A Dangerous Job

The Millrace Series 1, Episode 2

Who in their right mind would willingly go to work making explosives and why? They pay was alright, but the job had its share of dangers. A bad day at work might mean never making the trip home again.

Still, a job at DuPont's Brandywine Works meant steady work, a decent wage, and opportunities for advancement. World War I kept demand for black powder high, and as long as there was a demand, there were jobs to be had in the powderyards. For our second episode in this series, we dive into the working lives of the men and women who kept the powderyards running during and after the war. We'll learn about their reasons for taking these dangerous jobs, and what they got out of it.

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Episode Script

Series 1, Episode 2: A Dangerous Job

James Gamble:  That’s where I was…  I was standing there and this explosion hit. Well, to me it felt like—I didn't hear nothing, all of a sudden, I didn't hear nothing at all—like everything stopped, air and everything else. And then the explosion, but they say the explosion happened before that. But you didn't hear it, well I don't know, I think they're crazy, I heard it [laughs].


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.

Who in their right mind would willingly go to work making explosives and why? The pay was alright, but the job had its share of dangers.  A bad day at work might mean never making the trip home again.

BEN: Still, a job at DuPont’s Brandywine Works meant steady work, a decent wage, and opportunities for advancement.  WWI kept demand for black powder high, and as long as there was a demand, there were jobs to be had in the powderyards.  For our second episode, we’ll be diving into the working lives of the men and women who kept the powderyards running during and after the war.  Hagley Historian Lucas Clawson kicks us off.

Lucas Clawson: The American declaration of war was in April 1917, so they finalized the contracts with duPont and other manufacturers by December. So it took a little while to do a lot of the negotiations  but what that meant for the Brandywine is that they’re still making fuse powders, but they also introduce a few speciality products that are made here on the Brandywine. For example making propellants for what are called Stokes mortars.

AMRYS: DuPont had always sold its explosives mainly to the civilian market.  Working with the government posed its own set of challenges.

Clawson: Government contracting in the 19th and early 20th century tended to be pretty problematic for DuPont because the government wasn’t a consistent customer and the government wanted an incredibly specific product and they needed it in a specific way. For example, the grain sizes were a particular size and they had to be packaged in a particular type of package and labeled in a certain way. You had to take a lot more care in making it...

BEN: The needs of war changed the factory and its workforce.  DuPont started producing ammunition for the specialized weapons Allied soldiers used on the front lines.

Clawson: And you also saw a big shift in who you saw in the powderworks here on the Brandywine. So instead of being a majority male workforce you see a lot of women introduced into the workforce. So part of DuPont’s expansion program across the board was bringing women into production.   

MUSIC: The Zeppelin

Helen Edwards:   ...but we wore special treated clothes like that, a knicker and a top, a blouse, and we had wooden pegs in our shoes.

AMRYS: This outfit earned Helen Edwards and the other women working in the powderyards the nickname “bloomer girls.”

Wagner: And did you leave the clothing there or did you take it home?

Edwards: Yeah, we had to go across the creek and change into our outside clothes.

Wagner: Did you shower?

Edwards: Not before we left.

Wagner: And your shoes, all your clothes stayed right there?  You put them back...

Edwards: Yes, we had the privilege of taking them or leaving them there

Wagner: And you don’t remember the pay scale?  How much money…?

Edwards: No I don’t remember that, how much I made, I can’t remember that for the life of me.  I was asking my sister if she ever heard me say, and if my mother was here, she could remember maybe.  But my mother’s passed away.

Wagner: Wasn't it unusual for women to be working out in the yards?

Edwards: Oh no, no they were all girls, women that worked on that side, in the whole plant, most of it, an awful lot of them. I guess they couldn't get the men after they were drafted for the war.

Vadnais: Did many people not want to work there because it was dangerous?

Edwards: I imagine.

Vadnais: But it didn’t bother you.

Edwards: No, because I thought, well our boys are overseas and they're fighting and they are probably going through more danger than we are, somebody had to do it. I was young and foolish, maybe (laughs). Seventeen and eighteen.

BEN:  Patriotism wasn’t the only thing that pushed Helen to work in the powderyards. Like many women, Helen was a secretary, one of the few lines of work open to her at the time.  When a more exciting kind of job came along, she was eager to grab the opportunity.

