History

A HISTORY OF SHARPLEY

The deed that created the Sharpley subdivision was recorded in October 1956.  However the area roads that helped to define it were developed two centuries earlier, as connectors for two historic communities.  One was Rockland village on the Brandywine River, which became an active industrial center, and the other was Talleyville, which became a meeting hub for the many farms along the Concord Pike.

About three years prior to Eleuthere duPont’s 1802 start-up of his gunpowder mills on the Brandywine, William Young had already started making paper upstream at Rockland.  Young was a Scottish entrepreneur who had opened a paper shop in Philadelphia, close to Independence Hall.  He sold the shop in 1801 and devoted all of his resources to the paper mill.  By 1825, he had acquired some 700 acres around Rockland village, erected a small stone church for his employees overlooking the river, and then built an impressive mansion on Black Gates Road.[1]

The commerce brought by the mills led to the construction of many local roads which would connect Rockland to the “Wilmington-Great Valley Turnpike”, a major toll road that came under new ownership in 1811 as the Concord Turnpike.  Since the Brandywine’s steep, rocky descent was not easily navigable downstream of Rockland, horse drawn wagons became the only practical means of getting products to market until railroads appeared later in the century.  The area roads that we travel today were also well used by duPont, Young and others.  It may be hard to imagine but the Wilmington-Talleyville corridor of the Concord Pike was just as busy in 1825, at least in a relative sense, as it is today.  The vehicles just moved slower and made less noise!

On today’s maps, those roads are Rockland, Mount Lebanon, and Sharpley.  Also important was Black Gates Road, which linked the three together, although its location was a little different at the time.  It ran behind Young’s large stone mansion, called Ellerslie, which still stands at 507 Black Gates RoadWhat now appears as the front door of the house was originally its rear entrance![2] The white stone pillars that stand at the end of Black Gates Road, at the intersection with Rockland Road, were indeed black at the time.  They, and the small guardhouses next to them, secured the road down to duPont family homes and their Louviers gunpowder mills.

The lands between Rockland and the Concord Pike that now contain neighborhoods and golf courses were owned by about a dozen farmers by 1870.  Based on a map of the time, there also appeared to be about as many farms across the Pike between Talleyville and what is now Fairfax.  One of those farms was owned by William Sharpley, descended from one of the oldest families in the Brandywine Hundred.  His farm, which today would occupy much of Fairfax Shopping Center and the developments behind it, gave name to Sharpley Road and, in 1956, our community.

Unfortunately, there is no definitive biography of William Sharpley or of others that owned the farm before him.  Like so many of the founding families in the Brandywine Hundred, familiar names like Weldin, Talley, Grubb, and Carr, one must uncover their histories in church records, letters and family bibles passed on to descendants.  Some still live in the area but others have moved on.  Their legacies, like that of the Sharpleys, are the roads that once connected their farms.

The earliest record of the Sharpley family in Delaware dates to 1691.  It was then that Adam Sharpley’s daughter, Rachel, married Thomas Pierson, a surveyor who worked for William Penn.  It was a Quaker ceremony held near Shellpot Creek, possibly at the Newark Union Church near Shipley Road and Baynard Boulevard.  Many members of the Sharpley family rest in its graveyard, one of the oldest in Northern Delaware.

Fortunately there is one Delaware history book that does provide some insights about the Sharpley family and life in the local area.  It is entitled Neighbors of the Wilmington – Great Valley Turnpike[3] and it contains a collection of family stories, genealogies and photographs of 19th century life along Concord Pike.  From it one can glean that the Sharpleys were a large and prominent family who were active in the Talleyville grange, area churches and other local organizations.

One of the more interesting stories from this book is that of Sharpley I, a one-room schoolhouse that dated to about 1850 and was located where Aldersgate Church stands today.  In all likelihood, it was built on land provided by the Sharpley family.  It’s hard to believe but, at the time, Sharpley 1 was the only school between the Wilmington City limits and Naaman’s Road.  It was quite primitive, lacked a well and indoor plumbing, but served the need.  In time, Alfred I. duPont would become its chief benefactor and eventually funded a new schoolhouse that came to be known as Sharpley II.  As the region grew in population in the 20th century, duPont purchased land further north in Talleyville for a much larger school that would accordingly bear his name.  Many of you may remember the school before it gave way to a shopping center at the north end of Whitby Road.  The baseball fields behind the center are a reminder of the activities that once took place after school.

An interesting photograph from the book shows William Sharpley’s prominent farmhouse.  A white picket fence separates it from the turnpike and open fields surround it.  In all likelihood, the farmlands behind the house would have provided an open vista clear to Foulk Road.

