Delaware’s first public airstrip, known first as the Greater Wilmington Airport, emerged from the farmlands of Hare’s Corner in the summer of 1941. Earlier that year the U.S. Senate had granted the Levy Court of New Castle County authority to borrow up to $750,000 to fund the project. However, Civil Aeronautics Administration officials in Washington, D.C., declared this square mile location an “essential part of the airport program of national defense.” And so, the United States Army Air Forces (USAAF) took control of the facility during World War II, rechristened the New Castle Army Air Base.
Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, Adolf Hitler’s expansive European war campaign had consumed most of the continent, inciting real fear of an attack on America’s east coast.
National Defense Priorities Meet Local Resistance
Sleepy little Hare’s Corner. Only 50 families. How hard could it be to convince these patriotic yeomen to move on, so their former farmlands could help America resist the potential onslaught of the Fuhrer?
New Castle County’s Levy Court gave those 50 families only a tiny three-month window to vacate. Suddenly, they were thrust into the daunting task of packing up all their worldly possessions and preparing to relocate. Being forced to resettle somewhere out of the way led to a lifetime of trauma for many of them. Among those most deeply impacted was John T. Hopkins, a lifelong area resident, and the very last farmer to sell his property to the state.
For Hopkins, Hare’s Corner was more than just a piece of crossroads real estate. Hopkins’ land had been cultivated by the Craig family for generations. He continued their rich history of stewardship when it came his turn to till the soil. He, his wife Florence, their three children, three in-laws, and two lodgers all resided in an 11-room house on the spread. Their prosperous 135-acre farm was part of a thriving neighborhood.
The throes of eminent domain shattered this tight-knit community. Neighbors and friends became scattered. Children were uprooted from their schools. Bethel Baptist Church, along with its ancient graveyard, disappeared. The community house on Schoolhouse Lane vanished.
The inevitability of the airport construction loomed. Hopkins advertised his dilemma. He stated in a public auction ad that he had been “compelled to discontinue farming due to new airport development on his land.” The auctioneer’s gavel fell on June 16, 1941, for “anything needed for a well-equipped farm.”
Hopkins’ public auction notice makes it clear just how much he and his family were giving up: “4 head of horses and mules, 52 head of cows and heifers, good Guernsey and Jersey, 9 with calves, manure by load or ton, baled mixed hay by the ton, redskin potatoes, 8 shoats, poultry: 75 chickens, lots of Muscovy ducks, household furniture and feather beds, two good coal heaters.”
The ‘just compensation’ allowance provided for Hopkins’ farm was far from being fair. This was in stark contrast to the assurances of equitable treatment made by the Levy Court of New Castle County. John T. and Florence E. Hopkins were awarded $63,400 for their farm on July 24 by a ‘condemnation commission.’ They immediately appealed for a review of the case. The family was asking for $500 an acre plus $20,000 compensation for lost crops, residence, farm buildings, loss of cattle, and moving expenses. The commission had only budgeted $470 an acre. They made no allowances to pay for any other outstanding damages.
Meanwhile, Levy Court wasn’t about to wait for any further review of the Hopkins case. Instead, they orchestrated a comprehensive auction that spanned the entire airport construction zone. This July 25 event included the sale of forty-two structures ranging from bungalows to barns, houses to hog pens. All sales were on a cash-and-carry basis.
The Hopkins’ home and 8 surrounding outbuildings brought the pitiful sum of $1,001.50, versus the $20,000 the couple claimed they needed to begin anew.
On August 1, a commissioner review recalibrated the value of the Hopkins property to $66,000. This was a slight increase from the original appraisal, which had set the property’s value at $63,400. Whatever happened at the end of their five-day petition review period is unknown. Local newspapers were quiet about the outcome.
The Hopkins Family: Faces of Displacement
The destruction of the Hopkins farm began in earnest. “Under the terms of the land sale, everything must be removed from the premises on or before Aug. 26,” the ‘News Journal’ informed the public. “It was announced however, that all the buildings on the Hopkins property must be removed by Aug. 12, because the grading is reaching that point.”
However, long before the Hopkins—who were the last and seemingly most problematic landowners—settled, 49 properties had already been sold without any outstanding liabilities. Construction crews could have readily commenced work elsewhere on the site. Were contractors instructed to swiftly demolish these Hopkins buildings? The state might have been trying to avoid the risk of a potential court ruling, one that could uphold any Hopkins appeal and further delay construction.
The farm was entirely gone by mid-August, leaving nothing but an empty void where once there had been life and prosperity.
John and Florence Hopkins found a new home at Kamachico Farms near Elkton, MD by October 1941. However, the harsh experience of being uprooted from their community and the turmoil of starting anew had a lasting emotional impact. Three years later, in April 1944, the same month he had first learned about the traumatic upheaval which would dramatically alter his life, John fell seriously ill. He went to Baltimore to seek treatment at the University of Maryland Hospital, a world-class institution. Despite weeks of extended treatment, his condition only slightly improved. John T. Hopkins, the holdout of Hare’s Corner, died on May 6, 1944, at the age of 57.
The Human Cost of Progress
John and Florence Hopkins’ story is a poignant example of the human cost of progress. Their tale speaks to the emotional, social, and financial turmoil that comes with radical displacement.
John Hopkins lost far more than his farm in the confrontational stakes between national defense and personal property rights. He forfeited his primary source of income, his close-knit community, and ultimately, his life.
Behind each eminent domain decision exist human realms that are irrevocably transformed.