)

In 1860, Benjamin D. Burton sold his half interest to ‘his brother, John Miers Burton, for $1,300. (22) This was a very substantial sum of money in Sussex County in 1860 and indicates that the mills were relatively valuable. If one examines the property values In subsequent sales of the mills and mill seat, some changes appear to have occurred later in the 1860’s. John Miers Burton died in 1875. His widow, Lavinia Burton, sold his half interest in the mill seat and mills to Joseph B. Betts for only $800, five hundred dollars less than the price her husband had paid for it in 1860. (23)

A good possibility exists, based on the wording of the various deeds and on historical trends in the area at that time, that the saw mill was closed down at some point in the 1860’s. By that time the stands of timber which had once stood in relative proximity to streams large enough to power a sawmill were mostly gone in eastern and west-

ern Sussex County. The early 19th century invention of the steam saw mill meant that lumbermen were no longer tied to fixed locations as they had once been. This is not to say that all water-powered sawmills in the county shut down in the mid-19th century, of course, but merely that many did. It is known, for example, that a water-powered

“up-and-down” sawmill continued to function on Chipman ‘s Pond near Laurel until the early 20th century.(24)

Between 1875 and the time of Benjamin Burton’s death in 1888 something else occurred at the Upper Millpond to reduce the value of the property still further. Burton’s real estate was sold at auction that year to settle his estate. His younger brother, Peter Robinson Burton of Indian River Hundred, bought out Benjamin’s half interest in the Upper Millpond property for the surprisingly paltry sum of $152.00. The following year he bought Joseph B. Betts’s half interest for the same amount of money. Thus, by 1889, the entire value of the property was $304.00 when in 1860 it had been worth at least $2,600.00.(25) The only obvious explanation is that at some point between 1875 and 1888 the grist mill burned or was destroyed in some other way, so that when Peter R. Burton bought the two halves of the property in 1888 and 1889, he was buying only the mill seat, the land surrounding the dams and the water rights. In support of this theory is the fact that at the same sale of his late brother’s holdings Peter Burton purchased his brother’s one-ninth interest in the Head of the River Mills at Millsboro Pond for $385.00.(26) It can be inferred that in 1888 the Head of the River Mills, which by that date consisted only of a double grist mill and no saw or tub mill, were worth roughly $3,500, more than ten times the value of the Upper Mills. This was despite the fact that, as noted in J. Thomas Scharf ’s 1888 History of Delaware, 1609-1888, the Head of the River Mill at Millsboro Pond was “now abandoned.”(27) It didn’t remain abandoned long, however. It continued to operate under subsequent owners, the last of whom was Mr. Charles Godfrey, well into the 1940’s.

Whatever plans Peter R. Burton had for the upper millpond property, he was unable to put them into effect. He died in 1892 and his property was also sold at auction. The entire Upper Mills property was purchased at his sale in the fall of 1893 by Charles B. Houston, a prominent local businessman, lumberman and farmer, for only $110.00.(28) This lower price is no doubt attributable to the property having laid idle and neglected for four more years since 1888 and to the deep recession then sweeping the nation—recessions were often referred to in the late 19th century as “panics,” but the result was the same—few people bought property and those who did paid bargain prices.

Houston had established the “Millsboro Box Factory” in 1882 in partnership with two brothers from Wicomico County, Md., John and Vandalia Perry, under the name “Houston, Perry & Co.(29) For whatever reason, Houston and his partners never did anything with the millpond property and resold it in 1896 to Joseph E. Betts, apparently a son of Joseph B., for the incredible sum of $100.00.(30) The property hadn’t been worth less since 1773 and was never worth less again.

It is often said that one should never make insulting comments about anyone in Sussex County to a fellow Sussex Countian because they might be related. Such was the case with the pond because the Bettses who now owned it were direct descendents through one of Miers Burton’s daughters of the Benjamin Burton who had originally established it. Joseph E. Betts went to work on the property and rebuilt the grist mill and milldam in 1896. The daily journals of the then-rector of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church for that period make several references to the rebuilding going on. The church is about a half mile down the road from the millpond toward Millsboro and the rector and his wife, the Rev. and Mrs. Lewis Wheeler Wells, often walked down there to take in the sights.(31) Joseph Betts held the property until 1908 when he sold it to Mr. and Mrs. Alexander West for an undisclosed sum.(32) It was assessed by the county the following year at $800.00 and the year after that at $1,300.00. Alexander West sold the millpond, water rights, mill and land to John C. Betts in 1910 for exactly that amount of money.(33) John Betts was related both to Joseph B. and Joseph E. Betts and was the last member of the Betts family to own the property. He was listed in the deed as being a resident of Philadelphia, but he probably moved down to the old Betts family home, which stood on a slight rise at the intersection just south of the mill until it was demolished several years ago.

