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In 1670, Dirck Pieters, who had been
a soldier at Fort Opdike in 1659, bought a 134 acre tract from Anthony Clementie. It stretched from the present day canal to Canary (var. Pagan) Creek, about one mile and for 1106 feet along the canal. It was one of the eight land grants along the Whorekill as the waterway was called in Lewes' early years. In 1675, Anthony Pieters sold the property to Helmanus Wiltbank for the widow of his brother. Mrs. Pieters received payment of 3000 pounds of tobacco, the currency which was in use at the time. Some records state that there was a house on this patent in 1692, but we are not quite sure when the foundation of this
house was laid.
The property descended through Isaac, Helmanus' third son, to the Rev. James Wiltbank. He was the rector of St. Peter's Church and a teacher and owned considerable inherited land in the Lewes area. Chear House, as it is called in early land deeds, was never the homestead of the Wiltbanks and so descended to second or third sons. James was his parents third son. His father had moved from this property from Tower Hill, the home plantation on New Road, when his first son, Cornelius married. In his will, John left some of the land along Lewes Creek to his daughters for homesites. He apparently sold off other parts over the years of his ownership.
Judge John Wiltbank lived in the house during the infamous election riots in Lewes in 1787. James married Mary White in 1799 and they lived in the house and took in gentlemen boarders. We have reference to the fact that a sea captain spent eleven weeks here in 1800 at five pounds a week.
James moved to Philadelphia in 1809 and in 1814 sold the remaining 27.5 acres of his homestead to Thomas Rodney, a neighbor. The house remained in the Rodney family until Leah Burton Paynter, Rodney's great-granddaughter sold the house about one acre to James Wright Rowland in 1937 after the house had been rented for 13 years; at one point, the roof was raised and a large, peaked Victorian dormer was added as was a porch across the front of the house. There is evidence in the attic room in the back wing of the house that at some time there was an extensive fire, possibly concentrated in that area.
The Rowlands sold the house to Alice and Richard Watts in 1960 and the Watts sold the property to The Lewes Historical Society in 1989; very few changes were made to the house during the years of the Watts' ownership. The Society was able to purchase the house through funds from The Bequest of John A. Farrace.
Research has not shed any light on who lived in the house from about 1707 to 1780. The house may well have been a tenant house. When John Wiltbank took up residence, he possibly enlarged the house by adding the east side of the house. Whether the wing was newly built or whether he used another building's materials is a point of discussion still.
The house is named for Dr. Hiram Rodney Burton, Thomas Rodney's grandson, who was a prominent Lewes physician. He served in the 59th and 60th Congresses of the United States. In 1923, he created the Burton Subdivision which became the homesite of many of Lewes' black community. Hiram Rodney also deeded some of the remaining land to his brothers. He lived in the house during his bachelorhood and returned here with his wife, Virginia Rawlins of Georgetown, Delaware, after his marriage.
Ruth Hunn Rodney Burton, Hiram's mother, inherited the house about 1860, on her mother's death. The Burton's connected the summer kitchen (currently used as the Society's kitchen facilities) to the main house with the wing that includes the present kitchen (removed in 1948) and the back upstairs bedroom. About the turn of the century, Hiram made extensive changes and decorated his house to reflect the standing as a member of Congress. The local newspaper states that the house would have "the prettiest parlor in Lewes, papered in green offset with beautiful festoons of roses on a white border, ceiling white, bordered with gilt molding, stained glass, ordered from Baltimore, in the parlor. [Delaware Pilot, 1905 ?]"
It is not easy to date the original house but evidence in the basement in the west side dates that side to 1740 or earlier. When the floor of the west side is viewed from the basement this side appears to be much like the Fisher-Martin House (home of the Lewes Chamber of Commerce) which has a two rooms off a long hall with a shallow stairway at the back end of the hall. The larger front room of the Fisher-Martin House has a corner fireplace while the back room has a small wall fireplace such as Dr. Burton's house had.
The remains of whitewash in the basement indicate that it was a winter kitchen and laundry with a corner fireplace.
The exterior of the house is covered in 5.5 inch shingles which were used in the middle of the last century as opposed to 12 inch colonial shakes. The east side of the house sat on brick pillars which have since been filled in while the west side sits on the basement. The windows of the house were framed by shutters which later were removed and stored in the barn. The barn was destroyed during Hurricane Hazel and the shutters have disappeared.
The east side of the house is believed to be an older house. It may have been moved and added to the existing house on the west side possibly about 1780 when John Wiltbank lived here.
Originally, in the west parlor there was a wall that ran through the house to the stair wall. A stairway in the northeast corner may have been similar to the one in the Rabbit's Ferry House.
The use of corner posts, as seen in the east side of the house, was a popular means of construction during the 1790s. The peg floors in the main rooms of the first floor cover random width floorboards which are original to the house. Wide boards were used as we use plywood today for subflooring and attic flooring. These floors were usually covered with wall-to-wall floorcloths or carpet. Narrow floorboards were preferred but were expensive. The deep wall between the hall and the parlor housed pocket doors which were a popular Victorian feature that can be found in many Victorian Lewes houses. There were doors on the opening to the dining room which are still stored in the attic of the house. The wall between the hall and the parlor is brick. The bull's eye woodwork, which trims the parlor and the hallway, although Greek Revival, was added by the Rowlands during their renovation in the 1940s.
In the east room, the woodwork is simplier. The small door in the corner led to a stairway which possibly was reversed when the summer kitchen (built between 1740 and 1760) was connected to the house sometime between 1860 and 1868. In 1948, this dining room became the present kitchen and the summer kitchen became a two car garage. The bathroom and the small service rooms underneath were most likely added by Dr. Burton. The bathroom was remodeled in 1943. Notice that the two doors on the back wall of the dining room are dissimilar. Six-panel doors were used during the Federal Period (1790-1820). Four panel doors were used during the Georgian Period (1735-1790). The mantle is believed to be original to the house and may have been moved here from the parlor to cover the heat ducts under the paneling. Heat in this room was probably provided by a stove. In the current Society Library, there is evidence that there was once two years. The doors are c. 1760 - 1790 and the handle on the closet door has a "wishbone" catch.