The centuries gone byDec 21, 2020 10:11AM ● By Tricia Hoadley
By Ken Mammarella
In considering the history of Greenville, the first question is defining its whereabouts.
The 2016 “Greenville Village Special Area Plan” offers four ways to draw boundaries.
Google maps out Greenville’s center as the stores and offices on the east side of Kennett Pike.
A search on Google or Bing is broader, going west of Montchanin Road/Route 100, south of Kirk Road/Route 82, east of Centerville Road and north of Barley Mill and Berkeley roads.
However the lines are drawn, Greenville is one of Delaware’s wealthiest areas. This history extends a south to Lancaster Pike/Route 48 and the Wilmington city line and east to the Brandywine.
That expansion allows Greenville include The Tatnall School, which was founded in Wilmington in 1936 for all girls, moved to Greenville in 1952 and graduated its first co-ed class in 1964.
It also includes the home of Joe and Jill Biden. He moved to Greenville in the 1970s, after he was widowed. In 1996, he sold that house, bought four acres of lakefront land off Barley Mill Road and built a house. He has owned at least seven homes in Delaware and lived in Greenville the longest.
Farms and mills
The area’s first residents were the Lenni-Lenape.
One of the first Europeans was Adam Stedham, deeded property in 1684 called Crooked Billet by William Penn. A crooked billet is a bent stick hung over tavern doors to advertise to illiterate travelers. The developer building homes there calls the Kennett Pike site the “heart of Greenville.”
Another was Hendrick Jacobsson, a Swede who in 1686 acquired 100 acres along the Brandywine.
“Historically, the vicinity was composed of agricultural fields with dwellings scattered throughout,” according to that Delaware Geenways report, commissioned to plan a future for Greenville.
Many farms were not too far to the north and west, with the market towns and ports of Wilmington and Elkton not too far to the south and east. Mills formed the first important industry, primarily for grain and lumber, with the rapid descent of the Brandywine providing free power.
In 1802, when the du Ponts moved here, buying the site of a burned textile mill, there was no community called Greenville, said Lucas Clawson, Hagley historian at Hagley Museum and Library.
The name came later, for the family that ran a lumber yard on train tracks built in 1869.
The tracks were for the Wilmington and Northern, a project of Col. Henry A. du Pont of Winterthur.
Early colonists built a dirt road called Doe Run to Kennett Square, with one landmark being Buck Tavern, where Janssen’s Market is now. The tavern was an early center for the community, whatever it was called. Clawson said it offered food and drink and served as a polling place and a rally point after explosions at the DuPont mills that transformed the region and its economy.
Doe Run was renamed and opened as a hard-surfaced turnpike in 1813, forming another spoke in the pikes that radiated from Wilmington to Philadelphia, Concord, Lancaster and Gap.
Creation of the turnpike doomed the Crooked Billet tavern by making it too far from business. The land reverted to farming, mostly by the du Ponts, until it was sold in 2016.
Scenic country roads
Development grew with the railroad. “Coal, lumber, and other businesses capitalized on the open space and ease of transportation afforded by the rail line’s presence,” the Greenways report said.
Even though the report chides the village for becoming an unwalkable sprawl, development in the 20th century was slower and less intense than, say, Brandywine Hundred or Pike Creek.
That’s because the DuPont Co. and du Pont family owned a lot of area. They lived in some large mansions on large estates, generating the Chateau Country nickname. And when they sold their properties, they sometimes preserved them as parks, museums and dedicated green spaces.
“By 1918-1920, when P.S. du Pont purchased the Wilmington and Kennett Turnpike, rebuilt the roadbed and deeded the Kennett Pike back to Delaware, du Pont family members or business interests owned 48% of the frontage on Delaware’s portion of the road, essentially halting growth from Wilmington outward,” the Centreville Civic Association wrote in a 2001 history. “While post-World War II development flourished on other ‘spoke’ roads out of Wilmington, Kennett Pike and the land surrounding it appeared much as it had at the turn of the 20th century.”
P.S. du Pont’s deal also called for no billboards unless every landowner agreed. That billboard-free beauty is part of the scenic nature of the Brandywine Valley Scenic Byway.
