Stuck in time

Years af­ter promised ren­o­va­tions, his­toric James Mor­row House re­mains un­touched

Newark Post - - Front Page - By KARIE SIM­MONS ksim­mons@ches­

JoAnn Daw­son took one step to­ward her grand­par­ents’ old farm­house on Ogle­town Road, turned around and sighed.

“I can’t even look at it, hon­estly,” she said, her back to the prop­erty. “I want to cry ev­ery time I drive by here.”

The va­cant home with the boarded up win­dows and cracked fa­cade just east of city lim­its is known to many long­time Ne­wark­ers as the his­toric James Mor­row House, but to Daw­son it’s just a happy mem­ory turned eyesore. Her great-grand­fa­ther bought the farm­house – built in the late 1860s – from Mor­row in 1911, and her fam­ily op­er­ated a dairy farm on the sur­round­ing land for more than 70 years be­fore sell­ing it in 1998 to Rey­bold Group.

In 2008, Rey­bold had the house moved roughly 450 feet to make way for CarMax, but promised to ren­o­vate it into a restau­rant or of­fice build­ing in the fu­ture. Those plans, how­ever, never came to fruition. It’s been al­most 10 years and the house is still sit­ting va­cant and seem­ingly un­touched, like a piece of Ne­wark his­tory stuck frozen in time.

Jerome Heisler, Jr., ex­ec­u­tive man­ager of Rey­bold Group, said Tues­day

that the com­pany hasn’t done any­thing with the house since it was moved in 2008 due to other obli­ga­tions, but of­fi­cials are still in­ter­ested in renovating it.

“We’re look­ing at two dif­fer­ent op­por­tu­ni­ties to re­de­velop it,” he said, but de­clined to dis­close what those op­por­tu­ni­ties are. “We’re go­ing to keep it there, but not sure what the use will be.”

Heisler said Rey­bold will likely make a de­ci­sion in the next few months.

Those prom­ises are a lit­tle too late for Daw­son, 60, who now lives in North East, Md., and owns a horse sta­ble called Fair­winds Farms. She said she placed her grand­par­ents’ house on the Na­tional Reg­is­ter of His­toric Places back in 1983, hop­ing it would be saved from de­mo­li­tion and re­stored one day as an up­scale restau­rant, but now doubts that will ever hap­pen.

“It’s pretty much hope­less now. I wouldn’t even care if they tore it down,” Daw­son said last week, her eyes scan­ning the prop­erty. “My aunts and grand­mother had so much pride in this house and al­ways kept it look­ing nice. I’m glad my grand­mother isn’t alive to see it now.”

A cen­tury of farm­ing

Ac­cord­ing to the Na­tional Reg­is­ter of His­toric Places, James Mor­row im­mi­grated to the United States from Ire­land when he was 16 years old and be­came a suc­cess­ful mer­chant. He owned a store on Mar­ket Street in Wilm­ing­ton and bought four parcels of land near Ne­wark be­tween 1866 and 1875. He built the stuc­coed, one-anda-half story, gam­brel-roofed house on the north side of Ogle­town Road in the late 1860s, shortly af­ter pur­chas­ing the land.

The prop­erty re­mained in the Mor­row fam­ily un­til 1911, when it was sold to Daw­son’s great-grand­fa­ther, John F. Richards, who farmed the land and owned a dairy store in Ne­wark. Richards even­tu­ally passed the farm down to his daugh­ter Anna and her hus­band Frank Stafford, Daw­son’s grand­par­ents. They con­tin­ued the dairy busi­ness and kept the cat­tle in a large barn across the street, where the FMC fac­tory now sits.

Daw­son and her two older brothers grew up in a house next door and spent much of their child­hood help­ing their fam­ily run the farm, es­pe­cially af­ter her grand­fa­ther died in 1971.

She said she can still re­mem­ber the inside of her grand­par­ents’ farm­house. There were four bed­rooms, a large kitchen, din­ing room, liv­ing room, par­lor, a shed off to the side where her grand­mother sold eggs and a gar­den where she grew pro­duce. In the base­ment, Daw­son said, there was a root cel­lar with a dirt floor and a room where they cleaned the chick­ens and re­moved their feath­ers be­fore tak­ing them to mar­ket to sell.

“I learned to do that when I was 8 years old,” she said.

When Daw­son looks at the house to­day, she re­mem­bers the rum­bling sound of the CSX train go­ing by and rid­ing her pony named Lady through the fields, but most of all, she re­mem­bers her kind and hard-work­ing grand­par­ents, who seemed to never miss an op­por­tu­nity to teach her some­thing.

“It was a happy house,” Daw­son re­called. “You had to work hard and at the end of the day you were tired, but you felt like you got some­thing done.”

