The Auburn Heights Preserve and Marshall Steam Museum in Yorklyn will play a vital role in the future of the village, as plans to create safer recreational opportunities throughout the region progress.

Tooling along on winding Creek Road in Yorklyn, the last thing you might expect to see is a massive Victorian mansion surrounded by antique, one-of-a-kind cars – but that’s exactly what you’ll find.

“I wish I had a nickel for every time someone came in here and said, ‘I’ve lived in this area my whole life and had no idea this was here,’” said Susan Randolph, executive director of the Auburn Heights Preserve and Marshall Steam Museum.

However, Randolph and her crew are working to change that impression of “Delaware’s best kept secret,” as the site reflects both a glimpse at Yorklyn’s past, and hints at its prosperous future.

PART OF YORKLYN HISTORY

The site – all 200-plus acres of it, and the aforementioned mansion – once belonged to the Marshall family, turn-of-the-century industrialists who owned and operated the Marshall Brothers Paper Mill in Yorklyn until it was sold in the 1950s.

In the early 1900s, T. Clarence Marshall developed a liking for steam cars, building his first when he was only 19. From 1910 to 1920, Clarence also worked for the Stanley Motor Carriage Company, where his interest in the unique cars continued to grow.

When he returned home from WWII, Clarence’s son, Tom Marshall, started helping his father collect steam cars and other similar machines,  eventually installing a 1/8 scale steam train and track on the grounds.

By the 1970s, the family had opened its doors to the public to view its “Magic Age of Steam” collection.

In 2008, Marshall and his wife Ruth donated the property to the state, in an effort to preserve and protect the property from development, with the site being managed by Delaware State Parks.

Randolph said that while the 22 cars in the collection are one of the largest in the country, if not the world, what makes it distinctive is that the cars are all still in working order.

“Many times, they just slip away and become too much to manage or repair, and they just sit there,” she said. “Here, you can fire them up – literally, it takes a blowtorch to power up a Stanley Steamer – and see and hear how these cars work.”

Educating the public about the Age of Steam and its downfall through “Steamin Days” each first Sunday June through November, as well as open house days and ongoing youth programs, is part of the Friends mission, Randolph said.

SERVING AS A MODEL

According to Randolph, Auburn Heights presents a unique model for the park system, where the state owns the land and the buildings, while the Friends of Auburn Heights maintains control and ownership of the fleet of 22 cars, steam train, and other collection pieces.

“It can work,” Randolph said of the combination of private and state management and ownership.

“But for the state, we probably couldn’t afford to do what we do,” said Friends of Auburn Heights board president and volunteer Steve Bryce. “Yet, there are other things we can offer. So, I’d personally like to see that relationship expand; it would be mutually beneficial.”

Park superintendent Laura Lee said that site comprises roughly 240 acres, with another 100 or so as part of the Oversee Property on the far side of the NVF site.

Eventually, Lee said, those pieces will be made contiguous and expand the connectivity of the Yorklyn area as the proposed trail network for the NVF site comes to fruition. 

“There’s nowhere safe to bike or run in Hockessin,” Lee said, citing last September’s tragic cycling accident that claimed the life of Hockessin resident Phillip Bishop as an example.

Those trails, she added, are also a part of Gov. Jack Markell’s “Walkable, Bikeable Delaware” initiative to create safer conditions for roadway recreationists statewide.

“No one is in more need of that than Hockessin,” she said. “Not only will the NVF project beautify the region, this will give them a safe place to recreate.”

A mile-long trail already exists, Lee said, with an additional three miles already out to contract. When completed, the paved, barbell-shaped trail will encompass six miles of safe, walkable and bikeable trails, according to Lee.

Bryce said that there are three types of people with an interest in Auburn Heights: area residents who don’t care about the cars but appreciate the preserve; local steam car enthusiasts happy to have so big a collection this close; and international fans of the cars who come from all over to view the collection in awe.

As a retired mechanical engineer, Bryce said he has become addicted to the steam cars at Auburn.

“It’s nice to drive something that you can understand and you know what’s going on,” Bryce said. “No electronics, all mechanical stuff.”

Despite being teased by his children about his new “job,” Bryce said that working at Auburn is a labor of love, and that he finds himself there at least twice a week on work nights to help in whatever way he can.

“We’re also teaching a skill here that would otherwise be long gone,” Bryce said of the ongoing efforts to keep the collection running.

Now at 91, Tom Marshall – a resident of Cokesbury Village in Hockessin – still stops into the preserve almost daily, bringing in the mail and sometimes still crawling under the cars to help out with maintenance.

“I’m highly pleased of the state’s interest in Yorklyn,” Marshall said. “Otherwise, unless some infusion of private funds came in, where the old mills were falling down would be a catastrophe. So the whole thing is coming together nicely – a bit slower than we’d like I think, but these things do take time.”

He’s also pleased at the way his family’s legacy – and his father’s collection – is being cared for and enjoyed by visitors.

“The Friends has been successful because we’ve had a lot of good people in the group,” he said. “They’re doing a lot more than just having a car museum. They’re trying to really educate people, and that has turned out very well.”