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Auburn Heights Preserve Reclaims a Historic Mill Town


In vintage photographs, the elegant Queen Ann mansion at Auburn Heights Preserve is silhouetted against a light-colored sky. The openness of the landscape points to the mansion’s hilltop location, reached by a steep drive from Creek Road near the hamlet of Yorklyn, Del.

Built in 1897 using plans adopted from an architectural book, the mansion was home to three generations of the Marshall family before it was donated to Delaware State Parks in 2008. It now forms the centerpiece of a preserve that includes trails and popular attractions, like two miniature steam trains and the Marshall Steam Museum.

To visitors strolling around the property and its neat collection of buildings, the moniker “steam museum” may seem a tad academic. However, there’s probably no other way to way to bring significance to the warehouse T. Clarence Marshall built in 1947 to house the steam cars no one wanted, now the largest collection of operational antique steam automobiles in the world.

Everything about the 4.5-acre property—which may seem like the most minuscule of state parks—tells the story of conservation and early Quaker ingenuity. The mansion was the first home in the region to have electricity, thanks to a generator in the nearby Marshall Bros. Paper Mill that also supplied steam heat piped up the hill. 

Stone used to build the mansion and the carriage house—now headquarters of the Friends of Auburn Heights—came from the nearby Marshall-owned quarry just north of the state line and preserved today by the Kennett Land Trust.

The valley’s rollercoaster terrain made for difficult farming. Fortunately, there was the Red Clay Creek. It determined Yorkyn’s status as a historic mill seat—first for grist and snuff, and later paper and fiber, all of it owned by the Marshall family. It’s a mill heritage that’s now being preserved in an array of state projects that includes wetland restoration for flood mitigation (the region is one of the most flood-prone watersheds in the state), road improvements and trail development.

Perhaps typical of Delaware’s Division of Parks & Recreation, which is known for its highly rated trail system, much thought went into how visitors access different points of the preserve. One trailhead that begins at Benge Road now covers a six-mile loop over historic iron trestle bridges—two “rescued” from the Midwest. A park guide describes the loop as a paved shared-use trail for “hiking, biking, antique vehicles and steam cars.”

Clearly, Auburn Heights Preserve is not your ordinary state park, particularly for those who envision the ubiquitous picnic table stationed under a grove of pine trees. For one thing, visitors are apt to see more volunteers than park rangers. This is especially true at the mansion, where FAHP retains ownership of the steam cars. Visitors are driven around in a 1915 Stanley mountain wagon and enjoy free popcorn, which lends a carnival atmosphere to the place. 

Ruth Marshall, along with husband Tom, donated their historic property to the state of Delaware in 2008.

Ruth Marshall, along with husband Tom, donated their historic property to the state of Delaware in 2008.

Tom Marshall and wife Ruth are often on hand to serve as museum docents, giving detailed answers that often surprise visitors who may be unaware that they once owned the property. On my visit, Tom stood in the dining room, where the table was set with a sample of his mother’s fine china. “We used this room until I was about 12 years old,” Marshall, now 84, says to a small group. “After that, we seemed to always eat in the kitchen—unless we had company, of course. My mother liked to have wonderful parties.” 

Marshall grew up in the mansion, the only child of T. Clarence and Esther Marshall, who died decades ago but are still remembered by the Yorklyn community for their music-filled parties, their curious automobiles and their connection to the trapshooting competitions that drew participants from around the country. 

Built by Tom’s father in 1924, the Gun Club stood on a road so challenging that it was the scene of community auto races. Made first of coal cinders and later poured concrete this road was “somewhat winding, with one right-angle turn as it climbed from about 190 feet elevation,” Marshall wrote in his history column for FAHP. “Early automobiles made it in first or second gear. By the late 1930s, many could climb the grade in high gear.”

Tom Marshall created the Steam Train in 1997 to pass along his railroad knowledge to visitors.

Tom Marshall created the Steam Train in 1997 to pass along his railroad knowledge to visitors.

For visitors, the educational takeaways of Auburn Heights are numerous but without preserving the cultural and industrial legacy of the entire Auburn Valley, as park officials call it, you have just another mansion, albeit a beautifully appointed one. 

As early as 2000, the Marshalls—along with area residents and local conservation organizations—began the process of seeking state assistance to acquire land to preserve Yorklyn’s rural character and milling heritage. Today, about 200 acres of wetlands, hardwood forest and farm fields have been protected as the result of a purchase agreement the governor’s office called “one of the most complex public-private projects in the nation.” 

The main component is a former industrial complex no one but outsiders call today by its full name, the former National Vulcanized Fiber Corporation, or NVF. Once the world’s largest producer of a highly profitable product, the company weathered years of floods and financial setbacks and now forms a ghost town of shuttered mill buildings along Yorklyn and Gun Club roads. 

The drab gray mill buildings, which are nearly all owned by private developers, now stand in marked contrast to the rosy-hued structures of the Garrett Snuff Mill District across the creek. Up close, it’s like a soundstage for a disaster film, with vacant shells for buildings and walls covered with vines and slashes of graffiti. 

 The entire site could’ve been sold and developed into “strip malls, office complexes and houses,” says Daniel Citron, the former historic site manager, noting in a recent article that the industrial site became the state’s responsibility after NVF declared bankruptcy in 2009 and the last of NFV’s real estate sold in 2011. 

Several divisions of the Delaware Depart-ment of Natural Resources and Environmental Control are involved in what park officials consider a work in progress, creating a landscape (in a preserve, not yet a state park) that will explain Yorklyn’s industrial history in the context of its natural surroundings and area farms.  

Another state-park acquisition, Oversee Farm, features a natural spring once used to keep a water tower filled for a railroad line dating to the snuff-mill days. The Wilmington & Western Railroad, Delaware’s oldest steam tourist train, now uses the tracks. This past summer, the park experimented with using rail bikes, which proved popular. They also completed a paved multi-use trail and finished the design phase of an outdoor amphitheater where summer concerts might be held by the Delaware Symphony. 

On a recent tour, park superintendent Laura M. Lee picked her way through tall grasses and entered a mill building now owned by developer Auburn Village. Despite its vacant appearance, the building’s tall ceilings and exposed beams make it easy to envision the place as a restaurant or retail complex. “A lot of people don’t see the progress, but since we acquired property, a lot of environmental remediation has taken place,” Lee says. “Now, we’re looking at adaptive reuse similar to what is going on at Fort DuPont.” 

That day, the tour became a guessing game of what bulky piece of equipment did what. The aging machinery included submarine-shaped vessels and giant steel pomegranates. We looked for buildings with archaic names like the “Rag House,” “Mill No. 30” and “Mill No. 1,” so named because it was the first fiber mill built after 1900, when the Marshall family moved its operations further downstream from the mills below the mansion. Years before, the family had patented and trademarked a type of vulcanized fiber called insulite. 

The old insulite mill disappeared from the landscape long ago. But the old Marshall Bros. Mill, however, stands relatively untouched. As Lee puts it, “They literally closed the mill and shut the door. Everything is still there. You see the workers’ gloves lined up on the machines as if time had stopped.”

Visit auburnheights.org. To learn more about park plans for Yorklyn, visit www.yorklyn.org.