John Betts sold the property to Wilford B. Warren and a partner, Charles H. Peck of Cedar Creek Hundred in 1922.(34) By then, the county listed the assessed value as $2,200.00. Shortly before this, the county levy court had adopted the policy to which Sussex County still adheres of assessing a property at one-half its appraised value. This is reflected in the purchase price when Warren and Peck bought the property—$4,252.00.

(36) In 1923, Warren bought out Charles Peck and became the sole owner, which he remained until his death more than 40 years later.

The mill on what was now known as Betts Pond burned again in 1924, an event within the memories of some present-day Millsboro residents.(37) Wilford Warren erected a new grist mill in 1929 on a reinforced concrete foundation at the approximate site of the old saw mill. It is this building—the third known grist mill at the pond —which stands there today. Its design makes it seem much older and its style is unusual for a grist mill. Since no known photographs exist of the earlier mills, one cannot say how closely, if at all, it resembles its predecessors. While grist mills had declined by 1929 from the essential and central role they once had in the economic life of the local community, it was still possible to operate them profitably.

While the modern, midwestern grain giants were already well-established, these companies do not appear to have captured the local market to the extent where grist mills were no longer viable. It is generally agreed by most people familiar with stone-ground corn meal, white flour and buckwheat flour that those products are superior to the modern roller-milled variety. This doubtless helped to prolong the life of the local water mills and still helped to keep Hearn & Rawlins Mill in Seaford and Dayet Mills near Cooch’s Bridge in New Castle County in business into the 1980’s.

Hearn and Rawlins Gristmill in operation years ago. Near Seaford in the 1970s

The new Warren’s Mill had two wheels - a large, traditional type IXL overchute “bucket wheel” and a smaller, horizontal Fitz Burnham water turbine, both of which were produced by the old Fitz Waterwheel Company of Hanover, Pa.(38) The two types of wheels were required for the two primary operations performed there—the production of wheat flour and the operation of the corn runner used for grinding corn meal.(39) The mill could generate 25 horsepower with a seven-foot head of water.(40) In dry spells when the level of the pond was lower, this fell off. With a six-foot head of water the Warrens could obtain about 20 horsepower. Each drop of a foot in water level resulted in a corresponding loss of about four horsepower.(41) When the water was low it was sometimes necessary to do corn one day and wheat the next or otherwise slow down the operation. In later years a gasoline-powered generator helped to bridge the gap in such dry spells. The nearby Ingram’s Pond Mill, which was operated by Joseph B. Betts before he purchased his interest in Burton’s Upper Mill and by Charles Godfrey before he purchased the “Head River Mill”, could, by contrast, generate 70 horsepower with an eight-foot head.(42) The whole matter of pond size, distance to the next dam upstream and the rate of fall of the water were issues of the utmost importance to millowners. Lawsuits were common throughout the 18th and 19th centuries in which one miller would take another to court, charging that the miller upstream had raised his dam too high, thus altering the water- power at the lower milldam.

The local grist mills were finally put out of business by a combination of factors. One reason for their demise was the tremendous growth of the Sussex County poultry industry in the 1930’s and 1940’s. The demand for poultry feed had risen so dramatically that the small water-powered mills which had once met that demand could no longer do so. Their owners frequently shifted from being millers to being dealers in commercial feeds.

