Campaign to construct visitors and education center for Ross Mansion enters public phase

By Lynn R. Parks

A campaign to raise money for the construction of a visitors and education center at the Ross Plantation is entering its public phase. Already, the Seaford Historical Society, which owns the plantation, has raised a little more than $750,000 toward its $1.1 million goal, society president Maria Heyssel said. "We feel like we are in a good spot," Heyssel added. "With as much money as we have already, and with a good response from the public, I see us breaking ground in early spring."
The fund drive has been propelled by a donation from Ross Claiborne, a resident of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and great-grandson of Gov. William Henry Harrison Ross, who built the Ross Mansion in 1859. Claiborne pledged a matching grant to the society, up to $400,000. The society has raised $375,000, including a $200,000 grant from the Longwood Foundation and a $75,000 grant from the Welfare Foundation.
Heyssel also hopes that the society receives money from local and state governments. "We feel that we have great support from the city of Seaford, from the county and from our state legislators," she said. In March, the city donated a couple small parcels of land along Market Street Extended to the society, to be used for parking for the visitors center.
With an initial grant for $16,000 from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Rural Development program, the historical society commissioned a design of the center, to be called Ross Station, by engineering firm George, Miles and Buhr. The design is based on the train station that at one time stood in front of the Ross Mansion. Gov. Ross had the station built so that produce from the area could be shipped to larger markets. Ross also bred Hackney horses on his farm, which he sold to buyers in New York, who used them in harness racing.

The center is planned to be constructed on Market Street Extended, east of the entrance to the Seaford District Library and in the southwest corner of the plantation. It would have a rustic look, much as the train station did. A large banquet room could hold up to 300 people; barn doors would open up to allow tents to be attached to accommodate even more people.
One of the primary purposes of the center would be to serve large numbers of people who could potentially visit. "We have gotten a lot of interest in groups coming to the plantation," Heyssel said. But the mansion's single bathroom, even with a couple of portable toilets on the grounds, isn't able to handle large groups, she said.
"We want to be able to bring more people into the area, busloads of people," she said. "We have a gem here, something that's very important to all of us, and we want to show it off, as well as showcase western Sussex County."
Visitors to the plantation and to the Seaford Museum would also mean a financial boost to the area, she said. "When you have visitors like that, they buy lunch and they stay for a night or two. So they bring money into the county."
The center would also provide room for exhibits about the plantation. And it would be a place for the historical society's youth educators to gather. The plantation has about 40 such participants, but no place large enough to accommodate all of them at once. The students sometimes gather in the Ross Mansion kitchen, where the table can seat about a dozen people.
And finally, the center, with a large room available for events, meetings and other kinds of gatherings, would generate money for the historical society. "In order to preserve the properties that we have, we need a greater source of revenue," Heyssel said.

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