Her four white mules were already an attraction in the prominent Brandywine Valley carriage scene when Roberta “Bobby” Odell acquired Zippy to pull her Civil War-era prison wagon. Bought from a zoo as a baby, the zebra came with his own natural prison colors. But Zippy was a failed experiment, never becoming domesticated enough for public appearances and even badly biting Odell’s hand once.
All of which was par for the course at Skirmish Hill Farm, a place known for its oddities and animals. There was a Scottish bull—and “something that wasn’t an ostrich but like an ostrich,” recalls Odell’s son, Knox Watson.
Skirmish Hill was also known for its mystifying matriarch who, at 90 years old, was still riding horses and living alone on historically significant Brandywine Battlefield land—the 13 acres known as Birmingham Hill during the American Revolution. A mix of farm stock and high society, Odell was most comfortable in blue jeans and a hat, riding her horses—and having it her way. “She could get all gussied up, but then she’d drive her pickup to the event,” says Watson, who recalls his early days in dressage, when his mother would judge him in indoor arenas while piping in Beethoven.
Though she came from family money, Odell once sold Avon door to door, driving first husband Henry K. Watson II’s Rolls-Royce. “You’d never know she had two nickels to rub together,” says Watson, son of Henry. “She wasn’t a flashy person and didn’t like flashy things. She was going to die with her boots on at that farm.”
Odell kept the Brandywine Conservancy waiting nearly two decades in an uphill battle to secure Birmingham Hill, the final puzzle piece in a 25-year, $17.3 million quest to acquire and preserve 485 contiguous acres around the Meetinghouse Road Corridor in Birmingham Township where the fiercest Battle of Brandywine fighting took place in September 1777.
Odell was the last woman standing, adamant in refusing to part with her property. About 20 years ago, other nearby landowners had bitten the “for the good of all” bullet for a combined $8.1 million, working with the conservancy, the local government and what is now Natural Lands. Mr. and Mrs. Richard Brigham protected their 55 acres in 2001. The Spackman Family Trust placed an easement on its 110 acres a year later. Natural Lands now holds those. In 2003, Mr. and Mrs. William Wylie permanently protected their 11 acres, and the Worth Family Trust followed suit, granting an easement on 115 acres. Both families worked with the conservancy.
For federal funds, Brandywine Conservancy sought an earmark secured with the passage of 1999’s Pennsylvania Battlefields Protection Act. The conservancy and partners lobbied, attended hearings and even hosted Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt on a battlefield tour. Once authorized, three successive appropriations were approved to fund the preservation projects through grants from the National Park Service. Brandywine Conservancy and Natural Lands were named beneficiaries, and those funds helped preserve the initial four easements and a larger Odell tract.
But the Odell homestead remained as the “donut hole.” “Mrs. Odell held out and didn’t want to talk to anyone,” says David Shields, who’s since retired as the conservancy’s associate director and worked on the project from its inception. “She didn’t want anyone interfering with her life, and we didn’t blame her.”
The conservancy even summoned George A. “Frolic” Weymouth, its esteemed founder and chairman, who knew Odell well. But even he couldn’t convince her. Initial attempts to work through kin failed. “We struck out entirely,” Shields says.
In 2007, the family parted with an adjacent 100-acre tract. Brandywine Conservancy came up with the funds for the $8 million purchase price through a mad fundraising effort, all while staving off developers.
“We felt like we had a gun to our head,” Shields says.
The conservancy made the purchase in May of that year, then successfully negotiated first-refusal rights to purchase Odell’s farm after her death. It did so in September 2018, when Odell passed at age 93. The conservancy raised the $1.2 million with help from Chester County, which received funding through the American Battlefield Protection Program. “I didn’t know Roberta Odell, but she was a tough negotiator,” says Stephanie Armpriester, Brandywine Conservancy’s newly appointed director of conservation and stewardship. “Across the board, her family knew how valuable her property was.”
Watson recalls the negotiations. “When we sat down with the conservancy, they said, ‘We have this donut and you’re in the center of the donut.’ I said, ‘That means it’s worth a lot of money. You shouldn’t have told me that.’”
Moving forward, Brandywine Conservancy has undertaken a master plan for Birmingham Hill Preserve. The overarching goals are to honor the history of Sept. 11, 1777, conserve natural resources, offer access to the public, and develop interpretative and educational programs.
“It gave my mother peace of mind to take care of the farm, to know that the conservancy would continue to do so when she died, and to know she’d given back to a community that had given so much to her,” says Watson. “It’s her legacy—giving that 100-plus acres, even though they paid for it. So it would stay as it’s been forever. It’s the way it should be.”
The first phase of the master plan entails site restoration—basically removing trees and nonfunctional buildings of no historic value, including Odell’s residence. On the 100 former Odell acres, an existing stable might be reused as a lecture facility or viewing terrace. An expanded trail network is planned beyond what was established after the corridor’s initial easements.
On a more regional scale, there’s the recently adopted Brandywine Battlefield Heritage Interpretation Plan, designed to boost tourism in Chester and Delaware counties. Birmingham Hill Preserve is an example of an important interpretive site within a larger strategy for utilizing the Brandywine Battlefield Historic Site Park as a “flagship gateway.” From there, visitors would be guided to targeted heritage centers like those already in Marshallton and Kennett Square and another that’s close to opening in East Bradford Township—and then onto battlefield-specific interpretative sites like Birmingham Hill. “This is a tour concept, but not a bus-tour concept,” says Jeannine Speirs, a 20-year senior community planner for the Chester County Planning Commission who’s also a Brandywine Battlefield Task Force administrator. “A small-group experience is an underrated aspect. These are hallowed grounds—and you wouldn’t get the same experience with a lot of people.”
Within a mile of Birmingham Hill Preserve, about 649 acres are permanently protected. But many open parcels remain, and some may have additional historical significance. Military historians have been hired with more American Battlefield Protection Program grant funds to study the surrounding existing terrain, matching findings with first- and secondhand war accounts, county archives and other records, to confirm what’s known about the Battle of Brandywine’s key geography and events. “We’re excited to understand a fuller history,” says Armpriester. “The battle action took place over a much larger area than the design of what’s already the National Historic Landmark. It’s like a scavenger hunt. We don’t know what we’ll find. We continue to beat the drum.”
As did Bobby Odell, until the end. Late in life, a fall from a horse while foxhunting put her in a coma. “Doctors said she wouldn’t make it, but she did,” her son says. “She recouped in Pittsburgh. Then we took her back to the farm, and she made it clear she never wanted to leave there again.”
In the end, when a bout of dehydration initiated a rapid six-week decline, Odell and the conservancy were more like-minded than ever.
“She hated development and complained that some developments were getting too close,” her son says. “Even though developers had always offered her tons of money—stupid money—she wanted to make sure nothing changed. She wanted to live on the farm forever.”
Related: A History of Brandywine Valley Mills