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).

1 thought on “The End of a “Delaware Backstory”

  1. Congratulations, Nicole!
    What a good job you have done in speaking up for this old house!
    I very much appreciate your efforts!

    Kim Burdick, Advisor Emeritus, National Trust for Historic Preservation

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