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The Garrett Dynasty

Garrett trademark, 1870

Garrett trademark, 1870.

The original settler of the village now known as Yorklyn is believed to have been John Garrett, who made his way down Red Clay Creek and settled about 1726 not far from present-day Auburn Heights, establishing a grist and saw mill. Garrett died in the late 1750s but not before acquiring lands downstream on Red Clay Creek. His son, John Garrett II, inherited hundreds of acres covering most of present-day Yorklyn east of the creek.

In a pivotal move, John Garrett II converted one of the family mills to the manufacture of Garrett Scotch Snuff in 1782. Business proved good, and John’s son Levi expanded the operations but managed them from a distance, basing his offices in Philadelphia. The Garrett snuff business would remain a major player in the economy of the village throughout the 19th century, but no Garretts made their year-round home in Yorklyn after about 1810.  In 1845, the mills were expanded with the construction of the “Lower Snuff Mill,” a half mile downstream from the main plant.

Eventually, Levi’s son, William, joined the family business and brought in his own sons (William Jr. and Walter), changing the company name to W.E. Garrett and Sons. During this period, snuff production reached 16,000 pounds per week, but the Garrett family dynasty came to an end in 1895, when William E. Garrett Jr. (great-great-grandson of the original John Garrett) reportedly sold the snuff mill to three of his employees for $1.

Garrett mansion, Yorklyn, Delaware, ca. 2010.

Garrett mansion, Yorklyn, Delaware, ca. 2010.

The Snuff Mansion

John Garrett II built a home on the hill overlooking the Garrett Snuff Mills a few years before his death in 1804. His grandson, William E. Garrett, greatly enlarged it in 1850 to encom­pass 19 rooms, oak floors, paneled doors, wainscoting, fireplaces with mar­ble mantles and balustrade stairs. It passed to William’s son Walter and then to Walter’s widow, Henrietta. 

In his will, Walter Garrett requested that Henrietta make a will so that the vast Garrett fortune would go to chari­table institutions. She did not comply, however, and upon her death in 1930, an inter­national battle ensued, with hundreds of distant relatives petition­ing for a piece of the $20 million Garrett estate. Resolv­ing the matter took years, with the final settlement going to three cousins wholly unknown to Henrietta—and, of course, to the lawyers!

Garrett property map

Garrett property map, 1871. Photo, courtesy John R. Harrison.

By the American Revolution, the Garrett snuff operation shipped more snuff than any other mill in America, and until 1895, the Garretts virtually controlled the snuff industry in this country. An 1871 map of the Garrett property, which includes the farm, snuff mill factory and surrounding area, shows only a very few dwellings. 

When the decision was made to move the snuff packaging, labeling and distribution work from Philadelphia to Yorklyn around the turn of the 20th century, additional housing was needed for the influx of packing house workers.

The Garrett Dynasty