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Thomas B. Coursey and his "Spring Mills"


Thomas Boone Coursey was born in Camden, Delaware in 1806, the son of Thomas Coursey, a carpenter and Mary Boone Coursey, who was descended from frontiersman Daniel Boone. Young Coursey was educated in a private school and at 15 began learning the carpentry trade. He devoted his leisure to reading and study and he became a skillful mechanic. In 1832 26-year-old Thomas Coursey married Sarah A. Wilson and they eventually had eight children.

Wyoming Mill, 1906 - Delaware Public Archives

About 1835 Coursey began working at what is now Wyoming Mill, but this was twenty-one years before Wyoming was even founded. After five years he had accumulated enough money to purchase "Spring Mills" from William Hewlet, Esq.

When T. B. Coursey bought Spring Mills it had been used as a merchant mill. Large quantities of local wheat were ground into flour and the product was shipped via the Murderkill River and the Delaware River to the Philadelphia market. All that now remains of Spring Mills is the millpond and the dam over which the Canterbury-Milford Road (Rt-15) now passes, about 1.4 miles south of Mid-State Road (Rt-12).


In Coursey's own words, the mill then consisted of; "a rolling screen and fan for cleaning, a pair of burrs [millstones] for grinding, a single 27-inch reel covered with No 8 cloth [for sifting the flour], corn stones and rye butt."

(I consulted with some other mill experts, and I have come to the conclusion that "rye butt" was probably a miss-print that should have read "rye burr", or in other words; another set of millstones just for grinding rye. Spring Mills did have two sets of millstones. Another option given; a "rye butt" was a large container (barrel) that would hold two hogsheads, or about 13 1/2 bushels of rye.) See; "I'll Bet You Didn't Know" at the end of this article.


The corn fell from the millstones into tubs on the floor below, each holding about four bushels. The tubs were hoisted up to the third floor by a jack-wheel, (a type of rope winch,) and was dumped onto the floor near the bolting hopper. The flour was fed into the bolter by the hopper boy, a device that that raked the flour in a circle to cool it and it then automatically fell down to the bolter on the second floor. The bolter was like a long, rotating sieve that different grades of cloth could be attached to. There were not yet any "modern" labor-saving devices in the mill, like elevators and conveyors, and the mill was probably laid out a lot like this:

Typical eighteenth and early nineteenth-century grist mill

The mill that Coursey bought was "much out of repair" in 1840 and he said that he had to "work hard day and night, sometimes until 2 o'clock in the morning to get the mill in order and obtain a custom." By custom, I believe he meant a local following that wanted their grain custom milled. He invented a "smut machine, by which I could effectually remove smut and make good flour out of wheat that was otherwise worthless". Smut is a seedborne disease that is caused by a fungus, Ustilago tritici. Nearly all later mills included equipment to remove smut.

His smut machine probably worked similar to this: July 2, 1853 - David S. Mackey, and Jarvis R. Smith, of Batavia, N. Y, have made certain improvements in machines tor extracting the smut and other impurities from grain, for which measures have been taken to secure a patent. The improvement may be briefly described as follows:—Two circular plates or discs are placed within a cylinder both nearly horizontal with each other, one of which revolves rapidly and the other remains stationary.— These plates or discs are each provided with two or more concentric inclined flanges having radial flutes or grooves cut in them for the purpose of thoroughly scouring and separating the smut and other impurities from the grain. These discs, made slightly concave, are surrounded by a curb, which collects and concentrates the grain. The whole is very conveniently arranged.

This article was originally published with the title "Smut Machine" in Scientific American 8, 42, 332 (July 1853) doi:10.1038/scientificamerican07021853-332d


Coursey Mill Site was where the parking lot is just below the dam




Besides being a miller, T. B. Coursey was a very progressive farmer, one of the very first in Delaware to advocate the use of South American bat guano for fertilizer.


In 1868 the Courseys built a stately three-story, federal style home just across the road from the mill, which still stands today. It is privately owned and is on the National Register of Historic Places.

photo- National Register of Historic Places

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The Delaware State Republican Party asked Thomas Coursey to run for Governor in 1870 and it was a tough and dirty campaign.