As noted, although our community takes its name from Sharpley Road and the Sharpley family, its formation can be credited to one man who lived in a very different world from the farmers of Brandywine Hundred.  He was a wealthy industrialist from Wilmington by the name of William Poole Bancroft.  In 1901, he created the Woodlawn Company, a corporation whose mission was to protect and preserve the natural environment of the lower Brandywine Valley, and do it in a way that provided well planned housing and responsible property development.  His vision was a response to the sprawling development and industrial ravage that threatened Wilmington in the last half of the 19th century.

Woodlawn became the developer of Alapocas Woods, Woodbrook, Edenridge, Tavistock and Sharpley.  Each neighborhood was a model for community planning that integrated parkland into attractive, sustainable neighborhoods that shunned repetitious architectural styles.  By taking a moment to look back on Bancroft’s life, one gains insights into the Woodlawn principles that would ultimately shape the character of Sharpley and our deed covenants.

William Bancroft was born in 1835, the older of two sons of Joseph Bancroft.  Joseph had just started up a small cotton mill on the Brandywine River, which he named the Rockford Bleaching and Dye Works and Cotton Factory.  Joseph Bancroft was from an English Quaker family, had learned his trade from an uncle’s cotton mills in England and then came to America to be with his parents and 11 siblings.  Ironically, his first employment was in William Young’s rapidly expanding paper mills at Rockland.  In 1831, Joseph set out to start his own company and bought the flood-ravaged ruins of an old mill near Rockford Park.

When his sons William and Samuel came of age, they too worked in the mills and eventually became partners.  Thus began one of the country’s most significant textile producers, Joseph Bancroft & Sons Company.  The firm would remain in business for over a century, stay family owned and kept most of their operations at the original site (which eventually led to its failure).  They pioneered innovations that started with fine point cottons, traditionally dominated by England, which continued well into the 20th century with BanlonÒ, one of most popular synthetic textiles of the 1960’s.

Joseph and his sons became very wealthy.  Samuel acquired a world famous collection of 19th century Pre-Raphaelite art in the course of many business trips to England.  That collection, plus land which was once part of his estate, would become the start of the Delaware Art Museum.  William, however, was very different from his brother.  While Samuel collected the art of man, it might be said that William acquired the art of nature.  He started buying large tracts of land along the Brandywine, fearing that one day, both sides of the river would succumb to the same unchecked development that had overtaken the banks of the Christina River.

The Christina, being navigable by large boats, attracted heavy industries like shipbuilding and rail car construction.  On the other hand, the Brandywine became the site of smaller factories that harnessed its waterpower and shipped their products by wagon.  Even though these businesses were not as massive as those on the Christina, like Harlan and Hollingsworth ship builders, they still placed burdens on the river valley.  Whether it was paper, cotton, or gunpowder, the Brandywine mills brought people, pollution and the need for housing within close proximity.

These issues became even more alarming with the industrial growth that followed the Civil War.  Bancroft recognized that it was only a matter of time before industrial expansion reached past the Brandywine to the farmlands north of it.  As William Bancroft reflected on the responsibility of his wealth and the forces that had created it, he sought ways in which he might help preserve the open land that remained.  As a result, he agreed in 1883 to become a director of the newly formed Wilmington Park Commission, an organization that soon created the beautiful and timeless Brandywine Park in the city.  Over two decades, he provided leadership for other similar projects and became known as the father of the Wilmington Park System. Bancroft served as its president for fourteen years and while in that capacity, he donated over 220 acres of his own property to the city.  Today we know that gift as Rockford Park.[4]

Bancroft firmly believed that constructive city planning, manifested in attractive homes, parks, and playgrounds, would have long lasting benefits for those who lived among them.  With this concept in mind, he formed the Woodlawn Company, a for profit corporation, in 1901.  He transferred significant cash and land holdings to it as starting capital.  He also donated shares in the company to local charities.  Over the next two decades, Woodlawn broadened its focus from city planning to land use in the Brandywine Hundred.

That brought added responsibilities and expenses, which reduced dividends for shareholders.  Woodlawn reorganized in 1918 to a non-profit corporation, which was called Woodlawn Trustees.  That allowed it to reinvest its earnings back into land acquisition and development, its primary mission.  Not overlooking its social responsibilities, however, the charities that previously owned its stock were issued bonds in the new entity, which provided them with lower risk income over time.[5]

In the early 20th century, the Trustees acquired farmland along the Brandywine River north of Wilmington with the continued objective of orderly growth.  However, they adopted a different strategy for land development.  In its early years, Woodlawn’s projects in the city entailed creating roads, building homes, renting them and maintaining the neighborhoods to high standards of appearance and cleanliness.  Those neighborhoods continue to stand proud and are actively sought by renters.  Their location, between 4th and 7th Streets, west of Union Street, is only blocks away from Woodlawn’s offices.

