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One family's connection to the Brown House recalled

Rich Wadman
Three generations of the Corbett family pose on the steps of the Brown House

The Dr. John A. Brown House has a storied history and, for one Wilmington family, it was a place called home for half of the 20th century.

Originally a stone mansion built between 1819 and 1827 by Wilmington banker and industrialist Jeremiah Woolston, it was named “the Anchorage” by Navy Captain John Gallagher, who bought the property and its 100 surrounding acres in 1835. When Gallagher died in 1842, his widow and his son inherited the house. Six years later they sold it to Brown, a flamboyant physician and entrepreneur well known for promoting medicinal tonics and originating a product called “1776 Root Beer” manufactured in several cities between Boston and Baltimore, including Wilmington.

Brown lived in the house for only eight years and later built a larger residence nearby, no longer standing, that became a resting place for ailing Union soldiers during the Civil War and a home “for the care of the feeble, sick and insane,” according to the 1979 nomination of the Anchorage for the National Register of Historic Places.

That nomination, however, makes only a passing mention of the Corbett family, who owned the property from 1924 to 1980. Richard Wadman, a member of the task force that worked to prevent the mansion’s demolition, is trying now to assemble a history of the Corbetts’ years in the home.

Wadman, 65, who lives near Newark, is a great-grandson of Joseph and Annie Corbett, who purchased the house in 1924. His grandfather, Harvey Joseph Wadman Sr., who served as Wilmington’s chief of police from 1949 to 1956, married Mina Corbett, the second child and eldest daughter of Joseph and Annie Corbett, and lived in the house during his tenure as police chief.

The senior Corbetts had 10 children, one of whom died when 2 or 3 years old. As the children grew into adulthood, the Corbetts divided the house into apartments, providing living quarters for four daughters and their families, including Harvey and Mina Wadman, Richard Wadman said. One of the Corbett’s sons lived in a smaller house on the premises, he added.

“I never lived in the house. It was sold when I was 22, but I spent a lot of time there,” he said. “My grandmother and her sister lived there. We all gathered there for the holidays – cousins, extended cousins and friends.”

The apartment arrangement created by the Corbetts has drawn some attention as part of the pending request for a zoning variance for the mansion. The home is zoned single-family residential and the variance seeks permission to convert it into apartments.

The Corbetts were able to break their home into apartments while keeping the single-family zoning because everyone living in the home was a member of the same family. The variance is required now because it is presumed that residents of the proposed apartments would be members of different family units.

Members of the family continued to live in the home until Joseph and Annie’s surviving son, also named Joseph, died in 1975 or 1976, Wadman said. The property was sold as the estate was settled several years later.

Wadman is pleased that the plans to restore the home include dedicating a portion of the main floor for community use.

“I think that’s great,” he said. “It was a magical place. I’m hopeful it won’t be torn down.”

Larry Nagengast, a contributor to Delaware First Media since 2011, has been writing and editing news stories in Delaware for more than five decades.