Originally known as the Rising Sun area, Breck’s Mill (the stone mill below), a cotton mill, was built by William Breck for his new wife Gabrielle Josephine du Pont in 1813…. And then rebuilt in 1846 after a fire.
After the mill closed in 1854, it was used as a recreation center and dance hall, and sometimes for concerts given by Alfred I. du Pont’s band the Tankopanicum Musical Club. During World War I, Breck’s Mill, became a community center for munitions workers nearby.
The white mill across the Brandywine River is now known as Walker’s Mill. It was built in the early 1810’s as a cotton mill alongside houses for workers and their families. Because working men were not paid enough to afford horses or carriages, they lived extremely close to their work.
As soon as the mill at Rising Sun was built, it was leased to another company to manufacture cotton yarn, muslin, check and plaid.
In 1880, one of the younger boys employed in “Walker’s mill at Rising Sun” as the newspaper called it, lit a lamp in the mule room (a room used to spin cotton, not one for the animal) when his match fell into a pile of highly combustible material.
In an instant the room was consumed in flames. Because most of the employees lived just next door, they organized into a group and began to remove materials from the building. Within half an hour the entire upper story was enveloped in the fire and they were forced to stop.
By the time the Wilmington Fire Department arrived, the entire building was engulfed. At the time the mill was being rented and run by William Hunt who was badly burned attempting to stop the fire from ruining his expensive English machinery.
It certainly wasn’t the only accident at the mill, particularly by the rough waters which powered the operations but frequently flooded. In 1886 a severe storm forced the dam at Walker’s Mill at Rising Sun to give way and the two boys who were on it attempting to raise the flood gates were swept away and drowned.
In 1909, a woman’s body was found floating in the dam next to the mill. She was identified as Jane McAllister, a 66-year old woman who had been missing for several days. Police reasoned that she’d become confused and accidentally drowned. There was no further investigation and the death was ruled an accident.
As an interesting side note, the son of well-known artist Charles Willson Peale (of George Washington portrait fame) was an apprentice at Walker’s Mill at Rising Sun. Seventeen-year old Franklin Peale was one of 16 and like his siblings, his father provided him with an informal education tailored towards his own interests.
To his father’s chagrin, Franklin was more interested in mechanics than art and he worked at the cotton factory learning the making of machines. His father tolerated Franklin’s mechanical career but considered it foolish.
Competition from imported British goods, fires, and floods forced the company and the mill where he had apprenticed out of business before the decade was out.
The year that Franklin completed his apprenticeship, he married Eliza Greatrake. The Greatrakes were Quakers but Eliza was known for her zealous religious fervor.
Soon after the wedding, Eliza’s mental health problems became apparent. She and Franklin had a daughter named Anna their first year of marriage but Eliza left shortly after to live with her mother. When she threatened to kill their child, Eliza’s mother committed her to the Philadelphia Hospital as a “lunatic.”
In order to obtain an annulment, the Peale family gathered evidence of Eliza’s mental instability. In 1820 the annulment was granted.
In 1824, Franklin founded The Franklin Institute, a technical instructional school for working men, and served a tenure at the United States Mint at Philadelphia. He died in 1870 at the age of 74.