Hockessin: Affluence and Activism

The unincorporated community near the Pennsylvania border thrives through a sense of harmony, maintaining an ‘old town feel’

OUR TOWN SERIES: This is the third in a series of profiles about communities throughout Delaware

Joe Lake has a pretty good memory, which is what you’d expect for the president of the Hockessin Historical Society, but he can’t remember which national magazine, way back in the 1960s, labeled Hockessin as one of the “10 best places to live” in the nation.

Chances are that a good number of the community’s 13,000-plus residents would accord Hockessin that same honor today.

Hockessin, if it were incorporated, would be the fifth most populous city or town in Delaware—ahead of Smyrna and behind Middletown, Newark, Dover and Wilmington.

It would be ranked number one in terms of affluence. According to figures posted on City-Data.com, Hockessin’s median income is more than double the state’s median, and median home value is 79 percent above the state median. And, save for the ubiquitous Walgreen’s and Wawa logos, it can boast a business community that is almost entirely locally owned and operated.

“It’s close to Wilmington. It’s close to Kirkwood Highway. But it’s not Kirkwood Highway. It’s very suburban without being far away from the city,” says Kenny Wynn, who has lived in Hockessin for 48 of his 54 years and has spent a good part of the last 25 years organizing the community’s signature event, the Fourth of July parade, fireworks and community relay races.

“It’s great to see everyone come together. Sometimes I think you see 16,000 people,” says Wynn. Overcast skies and the threat of thunderstorms kept the crowd down this year, but the parade attracted at least one resident of nearby Greenville, Vice President Joe Biden.

Seventh-generation farmer Jim Mitchell, with Woodside Creamery’s Jersey cows. (Photo by Tim Hawk)

Agriculture – and Aromas

Longtime residents like Lake and Wynn remember a different Hockessin, an agricultural community occasionally susceptible to the overpowering aroma emanating from the mushroom farms along Valley Road and north to the Pennsylvania line.

“In the summer, a lot of high school kids got jobs on the farms, baling hay and picking corn,” Lake recalls. “We’d work all day in the fields, then after dinner go for a nice cool swim” at the pool the NVF Co. built at its plant in nearby Yorklyn. The pool’s operations were underwritten by NVF and the Hockessin-Yorklyn Lions Club—and a pass good for the entire summer cost only a dollar, he remembers.

Plans to develop the area’s last remaining mushroom farm—a 20-acre property on the north side of Valley Road—were filed with New Castle County last month, says Fran Swift, president of the Greater Hockessin Area Development Association (GHADA), an umbrella group that comprises representatives from 40 or so civic associations in the area, many of them constructed since 1967, when Swift’s father, Francis, became GHADA’s first president.

The development boom in the last quarter of the 20th century filled in most of the prime acreage in Hockessin – bordered roughly by Barley Mill Road on the east, Limestone Road on the west, the Pennsylvania border to the north and plenty of zigs and zags on the south.

For much of that time, GHADA was a reactive organization—one that battled developers as they sought to put more homes and shops in the area, says Ken Murphy, the group’s president from 1998 to 2006.

But, as development subsided, civic leaders adjusted their focus and helped create an informal governance system that well serves an unincorporated community that has no elected officials of its own.

Murphy is the head of the Hockessin Planning Partnership, whose members include Swift, representing GHADA; Lake, as head of the historical society; and Peg Castorani, president of the Hockessin Business Association, a hyperlocal version of a chamber of commerce. They meet periodically to discuss community needs, and to keep each other up to date on their activities.

John Sherman, owner of Creations Gallery, sits on a hammock chair outside his shop. (Photo courtesy of Creations Gallery)
John Sherman, owner of Creations Gallery, sits on a hammock chair outside his shop. (Photo courtesy of Creations Gallery)

“Strength in Individual Units”

The Partnership itself tends to keep a low profile. “If we do anything, the mother hen cannot take the credit,” Murphy says. “It’s better to do things through the member organizations. Our strength lies in the strength of those individual units.”

In addition, Murphy, Swift and Lake serve  on the Hockessin Design Review Advisory Committee, an arm of the New Castle County government responsible for reviewing land development applications to make sure they comply with Hockessin’s master plan.

