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First State, Lasting Impacts

Post and photo courtesy Cherilyn Widell

Under bright blue skies on a cool spring day on the Green in New Castle, Delaware, an excited group of Delawareans and some Pennsylvanians gathered to celebrate the designation, on March 25, of the First State National Monument by President Obama.  Native son, Vice President Biden, Delaware Senator Carper, Interior Secretary Salazar and NPS Director Jarvis clearly were brimming with enthusiasm for the National Monument Proclamation, which brings a National Park Service presence to Delaware for the very first time.

Vice President Biden dedicates a new National Monument in his State
Vice President Biden dedicates a new National Monument in his State

According to the NPS Brochure for the Monument entitled,” The Promise of a Better Life” which was prepared, just in time for the program,” Delaware’s small size belies its influence in events that shaped the nation. It was the “ First State” to ratify the United States Constitution, Delaware also played key roles in early colonization and European Settlement, religious freedom, the Declaration of Independence, the Underground Railroad, school desegregation, and pioneering efforts in conservation and open space.” The 1100 acre Woodlawn Property which straddles the Delaware and Pennsylvania line, was acquired by the National Park Service through a gift from the Conservation Fund with 21 million dollars donated by Delaware’s Mount Cuba.  In addition to the Woodlawn Property, the First State National Monument includes, the Dover Green, the New Castle Court House, the Sherriff’s House in New Castle and the New Castle Green. A highlight of the ceremony was a recitation by the entire audience of the Preamble of the Constitution.

More on the Woodlawn Property

Situated in the heart of the Brandywine River Valley of Delaware and Pennsylvania, the Rockford Woodlawn Property, acquired by William Penn from the Duke of York in 1682 and surveyed in 1701, reveals aspects of our country’s earliest origins and development—specifically Penn’s vision for settling Quakers in the region. The property straddles and contains the demarcation line known as “the 12 mile arc” originally drawn in a circle from the New Castle courthouse and marked by merestones located on Woodlawn, which first established the boundaries of the colonies of Pennsylvania and Delaware. The heritage of the Lenni Lenape is found in the Beaver Valley Rock Shelter, which is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Additionally, eighteenth century Quaker settlement patterns have survived over two hundred years, while the area around it has rapidly developed, and are intact as a collection of farmsteads and milling properties which dot this vernacular cultural landscape.

The Woodlawn Property embodies a story, an American story of the Brandywine River, a cotton mill, a philanthropist and parklands. It is an extraordinary story because it developed so quietly. It is an extraordinary story because the ending was ensured over one hundred years ago through the generosity of a Quaker Industrialist named William Poole Bancroft (1835-1928) with funds generated from the power of the Brandywine, the same river he sought to preserve.

Bancroft’s family owned one of the most prosperous mills in Wilmington, Delaware, a cotton mill known as the Bancroft Mills, which during the Civil War began generating huge profits. At age 50, Bancroft began “giving back” to his beloved City of Wilmington and his neighbors by donating land for parks and engaging the best landscape architect in the U.S.- Frederick Law Olmstead, within the City limits. These projects paled in comparison to the vision Bancroft had in store for his neighbors in the coming decades.

The 1880’s and 1890’s were a time of early town planning efforts, ”social engineering”, welfare work and industrial experiments between management and labor in England and the United States.  In England, the place where the Industrial Revolution began, industrialists named William Lever, a soap manufacturer and Joseph Rowntree, and George Cadbury, chocolate manufacturers, were creating real communities, not just company towns. These communities had houses and roads and parks and trees designed to provide an uplifting environment for the common working laborer. By 1898, international publications were featuring the most celebrated of all, the model village known as the “Bournville Experiment” of the Cadbury Bros. The well-read and knowledgeable Bancroft was a frequent traveler to England who arranged to be introduced to Cadbury and see this famous place. He must have liked what he saw.

Bournville was not just a new type of company housing or working-class housing scheme nor was it to be a pretty suburb for professional retired people. Cadbury visualized a home for workers of many types—employers and employees, managers and operatives, tradesmen and clerks. He built his houses in varied groups of two, three and four, gave them gardens, planted trees along the roads and laid out open spaces. Between 1895 and 1900, George Cadbury had built 300 houses.. Parkways and open spaces linked the different neighborhoods and schools, shops, libraries, recreational facilities and churches were constructed as well. The protection of open space was also part of the plan; the Bournville Village Trust had en early role in protecting an agricultural landscape by managing 1300 acreson behalf of the British National Trust.