One-of-a-kind de­sign

The James Mor­row House was nom­i­nated to the Na­tional Reg­is­ter of His­toric Places in 1983 for its “un­usual architectural de­sign, it be­ing the only raised-base­ment gam­brel-roofed struc­ture in White Clay Creek Hun­dred.”

At the time, it also was im­por­tant as one of the few sur­viv­ing farms sit­u­ated on the out­skirts of Ne­wark.

The house rests on a raised base­ment, which is a unique fea­ture in New Cas­tle County, ac­cord­ing to the nom­i­na­tion form. The fa­cade is sym­met­ri­cally ar­ranged with a tran­som-topped set of pan­eled doors at its cen­ter and two stuc­coed in­te­rior-end chim­neys with cor­beled caps rise from each end wall.

At one point, a flat-roofed porch with a semi-cir­cu­lar stair­way on each side shel­tered the en­trance, but the stairs are no longer in­tact to­day. There was also a one-story, shed-roofed frame wing abut­ting the east end wall, but that is also no longer stand­ing.

Sev­eral 20th-cen­tury out­build­ings were also sit­u­ated on the prop­erty over the years, in­clud­ing a corn crib, barn and an as­sort­ment of poul­try houses.

The barn, built in 1935 and known then as the largest in the county, stood for 65 years as a Ne­wark land­mark be­fore it was torn down in Au­gust 2001. Many years prior to its de­mo­li­tion, the barn was moved from its orig­i­nal home where the FMC fac­tory sits to the north side of Ogle­town Road be­cause Frank Stafford was tired of trav­el­ing across the road to the barn from the farm­house where he lived.

The barn was lit­er­ally slid to its new home on rail­road ties and hog lard.

House not far from home

Although rel­a­tively un­touched for the past decade, the James Mor­row House is not in the same lo­ca­tion to­day as when it was built in the 1860s – it’s 450 feet to the west.

In Au­gust 2008, Rey­bold hired Wolfe House & Build­ing Movers of Bernville, Pa., to move the stone struc­ture, weigh­ing just un­der 500 tons, to a new foun­da­tion so the com­pany could sell the land to CarMax.

Michael Brovont, an es­ti­ma­tor at Wolfe House & Build­ing Movers, re­called the move as if it hap­pened yes­ter­day. He said the house was hoisted on steel I-beams and rolled hy­drauli­cally on 96 truck-type tires while a crew of six people guided it along a path­way of steel plat­forms.

“That kind of spreads the weight out to make sure no one dolly or set of wheels sinks down into a soft spot,” Brovont said last week, adding that the house’s most unique fea­ture – the raised base­ment – ac­tu­ally made the process eas­ier.

“That only means we have less dig­ging we have to do to get un­der the first floor,” he said.

It took close to four weeks of prepa­ra­tion and roughly an hour to ac­tu­ally move the struc­ture. Brovont said the crew had to work slowly and care­fully due to the type of ma­te­rial.

“Stone cov­ered in stucco is the most frag­ile type of struc­ture to move,” he said. “The mor­tar around the stones was very crumbly.”

While the experience can be nerve-rack­ing for on­look­ers, Brovont said Wolfe House & Build­ing Movers has been trans­port­ing his­tor­i­cal houses and struc­tures for nearly 50 years and the process is tried and true.

“We’ve never lost a house and, oc­ca­sion­ally, you’ll get some hair­line cracks in the dry­wall or the plaster and that’s usu­ally the only dam­age you’ll see, but most old homes al­ready have those cracks to be­gin with,” Brovont said.

Daw­son re­called watch­ing the move along­side her brother, Robert Stafford Jr., and other friends and fam­ily mem­bers who stopped by to see the un­usual event. It’s not ev­ery day you see your child­hood home moved down the street, she said.

“It was kind of a strange sen­sa­tion,” Daw­son said.

The James Mor­row House played a big role in Daw­son’s fam­ily – her cousin had wed­ding pic­tures taken on the front lawn, she brought her two young chil­dren there around Christ­mas in 1992, and she wrote a book called “Bed, Break­fast & Be­yond,” in which she ex­plains how grow­ing up on the farm pre­pared her for run­ning her bed and break­fast at Fair­winds Farm.

Daw­son also wrote sev­eral chil­dren’s books called “The Lucky Foot Sta­ble Series” that mir­ror her memories on the farm and many of the char­ac­ters are based on her own fam­ily.

“I’ll never for­get this place,” she said. “It had ev­ery im­pact on my life.”


JoAnn Daw­son, 60, of North East, Md., stands in front of the James Mor­row House on Ogle­town Road, where her grand­par­ents lived and op­er­ated a dairy farm for many years. In her hands is an old news­pa­per ar­ti­cle about the prop­erty.


A 1952 photo shows the James Mor­row House on Ogle­town Road.

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