Edwards: Now, I'll tell you what. This girl friend, Anne Crawford, that lived two doors from me, I worked in an office. I wasn't crazy about office work at all and, of course you not knowing Wilmington, I worked in an office, real estate office above Docksteader's Theater. Docksteader's, or Garrick, one or the other, Garrick Theater, and there was offices up above, and I worked in one of those and I didn't like it after I went to Beacom’s, took up my business course and didn't like it. And Anne came down to meet me at work one day and she said "Why don't you quit if you don't like it? Let's go out to the powder plant, they're saying there's good work out there and good money." So I said, "Okay" and we went out the next day and we got a job.

Vadnais: Did they hire you on the spot?

Edwards: Yep.

MUSIC: The Zeppelin

AMRYS: For Helen, it was about duty, patriotism, and novelty: the chance to do something new and different.  Other women were attracted by the prospect of reliable work and a better life.

BEN: As an African-American, Mary Hazzard Collins’s job prospects were even more constrained than Helen Edwards’s.  Before landing a position in the powderyards, she had worked in domestic service, taking care of children. Despite her family’s worries about the danger, she was was determined to give factory work a try.

AMRYS: Mary’s recording isn’t great—there are cars going by on the street that make her hard to hear.  But her story is really important, so bear with the tape, and we’ll help you out.

Ward: Do you remember how you happened to hear about the job in the first place?

Mary Hazzard Collins: Well I just met a friend on the street and she told me, she said, "You know, I hear they are employing girls out to Hagley Yard. But I wouldn't go out there - it is too dangerous."

BEN: So she heard about the job from a friend, but that friend wasn’t interested because of the danger.  Mary was more daring. She found another friend who would go out there with her to sign up.

Collins: So I spoke to one of the other girls and said, "Let's go out there." I spoke to my mother and she didn't want me to go for anything because she said I was all she had and she didn't want to lose me. But we want. So I went and we'd be all right.

AMRYS: Mary’s mother was against her going to work in the powderyards—she told Mary she was “all she had” and that she didn’t want to lose her.  It was too dangerous. But Mary and her friend persuaded their parents to let them go to work out there.

BEN: It wasn’t long before they experienced that danger firsthand, and had to figure out how to manage their families’ worries as well as their own.

Collins: And the very day of the explosion I went in the back where this girl encouraged me not to go - not to stay - then I decided we would go home because she said our mothers would think we were hurt in the explosion. Instead of that my aunt went to the front door and I went to the back door and she asked my mother "Did you hear that explosion?" Mother said, "Yes, is Mary home?" "No, and I bet she's in it." I said, "No, I'm not - I'm home," and I went in the back door.

Ward: They were happy about that.

AMRYS:  Mary and her friend made sure they got home as soon as possible to ease their mothers’ minds.

BEN: You can imagine the panic and anxiety these explosions caused.  They could be heard and seen for miles. Wilmington residents were so familiar with these events that they could identify the source of the explosion from the color of the smoke.

AMRYS: Perhaps the good pay, a sense of independence, and the idea of earning their own money outweighed the risks of the job for Mary, Helen, and their coworkers.

BEN: But the bloomer girls weren’t the only wartime employees brought into the powderyards. As DuPont expanded its production lines, they needed more people to move the finished products.

MUSIC: The Zeppelin

Harvey Fell:  The summer of 1918 I was finishing my sophomore year; this was right when World War I was going on and there was a manpower shortage, and they were trying to get boys to go out and work on the farms... I was fortunate enough to secure a job here on the DuPont Company farm.

AMRYS: Harvey Fell was working as a teamster, or wagon driver, on one of the DuPont Company’s farms when he got called up to the Brandywine Works to lend a hand.

Fell: The laborers on the farm were paid $2.50 a day, the teamsters $2.65 a day. Teamsters got paid a little more because they had their teams to look after. The night stable man always had them cleaned off and the harness on them in the morning, but at night you had to take the harness off, put it on the peg. You had nothing to do with the feeding of them; the stable man took full charge of that. But we were paid $2.65 a day. That went along until we were through haying about the middle of July, when the Company was short of teams for shipping out their powder over in the Yard. There were regular teams at the stable here that worked in the Yard all the time. Anyway, they were short of these teams so they sent some of the farm teams down to the Yard, and that's how I came to haul powder. We worked an eight-hour day and got an increase in pay. The team had to be in the Yard by 7:00 in the morning, and the working day was over at 4:00 in the afternoon. If you worked after 4:00 you got time-and-half; lots of nights we worked until after 7:00. We received 40¢ an hour for an eight-hour day for doing just ordinary work, hauling whatever had to be hauled, but if you were put on to haul any powder or loading cars you were paid 4¢ an hour more. 44¢ an hour, or after 4:00 in the afternoon 66¢ an hour. That was real money in those days.

