A Community on the Edge

The Millrace Series 1, Episode 3

The men and women who made explosives for the First World War risked their lives at work to provide a good living for themselves and their families. A job in the powder yards could support a comfortable lifestyle, with free or inexpensive housing, schools and churches, and the companionship of neighbors. The war extended the life of this hundred-year-old factory, giving a temporary reprieve to a way of life that was rapidly fading.  In our third episode, we learn about the communities and home life that this work supported—and the surprising rituals of this tight-knit group of workers' villages.

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Episode Script

Series 1, Episode 3: A Community on the Edge

Edward Cheney:
Up along the Brandywine
With my kids age six and nine
Showed them all a swimming hole
Showed them where we cut our poles
That we used in fishing time
Up along the Brandywine
Told them about the barley mill
Took them to old Brecks’s Mill
Stopped at Peggy Dadd’s for a time
Where us kids spent most every dime
Up along the Brandywine
Took them to old Hallock’s gate
Showed them where we learned to skate
Rockford Tower they must climb
And the view it was sublime
Up along the Brandywine
Told them about the powder mills
Of its heroes and it thrills
How in days that’s past and gone
These mills filled the powder horn
How our soldiers held the line
With powder made on the Brandywine

MUSIC: The Zeppelin

BEN:  From the Hagley Museum and Library, this is The Millrace, a podcast where we explore the past through the voices of people who lived it.  

I’m Ben Spohn

AMRYS: And I’m Amrys Williams.

Last time, we learned what life was like for the men and women who made explosives for the First World War.  But what made the risks of their jobs worthwhile was the living they provided, not only to them but to their families.  A job in the powderyards could support a comfortable lifestyle, with free or inexpensive housing, schools and churches, and the companionship of neighbors.

BEN: For over a century, the Brandywine Works had sustained a cluster of workers’ villages, and been the bridge to a solid living for generations of immigrants.  World War I extended the life of both the factory and the communities that depended on it, giving a temporary reprieve to a way of life that was rapidly fading.

AMRYS: Workers confronted the dangers of the powderyards each day so that their children could have a happy upbringing in the woods, vales, and hillsides of the Brandywine Valley, like Ethel Jones Hayward did.

Ethel Jones Hayward:  Many times during the summer when I was not in school I took my father to have lunch at the laboratory. I would leave home and go through the village of Squirrel Run. Soon I would cross a narrow footbridge over the fast-moving stream, and then I would climb the long hill, which at intervals had wood steps firmly tucked in the hillside. On one side there was a high board fence which separated the village from the lower Hagley powder yard. It was so high, you could not see over it. When I reached the top of the hill, I crossed an open field, which had a well-worn pathway. Soon I was within sight of the stately Christ Episcopal Church. All the du Pont families, along with the other families in Free Park, Montchanin and the surrounding countryside attended Christ Church. I would pass the church and then enter Free Park, often called Flea Park, ambling past the small but tidy homes, and then I'd turn right at Broad Meadow, and soon I saw the upper yard gates to the powder works. I remember walking past the saltpeter refinery and soon I was at the laboratory greeting my father. He was always appreciative of the long walk I'd taken to bring him a hot lunch. Often my older brother accompanied me. In autumn, my mother used to take us over the same route, but we did not go to Free Park. Instead we went to a small section off the road to a place called the Sand Hole. Here when I was a child were the chestnut trees, the walnut and hickory trees. We gathered nuts. We had great fun collecting the nuts for the cold winter days. Near the sand hole was the du Pont cemetery. Another walk I loved to take was through the village and walk through the covered bridge over the Experimental Station. When I turned left and was at Walker's Bank near Walker's Mill--it was a woolen mill at the turn of the century--many comfortable homes were on this side of the river. Each home seemed nestled into the hillside. It was so picturesque. One of my schoolteachers lived in one of the homes, and I would visit her and some of my other school friends. Only the Walker's Mill homes remain today. It was great fun in winter when the river was frozen and there was ice skating there. My father loved ice skating especially on his beloved Brandywine. My younger brother, who was born in the Charles I du Pont home in 1903, also loved the valley. One of the captivating things we often did, we climbed to the roof of our shed, which was connected to the home by a breezeway. We'd call our names loudly, and our voices going over the water would bring back our names in an echo of our names as we called them. My younger brother George said we lived in "Echo Valley." That was one of our thrilling past times.