At the same time the price of midwestern milled grain was dropping drastically with increased mechanization to the point where, as Fred Dodd, the owner of Morris’s Mill near Stockley, once observed, you could buy mid-western corn meal and have it shipped to Sussex County for less money than it cost to buy the local corn, let alone running it through your mill.(43) Some millers like Dodd became feed dealers and went into the poultry business. Others like Warren just shut down and went into other work. Warren took a job in a World War II-era shipyard in Philadelphia. He last operated his mill in 1942, but he rented it out for three more years before it shut down for good in 1945.(44)

Yet many of the old millers continued to take an interest in their mills even after they were shut down. Wilford Warren was typical. He maintained the flood gates carefully, keeping them in good repair and opening them during periods of high water to keep the dam from going out. He and his children after him kept the mill building itself structurally sound and kept much of the machinery. It is safe to say that he would have understood the sentiment contained in the old song by Isaac Bickerstaff, a nineteenth century miller:

"I live by my mill, she is to me Like parent, child and wife. I would not change my station

For any other in life.” (45) * * * The most recent chapter in the story of Betts’s Pond and its mills is a sad one. It is contained in a mass of documents buried in the files of the Sussex County Register in Chancery Office at the Courthouse in Georgetown under the title of WILFORD B. WARREN (aka WILFRED B. WARREN) VS. STATE OF DELAWARE (STATE HIGH- WAY DEPARTMENT) AND W.B. MITTEN & SONS, INC., A DELAWARE CORPORATION. The story actually began in 1911, the year General T. Coleman du Pont began construction of his “T. Coleman du Pont Boulevard” at Selbyville and headed north. That saga has been well documented elsewhere and is far too complex a tale to relate here, but suffice it to say that Sussex County had never seen anything at all resembling du Pont before and it is highly unlikely ever to see such a phenomenon again. du Pont was then president of the newly modernized E. I. du Pont de Nemours & Co. and held with his two cousins, Pierre S. du Pont and Alfred I. du Pont, overwhelming controlling interest in it. He controlled the state’s Republican Party at a time when Republicans had been in control in the statehouse in Dover since 1901 and were to remain there for another two and a half decades. To say that he was one of Delaware’s wealthiest and most powerful men was an understatement.

(Editor's note: See my July 23 post; "The Old Mills on Cedar Creek, part III" for more about Coleman duPont and his 'boulevard')

du Pont was himself an engineer with a particularly strong interest in highway con-struction. He also had an all abiding faith in the ability of a modern highway to bring about an economic miracle in the periennally depressed southern Delaware economy. His magnificent boulevard concept was designed to put his philosophy into practice.(46)

At the time Delaware had almost no paved roads outside of larger towns. In southern Delaware, the main highways were still paved with oystershell. The roads were main-tained by the county governments and there was no Delaware State Highway Depart- ment. After some two years of hard lobbying, du Pont won the right for his Coleman du Pont Road, Inc., to assemble a 200-foot right-of-way the length of the state. He also got the power to condemn land in cases where landowners would not sell the necessary property for a reasonable price. All through 1911, du Pont and his agents set about the task of acquiring rights-of-way in southern Sussex County - the construction was to begin at the Maryland State Line at Selbyville.

Had the boulevard been built as du Pont bad originally intended it, it would have been far and away the most modern highway in the world with features even now considered futuristic, such as a rapid transit system down the center, high-speed limited access lanes for through traffic, lower-speed outer lanes for local traffic, and gravel farm roads along the outside. Though some of duPont’s advanced ideas found their way into the final highway, it was reduced in scope because of prolonged legal problems the road corporation encountered starting in 1912 and continuing for several years.

du Pont was intent upon routing his boulevard outside the towns it passed and upon maintaining as straight a course as possible. These two considerations brought the route directly across the western end of Betts Pond. In September of 1911, du Pont obtained an easement from John C. Betts for one dollar granting him “and his assigns . . . full leave and license to build and construct across the pond north of Millsboro, known as Betts Mill Pond . . . a dam and bridge for the purpose of a boulevard . . . the Culvert to be not less than twenty feet in width, to be of reinforced concrete, said right of way to extend one hundred feet on each side of said center line. It is hereby understood and agreed that no gates or anything is to be placed in said culvert to dam or hold water back, and that no power is to be utilized from said water by the Grantee herein [du Pont]. Witness my hand and seal this 20th day of September, A.D. 1911.”(47)

The earthen dam or causeway and the concrete bridge were built in due course. In accordance with the easement, the bridge had an opening of twenty feet underneath to allow the free movement of water from the west side of the pond to the east side. This writer spent a considerable amount of time in and around the pond as a boy and used routinely to swim and paddle a canoe under the bridge from one side of the pond to the other. The channel under the bridge was deep enough so that one couldn’t touch bottom. Thus, I can personally attest to the fact that there was a free movement of water from one side to the other. It is probable that even the earthen data and bridge built by duPont reduced the power of the water somewhat. This is indicated by the fact that during optimum operating conditions in the 1920’s and 1930’s the mill at Betts’s Pond only generated 25 horsepower with an eight-foot head of water while the Ingram’s Pond mill just upstream had 70 horsepower with an eight-foot head of water. This was despite the fact that Betts Pond is roughly twice the size of Ingram’s.(48)

