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More than just a battlefield: The future of Cooch’s Bridge

Cooch's Bridge monument and cannon
Ann Ramsey
/
A monument and cannon mark the site of the Battle of Cooch's Bridge

Delaware’s only Revolutionary War battleground is poised to get renewed attention and a new focus.

The Sept. 1777 Newark-area battle was part of the Philadelphia campaign. Telling its story and preserving the site has largely been handled by the Cooch family and ‘friends’ groups.

Now a more concerted effort is underway to not only bolster those efforts, but change the public’s view of Cooch’s Bridge.

Delaware Public Media's Tom Byrne and contributor Larry Nagengast discuss plans for the Cooch's Bridge battlefield

After more than two centuries of recognition as Delaware’s only Revolutionary War battleground, the historic site at Cooch’s Bridge is about to benefit from a new focus – “a wide-angle lens that will tell a more inclusive history,” says Timothy Slavin, director of the state Division of Historical and Cultural Affairs.

That new lens, while preserving the story of the 1777 battle in the fields and woodlands along Old Baltimore Pike south of Newark, will also bring into sharper view two often overlooked groups – the native Americans who settled in the area in pre-Revolutionary times and the Black men and women – enslaved and free – who worked at the Cooch family in the 18th and 19th centuries. In addition to the people, that lens will widen to include economic activity – farming and milling – essential to the area’s development. And the lens also seems to have a crystal ball feature – one that imagines a series of pedestrian and bicycling trails running through Cooch’s Bridge to link Iron Hill Park on the west side of Route 896 to Glasgow Park to the south on Route 40.

“The Cooch’s Bridge history has become ossified over the years, primarily as the center of military operations in Delaware during the Revolution,” says retired Superior Court Judge Richard Cooch of New Castle, a member of the eighth generation of his family to live in the house built by Thomas Cooch in 1760, some 14 years after he first acquired land in the area.

Cooch family Homestead
Ann Ramsey
The Cooch family homestead dates back to 1760

“There’s so much there to interpret – the native Americans, the milling, the agriculture. And it’s the last big preserved open space in the area,” Cooch says.

The state purchased the 10-acre homestead and farm complex in 2019 from a trust established at the death of Cooch’s father, Edward W. “Ned” Cooch Jr., a prominent Wilmington attorney and the last head of household to live there. That trust, managed by Richard Cooch and his sister, Anne Cooch Doran, retains ownership of more than 170 acres of adjacent farmland stretching west to Route 896 and north to Interstate 95. In 2002 Ned Cooch signed a conservation easement with the state to protect that farmland from future development. The fields are leased to a tenant farmer who grows feed corn; revenue from the lease is directed into a fund created for the maintenance and preservation of the historic site.

Including the farmland and adjacent state-owned properties, “we envision it as a 220-plus acre piece of history and respite, where people can spend time as they see fit,” Slavin says. “They will have the ability to learn, to understand the history of the site, to access the land for whatever purpose they want.”

The interpretation is expected to cover five broad historical themes: social and cultural, military, transportation, milling and the iron industry, and environmental.

Vince Watchorn and Wade Catts with Cooch's Bridge
Larry Nagenast
Vince Watchorn, President, Friends of Cooch's Bridge (left) and Wade Catts, archaeologist and consultant to the Friends

Assisting the state in the restoration and maintenance effort is the Friends of Cooch’s Bridge Historic Site, a nonprofit group formed last year. The group is currently organizing tours of the site for interested members of the public and is starting to raise some of the estimated $1.7 million the state says is needed for restoration and other improvements to make the site fully accessible.

By January, Slavin says his office expects to hire a site manager to oversee day-to-day operations and create appropriate programming for the site.

After the site manager is hired, the Friends group expects to continue to provide support for tours and other activities, says Vince Watchorn, president of the organization. Besides raising funds, the group’s key responsibility will be to “generate excitement about the destination, get it recognized as a place of significance,” he says.

Although many details remain to be worked out, “the state, the Friends and the family are all pretty much in sync” on how to proceed with restoration and interpretation of the site, Richard Cooch says.

Structures and open space

One of the first steps will be to improve accessibility to the property, where a narrow gravel roadway leads to a small gravel-based parking area in front of the carriage house and granary just beyond the homestead. The goal, Slavin says, is “to make it easy for people to get off the road [Old Baltimore Pike], park and walk around.”

Cooch's Bridge Carriage House
Larry Nagengast
The Carriage House on the Cooch property is among parts of the property that would be worked on as part of efforts to showcase the Cooch's Bridge story

Work on the structures – which also include a smoke house, ice house, chicken coop and shed – would include ensuring the integrity of the exterior shells (lower sections of the siding of the carriage house need repair) and abatement of any hazardous materials, such as asbestos and lead paint, Slavin says. Interior work on the homestead – built in 1760 and remodeled in 1860 and 1923 – would focus on the main floor, which is likely to be the only portion of the building open to the public, he says. The state typically uses the upper levels of historic properties it owns for other purposes, such as offices and storage.

In addition to the building, the site has many other features. The Christina River runs through the property and the current iteration of Cooch’s Bridge, built in 1923, carries traffic on Old Baltimore Pike over the river. To the north, not far from I-95, is a dam built by William Cooch and his workers in 1792. Between that dam and the homestead is a smaller dam built by pre-Cooch British settlers in 1720. Races running from those dams parallel to the Christina powered Cooch’s mills. Two of those are still standing. The 1792 mill sits on the south side of Old Baltimore Pike east of the homestead. The Cooch-Dayett mill, which continued operating until the early 1980s, is farther south.

