The Brandywine mills, 1742-1815
University of Delaware
In 1740, Oliver Canby moved from Bucks County, Pennsylvania, to the newly chartered town of Wilmington in Delaware. Oliver Canby, like many others who came to Wilmington, was a Quaker and as a member of the Society of Friends he had acquired early in life a useful trade or craft. Canby was a millwright by profession and in less than 15 years after coming to Wilmington he had gained, besides several promising mill seats, the control of important water rights on the Brandywine. During this period (1742-1755) Canby built the first mill of size or consequence on Brandywine Creek. The Canby Mill began the history of the merchant flour industry in this area known as the Brandywine Mills. ☐ The initial work of Oliver Canby was followed by that of Thomas Shipley who, in less than ten years after Canby's death (1755), transformed the flour mills on the lower Brandywine from custom mills to merchant enterprises. This was accomplished by building large mills with overshot wheels below the last falls of the stream. These mills were built on the south bank of the creek where, for the first time, they could begin to make full use of the water power so readily available. Even more important than power was the fact that these new mills were at tidewater; therefore they were convenient to ocean navigation by way of the Christina and Delaware Rivers. Similar mills were built on the north side of the stream in the 1770's. The development of this area was mainly due to the resourcefulness of Joseph Tatnall who is correctly thought of as Delaware's first great industrialist. ☐ Prior to the revolution the energy of three men -- Oliver Canby, Thomas Shipley and Joseph Tattnall -- had given impetus to the building of eight tidewater mills on the Brandywine. There were four mills on each side of the stream in this period and they ground the grist brought from the rich wheat fields of Delaware, Maryland, Pennsylvania and New Jersey. These meals were located in the heart of America's first extensive wheat belt and we're readily accessible to the wheat growers of the middle colonies via river, road and ocean. The Brandywine millers, during the Revolution, the Confederation and the early Republic, expanded the business that had been founded in the colonial period. After the Revolution these mills produced flour for domestic and foreign consumption and provided a stimulus for Wilmington's prosperous economic and commercial life. ☐ The Brandywine Mills between 1770 and 1815 increased in number from eight to fourteen merchant mills, all tightly clustered about the tidal basin of Brandywine Creek. It was during this period that Oliver Evans introduced the idea of automation to flour mill machinery; and subsequently the mills at Brandywine were mechanized. These mills, despite, mechanization, provided work for hundreds of individuals including millers millwrights, coopers, blacksmiths and shallopmen. By the 1790’s, mills at Brandywine annually ground 300,000 to 100,000 bushels of wheat. Every year local merchants shipped thousands of barrels of Brandywine flour to the four corners of the globe and the Quaker millers reaped a return of a half million dollars in profits from their mill operations. The Brandywine Mills were, in every sense, a large scale enterprise and their history is the story of the industry that preceded du Pont as the industrial giant on Brandywine Creek. This story “fully written out … would afford a complete picture of the rise of the milling interest in the United States.