In the News
The Cooch House
By Keith Craig,
Newark Life Magazine
For more than three centuries, the northwest corner of Delaware has been hoarding cultural sagas as varied as the region’s topography.
Within salient Iron Hill, where once originated a Lenape Indian supply chain of jasper arrowheads, an immigrant Welsh population mined metal. As the iron ran out, colonial Americans trod the shortest route between the Delaware and Chesapeake Bays and established a thriving portage.
This crossroads begat primitive railroads, incipient turnpikes, lucrative milling and a solitary Revolutionary battle. Besides the Welsh, other newcomers arrived on the banks of the meandering Christina (nee Minqua) River: Dutch, Swedes, English, French, Germans, Africans, Finns, Irish.
Denizens needed transportation, transportation delivered industry. Industry sought education. Education requires people (and vice versa).
Today, the portage has become Interstate 95. The industry ranges from DuPont to Chrysler to Astra-Zeneca. University of Delaware stands as an educational archetype.
On the brink of tomorrow, each new story etches itself on the chronicles of Newark and its environs, piling high as Iron Hill upon yesterday’s tales.
On the edge of oblivion, that past needs a champion.
It’s got one.
The Pencader Heritage Area Association (PHAA)—a score of Newark-area individuals committed to proclaiming and preserving “the rich heritage of the Pencader Hundred area”—avidly mine the region for historical jewels.
They’ve found plenty. They share them all.
You’ve probably noticed the brown signs—recently erected along local roads that welcome visitors to the Pencader Heritage Area—and wondered what in the name of Purgatory Swamp is Pencader Hundred.
“Pencader” is Welsh for “highest seat” and refers to the establishment of Baptist meeting houses throughout the 30,000-acre Welsh Tract that was granted by William Penn to David Evans, William Davis, and William Willis in 1701 within the northwest portion of the lower three counties of Pennsylvania (i.e. Delaware).
“Hundred” refers to a territorial subdivision decreed by Anglo-Saxon law and borrowed, possibly, by the European immigrants from Frank kings prior to 595 A.D. (“Delaware may be the last place on earth that still recognizes the ‘hundred’ as a legitimate polity,” posits Bob Barnes, PHAA’s pre-eminent historian and retired Newark police officer.)
Placing the signs has been the latest effort by the PHAA to broadcast the trove of historical gems running like a spool of emeralds from Chestnut and Iron Hill down to Glasgow.
Brown signs along the highway, graphic placards at Dayett Mills, Family Fun Day (every September), outreach programs to schools and civic organizations, and one dandy website testify to the collective ardor, knowledge, industriousness, and know-how of the PHAA.
The legacy of the Pencader Hundred is in a few, very capable hands.
“I‘d call (the PHAA) a grassroots effort to educate the people of our area to the cultural heritage,” Says Colonel Glenn Pusey, the association’s current president. “Delaware is a state with rapid growth; many longtime residents aren’t aware of local historical sites. Recent residents aren’t either. But the Pencader area was instrumental to the formation of this country. Our motive is to try to make people aware of what was here.”
Pusey stands a sentry’s shout from where Cornwallis’s redcoats battled colonial militias at Cooch’s Bridge in 1777. The fieldstone Cooch House stands aloof and proud next to the transparent waters of Christina Creek that burble intimations of revolution – both political and industrial. A core of the PHAA has gathered on a brilliant winter’s Saturday at a slight remove from the intersection of Old Baltimore Pike and Route 72, just beyond Glasgow, just south of Newark, in an open field riven by a sluiceway and leading to the preserved and operable Dayett Mill, an edifice of Victorian brick.
Pencader Heritage Area Association members (left to right) John Slack, Glenn Pusey, Ed Wirth, Ronni and Frank Romanelli, standing in front of recently erected placards near Cooch’s Bridge on Old Baltimore Pike.
Turning away from the highway, the assembled group spies a scene straight from the mid-1800s. Spindly trees outline broad expanses of fallow cornfield. The sluiceway gently arcs on its path to the florid-cheeked mill huddling under its mansard roof, a skullcap pulled low across the brow. A jaunty wagon led by two gray mares and laden with gingham sacks full of corn flour should emerge from around the mill’s far corner.
Instead, an approaching helicopter’s thwop-thwop-thwop breaks the reverie and drowns out Pusey. The whirlybird hovers, lands, and launches again. Less than half a mile away, I-95 whisks nimble commuters with pressing priorities to modern destinations with progressive attractions.
A retired Air Force civil engineer and Delaware Air National Guard, Pusey has traveled the world, and returned to roost in Newark, research the Welsh tract, and recover the Pencader Hundred.