Discoveries: Native Americans and slavery

Much remains to be learned about the early history of the historic site. “Indigenous people lived here for thousands of years,” says Wade Catts, a consultant to the Friends organization.

Archaeological digs are likely to uncover more of that history. “The real engine of what we learn will be the buried environment,” Slavin says.

“We know the Lenni Lenape were here. They came to Iron Hill to collect jasper and other minerals. Arrowheads were found on the property,” Cooch says, adding that the remains of some native American settlements are visible.

The 18th century mills were used to process grain grown on the farmland and there was probably a sawmill on the property at one time, Catts says.

One reminder in the house of another dimension of the area’s agricultural history is a photo of an old sign that Catts believes dates to the early 20th century. It touts Stayman Winesap applies “with the famous Iron Hill flavor – raised on the Cooch Farm.” The apple orchard, he says, had about 4,000 trees.

Apple Sign Coochs bridge
Larry Nagengast
This sign touting apples grown on the Cooch Farm is an indication of the farm's rich agricultural past

Catts, a historical archaeologist, is studying documents in the Cooch family archives, looking for more information to tell the history of the house and the surrounding area.

Included in those archives are the 1780 will of Thomas Cooch and other documents showing that he owned at least 10 slaves. The will specified that four of those slaves would be freed at specified times and that four others were awarded to Thomas Cooch’s heirs.

Through the family’s research, the Cooch’s have established a relationship with the James family, a Black family whose members had lived in the Iron Hill area, probably when that land was owned by the Cooches, Richard Cooch says. The James family still has numerous members living in the Newark area and held a reunion on the Cooch’s Bridge property five years ago, he says.

As he was growing up, Cooch says, “we were conscious of” his family’s history as slave owners “but only in a general way, not in a focused, disciplined way.”

Marilyn Whittington, a Friends board member and the retired executive director of the Delaware Humanities Forum, says it is important that the state’s interpretation of the Cooch’s Bridge site include all aspects of its history, including slavery and how white colonists took over land once inhabited by native Americans.

“We must recognize that the land was not ours – not white man’s land,” says Whittington, who identifies herself as African American. “When I made that point to the rest of the Friends’ board, they didn’t object, they didn’t argue.”

Slavin draws a parallel to another state-owned historic property, the John Dickinson plantation in Kitts Hummock, south of Dover. “It was commonly believed that John Dickinson owned 70 slaves and manumitted them at the time of his death [in 1808]. My colleagues began the process of locating the African-American burial ground. They eventually found 110 names [of slaves owned by Dickinson] and the list keeps growing.”

At Cooch’s Bridge, Slavin anticipates that, over time, researchers will learn more about the Black men and women associated with the Cooch household and properties. “We must admit our errors as we find them,” he says.

Some family history

Portraits now hanging inside the homestead show many members of the Cooch family, known not only for their business and agricultural acumen but also their civic leadership.

William Cooch (1762-1837) was a trustee of Newark Academy (later merged into the University of Delaware), served in both the state House and Senate, and was responsible for construction of one dam and two mills. “He was a scholar/farmer, a community booster, a Renaissance man,” Catts says, noting that his library contained books on geography, poetry and literature.

Joseph Wilkins Cooch (1840-1917) was a trustee of Newark Academy, a state senator, New Castle County register of Wills, president of one bank and director of another. His wife, Mary Evarts Webb Cooch (1849-1932) compiled the first family genealogy.

Edward W. Cooch Sr. (1876-1964), a graduate of Harvard Law School, was the state’s lieutenant governor from 1937 to 1941.

Edward W. “Ned” Cooch Jr. (1920-2010), besides being one of Delaware’s best-known attorneys, was a prominent environmentalist, serving as president and director of both the Christina Conservancy and Delaware Wildlands.

Cooch Homestead dining room
Larry Nagengast
Portraits and other artifacts are expected to help bring the Cooch family history to life

The homestead nearly passed out of the Cooch family’s hands in 1918, when Levi Cooch, a son of Joseph Wilkins Cooch, died at an early age, without a will and leaving behind two minor daughters. Under state laws at the time, the property had to be put up for public auction, Richard Cooch says.

Richard’s grandfather, Edward W. Cooch Sr., an attorney in Wilmington, showed up at the auction only to find he had some competition – another attorney representing the president of the Atlas Powder Co., a forerunner of Hercules Inc., who was interested in the residence and possibly subdividing the remaining land for future development. As the story goes, when the attorney saw Edward Cooch’s desire to keep the property for his family, he declined to enter a bid, and the land remained in the family’s hands.

“It was luck,” Richard Cooch says.

Trails in the future?

Still in the works is a study of possible pedestrian and bicycling trails that would run from the county’s Iron Hill Park, land once owned by the Cooches, through the state-owned Cooch’s Bridge site, then south to the Cooch-Dayett mill, also owned by the state, and on to the county’s Glasgow Park at the intersection of Routes 40 and 896. The 1792 dam should be a focal point of any series of trails, Cooch says.

The county is taking the lead on that study, Slavin says.

“Wouldn’t that be something?” Cooch says. “It’s pie in the sky, but where there’s a will, there’s a way.”

For more information about the Friends of Cooch’s Bridge Historic Site, visit the organization’s website or its Facebook page. Details on tours of the site, and scheduled tour dates, are available through the Facebook page.

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