April 9, 2020
By: Teresa Pierce, Interpretive Program Coordinator at Auburn Valley State Park
One busy day on Pennsylvania Avenue in Wilmington in the mid-1890s, ribbons of people and carriages mingle about their businesses, a visual representation of the industrious nature of the industrial revolution. Standing alone amongst the crowd stands a man stark still, staring up at a house on the corner of Pennsylvania Avenue and Claymont street with the calculating eye of an engineer. Perhaps people noted the greying mustachioed man, giving him confused looks as they passed by, “What could have captured his attention particularly on a street lined with beautiful homes wherever you look.” The stranger was none other than Israel Marshall, the builder of Auburn Heights, and this was the moment that his family mansion began to take shape in his mind.
Israel grew up along with his brother T. Elwood in Kennett Township Pennsylvania in an area called Marshall’s Bridge, evidence of his family’s one hundred years of residence there. His great-great-grandfather John Marshall came to Philadelphia in the late 1600s, a Quaker following the call of William Penn. Eventually, descendants moved to Kennett Township in 1765, and not only farmed the land but operated a grist and sawmill. Israel’s father, Thomas, heard that up along the Brandywine, a mechanism for machine-made paper had been constructed. His imagination was captured and he spared no time in converting the family grist mill to a paper mill. Israel and his brother Thomas Elwood grew up learning the trade from their father, and no doubt it was a great day when the business was formally renamed Thomas S. Marshall and Sons.
Israel thrived on technical challenges and liked to push the bounds of what technology could do, inventing new processes and ways of making paper. Thomas passed away in 1887, leaving his two sons in control. The brothers wanted to expand their operations, as the demand for rag paper was outpacing their supply. A burnt-out shell of a woolen mill stood in a small community in Northern Delaware called Yorklyn. Together, the brothers entered into a partnership with the woolen mill owner’s son in law, renovating and adding to the structure to make it a part of the Marshall Bros. Paper company. Yet someone would need to stay in Yorklyn to oversee this growing operation, and who better than Israel who had always been more of an inventor and tinkerer. So Israel, his wife Lizzie (Nee Mitchell), and their three children were uprooted to Northern Delaware.
Life was different than it had been in Pennsylvania. At first they lived in the mill owner’s historic home, a Georgian style stone structure adjacent to the paper mill. This home would have been noisy and dirty, as it was near the rag paper machinery, the rushing water wheel, and the dust tossed up by the horses and wagons passing through with the rags destined to become paper. Israel wanted to build a home for his wife and children in a more pleasant location. Luckily, he had already picked the place, a scenic hilltop that one could easily look down and see the mill or the creek from a comfortable distance. Israel had the place, but he needed the house. We do not know the day or year that Israel first stopped to gaze at a beautiful mansion on Pennsylvania Ave, but it was likely between 1891, the year the mill began to operate, and 1896 the year he began work on his home.
Israel, with an eye for design and efficiency, liked the layout of the house on Pennsylvania Avenue and was likely shocked to discover that the house was not the work of an architect’s personal design, but was ordered from a catalog book called Shoppell’s modern Houses. This plan was the most expensive design in the book, and would cost $11,500 to build. For comparison, a normal middle-class home would be about $1,000 in those days, yet Israel had set his mind set on the mansion, so he ordered the plans and went to work. Using the family quarry in Pennsylvania, Israel used Baltimore Gneiss to construct the mansion and continued with the stone theme, eventually using slate shingles for the roof. In ten months, the construction was over, and in 1897, he took his wife and three children into their beautiful new home. The name associated with the house comes from the historical name for the area of Yorklyn, which was Auburn. The mills below used to be called the Auburn Mills, and so, as the mansion stood on the heights, it received the nomenclature of Auburn Heights.
Not only was the structure grand in design, but it was also a technologically advanced building, something all too easy to miss with a 21st-century eye. The Marshalls were generous hosts, and numerous guests would have flooded the porch to pay a social call, but if they were invited inside, they would likely have been taken aback. For though it was out of the city, the mansion had indoor plumbing, direct current electricity, and steam heat piped directly up from the paper mill below. The home has been slightly changed and added to by the three continuous generous of Marshalls who owned the building, but the layout of the house itself, and the exterior remain largely as it was when it was first constructed in 1897.
Today, you can walk out of the mansion, down the garden, through the rose arbor and then to the paper mill below, just as Israel Marshall did 123 years ago. It all started with one man stopping on a busy street and picturing his dream home. Thanks to the dream of his grandson Thomas Marshall, Auburn Heights will forever be preserved as the hallmark structure in Auburn Valley State Park.