Kennett Pike and Montchanin Road were designated the byway by the state in 2002 and federal government in 2005. The scenery also includes low walls, expertly laid with local stone and without mortar, undulating along the streetscape.
Matters of faith
The first du Ponts were baptized as Catholics, as everyone in France was back then, but they were largely Hugenot. Patriarch E.I. was a Deist. And they were progressive in employee relations.
“The remote location of the powder works required the company to take responsibility for the housing, education and general well being of the workers and the families,” Robert Robetsky wrote in “200 in 2000: A du Pont Family Reunion.”
The Brandywine Manufacturers’ School (now part of Hagley Museum) was chartered in 1817 to teach children in the reading, writing and religion. Four churches came out of that school.
As population grew, the denominations moved: Roman Catholics in 1841 to St. Joseph on the Brandywine, on Old Church Road; Presbyterians in 1849 to Green Hill on Kennett Pike; Methodists in 1847 to Mt. Salem on W. 19th Street; and Episcopalians in 1856 to Christ Church Christiana Hundred on Christ Church Road.
“The DuPont Co. built this church for its Irish Catholic workers, an early example of benevolent corporate paternalism,” W. Barksdale Maynard wrote about St. Joseph in “Buildings of Delaware.” “Catholic parochial education in Delaware, so dominant today, got underway with a convent constructed here in 1850.”
One more significant religious building is Irisbook, built in 1928 on Montchanin Road for William F. Raskob. In 1956, actress Grace Kelly and Prince Rainier of Monaco celebrated their engagement here, Maynard wrote. It’s now the headquarters of the Raskob Foundation for Catholic Activities.
More from and for DuPont Co., the du Ponts
In 1862, the federal government established a camp on Kennett Pike for troops guarding the DuPont powder mills. It was known as Camp DuPont, its historical marker says, then Camp Brandywine.
In 1892, the DuPont Co. gave the land, and the du Pont family gave the money, to build a school named after Alexis I. du Pont on Kennett Pike. The building, with its distinctive castle style, became a middle school in 1966. It’s part of the Henry Clay Village Historic District of the National Register of Historic Places, its historic marker says.
In 1919, E. Paul du Pont, working from his Buck Road land, created DuPont Motors. His luxury car firm just lasted 13 years but had lasting impact on the radiator grille and instrument dashboard.
In 1924, Henry Belin duPont established an airfield on Barley Mill Road. He also founded Atlantic Aviation, North America’s largest aircraft sales and service organization. The last flight from du Pont Airfield was in 1958, and the 56-acre site became DuPont Co. offices. Today, with a smaller DuPont, it is being redeveloped with offices, retail and housing.
In 1926, William du Pont started planning Westover Hills, which within a few years drew many of Delaware’s millionaires to its architecturally varied homes and spacious lots on curving streets.
In 1996, Missy Lickle, great-great-great-granddaughter of E.I. du Pont, created the Inn at Montchanin from a collection of buildings on Montchanin Road, most interestingly workers’ cottages.
The Eugene du Pont Preventive Medicine & Rehabilitation Institute at Pelleport is a ChristianaCare facility on Kennett Pike. Its name is from a du Pont donation and du Pont mansion that stood on there.
Eleutherian Mills is, of course, part of Hagley, but the family’s largesse is probably stronger outside Greenville, with destinations like Winterthur, Mt. Cuba, Nemours and Longwood Gardens.
Finally consider the legacy of Ellen Coleman du Pont Meeds Wheelwright. Her husband, Robert, designed Valley Garden on Campbell Road, with plants rescued from the creation of Hoopes Reservoir. She donated it in 1943; it’s now a park known for walking trails and miniature waterfalls.
In 1968, she bequeathed her home on Pennsylvania Avenue to the University of Delaware. Goodstay now houses the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute. It was previously a farm called Green Hill, which dates back to at least 1685. Howard Pyle, one of the giants of the Brandywine School of Illustration, grew up there in the 1850s. Margaretta E. du Pont bought the place in 1868 and changed the name to Goodstay, a translation of Bon Sejour, the du Ponts’ first home in America.