The first mill at Greenbank was reportedly called the Swede’s Mill dating from 1677. Not much is known of this mill except a vague description and undeciphered archaeological remains. In the 1760’s, the present gristmill was built as a merchant mill to export flour. 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 Cooches Bridge.
After the Revolutionary War, the mill declined and was sold at auction in 1790. New mill owner Robert Philips contracted with Delaware inventor and neighbor, Oliver Evans (1755-1819) in 1793 to have Evans’ milling system installed. Evans received U.S. Patent No. 3 for his revolutionary milling system which he developed along the banks of Red Clay Creek less than a mile from Greenbank.
Using a network of bucket elevators and screw conveyors, Evans automated the milling process, saving much time and labor. His engineering genius led to other inventions, including the high-pressure steam engine. At Greenbank, the new machinery brought success allowing the mill owners to expand and diversify.
In 1810 a stone building was constructed next to the gristmill, expanding operations to include wool processing. The new building was called the Madison Factory, after President James Madison. Strong anti-British sentiments in existence prior to the War of 1812 and trade restrictions encouraged the development of American textiles. A need for fine wool led to speculation in merino sheep. The Madison Factory grew to house the entire wool production process, from the back of the sheep to the back of man. The process included departments for carding, spinning, weaving and finishing as well as a complete dye house.
But American woolens could not compete with cheaper goods from England once hostilities ceased. Trying to adapt to the changing market, the millers began producing a variety of wood products in 1850. Sawmills had been a part of the ever-growing complex since 1824, but now Thomas Blanchard’s woodworking machines and the first circular saw mill in New Castle County were added. Blanchard’s irregular copying lathe and bending machine were important in changing woodworking from hand work to a production line process. The mill began producing bentwood camp chairs, spokes and felloes for carriages, tool handles, ladders, and croquet sets. Woodworking ended at the mill in 1881 when a partner embezzled $20,000.
After nearly a century, the mill left the Philips family control when it was sold at sheriff’s sale. Ownership of the mill changed often during the next few decades as Greenbank Mill tried to define its role in the changing marketplace.
Roy Magargal and the 20th Century
In 1925, Greenbank Mill was operating as a gristmill and a wholesale/retail feed business. It was at that time that J. Roy Magaragal (1893-1972) came to work at the mill. Starting as a truck driver, he learned the miller’s trade on the job. He continued working at the mill the rest of his life, through several owners and partnerships. Even after the 1969 fire, he ran a feed business out of the office. Long-time residents of the area still remember Mr. Magargal and the special place his milling operation had in the community.
In 1969, a devastating fire set by arsonists ended nearly three centuries of milling at Greenbank. The stone Madison Factory was destroyed, and the frame gristmill was gutted, creating a need for extensive restorations.
Greenbank Mill Associates
Shortly before the fire, a group formed as The Friends of Greenbank Mill – A Division of Historic Red Clay Valley which opened the mill as a museum (with Roy Magargal still milling during the week). Ravaged by fire, this Delaware treasure faced the threat of fading into a memory on the landscape. After several years of struggling to save and restore the mill, the group incorporated in 1987 as The Greenbank Mill Associates, Inc.
GMA is a non-profit organization dedicated to preserving the Greenbank Mill National Historic District as a public museum, and expanding public knowledge of Red Clay Valley industrial, agricultural, and social history through on-site educational and recreational programming.
A Bold Vision
The Greenbank Mill Associates knew that telling the story of the mill required understanding how it fit into its community. Pursuit of this idea led to a plan that recreates a glimpse of Delaware during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. By restoring or reconstructing the industrial, agricultural, and residential elements of the Historic District, GMA provide s a complete picture of the early republic in the First State. Visitors experience the connections between raw materials and finished products, home industry and industrialization, and farms and foods. By walking in the footsteps of the past and experiencing daily life, we gain a better understanding of our present.