The Coleman du Pont Boulevard was completed the length of Delaware in 1924. A great celebration was held to honor du Pont, by then a United States Senator. He was given a sterling silver bas-relief map of Delaware with the course of his road marked thereon in gold. The private road corporation had ceased its operations in 1918, soon after the Delaware State Highway Department was created by Governor John G. Townsend, Jr. Townsend was a close political associate of du Pont’s. He was also one of the first supporters of the road in Sussex County and the man who convinced du Pont to start it at Selbyville. The governor was himself the first chairman of the state highway commission and du Pont was a member of it. Even after his road company was disbanded, he continued to pay the cost of the road construction now being done by the state. The state highway department was the legal successor to the road corporation and took over all of the rights-of-way du Pont had assembled, including the one for Betts Pond. It is interesting to note that the whole leadership of the department for nearly a generation after 1917 as well as at least one governor, du Pont’s son-in-law, Clayton Douglass Buck, got their start with the road company.(49)

In the mid-1960’s, after du Pont, John Betts, Townsend and others involved in the road or the easement had departed the scene, the Delaware State Highway Department embarked on a project to dualize U.S. 113, the designation now given to the Selbyville-to-Dover leg of the du Pont Boulevard, from Selbyville to Georgetown. To do so, it was necessary to widen the dam or causeway and the bridge over Betts’s Pond. The work at the pond began in 1967. As the project neared completion the contractor installed a semi-circular corrugated steel spillway in the pond between the two concrete bridge abutments on the western side of the highway bridge. This device was fixed and contained no floodgates or other openings. It effectively raised the water level of the western side of Betts Pond by about eighteen inches and, because there was no free movement of water from one side of the pond to the other except that which fell over the spillway, this installation might be said to have turned Betts’s Pond into two ponds—one west of the highway and one east of it.

Mr. Wilford Warren, who had, with his partner Charles Peck, bought the mill, mill seat and water rights in 1922, and who had later bought Peck’s interest as well, was still living and was in his late 70’s. He petitioned the Delaware Court of Chancery to issue a permanent injunction against the spillway and to order the State Highway Department to remove it. He contended that the spillway changed and reduced the water power of the pond and was in violation of the water rights he owned.(50)

The State Highway Department contended that it had every right to install the spillway because of the wording of Betts’s 1911 easement to du Pont and moreover that Warren hadn’t been injured anyway since he no longer operated the grist mill on the pond, despite the fact that Warren told the court he intended to once again utilize the water power in the future.(51)

Thus ensued a protracted suit which wasn’t finally resolved until 1974—in the state’s favor. Chancellor William Marvel ruled that the Warren family—soon after the suit began, Wilford Warren turned over his interest in the pond and his part in the suit to his children—had in effect abandoned their water rights because they no longer operated the grist mill, thus making any adverse effect from the spillway a moot point. The Warrens contended that they had by no means abandoned their water rights since, although they no longer operated the mill, they continued to maintain both the structure and much of the equipment and, more importantly, the dam. They kept it in good repair and opened the flood gates in time of flood to keep the dam from washing out. They sought an appeal to the Delaware Supreme Court, but the higher court declined to accept it.(52)

But several nagging points remain unanswered. Does the maintenance of the dam over nearly forty years at one’s personal expense mean anything legally? It was ironic that in 1978, during a major early spring rainstorm, the state, which maintained the spillway and dam at the larger Millsboro Pond downstream, which is equipped with floodgates, failed to get anyone down to the pond to open the gates, thus causing the dam and bridge to wash out, closing the highway across the pond for several years and necessitating a substantial reconstruction bill. During the same storm the Warren family opened their flood gates as they had at similar times for 66 years, thus preserving the dam and the water power which the chancellor ruled they had abandoned some decades before.

