Gunpowder along the Brandywine

I recently taught a workshop at Hagley, site of the original gunpowder business of the great French immigrant family, the du Ponts. I brought with me childhood memories from school trips to the site many years ago and wondered what my adult eyes would notice.

WP_001758The bucolic area sits along the tranquil Brandywine River just north of Wilmington, Delaware. Parts of both the powder yard and the workers community, along with the du Pont’s 1803 Georgian mansion they named Eleutherian Mills are restored and interpreted.

Eleuthère Irénée du Pont left France in 1799, a political refugee with with several years of service in the French royal powder works. He bought an old cotton mill in Delaware, rolled up his sleeves and built a business which eventually became the nation’s main supplier of gunpowder and construction explosives and today is a massive worldwide manufacturer.

The 235 acre site is one of America’s premiere industrial history sites and easily integrates science and history into stories of America’s transition from agrarian to industrial society.

The Powder Yard area along the river features restored mills and demonstrates how du Pont harnessed water power to provide the energy needed to combine saltpetre, charcoal and sulpher into black powder. The mills churned out powder between 1802 and 1921.  Clearly an ever-present danger existed and workers were checked at the gates for matches, metal in shoes, suspenders, belts, and alcohol. One spark could cause a major explosion. Women and children were not allowed in the most dangerous areas. Yet despite the safety precautions, there were 288 explosions over the production years, resulting in 228 deaths.

WP_001760As I walked through the bucolic site, with the daffodils in full bloom and the water rippling over the rapids, I recognized the key challenge for the museum’s staff. There is a disconnect between the quiet and beautiful site today and the reality of the working mills, with major noise and dirt and constant danger. How can visitors really grasp the experience of two hundred years ago? My tour guide did demonstrate powder and even created an explosion. Who doesn’t appreciate a good explosion? I note that they even offer an “Explosions Walking Tour,” sure to garner a decent audience.

Up the hill from the mills sits the Workers’ Hill area, interpreting the life of the workers. It includes a foreman’s home and the Brandywine Manufacturers’ Sunday school building to tell just a small part of the story of the thousands of workers who were born, lived and died in the vicinity of the mills. I asked where the church was, and was told a number of churches sprang up within walking distance. Many of the early workers immigrated from Ireland and became the leading edge of the long Irish immigration to the United States. Men came first, and in what historian’s call a “chain migration” they sent for wives, children and siblings. The town of Letterkenny, Ireland was the origin for the largest number of workers. They worked alongside English, French and Italians.

The ancestral Dupont home at Hagley. Here to teach an AASLH workshop. Toured the gunpowder mill buildings, not this home. Great American history site.

du Pont home Eleutherian Mills

High on the hill overlooking their empire, five generations of du Ponts lived and worked to build a prospering business. Visitors can tour the house and gardens and see early offices and a barn containing a Conestoga Wagon used to transport the powder to the port at Wilmington.

There can’t be too many American companies that are as old as du Pont and it’s easy to forget that this is a corporate history site. If interested, check out the company’s official history here.  Sadly, my schedule did not allow me the time I wanted to explore Hagley. The many history course I’d taken since my earlier visits gave me a whole new appreciation for the history represented here and I plan to return in the near future.

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