By 1901, Bancroft had decided to give much of his time, most of his land, all of his ingenuity and a vast portion of his fortune to developing his own version of Bournville which became known as Woodlawn. It was not a separate town like Cadbury’s, but an experiment of affordable housing, wise planning and open space and parks that was integrated into the fabric of Wilmington. It was intended to benefit the people of Wilmington by providing housing for people of modest means, parks and open space accessible to all, and careful development of land in order to preserve open space while providing income for the work of the Woodlawn Trustees. The result was a foundation for modern community planning which is precedent setting in the United States.

To make sure that his “objects” continued well beyond his lifetime, the industrialist created the Woodlawn Trustees, Inc. (first called the Woodlawn Company), a not-for-profit corporation, patterned after Cadbury’s Bournville Village Trust. Bancroft and his Woodlawn Trustees, Inc. are the only example in the United States of a community planning experiment which put in place an entity to insure its goals were achieved long term. The goals of the Woodlawn Trustees, Inc. were to make money through the sale and wise planning of land to continue the work which Bancroft himself had outlined for the corporation- affordable housing, wise planning and the assemblage of parklands and open space.

Before the Garden City movement arrived in the United States, Bancroft had built 270 brick houses, with affordable rents, open to all workers. Each house had a garden and private entrance and was located along a parkway.

Before there was community planning in the United States, Bancroft worked with landscape architect Charles Leavitt to “ secure a subdivision of property as will be economically valuable, designed to meet the demands of all grades of wealth, including that of the day laborer.” Today, a drive along Bancroft Parkway is a drive through neighborhoods of all grades of wealth.

Before anyone but Bancroft saw that Wilmington and Philadelphia might one day meet, Bancroft began amassing more than 1300 acres for parklands beyond the boundaries of Wilmington. In a speech he made before the Brandywine Grange in 1909, Bancroft reasoned, land in the Brandywine Hundreds would someday be needed for its environmental and aesthetic value.

Bancroft and the directors, later Woodlawn Trustees, following the Bournville Experiment model, successfully implemented a community planning experiment which constructed flats for the common working laborer, planned residential areas and parks, created a parkway, and acquired land beyond the city limits for a future park for the region- all of which still retain integrity and have remained under the control of the Trustees until now.

The Rockford Woodlawn property now under consideration as a  national monument was acquired in its entirety over one hundred years ago, primarily for conservation as a park by the Quaker Industrialist William Poole Bancroft (1835-1928) to provide open space and parklands for the City of Wilmington for the time “100 years hence” when it would become “a city of a hundred thousand or more.”

Since that time, the Woodlawn property has been held in trust largely as it was when Bancroft acquired it in the early years of the twentieth century:  farm fields and forests predominate, sprinkled with old farmsteads, bridges, and a few roads and trails.  It has been off the market for 100 years !! Although the land and its development includes several eighteenth century houses (as well as later buildings) and may reflect the nineteenth century cultural landscape that lent it form, it is not considered nationally significant for this context.  Instead, its national significance is derived from its legacy as a part of William Bancroft’s vision for Wilmington and for the preservation of a portion of the Brandywine River valley for posterity.

Bancroft speculated in 1909 that this would take 100 years and it has.

Eleanor Roosevelt once stated that “ The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.”  Mr. Bancroft surely had a beautiful dream for his neighbors in the protection of this land for posterity.

And now, at last, it seems that Mr. Bancroft’s vision will succeed., one hundred years later as he predicted.

And the Brandywine Hundreds land, just as William Bancroft had worked so hard before his death in 1928 to insure is now likely to become a National Park and a gift to us all.

Thank you to Cherilyn Widell for submitting this post.



One Response

  1. Mrs Widell; greetings! My hat is off to you for this elaborate submission @ WILLIAM POOLE BANCROFT & HIS LEGACY. Being an alumnus of his namesake Junior High School class of 1971, fairness demand that I share my long interest in who? this man’s portrait in the lobby belongs to. Only a second year resident in Wilmington at the time, migrating from Hephzibah, Georgia via John Palmer Elementary School of South(bridge) Wilmington, I found myself today to have been extremely fortunate to have been a product of lessons (still in heart & mind) thoroughly imbued by instructors with a love for all creation. The internet education suggests the public library was his imagination child as well. True or False. I spent many hours and necessary Saturdays in this sanctuary. I had to respond with some degree of homage and respect due for this idividual of pure decency and love of nature and people. Mrs. Widell, you are a credit to your university; an asset to the trustees of the corporation and staff of the Park Service. PLEASE, take a bow or curtsy; for your enlightened manner of presentation on this notable subject