It was a well-known fact in southern Delaware that a lot of money was spent to buy people's votes, and Thomas Coursey spoke out against this practice, unsuccessfully, for many decades. In a campaign for state governor that was decided by only 2,517 votes, one can see why the practice was tempting.

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The Daily Republican, 2 June 1879

Thomas B. Coursey has purchased the mill machinery belonging to Holme’s steam mill in Milford and removed it to the old husk factory building near Camden, which he is now turning into a grist mill. By these means he expects to get an excellent flouring and grist mill at a small cost. (Ed. note: This would have been near Woodside, where Derby Pond is.)

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Although he had not been elected governor, Coursey made his opinion know many times in Dover. In March of 1881 Thomas Coursey wrote to The Morning News to speak out for Women's Rights:

The Morning News, Wilmington - March 1881
The Evening Journal, Wilmington - January 7th, 1899

Ed. note: As a woodworker myself, I would like very much to see the desk that Thomas Coursey built so late in his life. It was also mentioned briefly in his obituary, below.


In April of 1899 a devastating fire destroyed Coursey's "Spring Mills", but he quickly started rebuilding...

...but he must have decided that it was too much work for him at his age, because in July Coursey put the whole thing up for sale. The last paragraph shows that the 93-year-old Coursey still had a great sense of humor.

Apparently, the sale didn't go through, and five months later Thomas B. Coursey had died.



In January of 1900 all of Thomas Coursey's holdings were sold by the Kent County Sheriff, as follows:

"Spring Mills" was purchased by Amos G. Turner for $2,100,

The Coursey mansion and 60 adjoining acres were also purchased by

Amos G. Turner, for $2,800,

100 adjoining acres in Murderkill Hundred were purchased by James Frank Biggs for $3,025,

165 adjoining acres in Milford Hundred were bought by Albert N. Carrow for $2,675, and

"Woodside Mills" was purchased by Samuel H. Derby for $910.


To summarize, Thomas B. Coursey worked at milling for sixty-five of his ninety-three years, all but five of them at "Spring Mills." Like most mill owners in Delaware, he very likely didn't run the mill alone, but I could find no record of who his miller might have been. He survived being gored by one of the bulls on his farm when he was 66, but it doesn't appear to have slowed him down. When he was in his late 80s, he built an office desk out of Black Walnut from a tree that he himself had planted many, many years before. When a fire destroyed his mill, he quickly began supervising the reconstruction even though he was 93 years old.

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After Amos G. Turner purchased the mill at sheriff's sale in 1900, he and his partner, Charles S. Conwell, resold it in Oct. 1902 to Alexander Laws. Mr. Laws, who lived on The Green in Dover, had formerly owned the Dover Flour Mill and later owned the Alley Mills in Clayton.

Apparently neither owner actually operated the mill and by 1904 it was already in need of repairs:

18 April 1904 - The Morning News

And by 1907 the mill had been sold again, this time to the Harrington Heat, Light and Power Company.

14 Nov. 1907 - The Evening Journal

But the power company soon folded and "was purchased by Soloman L. Sapp and John D. Brown, commissioners of Harrington for the low price of $520."

17 March 1910 - The Evening Journal
15 Oct. 1913 - The Evening Journal

Sources: All newspaper clippings are from The Morning News or the News Journal, Wilmington, Del., via newspapers.com

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Coursey's Pond is one of my favorite local places to canoe or kayak. Once you get to the little island you begin to feel as if you are completely alone in the world. One day a beaver surfaced right next to my canoe. It startled me and its self. A Splash! of his tail and he was gone! It's a beautiful paddle all the way up to the Killens Pond spillway.


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I'll bet you didn't know:

It is believed by some that the insanity that led to the Salem witch trials in colonial times was due to the consumption of rye flour tainted with ergot fungus, which could get on the rye in wet seasons. A weather diary found from that period mentioned that wet conditions prevailed during the time leading to the witch trials. The effects of the fungus cause hallucinations, convulsions, and conditions mimicking insanity.

Source: Ergot of Rye - Ergotism and Witchcraft

(http://www.botany.hawaii.edu/faculty/wong/BOT135/LECT12.HTM)


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Next time, in two weeks, I'll take us upstream on the Murderkill River just a bit to see what we can find out about the mills on Killen's Pond.

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