Once a mansion, a ruin neglected by the state
The full story of a centuries-old farmhouse on the grounds of James T. Vaughn Correctional Center near Smyrna is a mystery that may soon be lost to time.
What’s left of Clearfield Farm sits steps outside of the prison’s razor-wired walls and consists of a home and smokehouse believed to have been built around 1755 and a barn that researchers believe dates to the 1830s.
Over recent decades, the buildings have fallen into such ruin that correctional officials feel the home’s razing is inevitable.
Home of a governor
As the home of a former governor, the farm was listed on the National Historic Register of Places decades ago. But some have said its history is even more than a rare-surviving home that predates the American Revolution and the former residence of a long-dead politician.
In front of the home, a Delaware Historical Marker proclaims: “Local folklore identifies the plantation as a stop on the Underground Railroad.”
But it is unclear to state officials and local historians where that lore originates and what backs it up. With the home crumbling, some question why the state has done little to preserve and investigate a building with such lore .
When officials applied to list the home on the National Register of Historic Places in the 1970s, they cited the structure’s age and architecture and the fact it was the home of John Clark, Delaware’s 20th governor and a colonel in the Delaware Militia.
The application made no mention of the home’s potential place in the vast network used by abolitionists to secret thousands of slaves to freedom.
Doug Denison, a spokesman for the state department overseeing the Delaware Division of Historical and Cultural Affairs, said there was never any “firm evidence” like “historical sources or materials outside local lore” that identified Clearfield as a station on the Underground Railroad.
Prison Warden Dana Metzger said the question is a bit of a mystery.
“I’d love for it to be true,” Metzger said.
What they do know is whether it is by bulldozer or by storm, the 265-year-old home will soon be made into rubble.
It became the state’s property when Delaware’s Department of Corrections bought the surrounding farm in the 1960s. For a period ending sometime before the 1990s, it housed offices for corrections officials. Inmate labor also ran a dairy on the grounds, according to The News Journal archives.
Since then, the slow deterioration of neglect has steadily put the home, barn and smokehouse in dire condition. This has occurred largely unseen by the public, which are not welcome to wander the grounds of Delaware’s largest prison.
“We are to the point where all the windows are broken out, the roof is blowing off. The cats have taken over this building,” said Ernie Kulhanek, maintenance superintendent at the prison. “It is going to fall.”
Metzger says he appreciates the home’s history, but said officials must prioritize spending on officers and equipment to run the prison. The state has been pressed to invest more in its corrections system, particularly after the fatal 2017 riot at the prison.
Removal of the home would also allow police an improved path to drop off Vaughn’s newest prisoners, Metzger said.
Denison said prison officials have the authority to do as they please with the building.
The News Journal first inquired about the home’s future after a reporter noticed a bulletin about the house while visiting an inmate at the prison. The short article informed corrections employees the home had been deemed unsafe so they should say goodbye. It also stated it was a station on the Underground Railroad.
After a phone call from that reporter, Jason Miller, Department of Corrections spokesman, said word of the home’s razing was overstated. He said the immediate goal is to “document” the home.
It is unclear what that will entail or how long it will stave off what corrections officials describe as the home’s inevitable demise.
Reminders of the more recent past are scattered about the home and barns.
Leaning against the barn wall is the steps and trap door from the gallows used by the state to execute Billy Bailey in 1996. He was sentenced to die when hanging was the state’s official method of killing. As his day drew closer and the state moved on to different means of ending lives, he had a choice and chose to die on the gallows.
So a new gallows had to be built to accommodate the murderer and after a protracted fight to escape execution, he reached the end of his rope out behind the house.
A wire covering is still visible on the outside of the barn where a phone line would have connected the gallows to the governor in case of any last-minute commutation, Kulhanek pointed out.
The home is also lined with reminders of other outdated penal artifacts.
Inside the basement, a wooden post with an ornamental top leans against the wall. It is believed to be Kent County’s last whipping post, taken down a few years before Delaware lawmakers officially abandoned the punishment in the 1970s. The First State was the last in the United States to end the practice of lashing people bound to such posts as punishment for crimes.
Rusted and antiquated cell keylocks sit alongside an old busted record player on the basement floor.
The 19th-century addition to the main home is all but rotted away. The original home is in better condition but also in ruin.
Old newspapers litter the floor. Department of Corrections documents labeled “investigatory files” from the 1970s are scattered in one of the closets.
There are no obvious signs that the home was part of the Underground Railroad.
Former corrections employee and author Kathryn Pippin wrote on the home’s history and the Underground Railroad. In a 1992 article printed in the Smyrna Sun Times, she notes the home has spaces she identified as potential hiding places. She also noted that it was owned by a prominent Quaker abolitionist in the 19th century.
She could not be reached for comment.
Michael Emmons, the assistant director for the Center for Historic Architecture and Design at the University of Delaware, said it is “viable” that the home could have been a station for fugitive slaves, particularly since it was owned at some point by abolitionist Quakers.
“I am a bit suspicious that the stories were born solely from odd nooks and crannies that people didn’t understand,” he said. “Perhaps more study would reveal other clues.”
He said he’s seen no firm documentation or historical records confirming or suggesting that history. That’s not odd, though.
He said the secret nature of the Underground Railroad means there are often no historical records. The railroad was “ephemeral” involving a lot of people and different routes over time. Harboring fugitive slaves was a crime punishable by months in prison.
“Very few people associated with the Underground Railroad recorded what they were doing or wanted to admit or publicize the fact,” Emmons said. “It was a huge risk for them.”
As the northernmost slave state, Delaware has a rich history of stations on the Underground Railroad. Some points were evident through their association with local abolitionists like Thomas Garrett, Samuel Burris and Jon Hunn.
Others have been documented through interviews with Harriet Tubman, perhaps the most famous figure in the country’s Underground Railroad History. She is believed to have led some 70 fugitive slaves to freedom through the First State.
When slavery was abolished, secret paths were no longer necessary so some stations became forgotten, torn down or paved over.
Historians documented local Underground Railroad points of interest as part of the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Byway.
The byway uses local roads to lead travelers past Underground Railroad points of interest starting in Sandtown near the Maryland border 95 miles up through Wilmington. It connects to a similar path through Maryland.
Clearfield is not a listed stop on Delaware’s byway. Regardless of whether it was a station on the railroad, Emmons said it should have been prioritized for preservation.
It was built when Delaware was still a British colony. Its brick construction may not be striking today, but it was constructed at a time when most of its neighbors would have lived in log or wood-framed homes, he said.
“A brick house of this size would have been considered a stylish mansion for a wealthy person,” Emmons said.
He said its condition is another example of “state-sponsored contempt” for Delaware’s “historic resources.”
When corrections bought the property in the 1960s, officials vowed to save the home. Articles published in The News Journal in the 1990s, after corrections stopped using the home for offices, show state officials at least discussing spending money to stabilize the building. That never happened.
It’s a story that has repeated itself with Delaware’s oldest structures: they deteriorate to the point where their owners say the cost of restoration outweighs the potential reuse of the property.
Emmons said it is an example of why Delaware should have stronger laws compelling state entities to preserve such structures.
“Why we’ve gotten to this point is beyond me,” he said. “It clearly required sustained apathy on the part of people who could have prevented its decline.”
Contact Xerxes Wilson at (302) 324-2787 or email@example.com. Follow @Ber_Xerxes on Twitter.