The Cooch’s Bridge Historic Site includes the Homestead and the Cooch-Dayett Mill, the miller’s house, outbuildings and the right-of-way access to the mill race and dams along the Christina River. Spanning more than 60 acres, the property includes preserved land such as floodplain, meadows and an agricultural field. The complex helps tell the story of a Revolutionary war battle, agriculture, enslavement and early industry while illuminating the lives of those who lived in the area. The Friends of Cooch’s Bridge Historic Site are helping ensure the preservation of the site and its grounds and aim to promote public access to the site.
We recently talked with Vince Watchorn, president of The Friends of Cooch’s Bridge, who answered our questions about the historic site and the role of The Friends:
What is the main purpose of the Friends of Cooch’s Bridge?
The Friends of Cooch’s Bridge Historic Site exists to ensure the preservation of the Cooch’s Bridge Historic Site and to promote public access to the site. Since the site is not yet open to the public, our specific work centers on creating a broadly diverse community that is both engaged and supportive while we support the Division of Historical and Cultural Affairs in preparing the site for public access.
How did the group get started, and how is it different today?
Two years ago we were just an idea. Today we have an organization and some momentum. But we are founded, formed and ready to function with a view to generating a diverse, engaged and supportive community by the time of the site’s public opening. People are actually volunteering for different Friends’ events, or to be included in the conversation about the future of Cooch’s Bridge. We can see the seeds of community sprouting in the relationships that are forming. We are engaging people in understanding Cooch’s Bridge in its full breadth — not just as a battlefield, mill seat and the homestead of a prominent and civic Delaware family, but also as an indigenous trading site, a place of both enslaved and free African American communities, of women’s history, of science and mechanical engineering, of transportation history and of a future in which Cooch’s Bridge is important in the daily lives of Delawareans. People want to build communities around these stories, and through engagement in history, culture and the environment, there are many avenues for that exploration.
We started from scratch, and the group is still pretty much brand new. We have learned a lot and we have a lot more to learn before Cooch’s Bridge will be the Delaware destination we believe it can be.
After many years of discussion and negotiation concerning the 260-acre Cooch property outside of Newark, in 2018 the State of Delaware purchased the 10 acres that includes the homestead building, seven farm buildings and a tenant house. Once the property was secured, Division Director Tim Slavin believed the site would benefit from a Friends group to perform advocacy work and to enable the funding and generate public interest. We collaborated with the Division and, most importantly, we made a commitment to understand the holistic and diverse history of the site — not just the battle for which the site became famous, but for its full breadth as a mill seat, indigenous trading ground and farm. As an advocacy group, we needed to understand the stories of all the populations who had lived, labored, fought and died at Cooch’s Bridge.
Our group also thought it was important to look ahead to what the site could be at full maturity, including reunifying the several parcels of the Cooch’s Bridge National Historic District and even envisioning a trail system that could link several properties from Iron Hill Park to Glasgow Park. Fortunately for us, some other people were interested in those ideas, too.
After that first year of working together, the second year allowed us to form into something more complete. Nothing was too fundamental for us to include in our formative stage. We involved voices that taught us about the full history of the site. With some content understanding behind us, we talked organizationally about the things that matter at a basic level: vision and values, generating our visual identity and getting our institutional language in place. And getting started! We were very fortunate that some of the local foundation community also saw the importance of Cooch’s Bridge: three of them invested $415,000 to support the restoration of the built environment. Delaware Humanities joined us in expanding the breadth of understanding, granting us $15,000 to fund research into the African American heritage on the site.
The more we learned from others, the more we could see the site’s potential impact. We celebrated the new year with three significant sea change moments. In December, we revealed our new logo — the fruit of six months’ collaboration and analysis. We opened 2022 by announcing our “Founding Friends” program with the new year, focusing our case for joining our effort and creating an avenue for a donor community. The Division’s promotion of Kaitlyn Dykes as site supervisor in February 2022, strengthening our partnership and refining our role to support the Division and its efforts to interpret and generate new content knowledge about the site.
We are very lucky that Cooch’s Bridge occupies such a storied place in the minds of many citizens — they want to be part of the place and now there are opportunities for them. The mere presence of a Friends group is giving people a place to invigorate or center their interest in the site.
What are some upcoming events or programs that the Friends are holding at the site?
We offer private tours to potential stakeholders who are interested in learning more about the historical, environmental and cultural features of the site. Cooch’s Bridge is currently closed to the public, so we are extremely grateful to the Division that we are allowed access to it for some activities. We just celebrated our second anniversary on June 3-5. The hallmark event was a day of special tours of the Cooch-Dayett Mill, led by the Division’s Kaitlyn Dykes and Dan Citron. We offered the opportunity to existing Founding Friends and were booked solid with 50 participants a month in advance. We also hosted an event to help engage a statewide audience and a concert — by John Faye and Sug Daniels — that included a song inspired by the duo’s visit to Cooch’s Bridge.
How do I become a Friend or get involved with the Friends of Cooch’s Bridge?
We are still in the initial period of generating Founding Friends to the organization. Anyone can become a Founding Friend by visiting friendsofcoochsbridge.com/donate and making a donation through one of the many avenues made available. So far, individual gifts have ranged from $5 to $5,000, and have been made online, via check, electronic wire and by stock transfer. Volunteer opportunities are also available for those who want to be involved with the group.
What do you wish people knew about Cooch’s Bridge or the Friends group?
Most people who know of Cooch’s Bridge think of it only as a battlefield — yet it holds a much broader historical and cultural narrative than that single story. Our vision is to ensure that the historical, cultural and environmental legacies of the site endure for future generations. There are many features to capture the interests of people wanting to get involved!
The Friends of Cooch’s Bridge Historic site is indebted to the many people generating momentum for the organization. Thank you to the board members, volunteers, and 120 Founding Friends who have so far shown their commitment to making Cooch’s Bridge a significant Delaware Destination! Thank you to the Cooch Family who preserved this land for centuries, and to the many people whose vision brought this treasure into State of Delaware ownership.