He is joined by Frank and Ronnie Romanelli, a refugee couple from New Jersey, who seem to tag-team every hurdle that the PHAA encounters. More research needed on a topic? Ronnie’s already found it and committed it to memory. Build a website? Design a brochure? Frank’s on it. A former telephone company employee, Frank does anything that none of the other dozen-and-a-half PHAA members can do. Every volunteer organization needs a Frank and Ronnie.
Pusey points to the informative displays developed by the PHAA and installed with the help of an in-services grant from New Castle County.
“The group works to get the information together, capture some of the history and develop the layout. Frank takes all this, refines it, and puts it into a (software) program that allows us to have these printed. Without him . . .,” Pusey’s voice trails off in genuine admiration.
Frank deflects the implicit praise by explaining the facts about the PHAA method of broadcasting its findings on a tight budget.
“We do this completely in-house. There’s nobody consulting from outside. We own the copyright.”
A reflective pall consumes the coterie. The mid-afternoon sun softens jagged winter and promises spring’s renewal.
Ed Wirth, past president of the PHAA who possesses the decorum of a C.E.O. and eloquence of Orson Wells, emphasizes, “We want people involved; people with an interest in history.”
As he walks toward the PHAA headquarters in a stateowned barn across the field, Pusey nods toward the Romanellis and asserts with precision befitting a military man, “Without these two we’d be dead in the water.”
Five minutes later, Pusey, Romanellis, Wirth, and John Slack join the other PHAA members in a warren of rooms on the ground floor of the Pencader Barn at the Cooch-Dayett Mills Complex, PHAA’s headquarters and nascent museum. In a tidy anteroom, easeled placards welcome visitors, announce the home of Scout Pack 1777 (an intentional designation), and introduce the decorative motif of the PHAA—information, information, information.
Inside the inner chamber, other PHAA members have assembled around a long plank table. Artifacts and framed documents sprawl along the room’s bricked, L-shaped perimeter. Packed with people and bulging with items of the PHAA’s research—maps, diagrams, photographs, the museum exudes a mystical coziness. The inviting aroma of warm brownies (made by volunteer Barbara White) mingles with greetings. Coffee and tea are offered.
In a far corner, a computer blithely awaits an operator. “Bob (Barnes) will set up a research area in this room that will allow people to do research with him from all his archives,” Pusey declares. “One of our intents is to make available for scholars a resource for research”.
Barnes, an unflagging chronicler of Pencader people and places, adds his imprimatur to the proceedings through a snowy beard, booming voice and gray wisps of pipe smoke. The author (with Judith Pfeiffer) of a biography on Everett Johnson (long-ago publisher of the Newark Post, UD benefactor, and proprietor of the Press of Kells) and numerous other tomes, Barnes uses the computer most. When he’s not, he’s generously offering copies of maps and narratives, background on PHAA activities, and Pencader trivia (i.e. “Slack is the second largest family in the Welsh Track. Cooch is largest” and “Cornwallis allegedly garrisoned his horse in the Cooch kitchen”).
A Revolutionary War monument commemorating the Battle of Cooch’s Bridge, on Baltimore Pike.
Raynor Johnson is the former and last owner of the Dayett Mill. He began working there in 1945, purchased the mill in 1960, and sold it in the early 1990’s to Griffith Helicopter, hence the earlier, aerial interruption. The millworks remain inside the structure and operable. With the finesse of Capote, Johnson can edify a visitor to the most arcane minutiae of 19th-century industry as easily as he can describe 21st-century demographics. For both topics Johnson musters a swelling conviction.
“We are a highly mobile community. We have to remember that one person out of four moves in and out of this area, so every four years we have a new population in the state. To keep the state government going we need to educate everyone to what’s here. We’ve got New Castle County Heritage. We’d like to see a greenway through Pencader as part of the National Heritage Trail that stretches from Florida to Maine. This is going to be a major heritage area tied into national programs as well as state and local.”
A carriage house on the Cooch property.
Bill Conley takes point on diversifying the association’s message and purpose. As professional educator, Conley reaches out to local schools, scout troops, and other institutions in an effort to enlighten such groups to the deep history of the area. He believes there are plenty of opportunities to educate and learn from the community, and he enjoys finding them. “For instance,” he noted, “in 1951, Chrysler began building the Patton M48 tank in Newark. With our outreach efforts to schools and organizations, we want them to let us tell the military role Pencader played (in the Cold War).”
The PHAA also houses an electronic record of Pencader’s past.
“Ed and John get speakers who have lots of knowledge of Pencader to come to our meetings,” explains Pusey.
