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History Matters: Brandywine Hundred Historical Society

A Brandywine Hundred Historical Society presentation on April 12, 2023.
Cathy Andriatis
A Brandywine Hundred Historical Society presentation on April 12, 2023.

Brandywine Hundred in northern Delaware has a rich history, but much of it could easily fall under the banner of “little-known.”

However, that could change with the creation of the Brandywine Hundred Historical Society to help tell the area’s stories better and more widely.

In this week’s History Matters, contributor Larry Nagengast takes a look at the work needed to create the organization and what it hopes to accomplish.

Contributor Larry Nagengast breaks down the creation of the Brandywine Hundred Historical Society

Caesar Rodney rode through Brandywine Hundred on his way to Philadelphia to sign the Declaration of Independence. Five years later, George Washington and the Count de Rochambeau led their army of American and French troops south on the same roads en route to defeating the British army at Yorktown, Virginia, ending the Revolutionary War.

Numerous structures significant to the area’s history – including the Weldin House, Rockwood Museum, the Darley House, the Blue Ball Barn – dot its landscape. And a president of the United States even grew up in Brandywine Hundred.

But, until this year, the area bounded by the Brandywine, the Wilmington city line, the Delaware River and the 12-mile arc that separates Delaware from Pennsylvania did not have its own historical society.

“I was born and raised in Brandywine Hundred, and I kept meeting people with stories in their heads, and it dawned on me that we didn’t have a historical society,” says New Castle County Councilwoman Dee Durham.

It wasn’t for a lack of trying.

D.G. Beer’s atlas map of Brandywine Hundred in 1868, displaying the location of roads, property owners, and schools.
Larry Nagengast
D.G. Beer’s atlas map of Brandywine Hundred in 1868, displaying the location of roads, property owners, and schools.

Gene Castellano of Sharpley, who has done research on his community and others in the area, recalls an effort in 1998, when the Talleyville Grange building was moved from the median strip in the center of Concord Pike to a site slightly to the east across from the Talleyville Fire Company.

The hope at the time was to make part of the building home to a historical society, according to James Hanby, a local historian whose ancestors in Brandywine Hundred include members of the Hanby and Forwood families. Hanby, who helped arrange the move, said the associated costs were so great that there weren’t any funds left to develop a historical society in the building and the effort came to a halt.

The idea remained dormant for two decades. After Durham was elected to the county council in 2018, representing western Brandywine Hundred, one of her first initiatives was to create a working group to develop ideas to spur preservation of historic properties throughout the county. The Brandywine Hundred Historical Society spun off from that initiative, said Denis Dowse, a retired hotel manager who is serving as the first president of the new organization.

“Dee Durham, she’s our inspiration,” Dowse said. “If it weren’t for her and John Cartier [the councilman representing eastern Brandywine Hundred], we wouldn’t exist.”

Getting started

In the past year or so, the society has had an informal launch, setting up a Facebook page, using Zoom for virtual presentations and stashing them on a YouTube channel.

In March, the society completed the process for achieving recognition as a nonprofit organization. It has established a dues structure ($30 for an individual, $60 for a family) to start building a treasury. The Facebook page now has more than 600 followers, and the society has begun holding monthly in-person meetings and presentations. The Newark Union Church, a recently restored historic site off Baynard Boulevard in central Brandywine Hundred, is currently hosting those meetings.

The paths of the historical society and Newark Union are intertwined.

This mission of the historical society is to “collect, preserve and share the rich history of Brandywine Hundred,” and the Newark Union group is already doing some of that – starting a collection of 18th- and 19th-century artifacts to display in the church and researching the histories of notable Brandywine Hundred residents buried in the adjoining cemetery. Also, Bob Daly, president of the Newark Union Corporation, caretaker of the church and cemetery, is vice president of the historical society.

“[The society’s] goal is to save, preserve and talk about Brandywine Hundred history. This place [Newark Union] is part of it,” Daly said. “We don’t know exactly where we’re going to cross.”

Research is underway

For example, Marian Fischer, the society’s cochair for research, says the group is interested in learning more about some of the 18th- and 19th-century Brandywine Hundred residents who are buried in the area’s cemeteries – finding out where they lived and constructing their family trees.

Some of that work has already begun.

“There are more houses remaining than you might think,” Daly said. “We’ve found 10 to 12 associated with people buried at Newark Union.”

When these homes are identified, Fischer said, society members could inform their owners about historic overlay zoning, a county designation that increases the likelihood that the property will be preserved in future years.

Identifying and researching historic sites throughout the area is another area of interest for the society, said Cathy Andriatis, its communications chair.

