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Millsboro Town

Millsboro Town Hall is located at 322 Wilson Highway, Millsboro, DE 19966; phone: 302-934-8171.

The area that would become Millsboro was first established around 1792 by Elisha Dickerson who built a dam on the Indian River and built a saw mill and grist mill. Millsborough, as it was first called, occupied the northeastern side of the river, while a community known as Washington grew along the southwestern side. In 1837 the two communities merged under the name Millsborough, later shortened to Millsboro. Two large lumber mills were established in the 1890s and one of them, the Houston-White company, continued operation until the 1940s. Chicken farming began in the 1930s. [Town of Millsboro,, accessed January, 2013]

The Houston-White Company Mill and Basket Factory [1]

The southward expansion of the Delaware Railroad in 1856 and of the Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia Railroad in the 1870s opened new markets and made possible the growth of an important agricultural industry in Sussex County, Delaware. The fruits and vegetables grown in the area were transported directly to distant markets in Baltimore, Philadelphia and New York, or shipped to canneries and evaporators for processing within Delaware.

Standardized wooden containers—either boxes, crates, or baskets-protected the produce during shipment and made handling easier. Wood was traditionally favored as a material for containers, for a variety of reasons. It was plentiful, cheap, easily worked, resilient, and durable. Veneer basket manufacture utilized large amounts of loblolly pine, poplar, gum, elm or sycamore wood, all of which grew abundantly in the timberlands of Sussex County. In the 1870s, a thriving peach industry stimulated the Kent County towns of Felton, Milford, and Smyrna into becoming centers of basket production. The Smyrna Basket Works employed over 100 persons and was capable of producing almost 1,000,000 baskets in a season, a capacity, however, which could handle only 1/3 of the nearly 3,000,000 baskets of peaches shipped out of Delaware in 1879.

When William J. P. White arrived in Millsboro, in the early 1890s to work for Henry A. Houston as a clerk in his general store, he was already familiar with the manufacture of baskets and crates for agricultural produce. At the age of fourteen, he had begun working in John T. Long's general store and basket and crate shop in Frankford, Delaware, seven miles from Millsboro. In 1893, Houston, who had relatives already involved in lumbering, saw-milling and box manufacturing, offered White a partnership in his business, creating the firm of Houston and White. Together, they established a sawmill and basket and crate factory in Millsboro, while they continued to operate the general store. Within a few years, the expanding company purchased the Houston & Perry box factory which was operated by Charles B. Houston and John Perry, and which employed 20 people. Much of the basket making was done as piecework by local residents in their homes.

In 1905, when the firm was incorporated as the Houston-White Company, its basket making was still of secondary importance, but rapidly gaining greater significance. The company offered a variety of wooden produce containers, including quart baskets, trays, and crates for berries, 5/8 and 1/2 bushel baskets for larger fruit and vegetables, and box shooks (pre-cut boxes bound in bundles to be assembled by the purchaser.) In 1917, William J. P. White assumed the presidency of the Houston-White Company. Under his management, the company prospered. In 1909, as manager, he engineered real estate investments, purchasing timber land throughout Sussex County, and acquiring the Stantonsburg Lumber Company of Stantonsburg, North Carolina. Sawmill machinery and equipment from Stantonsburg was shipped north to Millsboro and installed in the company mill in 1920, greatly expanding the production capacity of the parent company. At that time, J. Reese White bought out Henry A. Houston and entered the firm with his father. By 1918, the Houston-White Company had become the second largest producer of baskets in the state of Delaware, exceeded only by the Marvil Package Company of Laurel. The reasons for this rapid development of the Houston-White Company included improved transportation, an expanded market for their products, and the mechanization of basket production.

Transportation played a key role in the company's successful development. Rapid shipment of timber and finished products to and from Millsboro was aided by the Philadelphia, Wiilmington and Baltimore Railroad which ran beside the mill. As early as 1917, a railroad siding ran directly into the mill building. The motor truck likewise became a key part of the company's transportation system after 1920. Trucks carried cut timber from "woods mills," operated by the company in Sussex County and finished baskets throughout Delaware and the surrounding Delmarva region.

Delaware's agricultural output expanded considerably during the 1920's, and fruits and vegetables which required wood containers for transport, especially strawberries, tomatoes, cantaloupes, peaches and apples were very important crops. In 1927, a peak year for Delaware's basket industry before the depression of the 1930s, the Houston-White Company's annual sales exceeded $243,300, approximately one-fourth of Delaware's total basket production,

The Houston-White Company improved its basket-making machinery in the early 1920s. To supplement its veneer lathe and basket forms, the company purchased a variety of special-purpose machines, tripling the amount invested in machinery and equipment between 1921 and 1930. This new machinery increased both rate and capacity of production at the Millsboro factory.

This new mechanization also improved industry-wide standardization, a long-standing problem in packaging.

  1. Historic American Engineering Record [HAER DE-6], Houston-White Company Mill and Basket Factory,, accessed January, 2013.
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