Old Smyrna mansion will live on Delaware renovates venerable, elegant Belmont Hall

Article from The News Journal,
August 12, 1991
by Nan Clements

Smyrna – When Walter W. Speakman moved out of his family home, “it took 50 trips just to clean out the attic.”

But then, not everyone lives most of his life in a house that has been continuously occupied since the mid-1700’s, a repository of state and family history.

“One thing about Belmont Hall — we always had a place to come to,” Speakman said of his former home. “It has this great feeling of permanence, of being there through the centuries.”

Today, the state of Delaware owns Belmont Hall, on the southern edge of Smyrna. When the state bought the estate’s remaining 30 acres for the NW U.S. 13 Relief Route right-of-way, the house was included in the $320,000 purchase price. The road will pass about a mile to the rear of the historic structure, which is being extensively renovated and restored, possibly for use as a state conference center. No cost estimate or completion date are set.

Belmont Hall “was a neat place to grow up,” said Speakman, who put the house up for sale and moved out in June 1987 when he realized he didn’t have the resources to buy out his brother and sister and do the work Belmont Hall needed. With additions, Belmont Hall once had as many as 30 rooms.

“My mother (Marjorie W. Speakman) saved the Loockerman house (at Delaware State College) and headed the restoration of the John Dickinson Mansion (near Kitts Hummock), but we didn’t have the money to do Belmont Hall,” said Speakman, who retired December 31, 1986, after 20 years in state government.

The estate first appears in Delaware history as a 600-acre tract called “Pearman’s Choice,” granted by William Penn in 1684 to Henry Pearman. Belmont Hall apparently was built in 1753 by John Cook and enlarged by colonial Gov. Thomas Collins after he purchased it in 1771.

John and Ebenezer Cloke the master builders who constructed the main brick part of Belmont Hall, also built another house near Belmont Hall and the Corbit-Sharp House in Odessa, Speakman said.

Belmont Hall earned its place in history during the Revolutionary War, when the legislature met there several times because the early capital, New Castle, was too dangerous.

The war also gave Belmont Hall is ghost — a Colonial soldier, standing watch on the widow’s walk, who was shot by British soldiers coming up Duck Creek. He ran downstairs to warn others, and died in a pool of blood at the foot of the stairway. As recently as the mid-1960s, Speakman’s mother showed visitors the blood stains on the wooden floor.

Belmont Hall’s fortunes have risen and fallen with the times.

The estate was a working farm for most of its life. Speakman’s father, Cummins W. Speakman, tried raising broiler chickens, b”but the market wasn’t ready yet, so he went into asparagus.. He had one of the first asparagus farms in Delaware.” Peaches also were a significant cash crop.

“We got a Polish family from Baltimore, the Simoneskis, to cut the asparagus,” Speakman recalled. “They would cut (the fast-growing asparagus,” ) twice a day if necessary and wash it and sort it and pack it from shipping.”

“They also built this big oven in the back of the house, and the women would bake bread and cook all day.” he said. “That was the best bread I ever tasted. (One of the women) would have a big loaf of it, a foot in diameter and three or four feet long, and she’d ask if I wanted a piece, and she’d put that great big loaf under her arm and whack off a hunk of it, still steaming from the oven.”

“All of them came, the grandmother and the grandchildren and aunts and uncles,” Speakman said. “They thought of asparagus season as a vacation. Of course, this was the Depression, and there wasn’t much money around, especially for things like vacations.”

For a time, the estate had a cannery, which produced cans of tomatoes bearing a Belmont Hall label with a picture of the house.

“The recipe for the tomatoes was my grandmother’s.” Speakman said. “She used to pack whole tomatoes in liquid in glass for a Boston firm, and nobody else ever figured out how to do it.”

The tomatoes brought a bit of home to a far-away soldier.

“My Uncle Walter (Willoughby) was in France (during World War I),” Speakman recalled. “the Croix de Guerre with five palm clusters.”

“One day, a bunch of mess wagons carried with ahot meal, the first in a long time, and the wagon was full of Belmont Hall tomatoes that he’d helped pack,” Speakman said. “He got so homesick he cried.”

But the peach blight took its toll; the cannery’s equipment was sold to pay off a legal judgment, and the land was parceled off during the Depression, Speakman said. Thirty-two acres were sold, then 60 more acres, which became the site of the Delaware Hospital for the Chronically ILl, then 300 acres, the more.

In the end, there was nothing left but the house — its sagging rear wall braced by a giant crossbar and iron rod through the attic from front to back — and the 30 acres sold to the state Highway Division.

“It was a shock to move away, but not as bad as we thought it would be,” said Speakman, 72, who now lives with his wife, Virginia, 65, on Kates Way. Their present home is about two miles west of the Colonial mansion, which sits back from the north bound lanes of U.S. 13 amid its remaining trees.

“I miss the trees,” Speakman said.

Belmont Hall’s grounds were almost as well-known as the house. “At one time, we had five of the biggest trees in Delaware … a horse chestnut, a Douglas Fir, a Chinese Empress or Paulownia tree, a Bing Cherry, and the biggest English yew south of Boston.”

A bad summer storm three years ago took out some of the trees — “beeches as big in diameter as this,” Speakman said, spreading his arms wide.

Speakman, who started mapping the grounds, said the rear garden was dominated by a boxwood “tear drop,” a popular Victorian-style maze. There was also an extensive kitchen garden.

“We never had air conditioning, and it was cool even in summer, because the trees kept it cool,” Speakman said.

Belmont Hall’s trees and shrubs also were home to countless animals and birds, particularly owls.

“We were always finding the bones of little animals the owls caught,” he recalled. “I remember one time, a dead branch was hanging down from one of the oak trees, and I wanted to cut it off before it fell.

“While I was cutting, I kept hearing this hissing noise,” he continued. “Well, the branch was hanging because the tree had rotted at the base of the branch, and there were two baby owls in the hole, hissing away, with all these little bones around them, their eyes just as big as saucers.”

The trees also linked Belmont Hall to other places in and around Delaware. Several of its plants went to Longwood Gardens in nearby Pennsylvania.

“(Longwood founder) Pierre S. du Pont had his scouts out,” Speakman said. “he was always looking for prize specimens for Longwood. He paid $5,000 for a couple of Belmont trees, including an English yew.”

“But when he found out where they were from, he wouldn’t take the trees and he wouldn’t take back the money.” speakman said. “This was during the Depression, and $5,000 was a lot of money then. But (du Pont) knew my grandmother, and said she was one of the most gracious ladies he knew, and he wouldn’t take her trees.”

“She got him started building a conservatory, and gave him a banana tree from her (Belmont Hall) conservatory, the first banana tree he ever had,” Speakman said.

Bits and pieces of Belmont Hall and the history it helped shape have found their way elsewhere — not always by design. Speakman said he would have had a lot more stuff to move if his grandmother hadn’t preceded him.

His grandmother, Caroline Elizabeth Cloke Peterson Speakman — “she liked to use her full name” — “sold off a lot of things, stuff the state and historical society would love to have now.”

But Grandmother Speakman — described by those who knew her best as a “a street angel and a home devil” — “went dotty in herr last years, and started giving away furniture and other things.”

A church returned the family Bible, but 10 Philadelphia Chippendale chairs, dining table and sideboards purchased shortly after the house was built, were “loaned” to a relative and eventually found their way to an antiques dealer.

“I have the two remaining chairs, plus the bill of sale for them (dated in the 1700’s),” Speakman said. “The antique dealer sold those 10 chairs for $25,000 in 1933.”