BEN: Ethel, George, and the other kids who grew up in “Echo Valley” attended school.  But not all children were as fond of their teachers—or as well behaved—as Ethel was. John Krauss was a bit of a troublemaker.

John Krauss: On the first day of each school year, from my earliest recollection, I picked out a seat that was the farthest away from the teacher's desk. I usually lasted there about three or four days, before I was moved up front. There were two incidents that I can remember. They both happened in high school, when I should have known better. As usual, I was sitting on the front seat. In those days, the girls wore long pigtails tied with a ribbon. There were two girls sitting in front of my desk one day, and stealthily I pulled two of their plaits up, untied one ribbon and then tied them together. When the class was over the girls got up to walk down two separate aisles. Instead they sprawled on the floor. I couldn't hide who had done it.  

AMRYS: But John also turned his pranks to kinder ends.  Like many Brandywine kids, he had grown up gathering and peeling willow branches to make charcoal for the powderyards.  This experience gave him an idea.

Krauss: Another time I was asked by the Principal to go out and get switches. There were certain boys in trouble, and I was to procure the instruments of punishment. I took quite a length of time to get them before I came back. It was in the spring and the switches were pliable. You could whip them through the air and they would whistle. When we got out of school with the exception of these two or three that were kept in, the boys were ready to hang me. I said, "Now you wait a minute and let's get here where we can listen." The principal started to switch. He swung the first one around and hit one of the boys. It broke right across. One right after the other, they all broke. I had very carefully peeled the bark, cut notches in the switches and put the bark back again. That was on Friday and by Monday I guess the principal realized he had no business to send me out on such an errand, and he never said anything. I was never again given such a task.

MUSIC: The Zeppelin

BEN: Like school, church was a center of community life on the Brandywine.  Blanche MacAdoo Yetter’s social and even her romantic life revolved around church events.

Wagner: Well, for anybody then, church always was a big affair?

Blanche MacAdoo Yetter: Oh, yes. You looked forward to it. Now the children will say, "I don't want to go to Sunday School.” But you didn't say that when I was little. You just got up and got dressed and went to Sunday School. And, of course, as your book will tell you, the church is what gave us our social life. Because they would have like strawberry festivals in the spring and peach festivals in the fall and maybe have a pie and milk social. Now that was a big thing when I was growing up. That's where we caught a lot of boys -- beaus -- you know, going to a pie and milk social. You paid a quarter, I think, and you got a good big piece of pie and a glass of milk. And that was a treat. And all the young people would be there. Well, then some of the boys would take some of the girls home. And I guess maybe made more than one match out of it.

AMRYS:  For a change of scene, families could pack a picnic, hop on the trolley, and head out to one of the amusement parks and pleasure gardens that dotted the valley.

Yetter:  Yes, Brandywine Springs. Of course, you wouldn't remember that, but that was a beautiful park. And it had every kind of amusement out there. And the people's line which put Rising Sun line up the crick, they had a line out to Brandywine Springs and you could go out there for -- oh, I guess the tickets -- I said six for a quarter, and you could get a transfer to the Brandywine Springs car and change at 7th and Woodlawn Avenue, and get the car out to Brandywine Springs so it didn't cost you much to go out there. And, they had everything out in that park. Carousels and scenic railways and things and beautiful shrubbery around and it was sort of in a valley -- you know -- down -- and up the sides they had little houses like with roofs over them and tables and benches in there where people could take picnics. And there used to be trains come down from Philadelphia. Maybe five or six trains for a picnic from Philadelphia. Sunday Schools and things would come down to this park. It was everything imaginable out there, and beautiful…  So, if you had ten cents, you could ride out to Brandywine Springs on a Sunday for a day -- an afternoon outing when you were growing up.

BEN: For boys like Herbert Devenney, the long days of summer were filled with fun and games.  School was out, and the evenings stretched long into dusk.

Herbert Devenney: Summertime was a pleasant time up there. On the old banks of the Brandywine.

Meyers: What were some of the things you did in summertime up there? In the evenings?

