The End of a “Delaware Backstory”

Some time in the 1650s, a Dutch soldier named Peter Alrich was shipwrecked off New York. (At the very least, his luck ran out – I have found conflicting secondary sources). Instead of giving up on starting a new life in the colonies after what was probably a harrowing experience, he stayed in the “New World” and bought some land to farm near present-day Port Penn, Delaware, a town founded in 1763 by David Stewart. Yes, that’s right. Alrich was bopping around Delaware before William Penn (1644-1718), the man from England who acquired present-day Pennsylvania and Delaware from King Charles II.

Port Penn, DE (Google Maps)
Port Penn, DE (Google Maps)

Peter’s grandson built a brick house on the land in 1760. The house, up until recently, was one of a few in Delaware that predated the Revolutionary War. In the nineteenth century, the Alrich family sold that house to the Kux family. In the 1990s, the Kux family sold the house and 340 acres of land to Delaware Wild Lands, Inc. According to the Delaware News Journal, the owners were under the impression that the eighteenth-century home would be preserved.

Kux Alrich House

For a few years, Delaware Wild Lands rented the home to a caretaker. That arrangement ended around the time the septic system failed. Uninterested in restoring the home’s septic system, Delaware Wild Lands applied for a permit to demolish the home from the New Castle County Historic Review Board. I attended the meeting back in August when the Board considered the application. I was there with my partner Tyler to support the preservation of the home along with other historians, archaeologists, and preservationists from the region. It turns out there were plenty of Kux-Alrich advocates in the room.

And why not? We wanted to speak in favor of preserving this home. To me, this seemed to embody a central part of the Delaware Wild Lands’ noble mission to conserve and manage the site’s “biodiversity” and “traditional uses of the land.”

If farming and building a house in 1760 aren’t “traditional uses of the land,” I’m not sure what are.

Despite the outcry, Delaware Wild Lands decided preserving the house was outside its mission (see comments by Executive Director here). So, they offered anyone with the means to take the house and move it elsewhere. (This is one example of what is involved in moving a house.) Unfortunately, no one took them up on the offer. (It is possible to board up historic buildings. See the example of the stone house at Historic Elk Landing.) Happily, at some point in time, it seems that Delaware Wildlands allowed the University of Delaware’s Center for Historic Architecture document the house.

But now, that house is just that – a pile of documents. Some time around May 27, 2014, after the New Castle County review board could no longer sit on the permit request, Delaware Wild Lands razed the 1760 home. That means it was destroyed.

So how do we prevent this from happening again? First, I should note that not all historic places or things can or should be saved. As a cultural heritage professional, I make decisions about what should be discarded as well as preserved on a daily basis. I’ve probably made some decisions future historians will find inane. It’s difficult to determine now what’s worthy of preserving for the future. But in the case of the Kux-Alrich House, no one has persuaded me that the house, its landscape, and all of us would be better off without it. What’s a landscape without its history or a history without its landscape?

This is a view of the Robert Ashton House in Port Penn, Delaware. You can see why Alrich and Delaware Wildlands chose to use this landscape. It's a beauty.
This is a view of the Robert Ashton House (built around 1700) in Port Penn, Delaware. You can see why Ashton, Alrich, and Delaware Wild Lands chose to put their stamps on this landscape. It’s a beauty (HABS).

Let this be a lesson to us that we should remember the interconnectedness of conserving the land and preserving the stuff on it. We can start by doing a better job cultivating environmental and cultural stewards from a young age before we loose more traces of what it meant to be human in Delaware. People shaped what comprises Delaware Wild Lands just as much as they shaped that house. We can learn and benefit from both.

I wish I had learned more about this place before it was destroyed. I will always wonder what it was like to walk into that house and admire the views of the wetlands, the marshes, and the fields. Why did Alrich pick that spot? Why did his grandson stay? What made that house a home and a workspace? What was the house’s relationship to the land around it? Why did one of the last men who lived there love the house and the land so much that he had his ashes spread there?

I don’t know, and I never will.

Further Reading

For more about the history of the Alrich House, see the following articles and blog posts:

For a brief overview of Port Penn and its architectural heritage, see pages 208-210 in W. Barksdale Maynard’s Buildings of Delaware (2008).

For a more in-depth study of Port Penn and its built and environmental heritage, see pages 281-315 in Gabrielle M. Lanier and Bernard L. Herman in Everyday Architecture of the Mid-Atlantic (1997).

If you want more detail on the life of Peter Alrich, see Kate Hutchinson’s The Unbeatable Dutchman (2011).

Nearby History

There’s nothing like a few days of spectacular weather to encourage two Ph.D. students to get out of the house. Last Saturday, my partner Tyler and I ventured to Havre de Grace, Maryland, to investigate the town and its museums. We found a great used book store just a few steps away from the town’s oldest extant building.

