Dry spell accommodates western Sussex historic house move

June 12, 2020

A dry spell settled over Sussex during the past few weeks. Young, non-irrigated corn tightened its leaves to preserve moisture. Lawns browned. Not good for growing.

But the drought is good for moving houses across fields.

Last Friday, June 5, a powerful truck owned by Expert House Movers out of Sharptown, Md., rumbled slowly across a dry, western Sussex cornfield on Atlanta Road, north of Seaford, with an old, story-and-a-half farmhouse in tow.

Up until that day, the modest, white house stood for 108 years where it was built in 1912, a short distance away, facing Atlanta Road, and next to a far-older brick house.

Built in 1727, according to a hand-etched brick in the exterior, Cannon-Maston House represents one of the oldest existing houses of its type on the entire Delmarva Peninsula.

“The two houses represent two significant periods in Sussex County agriculture,” said Mark Chura, executive director of the Sussex County Land Trust.

The houses sit on a 56-acre parcel of prime farmland between Atlanta Road and Bucks Branch to the east. In partnership with Sussex County Council, the land trust – a private nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving open space and associated education – acquired the property and structures in 2008.

Russ McCabe, a historian, former Delaware Archivist, and land trust board member, recalls that members of the Litchford family sold the property to the trust. He said the family had owned the property since 1962.

“I got to know the late Herb Litchford ... when I worked with former state Sen. Thurman Adams to place a historical marker there in 2007,” said McCabe. “I had visited the house with Dr. Bernie Herman of the UD Center for Historic Architecture some years before. After his mother died, Herb reached out to me concerned about an out-of-state developer interested in buying the property and bulldozing the old house to make way for new houses. I contacted Sussex Land Trust members and they took it from there.” 

The land trust used privately raised funds and county money for the purchase and later sold development rights to the Delaware Agricultural Preservation Program. That money is now being used to help preserve the old brick structure and clean up the property.

Land trust members recognized the historic value of the Cannon-Maston House as well as the agricultural value of the land. They also felt that the newer house, representative of early 20th century, rural Sussex architecture, had historic value, especially juxtaposed to the older house. The problem was that the newer house obstructed the view of the older house from the road, so the decision was made to move the newer house.

Chura said land trust members worked with western Sussex legislators Rep. Dan Short and Sen. Bryant Richardson, both of Seaford, along with Sen. Brian Pettyjohn of Georgetown, to have funding for the move, a new foundation, and basic improvements included in the 2019-20 state bond bill. That effort brought $110,000 to the project.

“We see this as a three-phase project at this point,” said Chura. “The first phase includes moving the newer of the two houses, which is now complete. The second phase will involve fixing up the newer house and doing other structural work to stabilize the older house so they can be used for historical interpretation and other activities in the future.” The third phase will involve constructing a parking lot near the newer house and executing a landscaping plan to help create an historical complex, both separate and connected.

In all, said Chura, these elements of the project will involve about $750,000. A broader conceptual plan for the entire property could involve a walking trail around the perimeter of the farm and through the creekside woods at the back of the property.

The land is currently  leased by the trust to a local farmer for small-grains cultivation. Now that the drought accommodated the move of the newer house, the rains can resume to give his crops a sorely needed drink.

Clarification on last week’s column

A reader contacted me in the wake of last week’s column. She felt comments from Rep. Pete Schwartzkopf about smashing, looting and explosive-related arson referenced the peaceful protests held in Rehoboth Beach. I should have made it clear that Schwartzkopf’s comments referred to looting and arson incidents experienced in Wilmington and Dover during protests in the days prior to the Rehoboth protests.

The comments were included to indicate the kind of isolated but violent activities that had been seen and which informed decisions made by law enforcement agencies in their preparations to help ensure that protests remained peaceful and nondestructive.

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