This collaborative approach has helped Hockessin develop two thriving business districts—the old village core along Old Lancaster Pike and the Lantana Square Shopping Center, a mile to the west at the intersection of Limestone and Valley roads.

“The population is very conducive to the business we have,” says Brody Glenn, manager of the Harvest Market, a natural foods retailer that opened on Lancaster Pike in 1995.

“We tend to have people who care about their health, and Hockessin and Greenville are among the wealthier parts of Delaware,” he says. On top of that, “the Hockessin Athletic Club is down the street, the Kennett YMCA isn’t far, and we catch a lot of traffic from commuters between Pennsylvania and Wilmington.”

One of Hockessin’s biggest business boosters is John Sherman, owner of Creations Gallery in Hockessin Corner, a rustic shopping area off Old Lancaster Pike. He has come and gone twice—and regrets both departures. In 1992, he opened his shop, which features American-made handcrafted gifts, furnishings and accessories in wood, metal, glass and ceramics, in the old Garrett Snuff Mill in Yorklyn. After three years, he moved to Powder Mill Square in Greenville, staying there until 1999, when he left after a dispute with his landlord. Dan Lickle, owner of both the Snuff Mill and Hockessin Corner, convinced Sherman to relocate to Hockessin. After 10 successful years, he says, “I had a brain fart” and decided to move to the Shoppes at Louviers in Newark. “It turned out to be a disastrous decision.”

The Hockessin-Newark “Wall”

It didn’t take him long to discover that “there might as well be a concrete wall between Hockessin and Newark.” Hockessin residents seldom go to Newark to shop, and Newark residents seldom shop in Hockessin. Sherman estimates that the move cost him 80 percent of his customers.

“Dan [Lickle] made me a great offer to come back” three years ago, and Sherman didn’t hesitate. “I love Hockessin. It’s a great community. It’s definitely my customer base,” he says.

However, he admits, somewhat sheepishly, that while the Newark-Hockessin route may not work for shoppers, he makes that jaunt every day between home and work.

Rebecca Dowling, owner of the Hockessin Book Shelf, also on Lancaster Pike, finds the area’s demographic ideal for her shop, and she broadens her reach by hosting reading groups and partnering with other businesses.

Dowling, one of the first employees when Paul and Maureen Piper opened the shop in 2001, bought the business when the Pipers retired to Hawaii in 2008. “We have spectacular readership,” she says, citing two major demographics: the abundance of families who buy board books for toddlers and summer reading assignments for teenagers and the senior citizens living comfortably in the area’s retirement communities.

She organizes book groups for fans of mysteries, romance novels and contemporary fiction, and regularly hosts book signings for local and nationally published authors.

Through the Hockessin Business Association, she partners with other retailers and nonprofits, often by featuring books tied to the interests of whomever she is partnering with. One of her most popular activities is a summer story hour for children at the Woodside Farm Creamery. “We’ve been doing that for five years,” she says. One session in early July drew more than 100 people.

William Hoffman, head chef of the House of William & Merry.
William Hoffman, head chef of the House of William & Merry.

Fun for the Kids

While some of the business association’s greatest contributions to the community have come through its collaboration with other groups and participation with the New Castle County government and the state Department of Transportation in planning safety and beautification projects along Lancaster Pike and Old Lancaster Pike, Castorani happily talks about activities that put smiles on the faces of local residents, especially the children.

Before Halloween, the association sponsors a three-day weekend of activities. Then, in December, at the Hockessin Library, they present an interactive version of How the Grinch Stole Christmas. With the animated film playing on a large screen, business owners take on some of the roles themselves, and they invite the audience to join in.

“It’s ‘the Grinch meets the Rocky Horror Picture Show,’”says Greg Vogeley, owner of the Drip Café, a breakfast and lunch destination in Lantana Square that has grown so popular in three years that he is now doubling his seating space.

He made the decision to expand because his family-dominated Saturday and Sunday morning breakfast crowd kept coming in earlier and earlier “to beat the rush” and it has gotten to the point that the waits have become too long for parents with fidgety kids.