Devenney: Oh, Lord, until dark we always played marbles or various other games. Run, sheepie, run. Kick the stick. Baseball. As long as there was light.

Meyers: Would you like to tell me something about the marble game that you played? Describe some of that.

Devenney: Oh, Lord. Marbles. Every kid in the crick played marbles. Everyone had a bag full of marbles. Commies. Prized them, too. Especially the shooters -- brilliant glass of all different colors, you know. And we prized them. Oh, Lord, yeah. And baseball in the back field. We always played baseball in the evening until it got dark.

Meyers: May we go back to the marbles. How did you play the game of marbles? Did you have a big ring?

Devenney: Yeah. We played it -- you know there was only a couple of cars at that time. As I remember there was only a couple of cars owned by people on our side of the Brandywine so we didn't have no traffic interference, so in the road out in front. So we just scratched a small circle in the center and then four or five feet out a large ring. And the boys all got together and started the game. Put the commies in the center and chose whoever went first and started the game. And I guess I was no different than the rest of them; we thought we were winning something by winning these clay marbles. Oh, it meant a lot to us.

Meyers: Describe them a bit to me. How about color?

Devenney: Brown. The only ones I can remember were reddish brown color. That's about all I can remember about them. But the shooter -- the glassies, as they were referred to -- the shooter or glassy were brilliant. Beautiful. Gosh, we thought we had a diamond, but we all prized them. And it was an interesting game, a very competitive game. And some of the boys were very good at it. I bet you if they had started competition throughout the U. S. at that time when marble championships went on, I bet you some of them Brandywine boys would have come out on top.


AMRYS: But all these gatherings ceased.  Schools closed, church services were suspended, amusements parks were shuttered.  The boys no longer gathered in the evenings to play marbles. The influenza epidemic swept through the community, bringing fear and death in its wake.  

BEN: In the U.S., nearly a third of the population caught the flu, and half a million people died.  And the ones who cared for the sick found themselves in even greater danger, as James Gamble recalled.

Lotter: Do you remember any epidemics, any illnesses when you were young?

James Gamble: Well not in them days, the only ones I remember was the flu in the first World War - I had it. I was about 14, 12 or 14 years old when I got it. We had some neighbors, two of them were nurses - they worked night and day in the Delaware Hospital, but they both died theirself. They wouldn't come home, they stayed there - living two doors below us, Tamminey.

AMRYS: As they watched friends and neighbors perish, families retreated into their homes, scattering like marbles in the ring.  The joyful gatherings that marked village life became sources of fear. Catherine Hackendorn Sheldrick had her life turned upside down.

Catherine Hackendorn Sheldrick: Oh yes. I had it. I had it, my father had it and my sister had it. Just the three of us in our house. I can remember being awfully sick, and my sister will say... the worst headache I ever had in my life was when I had the flu. But...the schools closed. There were no services at church, any of the churches. The movies had closed. No, you know, no public places were open that a group of people would be together. You know what I mean? I can remember the little girl that was a very great friend of my sister, she died of it. And that was another sad thing. You know, it wasn't all...there were a few thorns among the roses. But I can remember that little girl's father coming over to the lady that loaned me the Palm Beach suit. And she coming in to my house, to our house crying. Her brother was going up to dig his little girl's grave. You couldn't get anybody to dig graves. It was just awful. And my mother said, "He's not going to dig his..." My brother was about 17. And she sent him up to dig the grave. To go over there among those boys over there "And you pick yourself out a couple of big boys and go up there and dig that grave." He never thought of saying no. Could you do that to a boy now?

Bennett: Well, some would do it.

Sheldrick: They went up and dug that little girl's grave.

Bennett: I guess so.

Sheldrick: And there were no services, she was simply buried.

Bennett: People didn't congregate?

Sheldrick: No. They'd shun each other.

Bennett: Could you get a doctor?