Rogers House, 1788, Havre de Grace, MD
The Rogers House, built around 1788, survived the British burning of the town in 1813

We also learned that this circa 1900 Shad Shack’s preservation depends on the public’s beneficence.

Circa 1900 Shad Shack, Havre de Grave Maritime Museum
Circa 1900 Shad Shack, oldest known surviving example from the Upper Chesapeake Bay

Its interior is intact, too. As I have written elsewhere, I am entranced by the interpretive value workspace “period rooms” hold for us.

Shad Shack Interior

On the way back to Newark, we spontaneously followed a sign for “historic” Elk Landing. Little else along busy route 40 indicated its presence just a stone’s throw down the road save this liquor store featuring a Revolutionary War soldier graphic.

Elk Landing Liquor Store from Route 40 going West
Elk Landing Liquor Store from Route 40 going West – Always nice to see local businesses giving a nod to history

After we turned at the intersection and drove past a few homes and a prison, we encountered Elk Landing.

Historic Elk Landing
Historic Elk Landing

Elk Landing’s national historical significance lies in that General Howe’s troops supposedly navigated up to this site from farther the Chesapeake Bay during the Revolutionary War. From there, the British went on to the Philadelphia Campaign through northeastern Maryland, northern Delaware, and southeastern Pennsylvania. This movement culminated in the British defeat of the Americans in the battle of the Brandywine.

Today, in addition to the landscape itself, a circa 1800 home and a circa 1780 stone building on the Elk River constitute “Historic” Elk Landing.Hollingsworth House

The town of Elkton owns the site, and the group that cares for the property hosts occasional gatherings at the larger of the two buildings. The stone building, though not in use, has been thoughtfully boarded up. Perhaps the current keepers of the Kux Alrich House could get some inspiration from this type of preservation.

Eighteenth-Century Stone House at Elk Landing

We found a few signs indicating the yet-to-be-fulfilled intention to develop a “living history museum,” complete with a blacksmith shop and a cooperage.

Will a donor step forward to fund the cooperage?
Will a donor step forward to fund the cooperage?

At first, I thought this was an unfortunate failure. But I realized that the group smartly decided not to go ahead with each of these projects until they had funding for them. For now, the buildings and the landscape are preserved, well-kept, and accessible to history nerds like us (and a giant turkey vulture.)

This visit to Elk Landing capped off the end of an enjoyable day.  By the following afternoon, I was eager to visit the site where Howe’s troops first landed in Maryland, before they marched up to Elk Landing.

So as the afternoon started to wane, Tyler and I went off to find Elk Ferry, known as Oldfield’s Point in the 1770s.

Oldfield's Point, Maryland

Turns out our friends at Google have also labeled the point on its map, but, frustratingly, someone had marked the road to the point as private. Soldiering on, we cruised by some homes along the shore just north and east of Oldfield’s Point, and we could, in fact, see water from the car. Still unsatisfied, we Googled some more and came across a historical marker that commemorates the overlook of Howe’s landing.

Overlook General Howe Landing Map
Overlook of General Howe’s Landing, marked on a map

At first, I was bummed that we couldn’t get to Oldfield’s Point. I had wanted to be where Howe and his troops at landed. But we deemed the overlook

Overlook of General Howe's Landing
Overlook of General Howe’s Landing

…which was in front of a church outdoor amphitheater that also overlooked the Bay was quite charming in and of itself. And if we had been able to drive down Oldfield Point Circle, we might not have bothered to find the overlook. According to Battle of Cooch’s Bridge (1940), “the people were numerous and well-dressed” when they watched Howe and his men make their way onto the shore from this spot. I find it fascinating that, historically, civilians turned out to take in military maneuvers and battles. We generally avoid doing that today, if only because we would be in comparatively more danger given the increased power and precision of modern weaponry.

Hart's United Methodist Church Amphitheater, overlooking where Howe landed  in 1777 at Oldfield's Point
Hart’s United Methodist Church Amphitheater, overlooking where Howe landed in 1777 at Oldfield’s Point

We had assumed we would have to drive to the end of Elk Neck just to the west to get to or see the landing site. Thanks to the overlook, that wasn’t the case. Even though we made it there and spied Oldfield’s Point, we decided to venture to the end of the peninsula, anyway, to see what the State Park there had to offer. After making a short trek down a path along the water, in the shadow of an early nineteneth-century lighthouse, we took in a magnificent view of the Chesapeake Bay.

IMG_4503

We thought day two’s hunt would provide us with an  hour-long distraction. Instead, we found several “new to us” historic sites nearby that, at first, eluded our abilities to make good use of our reference books and maps. If Google or other powers that be had marked these local historical sites on Google Maps (as we initially wished they had), we would have spent far too few hours exploring our nearby history.