John Dickinson Plantation
John Dickinson was one of the founding fathers and American revolutionary leader of the United States. He was born in Talbot County, Maryland in 1732 and later moved with his family to Kent County, Delaware. In 1740 his father, Samuel Dickinson, who was a wealthy planter and judge, purchased a 13,000 acre plantation on St. Jones Creek in Kent County.
There he built a magnificent brick mansion where John grew up living the life of a country aristocrat. As a youth, he was tutored at home and then went to Philadelphia to study law. After that, he went to London to continue his studies. When he returned home, he went to Philadelphia and established a successful law practice.
John Dickinson was a Continental Congressman from both Pennsylvania and Delaware and he was also a delegate to the Constitutional Convention of 1787. He served as an early governor of both Delaware and Pennsylvania and he was one of the wealthiest men in the American colonies.
He wrote some of the most significant arguments for American liberty including his Letters From a Farmer In Pennslvania. He also drafted most of the 1774 Petition to the King and the 1775 Olive Branch Petition. When these two attempts at negotiation with the King failed, he reworked Thomas Jefferson’s draft and wrote the final version of the Declaration of the Causes and Necessity of Taking Up Arms that was written in 1775.
The house is a very good example of an Early Georgian mansion with wings that were added in 1752 and 1754. Originally, the house faced a bend of the St. Jones River which has since been straightened. The house had major damage during an August 1781 raid by the British and was almost destroyed by fire in 1804.
The house was built with what is sometimes called the “telescope type of planning.” In this type of planning, a series of smaller wings have been added to the main house at a later time.
The original house was built by Judge Samuel Dickinson in 1739-40 and is a five-bay, 2-story home built of brick. It has a wide center hall with a parlor on the east along with two smaller rooms. Each of these rooms has an angle fireplace to the west. The main house also has a cellar which is raised up nearly to ground level and has nice daylight. This cellar was originally a storage room with a wine cellar under the front door and a kitchen and scullery.
Extending to the west, there are two lower wings which step down from the main house. The first was constructed in 1752 and contains a dining room with a bedroom on the second floor. The second wing is smaller and was added in 1754. This addition contained the kitchen with the rooms of the household slaves above it.
The main house was three stories high with the raised basement and a hipped roof. The windows on the first floor are quite tall and reflect Georgian design principles.
In 1804, the fire that occurred left only four walls standing. John Dickinson supervised the rebuilding of the house from his home in Wilmington. The hip roof of the house was replaced with a gable roof and the mansion was reduced to two stories. In the renovation, the interior of the house was plain in contrast to the carved woodwork and expensive decorations that were present in the original house. It seemed likely that Dickinson thought this simplicity was necessary because he lived in Wilmington and intended to rent the house to tenants.
In 1952, the National Society of Colonial Dames raised funds to preserve this home when it appeared that it was about to be razed. The State of Delware matched the gift and bought the house along with a 13-acre tract surrounding it. The subsequent restoration of the house was undertaken using Dickinson’s correspondence between 1804-1806. Whenever possible, materials original to the house were reused and many of the pieces of furniture present in the house today were previously owned by the Dickinson family.
Nothing remains of the slave quarters and outbuildings. There is a formal boxwood garden in front of the main house and a kitchen garden has been created to the west of the house. Both gardens have been enclosed by a picket fence.
The John Dickinson House, often known as Poplar Hall, is an excellent example of Delaware plantation architecture and has now been restored to its early appearance and is open to the public. Click here for more information about the museum.