“Ed videotapes the talk. Then Frank digitizes them on CD. We now have a library of recorded oral history that can be borrowed. That’s an ongoing program.”
Says Wirth, “Our job is to contact lots of people. John has the contacts, his family having lived here for (seven generations). We’ve preserved a talk by (the late) Jim Owens; it’s invaluable!”
Marcia Adams collects private oral histories from the Pencader area. Adams enjoys her role with Pencader. “Everything is here,” she declares. “Even Old New Castle is a gem; it’s like Williamsburg, but not commercialized.”
Lowell Jacobs playing hand-made banjo to an audience of wood carving demonstration at Pencader Heritage Area Association museum.
To make a living, Lowell Jacobs owns and runs Landmark Engineering. To make a life, Jacobs wears a tri-corner hat, crafts banjos with his hands, and carves figurines from wood blocks. Garrulous and glib, Jacobs exudes self-reliance and rugged individualism, not to mention a sense of humor. At one point during the afternoon, his bellowing voice warbled a traditional bluegrass tune accompanied by a hand-carved banjo. He is the life of this party.
When asked how much more Pencader Hundred history remains to be excavated, the history buffs responded in unison, “A lot!”
An afternoon in the Pencader Hundred has itself, become history. Some PHAA volunteers begin excusing themselves and depart. Crumbs dapple the brownie tray. Coffee mugs have been drained. Shadows stretch up the brick walls.
But enthusiasm lingers, as substantive as a jasper tomahawk, iron kettle, or Patton M48 tank.
During the waning minutes, Johnson describes Pencader Heritage Day (September 22, 2007).
“It’s public outreach that gives an opportunity for visitors to learn about Pencader history. With a pile of wood, some glue, and the fact he looks like an historical figure, Lowell does a lot with young people that day. It’s hands on history.”
Pusey, ever the host, adds, “We want to enlighten people to what can be lost.”
Frank Romanelli states, “Our goal is to let the public know as opposed to keeping Pencader to ourselves. We want to teach, we want to show them the history.”
Jacobs strums his banjo, croons, and tosses around some facts and some humor.
“This here’s a five string mountain-style banjo made from forest cut wood,” begins Jacobs in a clipped, rapid cadence. “A farmer could build this at home after the day’s work is done, the harvest in. Simplest version would take him about a hundred hours. Ground hog head is the banjo’s skin. The rest of the ground hog doubled for dinner.”
Jacobs picks, grins, and sings again. Close your eyes. Imagine Jacobs on the eastern lawn of the Cooch homestead, alongside the Christina River, during a party with women twirling parasols and wearing hoop skirts and men dashing in bowlers, sack coats, vests, and trousers. It’s ear’s-on history.
Jacobs finishes the ditty and commences the repartee.
“Frets are called frets because the farmer didn’t know how to space them,” he begins with a straight face. “The pegs would be bone. Only thing to buy would be strings. People were very self-reliant.”
He plays again, the banjo’s twang somehow harmonizing with his yodel. He stops.
“I’ve created more music than most other people around,” he confides. “I’ve made 175 instruments. Those 175 musicians make a lot of music.”
He then admits, “For every instrument, I follow the true tradition of a craftsman – I use whatever I can get my hands on.”
After giving his regards, Ed Wirth stops at the threshold, and addresses the nearly vacant museum. “This is a great crew,” he says.
With banjo still in hand, Jacobs gives an encore.
“I had a none-to-bright cousin Leroy who I found one day fishing in the hole of his outhouse. I said, ‘Leroy, what are you doing fishing in the pot?’ And Leroy said, ‘I dropped my jacket down there.’ I said, ‘You can’t possibly want that jacket now.’ He said, ‘No, I don’t; but there’s a sandwich in the pocket.’”
The Cooch House
Photo by e. Coburn
The PHAA, a resolute team of searchers, researchers, preservers, and at least one artiste, sustains Pencader Hundred history despite today’s encroachment that threatens to bury it in an avalanche of subdivisions and strip malls.
How can a past as dense and deep as any swamp in which Redcoats foundered be conceded? A past whose nuances twist and turn as often as seven-miles of the Christina River which wend through it. A past that only recently has been tapped, only recently begun to flow, and only recently begun to disappear. To what detriment?
The Pencader Heritage Area Association prefers not to find out. It aims to stem the disappearance, promote the stories, and preserve that which staged aboriginal economies, religious toleration, political revolution, nascent railroads, and industrial might.
In Act II, Scene 2 of The Tempest, Shakespeare wrote, “What’s past is prologue.”
Pencader Hundred’s 300-year preamble triggered the signal efforts of the PHAA. Still more historical jewels await discovery.
Miners—Welsh or otherwise—wanted.