However, the “build and rent” approach that proved successful in the city was not economically viable in the larger tracts of the Brandywine Hundred, especially with growing demand for single family housing following World War II.  Correspondingly, the Trustees evolved their strategy to focus on subdivision design, infrastructure development and land use restrictions.  This enabled planned communities that would maintain their value and appeal over time.  Woodlawn installed water and sewer lines, sidewalks, and curbs.  Streetlights were also added to some neighborhoods.  They then resold the lots exclusively to individuals and builders who agreed to their land use plan.  These plans included restrictions on architectural design, setbacks, fences and open side yards that were to remain free of smaller structures.

The first of these new projects was the subdivision of Alapocas in 1937, followed by Woodbrook in 1950 and the development plan for Sharpley in 1956.  Active construction in Sharpley followed about five years later.  Edenridge was started about 1965, followed by Tavistock, Woodlawn’s last major residential development north of the Brandywine.  All together, those subdivisions involved 550 acres of land, not counting adjoining parkland that it helped to preserve.  Woodlawn Trustees also provided property at less than market value for the Brandywine YMCA, the New Castle County library on Whitby Road (since relocated to Foulk Road.), the Jewish Community Center and many nearby churches.

Since the establishment of Sharpley and neighboring communities, Woodlawn’s approach has again evolved from developing subdivisions to long term leasing and land exchanges.  This approach led to the leasing of land for the Delaware Corporate Center, north of Silverside Road on the Concord Pike, and a “sale plus land exchange” for an insurance office complex at Concord Pike and Beaver Valley Road.[6]

Woodlawn still owns and occasionally sells properties in the area, like William Young’s Ellerslie mansion, which it divested in 2009.

The ongoing appeal of Sharpley and adjoining communities is no accident.  It is a direct result of William Bancroft’s vision, the ongoing interpretation of that vision by Woodlawn Trustees, the oversight of Woodlawn’s deed restrictions by our civic association, and the hard work of all who live in Sharpley and maintain their properties to a higher standard.

Gene Castellano, 331 Sharpley Road, April 2009

Special thanks are extended to Elke McGinley of Woodlawn Trustees, who provided many articles and brochures used in the preparation of this manuscript. 

Map from the Atlas of the State of Delaware, published in 1868 by Pomeroy and Beers in Philadelphia.  Sharpley Road still follows the same route that it did 150 years ago.  Mount Lebanon United Methodist Church can be seen at the intersection with Mount Lebanon Road.  The Sharpley I schoolhouse is visible across the intersection with Concord Pike, marked by the initials “S. H.”  William Sharpley’s house is just south of the school.


[1]           The foundation of the Rockland Presbyterian Church can be found on a hill overlooking Mount Lebanon Road.  It is near a Delmarva substation, about two tenths of a mile down from Mount Lebanon Church.   Photographs of it are available at Hagley Museum and Library.

[2]           Taken from “The Story of William Young and Rockland,” Pamphlet F163.1 Y78 B31, located at the Delaware Historical Society, 505 Market St, Wilmington.

[3]           Written by Barbara McEwing, 1978.  Non circulating copy available for review at the Historical Society of Delaware, 505 Market Street, Wilmington.

[4]           Wilmington Evening Journal, Nov. 30, 1965.  “Order is Woodlawn’s Guide” by Philip Crosland.

[5]           Woodlawn Trustees informational brochure, ca. 1974.

[6]           Woodlawn Trustees informational brochure, ca. 1988.

2 Responses to History

  1. Holly Bodman says:

    My family lived at 14 Wood Road in Wilmington between 1973-78 in a big granite house that was built by a Bancroft (the Bancroft coat-of-arms was still there). As Samuel Bancroft’s house ‘Rockford’ apparently was demolished, could ours have been William’s house? Or Joseph’s? It is across from the Delaware Art Museum property, land given by the Bancrofts. We bought the house from the Episcopal Diocese of Delaware, and for some years it was known as The Bishopstead. Another Bancroft house, less imposing and closer to the river, was converted into a restaurant about that time. Thank you very much for any information you can give me about which Bancroft built our old house 14 Wood Road.

  2. Holly: There are two resources that should yield the answers to your questions. The Delaware Historical Society definitely has old Wilmington atlases that will show the ownership of the properties your mentioned. They also have photos of Bishopstead. Hagley Museum and Library has extensive records on both Bancroft Mills and the Bancroft family. I believe they also have the atlases. In addition, around 2011, Woodlawn Trustees donated many of its records to Hagley and they are available for use by researchers.

    Happy hunting.
    Gene Castellano

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