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A promise kept: Kent County to create museum at historic Brecknock Park manor

Emily Lytle
Dover Post

For more than 200 years, the land now known as Brecknock Park in Camden was a family farm.

Where cross -]ountry runners tread and families gather for picnics and baseball practices, there used to be endless rows of cornfields, log barns, stables and a nearby mill that ground whole grain into flour.

A long driveway lined with trees stretched from Kent County's Route 13 to a large white house called the Goggin Manor. 

When Elizabeth Howell Goggin – the last owner of the house and surrounding 86-acre property – died, she left the entire tract to the Kent County Levy Court. Signed in 1988, her will specifically requests that Kent County use the land for “recreational, educational, conservation, and wildlife and historic preservation purposes.”

This house, known as the Goggin Manor, last belonged to Elizabeth Howell Goggin. She left the house and the surrounding 86-acre property to Kent County Levy Court in her will. She requested that it be turned into a park and that the history of the land and house be preserved.

Jeremy Sheppard, director of Kent County’s Department of Community Services, said this request has driven the continuing development of the park.

“Levy Court made a promise to Mrs. Goggin that they would take care of this property, that they would develop it into a park that the community could enjoy and be proud of for years to come,” Sheppard said.

Now, the county is looking to take that promise one step further.

Earlier this month, Kent County Levy Court approved a proposal to transform the still standing Goggin Manor into a museum showcasing the county’s history from the 17th century to modern-day.

The idea has been a passion project for Kent County Levy Court Commissioner Jody Sweeney over the last four years. 

He said the county needs a historical museum to help instill pride in the younger generation and remind them of the significant role this area played in creating the United States.

“I think we need that for our kids to see that they have a place. That they have a home," he said. "This is Kent County. This is where they belong."

Sheppard agreed.

“This is an opportunity for us to recapture the stories that may have been lost over the years, may not have been told either properly or slightly differently, and retell them for future generations,” he said. 

Kent County Levy Court Commissioner Jody Sweeney (left) and Jeremy Sheppard, director of Kent County’s Department of Community Services, are working to transform the Goggin Manor at Brecknock Park into a historical museum.

Sweeney has been working with the nonprofit Friends of Historic Camden and Lucreatia Wilson, a historian and curator at the Star Hill AME Church and Museum. Wilson has been collecting artifacts for years, mostly focusing on the life of freed and enslaved African Americans and the Underground Railroad in Kent County, and she is now seeking a new home for her collection.

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“She’ll be a huge part of getting us started,” Sweeney said, adding that he expects more people to offer items as the museum comes to fruition. 

An 'eccentric' house

Beyond the artifacts, the Goggin Manor itself holds stories of the families who lived there centuries before and will add to the visitors' experience, Sheppard said.

“It’s much different to actually go into a building, to see and feel and touch and sometimes even smell the difference," he said. "Because it does mean something." 

When walking inside Goggin Manor, the front left room makes up the oldest part of the house.

In a 1994 letter to the county, state architectural historian Gary Sachau described the house as an “eccentric amalgam of multiple styles, periods, forms, and materials.” As visitors walk through, they can see how the former owners expanded the house over different time periods, with the earliest dating back to at least the 1740s.

Goggin Manor was recognized for its deep ties to agricultural, milling and architectural history when it was first listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1974.

The county has worked to maintain the building since taking it over in the early 1990s, including roof renovations, structural improvements, new windows and painting the outside. Two different studies in 2002 and 2014 helped identify the biggest needs.

A large fireplace in the back room of the Goggin Manor tells more of the house's story. This room was once used as a summer kitchen.

For some, the house’s history remains in their memory.

“I had friends come to me who used to live around this area. They knew Mrs. Goggin,” Sweeney said. “They used to swim in the Issac Branch behind here and get yelled at by Mrs. Goggin for swimming in the branch.”

What’s next

Since the plan is to welcome the public into this historic building, Sheppard said the costs immediately rise. For example, several changes may be necessary to ensure the house is compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The four quadrants of the house are connected by a hallway that stretches from the front door to the back of the house.

The next step is to install a climate control system, and Sheppard said the county is already reviewing vendors to estimate costs.

While the Friends of Historic Camden will likely help fund the project, Sweeney said this is largely taxpayer driven. If the manor requires any large renovations, he said the county will pull excess funds from other projects to cover it.

The museum is still in the early stages of planning, and the county has not established a specific timeline or identified an overall cost for the project.

To donate items or learn more, people can contact Sweeney, Sheppard, or the Friends of Historic Camden.