“For many years I had been saying that I wished someone would gather up the rough land along the Brandywine above Rockland and hold it for the future... and I concluded I ought to do something toward what I had been wishing others would do.”
There is a rock high above the bend in the Brandywine where William Bancroft is remembered to have often stood. From there he enjoyed showing friends the view of the valley that sloped out of Wilmington into the farmland and rugged country of Brandywine Hundred.
When William Bancroft looked toward Brandywine Hundred, his vision transcended this scene of natural beauty. He could imagine a future when the city of Wilmington would expand into the open land to the north. It was for the residents of this future Wilmington that Bancroft planned to preserve the unique beauty of the lower Brandywine Valley.
William Poole Bancroft was born in 1835, son of Joseph Bancroft, the founder of Joseph Bancroft & Sons Company, and Sarah Poole, daughter of William Poole, the silversmith and miller. When Bancroft was seven years old, he began working in his father’s cotton mills. At age 14, he went to work full-time and by 1865, at the age of 30, was made a partner in the business.
It was through the successful operation of these mills that William Bancroft acquired the means to give of his time, money, and energy to housing, orderly development, and parks.
In 1901, William Bancroft established Woodlawn Company, known today as Woodlawn Trustees, Incorporated.
Woodlawn Trustees’ story begins with the Brandywine River, a cotton mill, and a philanthropist. It’s an extraordinary story of how one generous and forward-thinking man quietly ensured the future of the landscape and the community he was steward of. Over one hundred years ago, Quaker industrialist William Poole Bancroft (1835-1928) used funds generated from the power of the Brandywine to invest in the future of the river, its surrounding areas, and the lives of people in the community.
Bancroft Mills was one of the most prosperous cotton mills in Wilmington, Delaware. By 1885, William Bancroft had begun showing an interest in giving back to the city and its residents; he engaged the most renowned landscape architect in the country – Frederick Law Olmsted – and began donating landscaped parks to the City of Wilmington.
As a visionary city planner, Bancroft not only worked toward improved urban life, but also anticipated change and development and the need for conservation. Before anyone took into consideration the eventuality that Wilmington and Philadelphia might one day meet, Bancroft amassed more than 1300 acres for parklands beyond the boundaries of Wilmington. Someday, he reasoned, land in the Brandywine Hundreds would be needed for its environmental and aesthetic value. Bancroft speculated in 1909 that this would take 100 years – and it has.
To make sure that his “objects” continued well beyond his lifetime, Bancroft created the Woodlawn Company – later called Woodlawn Trustees, Inc. The result was a foundation for modern community planning which is precedent-setting, as it is the only example in the United States of a community planning experiment which put in place an entity to ensure its goals were achieved long term. The goals of The Woodlawn Trustees, Inc. were to make money through the sale and wise planning of land to continue the work which Bancroft himself had outlined for the corporation – affordable housing, wise planning and the assemblage of parklands and open space.
Hundreds of linear feet of corporate records of the Bancroft Mills, the Woodlawn Trustees, Inc. and Bancroft’s personal letters and journals can be found in the Hagley Museum and Archives. Yet, despite his extraordinary accomplishments and dedication, Bancroft’s Quaker modesty and simplicity mandate a quietly enduring legacy. Other than the Park Commission, he sat on no boards, and gave few speeches and even fewer interviews to the press. He eschewed all publicity of his work, yet the work of Woodlawn Trustees, Inc. continues today and speaks for itself.
Excerpted from information compiled by historian Cherilyn Widell while researching and developing materials for Statement of National Historical Significance.