“We’re confident in our growth,” says Vogeley, even though he faces competition from nearby Starbucks and Brew HaHa! coffee shops and two eateries somewhat similar to his, the Perfect Cup and Quinn’s Cafe.

“We want to make this the best it can be. That’s the most important thing right now,” he says. “We don’t want to get ahead of ourselves.”

While Drip Café has become one of Hockessin’s popular destinations for those who eat out early in the day, the community has plenty of options for fine dining in the evening.

The Back Burner has long been a popular destination, and newer additions include the Redfire Grill, Six Paupers and Two Stones Pub. Down Lancaster Pike to the south is Capers and Lemons.

After three years of looking for a building where they could live and operate a restaurant, William Hoffman and Merry Catanuto homed in on an old farmhouse on Old Lancaster Pike that had most recently been used as a hair salon and rental property.

It was just what they wanted—an upscale community ideal for raising a family with a location that could attract local residents but also diners from Greenville, Centreville, Wilmington and Kennett Square. So, in 2011, they opened the House of William and Merry.

Bridget Sullivan with Vice President Joe Biden at the 2016 Hockessin Fourth of July parade. (Photo by Ryan Alexander)
Bridget Sullivan with Vice President Joe Biden at the 2016 Hockessin Fourth of July parade. (Photo by Ryan Alexander)

Carving Their Own Niche

“Every year we’re growing more and more,” says Catanuto, who runs the front of the house while her husband is in charge of the kitchen. Her only lament is that the community isn’t busy enough in the middle of the day to generate thriving lunch traffic.

Offering seasonal new American cuisine prepared by French-trained chefs—“fine dining but not in a pretentious way”—Catanuto says “we’ve carved out our own niche” in a competitive dining environment.

And she relishes the competition. “It’s good for everybody’s game,” she says, “and it brings more people to the area.”

In addition to diversity in retail and dining, some of Hockessin’s appeal comes from its recreational options—notably its library, the county-owned Swift Park, the Hockessin Athletic Club, the PAL Center and a series of bicycling and walking trails developed in the past 10 years.

The community’s significant contributions to Delaware and national history also cannot be overlooked.

For history buffs, Lake says, “this town is a pot of gold, with so many nuggets in it that it’s unbelievable.”

In September 1775, British troops marched up what is now Limestone Road from Cooch’s Bridge south of Newark to Chadds Ford for the Battle of the Brandywine. British officers commandeered the use of the David Brown farmhouse just over the state line for use as a temporary headquarters.

Fifteen years later, priests from Maryland established the Coffee Run Mission, later known as St. Mary’s Church, the first Catholic church in the state, on Lancaster Pike. The old church was gutted by arson in 2010, but Trinity Church, an independent Christian denomination, hopes to preserve the structure as it builds on the site.

Tweed’s Tavern, an 18th-century inn where George Washington once dined, was threatened with demolition in the 1990s by a state plan to widen the intersection of Limestone and Valley roads. Hearings before New Castle County’s Historic Review Board slowed the demolition process. Eventually, the tavern was moved twice, and it now sits in a park on Valley Road, a short distance east of Limestone Road. The Hockessin Historical Society owns the building and broke ground last winter on a meeting and exhibit center next door.

Hockessin also played a significant role in the historic Brown vs. Board of Education decision in 1954 that found racial segregation in public schools unconstitutional.

Not far from the original Tweeds Tavern site once stood the home of Shirley Bulah, an African-American child who had to travel past white schools in order to reach Hockessin School 107C, on Millcreek Road, the site of a state historic marker. Shirley Bulah was identified as the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit that started in Delaware’s Court of Chancery and eventually became part of the Brown decision.

More recently, Lake notes, two of the first subdivisions in suburban New Castle County, North Star and Horseshoe Hills, were built in the early 1950s near Hockessin to meet the demand for convenient housing for DuPont Co. engineers working at the Louviers facility in Newark.

Hockessin may have many more residents than it did a generation ago, Castorani says, “when you could literally pull out of Sanford School onto Lancaster Pike without looking left or right.”

But, through all its changes, its essence hasn’t changed. As Catanuto puts it, “it still has the old town feel.”