by Terry Rogers
In 1907, Frank Greco, an Italian immigrant from Pennsylvania, purchased a 977 acre farm from William Simpson, who had purchased the land from the heirs of Governor Charles Polk. Greco not only purchased the acreage but the stately mansion, known as Ellerslie, built by Governor Polk. The home was named after Polk’s ancestral home in Scotland.
Greco had extensive experience with railroading, steam engines and heavy machinery. His daughter, Filomena, later said that her father decided to move to Delaware because he saw great potential for selling produce and crops. In addition, he felt land in Delaware was much cheaper than in Pennsylvania. In addition to the land purchased from Simpson, Greco also purchased additional acreage, paying $22,600, a fairly high price for that era, for a total of 3,937 acres. Greco called the Polk farm tract “the home farm,” and, by 1908, he added an additional 13 tracts of land that stretched along the bay from Bennett Pier Road to the Mispillion Lighthouse.
Almost immediately, Greco began his farming and canning business. He built a water tower on the mansion property along with barns, stables and sheds. Much of the labor performed on the farm was done by Italian immigrants who came to Delaware with Greco. Nearly all the foundations and pillars in buildings prior to 1900 were created from brick and laid manually. Greco, however, was one of the first farmers to use locally mixed concrete. He mixed cement, lime and beach sand by hand to pour concrete foundations for barns, his cannery and a wine cellar. Although most of those buildings are long gone, remnants of his foundations can be seen today.
In 1915, cannery construction was completed and, by 1918, Greco was operating the cannery under the Big Stone Brand, named for the beach his family owned. At one time, there was a large rock off the coast of the beach which gave the area its name. Greco found that paved roads were uncommon in the area and realized he needed another way to get his canned goods to Philadelphia. In 1910, he purchased a steam engine and constructed a dredge that operated a mechanical shovel. Using this dredge, he created a canal from Mispillion Lighthouse north along the beach front, approximately three miles. During this era, construction of such a canal was an enormous achievement and Greco’s Canal still remains today.
The project was not without controversy, however. Poor prices halted the cannery not long after the 1918 season and, after reaching Big Stone Beach Road with his canal, the state legislature refused to allow Greco to build a drawbridge that would let him bring the canal to the mansion and cannery. In frustration, Greco abandoned the steam dredge where it slowly disintegrated in the marsh, clearly visible into the 1960s.
In 1920, Greco gave up the farming and canning business, buying a home on Cedar Beach Road near the former Humphrey’s Landing site. In 1921, Greco purchased the Parson Thorne Mansion in what some believe was an attempt to continue a farming operation. He was unsuccessful and the property reverted to George Draper in default in 1923. There is no evidence that the Greco’s ever inhabited the mansion and that they continued to live on Cedar Beach Road.
The Greco’s were extremely religious, believing that God would heal them should they fall ill, shunning modern medicine and hospital procedures. In September, 1923, the family mistakenly ate what they thought were wild mushrooms, but were actually poisonous toadstools. The entire family became seriously ill. A doctor recommended swallowing salt water to induce vomiting in an effort to eliminate the poison, but the family refused the treatment. Both Frank and Emilia Greco died on September 27, 1923. Their daughter, Filomena, survived but was critically ill. Reports are that a neighbor, Harry Bowen, forced the child to drink the salt water, saving her life. Filomena then became heir to the Greco estate at the age of 12.
Filomena was sent to New York City and raised by an aunt. She graduated from Hunter College and returned to the Greco farm on Big Stone Beach. Ellerslie had partially burned in a marsh fire in 1929 and the fields were overgrown. Filomena married William Muller, a teacher, and the couple lived in Dover for a time before moving to Filomena’s family farm. Although Muller made several attempts in the 1940s to resurrect the farm, drought, lack of fertilizer, lack of capital and poor soil made him unsuccessful. The couple eventually separated with Muller returning to Dover and, in 1955, Filomena retired as a recluse on her property.
Over the years, Filomena sold leases that allowed people to build beach cottages along Big Stone Beach in an effort to support herself and the deteriorating farm. The stone that had become the beach namesake was no longer visible after World War II. There are many rumors as to why the stone disappeared. One is that the stone was used for target practice during the war while another is that the stone blocked the view of the bay which could allow a German submarine to surface without being detected. This lead to the destruction of the stone in the name of national security.
There were many efforts to entice Filomena to sell a portion of her holdings in order to ease her financial burdens, but she refused. She believed that she was destined to preserve the tract of land and that she had been entrusted with its care prior to her birth. Despite the fact that she was unable to pay her property taxes and lived a very frugal life in order to make ends meet, she refused to sell any property outright, only accepting lease payments for the cottages and selling hunting rights on the land. Her intention was to leave the bulk of the property undeveloped and in a natural state.
After Filomena’s death on April 10, 1991, an executor was appointed by the state to determine distribution of her acreage. Eventually, the land was sold to the Delaware Nature Preserve who wanted to fulfill Filomena’s wishes to keep the land undeveloped. Reports are that owners of the beach cottages were notified that they would need to move the buildings within five years or they would be destroyed. A court battle ensued where it was determined that cottage owners on the south side had never paid lot rent to Filomena which made them eligible to claim squatter’s right. The courts allowed them to purchase the land under the cottage they owned and let those buildings remain. All those on the north side were either moved or burned a decade ago.
Today, the cottages of those who purchased their land still stand along the beach. Unlike other beaches along the Delaware Bay, Big Stone Beach has remained as close to nature as possible, just as Filomena Greco intended. Greco’s Canal still appears on maps although some of it may have grown over. Big Stone Beach is a popular fishing location and a favorite of beach glass collectors who say there is an abundance of it along the shore.
(Research credit to Dave Kenton and the Milford Historical Society Newsletter Fall 1991)
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