Abbott’s Mill Nature Center: Historical and Natural Treasures

By Matt Babbitt, Abbott’s Mill Nature Center Manager

Paddling Abbott's Pond.
Paddling Abbott’s Pond.

Delaware Nature Society is excited to celebrate the 35th Anniversary of Abbott’s Mill Nature Center, a hidden gem of southern Delaware nestled just 4 miles outside of Milford. Abbott’s encompasses 483 acres of towering upland forests, restored native meadows, pristine ponds fed by sinuous streams, mystic Atlantic white cedar swamps and bogs, dynamic saltmarsh and wetland preserves, and Delaware’s only preserved, working grist mill.

ABBOTT’S MILL: 1795 – 1963

Our story begins with the establishment of our namesake in 1795, when Mr. Nathan Willey bought a 20-acre pond and adjoining 7-acre property from Mr. Levon Poynter, to build a stone grist mill powered by an abreast shot water wheel.  A driving economic force of its time, the mill once burned down and was rebuilt in the early 1800’s, and also underwent an addition in 1905-06 to add roller mills to the existing stone mill operation, allowing for the full production of corn, wheat, barely, and oats. During this addition, the mill’s power source was changed from water wheel to water turbine and the Miller’s House was constructed as it stands today.

A few slices of Abbott's Mill history.
A few slices of Abbott’s Mill history.


Preceded by 14 previous owners, Mr. Ainsworth Abbott (pictured above) purchased Lakeview Mill, as he called it, in 1919. During his tenure, he had the foresight to install a new elevator system for mills created by a fellow Delawarean, Mr. Oliver Evans, which allowed Mr. Abbott to operate the mill singlehandedly. This brand new invention by Mr. Evans was the 3rd ever U.S. patent, and was also installed at Washington’s Mt. Vernon and Jefferson’s Monticello. In October of 1963, after a long stint at the helm and simple life with his family in the non-electric Miller’s House, Ainsworth decided to hang up his hat and sell the mill facilities and properties to Howard and Frances Killen. The Killen’s, wishing to preserve its historic and cultural importance, decided a week later to sell the mill property to the then Delaware Board of Game & Fish Commissioners (Division of Fish & Wildlife now) in 3 phases: first selling the miller’s house in 1963, then the mill facilities in 1964, and then the pond and adjoining land in 1965.


The mill property went unused until 1975, when the 7-acre parcel along Johnson’s Branch and mill facilities were transferred to the Delaware’s Division of Historical & Cultural Affairs, with the intention of putting the mill and property to use for public recreation and education. In order to see this vision come to fruition, the mill facilities were added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1976, and an effort to restore the mill to preserved, working order began. The renovation project was a multi-year effort made possible by a funding partnership between the U.S. Department of the Interior, Delaware’s General Assembly, and the Division of Historical & Cultural Affairs. Construction work was done by Tappahanna Construction Company, a leader in historic restorations at the time, and included the building of a small classroom facility, which became our current Visitor Center through an addition in 1997.

The historic Abbott's Mill.
The historic Abbott’s Mill.


In 1980, the then Delaware Nature Education Society leased the Abbott’s Mill properties as its 3rd state-wide facility. Our Executive Director at the time, Mr. Norman G. Wilder, had been the head of Delaware’s Board of Game & Fish Commissioners (Division of Fish & Wildlife now) when the state originally purchased Abbott’s, and was therefore able to guide DNS to be the sole lessee. Educational programming by DNS began during the summer of 1980, with construction underway, by Mr. Mike and Susan Palmer, who lived on site and served as the Manager and Teacher Naturalist. Abbott’s Mill Nature Center was officially commissioned on June 7, 1981, as a lasting partnership between Delaware’s Division of Fish & Wildlife, Division of Historical & Cultural Affairs, and DNS.

Let the environmental education programming begin!
Let the environmental education programming begin!


Over these past 35 years, the Nature Center has grown from its 27-acre humble beginnings to include 483-acres of conserved lands throughout Sussex County, including our surrounding Blair’s Pond Nature Preserve/5K Trail, our Isaacs and Isaacs-Greene Preserves, as well as our Marvel Saltmarsh Preserve in Slaughter Beach, Delaware. Robust environmental education and public visitation programs at Abbott’s have reached 188,500 Delmarva students and families since 2000, advancing DNS’s mission to improve our environment by connecting people to the natural world through education, advocacy, and conservation. Abbott’s Mill still runs to this day, with over 100 visitors joining our monthly public tours in 2015, and student groups exploring the history and engineering that keeps it alive. Our long held relationship with the Town of Slaughter Beach has flourished as well, through the continuation of our Annual Horseshoe Crab Volunteer Survey, educating hundreds of students and families about the Town’s seashore and saltmarsh habitats, erecting an Osprey tower at our Marvel Saltmarsh Preserve, and guiding the Town to become Delaware’s 3rd (83rd in the U.S.) Community Certified Wildlife Habitat. We have also had the pleasure of working with the Seaford School District over the past 3 years, establishing Certified Wildlife Habitats as teaching spaces at all 4 of their elementary schools, engaging students, teachers, school staff, and community members through the generosity of NOAA’s Chesapeake Bay Office.

Scenes from the Delaware Nature Society's lands in Sussex County.
Scenes from the Delaware Nature Society’s lands in Sussex County.

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We hope you will join us in 2016 as we celebrate this momentous occasion at Abbott’s Mill Nature Center with 4 events throughout the year!

  • An inaugural “Meal at the Mill” , a farm-to-table style dinner featuring produce from DNS’s Coverdale Farm Preserve on Friday, October 14th
Abbott's Mill and Abbott's Pond Road in the fall.
Abbott’s Mill and Abbott’s Pond Road in the fall.

1 thought on “Abbott’s Mill Nature Center: Historical and Natural Treasures”

  1. Matt, thanks for putting all of this information together. I really enjoyed reading it.

    I didn’t realize that Howard and Francis Killen, parents of my childhood friend, had owned the property for a short time.

    I had forgotten the name of Susan Palmer, who gave the nature center a good start. It’s fun to be reminded of her.

    Thanks again. We are lucky to have you with us!
    Kay Isaacs Greene

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