Mansion House Farm owner reflects on operation’s changes
BEAR, Del. — As another fall season wraps up at Mansion House Farm in New Castle County, owner Donnie Campbell looked back at the challenges he and his family have confronted since his grandfather, Townsend J. Rigby, purchased the land in 1939.
His family had lived in Chester County, Pa. When the farm there had to be sold, his brothers and sisters all wanted the money, so Rigby moved to Delaware.
“There was a little house on the property, with horsehair plaster walls and cedar shingles. It had two rooms, a wood cookstove and an outhouse,” Campbell said of the Delaware property. “He milked three cows. I remember the old stand where he and neighbors used to put the milk cans to be picked up by the milk truck.”
Rigby worked as a butcher and the family also raised sweet corn, strawberries and blackberries, which they took to sell, along with meat products, to markets on King Street and Lincoln Street.
Campbell’s grandfather died in 1956, when Campbell was 2 years old. His grandmother rented the farm to neighbors and raised vegetables, which she sold to Richardson’s Farm Market. His grandmother lived to be 102.
“I was in FFA when the neighbor got a job and quit farming. Dad’s best friend, ‘Uncle Bob,’ tilled the farm for a couple of years, then I started tilling. I had raised corn as an FFA project. When I finished at the University of Delaware, I rented ground and raised soybeans and corn. I got a job as milk tester for Dairy Herd Improvement Association. I enjoyed that job. I thought I was on my way! I got to go to all the dairies — there were 21 or 22 by then, in 1974.”
After about seven years, Campbell left DHIA and worked for Hypoint Dairy before taking a job with Delmarva Power, where he remained for 28 years.
“I made a good living, had a 401K and a pension — but all I wanted to do was milk cows.”
Campbell said he looked for other property to buy to start a dairy but was unsuccessful.
So, he farmed part-time while at Delmarva Power. He put up greenhouses and sold bedding plants and hanging baskets in the spring, mums in the fall and poinsettias for Christmas.
He also grew sweet corn, tomatoes, peppers and watermelons.
“I would water in the morning; Dad would water in the middle of the day. Dad liked talking to the customers who came in.”
It was in 2002 when a neighbor buying sweet corn complained about kids riding up and down the road shooting up signs.
That gave Campbell the idea to open his farm and woods for paintball activities. He went to a man with a paintball shop and offered half the proceeds if he’d come run the operation.
“He said it would never work,” Campbell recalled.
“I put out a sign that said ‘Paintball $12 a day’ and we were in business.” He bought a kit to refill carbon dioxide tanks and obtained insurance for the venture.
In response to requests from participants, he found referees and sodas and snacks. Paintball took over the whole farm stand and grew to include selling guns and supplies. Campbell found someone to manage the operation and provided a phone.
The business grew by word of mouth from people asking at paint stores, “Where do you play?”
Three hundred people came the first year. The next year Campbell raised the price; the following year he lowered it again and 1,000 people came.
At one point, someone sent an email to the county asking if paintball could be done on a farm. The county replied no, that would be a commercial entity. A code enforcement officer was sent out and talked to Campbell’s father. Campbell called with the information and argued that Wally Caulk, then executive director of the Delaware Farm Bureau said paintball could be allowed under agritourism.
“They said it didn’t matter. Under county rules, there was no way we could do it.”
Campbell said. “I said this is being done on our farm and it’s taking our woods that are not productive, and making money. What does it matter whether it’s a hayride, camping or shooting bow and arrow or bb guns? People are paying to come to the farm to do an activity.”
The county wanted the activity to be farm related, he said.
“We went round and round. I got extensions so we could continue to operate,” Campbell added.
In January 2008, Campbell and then Farm Bureau leaders Gary Warren, Eddie Jestice and Bill Powers attended a county meeting with state Rep. Valerie Longhurst, who had agreed to sponsor a bill to include paintball as an agritourism activity.
Pam Thornburg Bakerian, who later became executive director of Delaware Farm Bureau, was a legislator then and worked with Longhurst to introduce the bill.
When the matter was debated in Legislative Hall in Dover, Campbell said Sen. Bruce Ennis supported the measure.
“Ennis said, ‘Whatever these fellows on the farm need to stay in business, we should help them.’”
Campbell said the bill was rewritten to apply only to New Castle County, but passed and signed by then-Gov. Ruth Ann Minner.
“The whole Farm Bureau circled wagons around us and protected us and fought for us. They made things happen,” Campbell said. “Because of Farm Bureau, I saw government work.”
In 2008, the Campbells sold only half their produce and greenhouse products. “I told Mom we were working for nothing. We decided to back out and wait. We didn’t grow anything but sweet corn and tomatoes, just the basics,” he said.
With the paintball venture, they eked out an income. Last year, with so much rain, there were only about 300 to 400 players who came, he said.
An error on Groupon messed up the first two nights this fall, but there were more callers later in the season, he said.
His manager suggested a zombie paintball hayride shoot, to play off of the popularity of the Walking Dead television show. Campbell didn’t think it would work, but he agreed to mount guns on wagons and put benches on them and had employees walk around as zombies, coming out of the woods. They had strobe lights, black lights and a fog machine. It worked. The kids loved it, he said.
The paintball operation is open weekends in December, weekdays by reservation only. If no private groups are scheduled and temperatures are below 35, they’re closed.
Campbell now grows 3 acres of ear corn, which he picks and then shells with an antique New Idea corn sheller so he can heat his home.
Campbell’s father, Leroy, died in 2013.
Campbell said his two oldest children aren’t interested in paintball, but son Joshua likes the zombie action. His mother, born Ruth Rigby, is 89. She has been on the farm for 80 years.
Campbell said he is in a high-pressure area, with development all around him, but his land is not for sale.
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