Sheldrick: Couldn't get a doctor for love nor money. The man next door to us had a friend, a Doctor McCauley was in town. And when we had it, he came out to him and he told the Doctor McCauley to go in to our house. He said, "I don't have time." He said, "You go in the front door...in the back door, and see what you can do for them. And go out the front door. You'll be in and out while you're walking around. He came in and he gave us some medicine. I can remember he asked my mother for a cup. And he put whatever it was, and he never said what it was. But we took it. It could have been aspirin; it could have been anything. But we took it, and we got better. Of course, some people didn't get better. And they were dying like...St. Joseph's was getting calls...couldn't hardly keep up with the telephone calls...going sick call. It was just a horrible, sad...I don't know a word that would fit it.

Bennett: It's hard to believe.

Sheldrick: And you couldn't get an undertaker.

Bennett: What did they do?

Sheldrick: I'll tell you what they did. I can remember this. There were gates...and you can see it yet...when you go in the Cathedral Cemetery...you're coming from town and you come to the Cathedral Cemetery...from the front gate all the way back there was a long trench dug. Deep enough. And the caskets were put in, one...as they died, they were just put in one right…

BEN:  —the tape cuts off right here, as if to underline the shock of so many lives cut short, one right after another.

AMRYS: But even with the threat of death surrounding them, young people looked forward to their lives ahead.  And some friendships were worth the risk of infection. Lucy Brooks McCray visited her future husband, Thomas, while he was sick with the flu, despite her mother’s warnings to stay away.

Tremaine: Do you remember the big flu epidemic?

Thomas McCray: Yeah. I remember.

Lucy McCray: You had it. You belonged to the Red Men, and I belonged to the Red Ladies. And I remember going in to the meeting and you weren't there, and your mother said you were home sick with the flu, and I come on the trolley car.

T. McCray: (laughs) You come up on the trolley car. That's how much she loved me. (Laughter)

Tremaine: Did you catch the flu also?

L. McCray: No. I was fortunate. I was working at DuPont's all along. People I worked with had it. I remember visiting one of the...young men that had it, and my mother being so mad at me when I come home...

BEN: As the epidemic raged, the McCrays found solace in one another.  For other young people, a treasured object could be a comfort, whether a glittering marble won some summer evening, or a well-loved homemade toy.

Meyers: Mr. Robino, let's go back to when you were a real small child. What was the thing that you had, among your possessions, that you cherished the most? What was your most favorite possession?

Robino: My mother made me a rag doll and every place I went that little son-of-a— gun went with me [laughs].

Meyers: A rag doll.

Robino: A rag doll — take it to bed with me and everything else. See, I was sort of a Mama's boy, you know, the first in the family and the mother sort of takes care of them, so she used to think I was a girl, so everything she'd want to give a girl, she'd give it to me [laughs].

Meyers: So you got the rag doll?

Robino: Yeah, I got the - I kept that thing for years, too, I guess I was about ten years old before I got rid of it.

Meyers: You don't have that now, in other words?

Robino: No, because when we moved to Wilmington, I used to go on the porch, you know, and sometime take it with me. And the kids, that Jeannie from Greggo & Ferraro, Greggo, he used to say, "Oh, you're a girl.” You know, used to tease me and stuff, so I got rid of it.

MUSIC: The Zeppelin

AMRYS: The workers’ communities that surrounded the powderyards were resilient.  They had survived for 120 years. War and disease were not about to take them down.

BEN: The “Creekers” who inhabited the villages along the Brandywine Creek maintained a strong sense of community.  This often meant being suspicious of outsiders—until they had proven their worth. A recurring rite of passage for newcomers was the so-called “honey hunt”—an elaborate practical joke that, in powderyard spirit, had more than a whiff of danger.

AMRYS: Here’s how it went.  A group of Creekers would take the new guy up into the woods, ostensibly to sneak honey from a tree on a farmer’s property.

McKelvey: Jim were you on one of those honey hunts? Were you with those honey hunts?

James Cammock: We're the ones that put them on.

McKelvey: Yeah - what was your job?

