Greenville and Hockessin: Small towns with a big historyJul 29, 2021 01:00PM ● By Tricia Hoadley
Two small towns in northern Delaware may appear to those casually passing through them to be quiet ‘bedroom” communities with little history to discover. That assumption is shown to be incorrect when you explore the rich heritage of both Greenville and Hockessin. Between these two small towns, they highlight two renowned museums, an agricultural center, numerous sites listed on the National Register of Historic Places, as well as a nearby school named for one of the most famous entertainers of the 20th century.
Hockessin, Delaware began as a village around the year 1688, shortly after William Penn took possession of his new land grant to the north. The name may have roots in the Lenape word “hokes,” but is most likely related to the first properties named Ocasson settled by William Cox around the year 1726. The Hockessin Friends Meetinghouse at 1501 Old Wilmington Road was built in 1738; the date marker in the stone structure stands below a gable roof with a cornice and crown molding at the roof line. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1973. The Coffee Run Mission started as a log cabin built in 1790. It was the first Catholic church in Delaware, precursor to the Roman Catholic Diocese of Wilmington. The adjacent cemetery holds more than 50 gravestones from centuries past; the site was also added to the National Register in 1973.
Fans of scenic tours will enjoy the Wilmington and Western Railroad, whose roots date back to 1867 with the Delaware and Chester County Railroad, which ran from Wilmington to Landenberg. The company merged into the Baltimore and Philadelphia Railroad, a Baltimore and Ohio (B&O) subsidiary in February 1883. The 10.2-mile line running through the Red Clay Creek Valley operates both steam and diesel locomotives, with special themed tours including the Autumn Leaf Special, the Halloween Express and the Holiday Lights Express.
A famous performer from yesteryear spent the latter part of his life in Hockessin, but his claims to fame were his performances in Chicago, New York and Hollywood. Cab Calloway was born on December 25, 1907 in Rochester, New York. His father attended Lincoln University in Chester County, Pennsylvania. His mother wanted Cab to become a lawyer like his father, but he was far more interested in music. The family moved to Baltimore when he was 11 and he later started attending jazz shows there, seeing musicians like drummer Chick Webb and pianist Johnny Jones. Cab was hooked; he knew he wanted to become a jazz performer.
Calloway became a jazz singer and performed at New York’s Savoy Ballroom in 1929. Two years later his big opportunity arrived: he and his orchestra were hired to sit in for the Duke Ellington Orchestra at the Cotton Club in Harlem. That same year, Calloway recorded what would become his signature song: “Minnie the Moocher.” It was the first single recorded by a black performer to sell over one million records. The tune became so popular, Calloway was soon known as “The Hi-De-Ho Man,” a reference to the song’s chorus.
Calloway’s career was on fire in the 1930s and 1940s; his band included jazz greats Dizzy Gillespie, Ben Webster and Milt Hinton. Calloway’s numerous talents were highlighted in the 1940 musical “Strike Up the Band” starring Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland, where one character was admonished after an improvised drum solo with the words: “You are not Cab Calloway.” He remained active and popular on the music and film stage for many years, passing away in Hockessin, Delaware on November 18, 1994. The Cab Calloway School of the Arts in Wilmington was named in his honor.
Greenville, Delaware is not only the home of President Joe Biden- several points of historic and cultural interest are close by. One of the nation’s most important chemical companies—Du Pont— had its roots along the Brandywine in 1802 due to the efforts of founder Eleuthiere Irenee du Pont. Originally created to produce gunpowder, Du Pont later branched out to produce an enormous array of useful chemical compounds and products like Nylon, Teflon, Corian, Kevlar and dozens of others which transformed the way people live. The beginnings of the company are evident when you tour the Hagley Gunpowder Works and nearby Hagley Library and Museum. Du Pont merged with Dow Chemical in 2017.
The du Pont family’s roots are evident at both the nearby Mt. Cuba Center and Winterthur Museum. Mt. Cuba’s more than 500 acres of natural lands include rolling hills, streams, rock outcroppings and deciduous forests. The site was the former home of Lammot du Pont Copeland, who built a Colonial Revival mansion near the small village of Mt. Cuba in 1935. The beautiful landscape prompted him to preserve hundreds of native wildflowers and other plants, eventually leading to a collection which included over 6,500 examples of eastern North American flora, complemented by Lilac Allee, a Formal Garden, the Dogwood Path, Pond Garden, West Slope Path and Rock Wall.
Winterthur, the former home of Henry Francis du Pont stands not far away on 979 acres which include a “country house” with 60 acres of natural gardens. The home became a focal point for du Pont’s interest in collecting antiques and Americana, eventually expanding to 175 period-room displays and 85,000 items. Its massive library contains more than 87,000 volumes and roughly 500,000 manuscripts related to decorative arts, American history and architecture.
The Greenville-Hockessin area offers numerous sites for people to explore, stroll amidst scenic gardens, learn about the rich history of industrial America and view the homes and legacies of some of our nation’s most famous personalities.
Gene Pisasale is an historian, author and lecturer based in Kennett Square. His 10 books focus on American history., Gene’s latest work is “Forgotten Founding Fathers: Pennsylvania and Delaware in the American Revolution.” His books are available on www.Amazon.com and his website at www.GenePisasale.com. Gene can be reached via e-mail at [email protected].