Stuck in time
Years after promised renovations, historic James Morrow House remains untouched
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.”
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.