Journalist: Laurie Metzger
Photographer: Lindsey K. Kerr
It was a rainy morning as we prepared to visit the Hagley Museum and Library. Being a 253 acre museum, with extensive grounds, gardens and mills, we were a bit nervous that the rain would put a damper on our visit. Nevertheless, we made our way through the Delaware countryside to Wilmington.
Upon arrival, Geoff Halfpenny, Executive Director, and Mike Wilson, Interpreter, greeted us cheerfully. Fortunately, the rain lessened and we began our journey back in time to the birthplace of the du Pont fortune and legacy.
Hagley was originally the home of E.I. du Pont. Having mastered the French techniques for manufacturing black powder before he immigrated to America, E.I. chose to settle on the banks of the Brandywine Creek, where he could take advantage of the power afforded by the Creek’s fast running currents.
The first stop on our tour was the restored 1870’s machine shop. Here we observed a demonstration by Stephen DeVeber. This was a wonderfully rare opportunity to see 100 year-old machines still accurately cutting steel. While Steve demonstrated this art, he spoke to us about the Dupont company and what powder mill life was like. We learned that a machinist was the highest paid worker at the mill and made between 10 and 20 cents per hour, working six days per week. Mill workers received two paid holidays (Independence Day and Christmas Day).
Back outside we were rejoined by Steve and introduced to Richard Larkin, the staff horticulturist. Both men toured us through the magnificent gardens as they discussed the recent renovation and restoration that have occurred over the past decade. Since reopening in 2008 the garden only welcomes about 12,000 guests a year since tours are given only three times a day and have a maximum of 48 people each. This allows guests to have a much more intimate experience while touring around the gardens, at times feeling the gardens are their own.
Avoiding puddles, we made our way to the mills along the Creek’s edge. The milling apparatus is made of cast iron, weighs 20 tons and is powered by the harnessed force of the Brandywine. Tom Stack showed us the explosive nature of the powder, warning us about the danger of a mill job. Sadly, if a worker was standing on the mill deck when an explosion occurred, the Dupont company was forced to tell the family that their relative had “gone across the creek” (and never to return).
As great proponents of education, du Pont built a school on the Hagley property for the workers and their families. The phrase “Sunday School” refers the fact that the people worked six days a week and went to school on Sunday. The schoolhouse has been restored to its original purpose. Angela Williamson, Volunteer Coordinator and a former Longwood Fellow, toured us through the vegetable garden and the school while discussing Hagley’s volunteer needs and challenges.
In the afternoon, the rain finally tapered off and the sun came out. We were introduced to the Horticulture staff and taken inside the mansion, the estate garden, and the greenhouses. We learned about Hagley’s tree collection and inventory, whereby the most exciting was the Osage Orange tree, co-champion on the National Register of Big Trees.
Hagley is a wonderfully intriguing place. We could not have been more impressed with the staff or its history. We are looking forward to going back to learn more about this important American family’s legacy.