Also is the question of just what duPont’s easement allowed the state to do. It stated specifically that a dam and bridge or culvert could be built for the purpose of a boulevard but that the dam and culvert could in no way impede the flow of water. It would seem perfectly clear to most observers that Betts wished to allow du Pont to do precisely what du Pont ultimately did - and that he did not wish to allow du Pont or anyone else to do what the State Highway Department did in 1967 by installing the spillway. Yet on the basis of this 1911 easement the state took an action which not only deprived the Warrens of some of their water power but also, when all was said and done, might also have deprived them of their water rights. Perhaps the most troubling aspect of the case is that the State Highway Department never really supplied any well-founded reasons for installing the spillway at all, other than a somewhat nebulous comment that by raising the water level of the western end of the pond they were somehow improving the natural habitat there.*(53) The Warren Family contended in their suit that the spillway was installed at the request of a landowner who had recently erected a home overlooking the western side of the pond and wished to have its water level higher for esthetic reasons.

Thus, in the end one might reasonably conclude that what happened on that September day in 1911 when John Betts deeded his easement over to T. Coleman du Pont and his assigns was a historical collision between the old society which had given rise to the pond and profited from its power and the new society which was to race across duPont’s bridge in ignorance of the essential role the pond had once played in the economy of the area. By giving du Pont the easement he sought in 1911, Betts may have held off the full force of the collision for some five decades, but it came nonetheless.



1. The documents relating to the creation of Benjamin Burton’s mill pond on Fishing Creek appear in Sussex County Deed Record, Liber A-1, Page 3. Note the reference to an older, apparently abandoned mill on the same stream which had been acquired by Benjamin Burton. Records relating to this earlier pond would be found, if they exist, in the deed records either of Somerset or Worcester Counties of Maryland, now housed in the Maryland State Archives, Annapolis. For reference to Benjamin’s attendance at the Boston Relief Committee conference, see Scharf’s History of Delaware [hereinafter referred to as “Scharf ’s], Vol. Two. See also: The Governor’s Register, 1674-1851 Dover: Public Archives Commission, 1926.

2. Some Records of Sussex County, Delaware, C.H.B. Turner, Ed. Philadelphia: Allen, Lane and Scott. 1909. Page 320. See letter from the Rev. Matthew Wilson concerning loyalist activities in Sussex in which authorities are seeking to gain testimony against a group of suspected loyalists, including one Benjamin Burton, Esq.

seeking to gain testimony against a group of suspected loyalists, including one Benjamin Burton, Esq. e and Scott. 1909. Page 320. See letter from the Rev. Matthew Wilson concerning loyalist activities in Sussex in which authorities are seeking to gain testimony against a group of suspected loyalists, including one Benjamin Burton, Esq.

3. William Burton of Accomac and descendents: The Pennsylvania Genealogical Magazine, XXVIII (1973), Pages 3-13, Mary Burton Derrickson McCurdy, Article entitled “William Burton, Landowner In Accomac, Somerset and Sussex.” Robert Burton the Elder:

The Pennsylvania Genealogical Magazine XVIII (1951), Pages 143-164, John Goodwin

Herndon, “Notes on the Ancestry of Robert Burton (1730-1785) of Sussex County, Delaware, and Some Related Lines: Cotton, Leatherbury, Bagwell, Robinson, Rickards, and Russell.” William Burton of Somerset: Publications of the Genealogical Society of Pennsylvania (forerunner of Pa. Genea. Magazine) Vol. X (1927), Pages 84-88.

See also the partial genealogy of the Burton Family as it related to White House Farm which was prepared by Sam Houston Showell, Sr., 1973.

4. Herndon, 153-155, Cited in Note 3.

5. Ibid.

6. Ibid, and Scharf ’s, Vol. Two (Section on Dagsborough Hundred).

7. Scharf ’s, Vol. Two, Dagsborough Hundred.

8. Sussex County Deed Records, Shankland Surveys, Book One, Page 92. Survey of an addition to “Queen’s Swamp,” which sets its location.