The Gristmill Restoring and Reconstructing the Past
Since the devastating fire in 1969, work has concentrated on restoring the mill structures. The 1760 gristmill was restored using the strategy of adaptive reuse. The award winning restoration included a mill machinery exhibit and education facility. By creating two apartments and using the education facility as a community rental facility during under-utilized periods, the adaptive reuse provides revenue to assist with operating expenses. The 1810 woolen mill, known as the Madison Factory, was completed in 1999. The reconstructed building will contain reconstructed textile machinery including a working 19th century dye house. Currently, the Madison Factory houses textile exhibits and demonstrations on the 2nd floor and a work area where visitors can watch and even participate in some of the restoration activities.
In the gristmill, GMA is reconstructing a full-scale working exhibit of Delaware inventor Oliver Evans’ automatic milling machinery. The reconstructed machinery will be powered by an 18-foot diameter oak water wheel, which was completed in 2001. With the help of skilled artisans, professional contractors, and community volunteers, it is hoped that the exhibit will be operational during 2004.
The water system is the defining element of any water powered mill. The millwright that decided to construct the buildings, wheels, and races at Greenbank chose their location based on the topography and water potential at this location on Red Clay Creek. GMA has been studying and mapping the races and water power structures since 1993 in order to understand how the sources of power for the mill originally worked. Many structures were damaged by flooding requiring major repairs and a pump to get water into the race. The rehabilitation of the water system was completed in October 2001.
Archaeological and documentary research has led to a greater understanding of how the water system or actually systems worked. The diversion channel was the original 17th century dam site but sometime in the 18th or 19th century Red Clay Creek cut a course around the dam. The diversion Channel and main dam were then constructed to recapture the water and supply of power to the three water wheels (gristmill, Madison Factory, and sawmill). The current water system contains elements from the 17th, 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries.
The Philips House
Robert Philips constructed the miller’s house in 1794 and later generations constructed a bank barn in 1850. GMA acquired this property in 1997 and is currently working to convert the structures to museum space. The house will contain reproduction furnishings in period rooms that represent the daily activities of food preparation, sleeping quarters, social areas, and home industry. The barn will house rotating exhibits that reflect the seasonal changes in an early 19th century barn. Programs in both structures will encourage visitors to interact with the furnishings through demonstrations and hands-on activities.
In addition to buildings, GMA is working to preserve our genetic past. On the Greenbank farm are heritage livestock breeds of sheep – Leicester Longwools and Delaine Merino. The Leicester breed had died out in America in 1990 but thanks to the work of Colonial Williamsburg there are now 250. Five reside at Greenbank to represent the sheep of colonial America. The woolen mill was constructed to process the newly introduced merino wool from Spain. The Delaine Merino are the descendants of those 19th century merino that grazed at Greenbank and created the foundation for modern breeds. GMA has begun a conservation breeding.
The Water System
The water system is the defining element of any water-powered mill. The millwright who decided to construct the buildings, wheels, and races at Greenbank chose the location on topography and water potential at this location on Red Clay Creek. GMA has been studying and mapping the races and water power structures since 1993 in order to understand how the sources of power for the mill originally worked. The rehabilitation of the water system was completed in October 2001. The current water system contains elements from the 17th, 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries.
After adjustments to the millrace gates and final connections between the water wheel and the mill machinery were completed, Greenbank Mill dedicated the reconstructed 18-foot diameter water wheel on April 27, 2002. This was the first time a water wheel has supplied power to the mill since 1870, when the wheel was replaced with turbines.
The Struggle to Restore Greenbank
Two natural events provided challenges during the restoration of Greenbank Mills.
In 1999, Hurricane Floyd pushed over already damaged walls in the diversion channel. New permits had to be acquired from both the Corps of Engineers and DNREC because the scope of work had changed. Among other flood-related projects. the water wheel had to be rebuilt yet again due to severe damage.
On September 15, 2003 a freak storm brought more struggles: the storm dropped 8 ½ inches of rain in the Red Clay Creek watershed in twelve hours. The flood that resulted brought over twelve feet of water down the Red Clay Valley in less than two hours. Water rose to chest high levels in the first floor of the gristmill and textile mill, reaching the highest level in living memory and possibly recorded history. The damage, however, was mostly to the modern components of the gristmill and Madison Factory, the bridges, and part of the water system that had not been restored. The success of Greenbank’s recovery so far is the direct result of the hard work many volunteers. Thousands of hours spent shoveling mud, cleaning objects, removing walls, and sweeping made a real difference.