The land Woodburn Governor’s Mansion stands upon was granted to David Morgan and his heirs in 1684 by the Swedish crown. In the 1780s Charles Hillyard III purchased the land at a sheriff’s sale for $110. In 1790 he constructed the home that would be called Woodburn. The house was inherited by Mary, Hillyard’s daughter, and her husband, Martin W. Bates. Bates was a doctor, merchant, lawyer and a U.S. Senator. In 1820 Bates leased Woodburn to the Governor, Jacob Stout, the first time Woodburn was used as the executive’s residence.
Bates sold the house in 1825 to Daniel & Mary Cowgill. Cowgill, devoted abolitionist and a Quaker, freed his family’s slaves and allowed them to meet in the great hall at Woodburn. The house remained in the family for years until it was sold in 1912 to Daniel O. Hastings. In his ownership the brick front porch, pillars on the south facade, a reflecting pool and numerous interior modifications were completed. He sold the house in 1918 to retired Philadelphia dentist Frank Hall, who also completed more renovations of the interior. In Hall’s residency, a young guest named Jessica Irby visited the house; she would later live in the house as the wife of a governor of Delaware.
Upon the Hall’s death in 1953 there was a proposal to secure the house as the governor’s mansion but it was disapproved by the legislature. The property was divided in two, with a school purchasing the majority of the land and Thomas Murray purchasing the house and a surrounding acre and a half. The proposal of a residence for the governor was revived in 1965 when Governor Charles L. Terry, Jr. and his wife, Jessica Irby-Terry, secured Woodburn for the state. The house was refurbished by Mrs. Terry with period pieces dating from the house’s construction. The decoration was completed a year later and an open house was held in February 1966. Woodburn has served as the official residence ever since.
People have reported ghostly encounters in this historic home since 1815. Moans and screams are heard from a hole in a large tree near the house … some claim the hole may have been a hiding place when the house served as a stop on the Underground Railroad.