Gems in your backyard: Greenbank Mill and Philips FarmDec 06, 2023 12:31PM ● By Tricia Hoadley
By Ken Mammarella
Of the many ways to enjoy Greenbank Mill and Philips Farm, two of the –
Wait, you mean you’ve never heard of the mill and the farm, and you’ve lived here for decades?
“We hear that all the time,” said Barbara Nelson, chairman of the board of Greenbank Mill Associates, the nonprofit that runs the site that contains both. “Nobody knows about us.”
The Red Clay Creek mill dates to 1677, it says on www.greenbankmill.com/history. It was state-of-the-art in 1793, when new owner Robert Philips contracted with neighbor Oliver Evans to install Evans’ innovative milling system, which had three years before received America’s third patent.
“Greenbank won a place in the history of American manufacturing” with Evans’ machinery, according to the property’s application to be listed as part of the National Register of Historic Places.
“The work of this Delaware inventor revolutionized milling in America. An anecdote frequently told about Greenbank relates that Evans invited several millers to study his machinery in operation. They arrived to find the mill running unattended; Evans was making hay in the adjoining field.”
Following reconstruction after a massive 1969 fire and massive 2003 flood, the site marches along as a National Historic District showcasing industrial, agricultural and social history of times gone by.
History happened here
Here’s one way to enjoy it: Schedule a tour or attend a program and observe all the relics, small and large, from the rope bed to automated wool carder, from the candle molds to the immense grist mill.
Another way is to just wonder around the 9-acre property on Greenbank Road, a sylvan retreat remarkably close to the hustle and bustle of Kirkwood Highway. There’s catch-and-release fishing, trails to explore, sheep to watch and maybe touch and, surprisingly, fairy houses to find.
Over the centuries, the owners of the mill “tried to define its role in the changing marketplace,” the site says, citing the Mill Creek Hundred History Blog as a major source for the account.
The European history of the site dates back to Swede’s Mill. “Not much is known of this mill except a vague description and undecipherable archaeological remains,” it says. The present gristmill was built in the 1760s, and “according to local legend, George Washington posted a guard at the mill when American troops took up positions along the Red Clay Creek after the Battle of Cooch’s Bridge.”
In 1790, with business declining, the mill was auctioned. Philips was so successful with Evans’ automated system that he expanded and diversified. Starting in 1810, the newly built “Madison Factory grew to house the entire wool production process, from the back of the sheep to the back of man.”
In 1824, the site added a sawmill, and it later expanded into making wooden objects, such as bentwood chairs, carriage spindles and croquet sets. “Woodworking ended at the mill in 1881 when a partner embezzled $20,000.”
By 1969, it was Delaware’s only grist mill operating on water power, doing custom milling for local farmers, when vandals set a fire that destroyed the woolen mill and damaged other areas.
‘Sheep to shawl’
Employees and volunteers rebuilt operations, and they continued to persevere after damage from Hurricane Floyd in 1999 and a freak storm in 2003 that dumped 8½ inches in 12 hours, flooding the first floor of the mill chest-high (look for the metal plaque the feds installed to mark the crest).
Much of the site interpretation today revolves around sheep and wool.
Seven Leicester Longwool sheep live there: Philip, a 1-year-old ram; the ewes Jenny, Lucy, Buttercup and Daisy; and two castrated males named Stormy and Lucky. Five Merinos and another Leicester Longwool live over at Winterthur, as part of Winterthur’s educational programming. The sheep are also shown off at other events, such as A Day in Old New Castle.
“Each has their own personality,” said Steve Garrow, the livestock manager and site manager.
The sheep are rotated among four pastures, so plants can recover, and volunteers divvy up twice-daily feedings of sheep grain. “They’re very boisterous when we show up late,” said Nelson, also a shepherd with a weekly shift. “All the shepherds have their favorites. Philip, he’s the cutest.”
Its most popular annual event is its Shearing Day and Herb Sale on the last Saturday in April, when the sheep are sheared. Leicesters can be shorn twice a year and can produce up to 18 pounds of fleece annually (no wonder it’s “WoolyWednesday” on its Facebook page, going by Greenbank Mills). The day also includes demonstrations of “hand processing from sheep to shawl, including natural dyeing and spinning.” Public healthcare days every quarter showcase another aspect of ovine lives.
The house, the mill and the barn
Greenbank Mill throughout the year displays multiple sizes and styles of carding equipment, used to untangle fibers and ensure them running in the same direction. The Fiber Guild meets regularly at the mill to work on assorted looms and spinning wheels.
The gift shop sells unwashed fleece, natural yarn and roving (the stage between the two).
Three major historic structures remain: the 1794 Robert Philips House, the 1812 mill; and the pole barn, from about 1808. Smaller interesting structures include a springhouse and an outdoor oven.
The farmhouse includes a museum of furnishings and objects and a gift shop.
The milll has a space, overlooking the old gristmill, and big enough to hold 84 people, that’s available for rentals. Renters also get access to the nearby grove for outdoor activities. Such one-time rentals and rentals of apartments form the bulk of the site’s income.
In 2022, Greenbank Mill received a $150,000 state grant to revitalize the barn. This year, it was given $250,000 grant to continue the barn’s revitalization and improve the mill’s water system.
“There are a lot of people offering their time and energy to keep this treasure operating smoothly,” said State Sen. Spiros Mantzavinos, who includes the site in his district. “I believe that the next step is getting the mill wheel operational again, which will really enhance the visitor’s experience.”
The great outdoors
“I believe the entire Historic Red Clay Valley, running along Route 41 from Kirkwood Highway to Faulkland Road, which the Mill is a part of, is important to preserve and promote,” he said. “Just look at what rich historical sites are all along there: the Wilmington & Western Railroad, Greenbank Mill and Brandywine Springs Park, which had the amusement park. Each site offers its own view into Delaware’s past but taken together, I believe its a wonderful mosaic of a bygone time in Delaware’s history that should be preserved and treasured.”
Outdoors at Greenbank Mill, there’s a kitchen garden by the farmhouse, along with beehives. Some parts of the acreage are mowed; some are weed-whacked and trimmed; some grows with reckless abandon. Visitors can walk to the creek, where people fish and swim and have crafted fairy houses. Nelson said she’s seen deer, groundhogs, hawks and other creatures.
The site’s event calendar also includes a monthly Maker’s Market May-October (artisans, refreshments and tours) and Folklore Fridays in the fall.
“What I like is that it is so peaceful,” said Garrow, who was first hired to fix up one of the site’s apartments, and later hired to live on the site, joined by his dogs Paprika and Bella. “The beautiful breezes. The smells. So close to the community.”
“I've been there several times for different events and have always enjoyed it,” said Andy Sutherland, a fan of their Facebook. “It’;s a nice glimpse into what the area was like years ago. I appreciate the efforts to preserve something that isn’t just another mansion.”