A Brandywine Hundred Historical Society presentation at Newark Union on April 12, 2023.
Cathy Andriatis
A Brandywine Hundred Historical Society presentation at Newark Union on April 12, 2023.

Castellano, who is currently researching the history of communities between Concord Pike and the Brandywine for the Woodlawn Trustees, the organization largely responsible for their development, believes there’s a thirst for such information. “Given that what had been dairy farms have become neighborhoods, a lot of people are more interested in what had been there before,” he said.

“It would be good to build a repository of things related to the land, to its previous owners,” he said.

Castellano’s idea meshes with Andriatis’s two-phase communications plan – starting by posting smaller informational items on the society’s Facebook page, then building a website with larger pieces of content on the area’s history.

Regular programming

For now, the society is concentrating on building a following through its monthly meetings, usually held at Newark Union Church. Those meetings are typically drawing 30 to 40 people, Daly and Dowse said, and they’re encouraged that different faces are turning out for each session.

Presentations have covered a wide range of topics, including Delaware’s role in the Revolutionary War, travel on Philadelphia Pike and native plant life. April’s presentation, by Karlis Adamsons, focused on the history and impact of bicycles.

On May 10, Ryan Grover, director of the Rockwood Museum and Park, will discuss the history of the mansion and its grounds. On June 14, journalist Nancy E. Lynch, author of “Vietnam Mailbag: Voices From the War,1968-1972,” will discuss the service of Brandywine Hundred residents during the Vietnam War.

Also in the works is a talk by Brandywine Hundred historian Terry Wright on a June 1909 trolley crash in Hillcrest, just east of Philadelphia Pike, that resulted in more than two dozen injuries. The society is considering having Wright give his presentation at the scene of the crash, near the intersection of Marsh Road and Hillcrest Avenue.

(Check the society’s Facebook page for details on scheduling of these and other programs.)

The to-do list

As a new organization, the society has plenty of items to consider for its agenda.

One task, Dowse said, could be to monitor the meetings of New Castle County’s Historic Review Board, which has oversight over modifications to properties that might have historic significance and from time to time must consider cases of “demolition by neglect,” when a property owner or developer lets a structure deteriorate until it’s practically beyond repair and then seeks permission to tear it down so the land can be put to a potentially more profitable use.

Collecting items for display in a museum-like setting is also possible, Daly said. In gathering items for display at Newark Union, he said he’s amazed at what residents of older homes find in their attics. “The stuff is out there, and people will want to come and see it,” he said.

A long-term need for the society would be a permanent home. Newark Union is fine for meetings – for up to 50 people – but the displays the church group has assembled would leave little room for any substantial collection of Brandywine Hundred artifacts.

“As far as I’m concerned, the society is the guest of Newark Union,” Dowse said.

“In my dream for the future, we’ll likely outgrow that space,” Durham added.

Denis Dowse, president of the Brandywine Hundred Historical Society.
Cathy Andriatis
Denis Dowse, president of the Brandywine Hundred Historical Society.

One possibility that Hanby and others have mentioned is the 225-year-old Weldin House, on Philadelphia Pike adjacent to its intersection with Lore Avenue and Marsh Road. The state owns the building and has been renovating it for several years but has not announced plans for its future use.

For now, Dowse hopes to take advantage of the enthusiasm generated through the launch of a new organization. “We have to channel our energy into our research, our preservation of artifacts,” he said.

And, Durham added, “recording those stories that are stuck in people's brains.”

Why have a historical society

“What’s past is prologue,” spoken by Shakespeare’s Antonio in The Tempest, provides a concise summation of the relevance of historical societies.

Terry Wright, president of the Eastern Brandywine Hundred Coordinating Council, a group devoted to local history and community development, offers a similar, albeit longer, explanation: “You have to know your heritage in order to know where your community wants to go.”

The Brandywine Hundred Historical Society is the newest of about 25 such organizations in Delaware – a rough count offered by Mike DiPaolo, who spent 19 years as executive director of the Lewes Historical Society. And DiPaolo, who observed an economic resurgence in Lewes coinciding with an expansion of the society’s offerings, believes an appreciation of local history “brings real dollar value to a community.”

“People are realizing that history isn’t just George Washington and Abraham Lincoln,” said Wright, who is also a member of the Delaware Heritage Commission. “Local history is having a huge renaissance, and it’s not just here.”

Historic societies can have a role in researching hyperlocal historic events and promoting their anniversaries, DiPaolo said. “Every community has its own [anniversaries] and you can’t rely on a big state organization to be aware of every last corner of the state. Having a local organization is really important. It’s community pride.”

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