Tidbits From Milford’s History

by Dana Kester-McCabe

All of Delmarva's towns have interesting histories and Milford, Delaware is no different.

One minor foot note in the towns storied past is that President Warren G. Harding, while visiting the region in 1923 was initiated into a local Masonic lodge at the Plaza Theater in Milford.

Milford has had some difficult periods. When desegregation became the law of the land in 1954 the town's schools took it up immediately but racial strife forced them to back off for a few more years. There was a devastating fire in 2003 which destroyed a city block in the historic section of town, seven businesses, apartments, and a church. Fortunately no one was killed.

There are a variety of interesting people who hail from Milford, like the poet John Lofland who we have previously covered on this show. Seven of Delaware's governors have lived in Milford including Governor Ruth Ann Minner.

There is also a Civil War General named Alfred Torbert who called Milford home. A West Point graduate, he had a mixed military record. He was offered a commission in the Confederate army but chose instead to join the Union side. He led a number of successful battles during the 1864 Shenandoah Valley Campaign. His troops had to rescue General George Custer's division in what came to be known as Custer's First Last Stand. Torbert's commander General Sheridan was sometimes frustrated by his lack of initiative. After the war Torbert did not receive another military commission, so he became a diplomat. He died while traveling to Mexico when the ship the City of Vera Cruz was caught in hurricane off Cape Canaveral, Florida. You can see a statue of General Torbert in front of the Milford Museum.

Milford was incorporated February 5, 1807. But the area in and around Milford was first settled in 1680 by Henry Bowan on what was known as the Saw Mill Range. A century later the Reverend Sydenham Thorne built a dam across the Mispillion River to generate power for his gristmill and sawmill. Reverend Thorne and a number of other property owners decided starting a town would be an effective way to bring in the people and businesses that could help their ventures succeed. His friend Joseph Oliver laid out the first city streets and plots nearby on a part of his plantation. Thorne's dam, the mill, and everything that followed were centered on a place travelers had been using to cross the river - a ford - leading people to call it the mill at the ford and eventually the town became known as Milford.

Reverend Thorne had been born on Virginia's Eastern Shore and was an ordained Episcopal priest. He was extremely popular with his parishioners at Christ Church in the nearby Mispillion Hundred. He was also ardently loyal to the Church of England and the King. On February 13, 1777 the Treason Act was amended by the General Assembly of Delaware, forbidding clergy from preaching against the fight for independence. In addition they were prohibited from praying publicly for King George. Thorne and Rev. Charles H. Wharton were the last two Episcopal priests left in the region. Their vows prevented them from following the new law so they had to step down and let laypersons preach with the restrictions required by this act of censorship.

After the war Reverend Thorne's business interests in Milford continued. He petitioned the legislature to wave his taxes and to codify this for all clergy since that had been the practice in the previous government. Delaware's lawmakers turned him down on both requests. Thorne turned his attention back to his religious calling.

In 1782 he had a church built in Saint Johnstown, also known as Church Hill Village, in northern Sussex County. This town has long since disappeared. Around this time Thorne bought a house in Milford which is still known as the Parson Thorne Mansion. In 1790 he decided to move his church to Milford which was now thriving. He supplied the white oak timbers from his own land and had them milled at his own saw mill. He had been preaching in Dover during that time period. Despite this effort to build a church closer to his home he asked the church hierarchy to reassign him to Wilmington. He never got to see this or the finished church in Milford, passing away in 1793. Without his leadership work on the church foundered and it was not finished until 1835.

Beside's Reverend Thorne's mills several others were built nearby. On April 23, 1802 Nathan Willey, along with a group of his neighbors, applied to the legislature for a license to operate the grist mill they had just completed. Grist mills were an integral part of the agrarian economy here during that time period. They were also closely regulated. Over many centuries millers often had a poor reputation for dishonesty. Some had been known to cheat their customers skimming off more than their contracted share of what they milled; or having weights and measures that were inaccurately in their favor. There is no indication that Delmarva's millers of that era were anything but upstanding citizens. But the regulations helped to keep them in check.

Nathan Willey's mill must have been in good standing with his customers. It thrived and kept up with changing technology. Its water wheel was replaced in the late 1800's with a turbine. It passed through several owners before it got to Ainsworth Abbott in 1919. He installed a diesel engine so the mill could operate even when the water level of the mill pond was low. He operated the business until 1963 when the state of Delaware purchased it to preserve it as an historic landmark. In 1976 it was renovated. 456 acres were added to the original 27 acre lot including Blair's Pond Nature Preserve, the Isaacs and Greene Preserves, and the Marvel Saltmarsh Preserve. Today it is Abbott's Mill Nature Center and it is leased and operated by the Delaware Nature Society. They host a variety of programs on nature and the mills' history throughout the year. Visit their website to find out more.


Fire destroyed the Plaza Theater in Milford.
The Free Lance Star
Septemner 23, 1946

Milford, Delaware

Alfred Thomas Archimedes Torbert

Alfred T. A. Torbert USA - General - July 1, 1833 – August 29, 1880

Alfred T. A. Torbert: One of Delaware Finest Generals
By Thomas J. Ryan
Special to the Coastal Point - August 12, 2011

Milford's general finally has his statue.
By David LaRoss
The Milford Beacon July 4, 2008

Inventing Custer: The Making of an American Legend
By Edward Caudill, Paul Ashdown
Rowman & Littlefield - New York - 2015

The Complete Civil War Road Trip Guide
By Michael Weeks

Struggle for the Shenandoah: Essays on the 1864 Valley Campaign
edited by Gary W. Gallagher
The Kent State University Press - Ohio - 1991

The History & Salvage of the SS City of Vera Cruz
By E. Lee Spence

General Alfred T.A. Torbert
Historical Marker Database

Major General Alfred T.A. Torbert Statue
Historical Marker Database

Milford, Delaware

The WPA Guide to Delaware: The First State
By Federal Writers' Project

Some Records of Sussex County, Delaware
Compiled by C.H.B. Turner - Allen, Lane & Scott - Philadelphia 1909

A Short History of the Episcopal Diocese of Delaware

History of the State of Delaware (Volume 2)
Henry C. Conrad

Proceedings of the House of Assembly of the Delaware State, 1781-1792
By Claudia L. Bushman, Harold Bell Hancock

Parson Thorne Mansion
Historical Marker Database

Historical Marker Database

Christ Church - Mispillion Milford
Historical Marker Database

The City of Milforrd History

Christ Church, Milford, Delaware

Christ Church Remembers 300 year Heritage
Bryan Shupe

Abbott's Mill
Historical Marker Database

Abbott's Mill Nature Center

Abbott's Mill
Debbie Kenton
Wesley College
Delaware Division of Historical and Cultural Affairs

Abbots Mill Nature Center

The Grist Milling Process Arts & Humanities Reading, Writing, Speaking, Listening Science/Technology
excerpted from "The Grist Mill-fulling Mill Complex" from the Collections at Historic Bethlehem [PA]

Preserving Historic Gristmills
By Marti Attoun on August 18, 2011

Classical British and American mills

Joseph Oliver Founded Milford 162 Years Ago On The Mispillion
The Sunday Morning Star - October 23, 1949

Colonial Craftsmen: And the Beginnings of American Industry
By Edwin Tunis

Property Rights in the Colonial Era and Early Republic
edited by James W. Ely

The Miller in Eighteenth Century Virginia
By Thomas K. Ford, Horace J. Sheely
Colonial Williamsburg 2001