Every spring, on the first weekend of May, the fields of Winterthur along Kennett Pike are brought to life as people gather for the annual Point-to-Point steeplechase. The Point-to-Point fields on the Winterthur estate comprise rolling hills that tuck into the woodlands. Each year this ground is stirred with the excitement of tailgaters, foot traffic, and horses racing toward the finish line. What many who attend the Brandywine Valley’s signature spring event do not know is that the staff at Winterthur work meticulously after the event to return these grounds to their previous state; with strenuous yearly maintenance, the surface of the fields are once again made smooth and cultivated. With so much activity, however, one might think the landscape has changed from its pre-du Pont past. But a little-noticed object in the Winterthur collection proves otherwise.
On the 6th floor in the museum, in the Architect’s Room, behind a door, is an 1803 property survey for the sale of land of Rumford Dawes to John Hirron. The map shows land along a public road, some cleared, other parts marked with green lines indicating woodland, several streams, and only two buildings: a farm house and a spring house. At the bottom of the map is a block of text that describes the purchase and not only mentions the portion of land Dawes intended to keep for himself but also names the previous owner, William Clenny.
Originally, this map proved an important resource providing a definitive date when a particular farmhouse, now used to house visiting scholars, had not yet been built. But the map takes on deeper importance as the staff at Winterthur began to further access the information. The 1803 map provides insight into the land of the estate and the du Pont family’s stewardship of this land.
In 1834, Jacques Antoine Bidermann, son-in-law of E. I. du Pont, the DuPont Company’s founder, purchased the first tract of land that would become the estate and by 1839 constructed his house. Bidermann named the estate Winterthur after his ancestral home in Switzerland. The original Greek Revival–style home was transformed and added to throughout the years by generations of the du Pont family. The 175-room house we know today was the work of Winterthur’s last resident, American decorative arts collector and horticulturist Henry Francis du Pont (1880–1969). In the almost two centuries of the estate’s existence, the property peaked at more than 2,500 acres; it currently sits around 1,000 acres of land, encompassing rolling hills, streams, meadows, and forests. Although many visitors see the unparalleled museum collection of antiques and beautiful gardens, much of the estate is never seen. These unseen portions of the property consist of the numerous farms and lands purchased by several generations of du Pont, which, in many cases, still retain 19th-century landscaping and architecture—a true feat in an area known for large homes situated on sprawling private properties.
Tucked away from the constant adaption and renovations of the house and the exquisite care of the garden, the vernacular architecture of the 18th- and 19th-century farmhouses, barns, and landscaping remains relatively untouched. While lining up the areas of the 1803 property survey, we were struck with the similarity to the current landscape. The public road on the survey became the Kennett Turnpike in 1803, the lands passed through many hands as it was parceled and sold; but the major power players referenced on the 1803 map continued to appear in deeds and maps—the Wilsons, the Chandlers, and the Nichols; even the Greaves and later the Negendanks, whose homes and properties would later make up the Winterthur estate. Most importantly, the cleared land, tree lines, and the streams are almost the same as they were more than 200 years ago.
The Winterthur Garden Department is responsible for maintaining all the land on the estate, everything from the fields to the woods, from the “natural gardens” to the cultivated gardens. To keep track of the changes in the land over the years and all of the plants, the garden department has begun Geographic Information System (GIS) mapping of the property. A new map was created using the points of the streams, most notably Clenny Run, and the trees, to overlay the 1803 property survey with a modern satellite image. The results were a closer match than anticipated!
The results of the comparison showed that the trees have retaken some land, particularly a cleared run leading to Farm Hill, and the streams north of the survey’s scope have been rerouted into ponds, but the lines remain mostly the same. Most of the areas of woodland regrowth are also located along steep inclines and less arable soil. Missing from the current landscape, though, are the only two buildings on the 1803 map—the Clenny Farmhouse and its springhouse. The area where these buildings once stood is now the view of the annual Point-to-Point steeplechase races, and any surface evidence has long since been lost. In a search for the Clenny farmhouse and springhouse, Winterthur, in partnership with the University of Delaware, plans to use ground-penetrating radar to search for subterranean anomalies that could indicate the buried remains of the two foundations.
The 1803 map has been used with several later property deeds in section A, which Dawes retains through the sale. This property, listed on the survey at “14 acres” was later sold to Irene Martin in 1831 on a deed with the description of “All of that lot of woodland situate on the Kennett Turnpike…containing about 14 acres be the same more or less.” The property markers that bound the land on the 1803 map are present on numerous subsequent deeds, and some last until present day. One still-existing property marker from the 1803 map is a Tulip Poplar in Magnolia Bend in the garden. This poplar was used as a marker point for the GIS compilation.
The 1803 map, tucked away behind a bedroom door in the museum, provides fascinating insights into the history of the estate. While many visitors may not see the significant value, the map—showing the land purchase in rural northern Delaware in 1803—has opened a new way to study the estate and the influences of the du Pont family on their surroundings. While some of land in the past was sold off to the surrounding country clubs, the state park, and residents of Greenville, most still remains protected and unchanged since the days H. F. du Pont used it as grazing area for his dairy herd. There are countless maps and surveys of the different transactions that ultimately led to the creation of the present-day Winterthur estate, and this project has opened the door to using each of those for a greater understanding of the land and its previous owners.
This year, if you’re planning to join us on May 3 at the 37th Annual Point-to-Point, take a moment to appreciate not just the thrill of professional steeplechase racing but also the beautiful landscape of the estate. You are looking at the same land features the Clennys and Dawes surveyed more than 200 years ago, and who knows, you may even be standing over the remains of their house.
For more information on the 37th Annual Point-to-Point, please visit winterthur.org/ptp. Tickets and tailgate parking spaces on sale now!
Post by Katie Forest, Historic Preservation Project Manager at Winterthur