9. Sussex County Deed Records, Liber A-1, Page 9. Resurvey of “Indian Lands” tract for Benjamin Burton.

10. Sussex County Deed Records, Surveys - A (1776), Page 44. “Rock Hole” Survey.

11. Sussex County Orphan’s Court Records, Liber I-J, Page 169.

12. See remnants of early brick mill foundations at Doe Bridge Mill near Millsboro and at Baltimore Mills site, Omar, for details of typical construction. For a discussion of the construction of grist mills in general see Early American Mills, Martha and Murray Zimiles. New York. Bramhall House, 1973, Pages 7-40. (hereinafter referred to as “Zimiles”)

13. Sussex County Will Records, Liber D-4, Page 24. (Will of Benjamin Burton, Sr., 1783)

14. Sussex County Deed Records, Liber H-22, Page 10 & Page 31. 15. Sussex County Will Records, Liber F-6, Page 94. (Will of Woolsey Burton of Dagsborough Hundred, 1803) 16. Delaware Archives, Military and Naval Records, Vol. I, Public Archives Commission, 1911. 17. Scharf. Volume Two (Dagsborough Hundred) And Del. Archives, Military & Naval Records, Vol. I. 18. Sussex County Will Records, Liber G-7, Page 331. (Will of Benjamin Burton of Woolsey, 1824) 19. Historical and Biographical Encyclopedia of Delaware. Wilmington: McCarter and Jackson, 1882. Page 398 (Account of the life of Benjamin Burton of Daniel [1810-1888]) 20. Sussex County Deed Records, Liber 48, Page 205. Sussex County Chancery Court Partition Docket No. B-2, Page 189. 21. Sussex County Deed Records, Liber 72, Page 251. 22. Ibid. 23. Ibid. Liber 89, Page 214. 24. For an account of what must have been Sussex County’s first steam sawmill, see Sussex County Deed Records, Liber 36, Page 495, “the Steamburg Tract.” 25. Sussex County Orphan’s Court Records, Liber AL-38, Pages 381, 443, 566, 585. Sussex County Deed Records, Liber 112, Page 170. 26. Ibid. Orphan’s Court book & pages cited above. 27. Scharf. Volume Two. (Dagsborough Hundred) 28. Sussex County Orphan’s Court Records, Liber A0-41, Page 152. 29. Scharf. Volume Two. (Dagsborough Hundred) 30. Sussex County Deed Records, Liber 144, Page 506. 31. The daily journal of the Rev. Lewis Wheeler Wells, Rector of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church Millsboro. A hand-written journal volume for the period from July, 1896, to December, 1900, now in the collection of the author. 32. Sussex County Deed Records, Liber 164, Page 493. 33. Ibid, Liber 173, Page 337. Also Sussex County Assessment Book for Dagsborough Hundred covering the years 1909-1916. 34. Sussex County Deed Records, Liber 233, Page 238. 35. Sussex County Assessment Book for the Tax District the First of the Sixth, 1923. 36. Sussex County Deed Records, Liber 233, Page 238. 37. Sussex County Assessment Book for the First of the Sixth, 1924. (A pencil notation beside the entry for Wilford B. Warren reads “Building Burned.”) 38. The information cited is contained in the official court file for the lawsuit entitled STATE OF DELAWARE (STATE HIGHWAY DEPARTMENT) AND W.B. MITTEN & SONS, INC., A DELAWARE CORPORATION VS. WILFORD B. WARREN (A.K.A. WILFRED B. WARREN) [Wilford B. Warren was later removed as plaintiff and his children Gladys W. Hearn, Roland Warren, Ralph Warren and Allen Warren were added]. 1967-1974. Documents pertaining to this suit are now housed in the office of the Sussex County Register in Chancery in the Courthouse, Georgetown. 39. Ibid. 40. Ibid. 41. Ibid. 42. Ibid. 43. Ibid. 44. Ibid. 45. Zimiles, Early American Mills, Page 40. 46. Delaware History, Volume XVI, Number 3 (Spring-Summer, 1975) Periodical publication of the Delaware Historical Society, Wilmington, DE, Article entitled “Coleman du Pont and his Road” by John B. Rae, Page 171. 47. Sussex County Deed Records, Liber 180, Page 18. 48. Warren VS. State of Delaware documents, Transcript of Testimony of Wilford B. Warren, Nov. 14, 1968. 49. Delaware History article. 50. Warren VS. State of Delaware documents. 51. Warren VS. State of Delaware documents, Transcript of Testimony of Wilford B. Warren, Nov. 14, 1968. 52. Ibid. 53. [I need to get this citation]


I am indebted to Mr. Richard B. Carter, Delaware Heritage Commission chair, for the use of his "THE HISTORY OF BETTS’S POND AND ITS MILLS ". While this was considerably longer than most posts, if you made it this far I'm sure you found it as interesting as I did.

editor Steve Childers

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