Preston Lea (November 12, 1841 – December 4, 1916) was an American businessman and politician from Wilmington, in New Castle County, Delaware. He was a member of the Republican Party who served as Governor of Delaware.
Lea was born at Brandywine Village, now a part of Wilmington, Delaware, son of William and Jane Scott Lovett Lea. His ancestors came to Pennsylvania with William Penn. His grandfather, Thomas Lea, built a flour mill on the Brandywine Creek in 1811.
In 1870, he married Adelaide Moore; they had three children: Claudia Wright, Alice Moore, and Ethel Mildred. In 1897, he married again, to Eliza Naudain Corbit, with whom he had one child, Louise Corbit. Their home for many years was at 2315 17th Street in Wilmington. They were members of the Wilmington Friends Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends, or Quakers.
Wilmington, Delaware, is really a combination of two towns. Wilmington proper rises from the banks of the navigable Christina River and prospered as a convenient place to collect farm products from the interior of Delaware and central Pennsylvania. At its back, though, is a tributary of the Christina River, known as Brandywine Creek. Navigable for only a short distance, the creek quickly rises into the Piedmont and through a series of small falls, provides a dependable source of power for mills. Small boats, or shallops, sailed up to the base of these falls, unloaded their grain, and loaded back up with what became known as “Superfine” flour, some of the best flour produced in America. These mills were known as the Brandywine Mills and the town around them, Brandywine Village.
Lea’s grandfather, Thomas Lea, built a flour mill in Brandywine Village on the Brandywine Creek in 1811. His father, William Lea, ran the mill until his death in 1873. After receiving an education at Lawrenceville, New Jersey, Preston Lea went to work for his father at the age of eighteen. When William Lea died, the firm was incorporated as William Lea & Sons. Preston Lea became its vice president and then its president in 1876.
In addition, he became president of the Wilmington Board of Trade in 1873 and in 1888 was elected president of the Union National Bank. Still holding these positions, he was also vice-president of Farmers Mutual Insurance Co., a director of Philadelphia, Baltimore & Washington Railroad, president of the Equitable Guarantee Bank, and president of the Wilmington City Railway Co.
During the 30 years following the Civil War the Republican Party was largely the party of New Castle County industrialists and the African-American population. Politically opposed by large majorities of the rural population of Kent and Sussex Counties, as well as much of the large Irish immigrant population in Wilmington, statewide they were a decided minority. Some years they didn’t even field a ticket. However, as gas company millionaire and Philadelphia native, J. Edward “Gas” Addicks poured campaign money into the Republican Party organization, young businessmen and politicians, tired of the long dominance of the Democrats, responded and joined up.
Another reason behind the success of the Addicks effort was the resentment many had for the established Republican leaders in New Castle County. Their control of the party seemed to others to be more important than beating Democrats and correcting widely acknowledged problems. The established party leaders could not abide the thought of supporting the “carpetbagger” Addicks, and rebuffed him and the newcomers he brought into the party with him. So, with a mostly progressive agenda, and styling themselves “Union Republicans,” they frequently ran their own candidates and rapidly built a large following.