Cammock: My job was loading the shells, I'd put powder in them, but put no shot in them. And I'd give the guys a couple of hands full of shot, and they would stand about a hundred feet away from the tree, you know. We took him up, and we had another guy was taking him up, he had a bucket with him and a bag, so the bees wouldn't see him. He had the bucket to get the honey in. Well, he would get up the tree, and this guy had the molasses in the thing, and he'd dump it on his head and he said, "Oh the honey's coming all over me." And then he would light a light to see, and as soon as he did that - there's a guy hiding one or two hundred feet away, and he would fire the gun, you know. And then there's a guy there, closer, with a handful of shot and he throw it, and that guy would drop down out of that tree, you'd think he'd get killed. He'd drop the bucket and the bag and run up out about three or four hundred feet and somebody would go all around and catch him and take him down to the store and try him, and Simon Dorman would try him.

BEN: So now the newcomer thinks he’s been part of a robbery that got a man killed, and he’s being tried in a makeshift courtroom in the local store in some sort of vigilante town justice.  

Cammock: One time he had the big store book upside down trying him. He said, "You guys from the city come out here and steal these farmer's honey.” And then he finally reads the law to him and then he puts ‘ em in the cell, he said, "I'm gonna give you a week confinement." And he leaves the door open a little bit in the cellar, you know, and of course he sees that and when he goes in there he goes out, you know. So they let him get out and they let him get a good start and they holler at him, they run after him. He runs like it or not, trying to catch him again, you know.

McKelvey: Yep. How old were you when you did that?

Cammock:  I must have been 18-19.

Voice: You were old enough to have better sense.

McKelvey: How many times did you do it?

Cammock: Oh about once a month.

Voice: Oh they run them honey hunts quite a way off.

Cammock: And they would always bring a guy out from the post - a dumb guy in the post office, you know.

Voice: He comes from down South.

Cammock: He would come down and he didn't know anything about it. And neighbors would all be out. That was lined up from Rising Sun Lane to Breck's Lane, cars both sides, you know, when they knew that was coming off, everybody wanted to see that.

Voice: That was quite a spectacle.

Voice: We had a lot of cops.

Cammock: And there was one guy one time, they took him in there and they tried him, he was from the post office, you know. He was from the post office, this guy was, you know. And they tried him, and oh he was in a terrible stew when he went in there. He called up the preacher over in Elsmere and told him about it, working for the government, he said, "I'll lose my job, I'll lose my job now.” And he was so upset he put the ________ upside down on there. Oh it was something.

McKelvey: That's quite a gag.

Cammock: Oh, we had a time with it.

McKelvey: Is that something you thought up?

AMRYS: Okay, so when we listened to this for the first time, we were like: WHAT?!  What the heck is that about? You could not do this today without getting arrested.  It’s a pretty elaborate ritual, and it’s clear this was not a one-time occurrence. The whole community seems to be in on it!

BEN: But here’s the thing... after we got over the initial shock, it really told us something about the character of this community: how strong it was, how fiercely it held on to its sense of self, how suspicious it was of outsiders.  A community that would do what it had to in order to survive.

MUSIC: The Zeppelin

AMRYS: Next time, we’ll find out what happens when the powderyards—the economic center of this vibrant and irreverent community—start to close down.  What becomes of the people who made their lives along the banks of the Brandywine, or found new opportunities there? What happens after the marbles scatter?


MUSIC: The Zeppelin

BEN: The Millrace is produced by the Hagley Museum and Library, with additional support from Margaret L. Laird, Peter Silvia, the Brookeville Fund, and contributors to the Mary Laird Silvia Oral History Fund.  Our logo was designed by Rebecca Slinger. Our music is Zeppelin and Transit by Blue Dot Sessions, available at www.sessions.blue.

AMRYS: Today’s episode was written by Ben Spohn and Amrys Williams, and edited by Ben Spohn.  It featured oral history interviews with Edward B. Cheney, Ethel Jones Hayward, John Krauss, Blanche MacAdoo Yetter, Herbert Devenney, James Gamble, Catherine Hackendorn Sheldrick, Thomas and Lucy McCray, Louis J. “Primo” Robino, James Cammock, and Jim Kindbeiter.  You can listen to their full interviews, and explore the rest of the Brandywine oral history collection, at www.hagley.org/brandywineproject.

BEN: To learn more about The Millrace, read episode scripts, and explore related materials from our collections, visit us at www.hagley.org/millrace.  Be sure to subscribe to us on iTunes, Soundcloud, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts. And leave us a review—we’d love to hear from you.

AMRYS: Thanks for listening.