BEN: We did a little calculation here and figured that this was somewhere around today’s equivalent of 10 to 35 dollars an hour—not bad for a college student.

AMRYS: The raise Harvey got when he moved from the farm to the powderyards was substantial—to compensate for the riskier work.

BEN: A wagonload of hay is a lot less worrisome than a wagonload of black powder.

MUSIC: The Zeppelin

AMRYS: As DuPont expanded its operations around the country, powderyard workers could also find advancement beyond the Brandywine.  Our poet, Edward Cheney, helped oversee the construction of one of DuPont’s new factories in Hopewell, Virginia.

Cheney: I worked with Mr. Fred Chantier, who left the Brandywine as a carpenter and went to Carney's Point and rose to the position of factory superintendent and later on manager of the plant. I stayed with him until November, 1914 and Mr. Porter, manager of the plant, came to him and said that he wanted me to go down to Hopewell. They wanted men experienced in all lines. They were bringing in acid men from all over. The war had started and they were going to build a huge plant. He said he wanted me to go down right away from the construction company, which was building the plant. I said, "How about the three months' training?" He said, "Oh, we'll have to let that go." I had two children, but I said, "All right.“ I was to be chief clerk when the plant was completed. When they completed the plant they were to make 50,000 pounds of nitrocellulose a day, and ship it to Carney's Point…  Then they found out the war was going to be a great war, and they decided to make 1 million pounds of nitrocellulose a day instead of 50 thousand. I was only a man about in my twenties... They worked night and day. I have often worked until 2:30 in the morning…

MUSIC: The Zeppelin

BEN: The war created opportunities for DuPont and its workers.  Helen Edwards got a chance to work in a factory. Mary Hazzard Collins was able to find a job that hadn’t been an option for her before.  Harvey Fell got a big raise. And Edward Cheney had a chance to move up the management chain and live somewhere new.

AMRYS: But what happened after these people landed their new positions?  What was work in the powderyards actually like? And what did people like Helen, Mary, Harvey, and Edward gain from their time there?

Edwards:  This powder that we put in that, that we called "rice", it was yellow and little pieces like that.

Vadnais: It was called "rice" and that was powder?

Edwards: U-huh. And then it went from us, it had ether in it, to some other place to be finished. I don't what they did to it after that. There was a lot of things going on there during the war. There was a lot of bombs and a lot of explosives made there.

Vadnais: And the people that showed you your jobs were other female workers who had been there before you?

Edwards: Yeah, they usually instructed us what to do.

Vadnais: Was the turnover rapid, I mean were there a lot of people coming and going in the workforce, or did you work with the same people?

Edwards: I worked with the same people most of the time.

Vadnais: So once people started, they liked it there, generally?

Edwards: Yes.

BEN:  Helen and the other bloomer girls seemed to enjoy their jobs.  But the danger of working with explosives hung over everything they did.  Powderyard workers like Harvey Fell had to learn to live with the risks.

Fell:  The first load of so-called powder - it was all processed, it wasn’t loose powder, and some of it was in these cases of pellets - It made me realize… this is dangerous stuff.  I hauled from the lower part of the Yard up to the siding here, I can remember I had those horses just barely creeping. I was afraid of a spark from the wheels on that stone road. After three or four days it was no more than a load of coal, you didn't think any more about it.

BEN: Workplace rules helped to ensure some measure of safety.  Each worker had a distinct role in the process. Bloomer girls worked on the production line.  Teamsters like Harvey drove the wagons. And laborers —some of them women of color hired in the war emergency—loaded them up.  

Fell: Now, when you were hauling it out of magazines, the driver was the driver, and when you went down the Yard, regardless of what you were doing you were supposed to have a helper on the wagon. At that time when I went down there to work, due to the manpower shortage, they had employed about 30 or more Negro girls. When you normally would have had a helper on your wagon to help load, they put two of these Negro girls on instead. They wore these...almost like a child's romper suit, one-piece coveralls with bloomers, and if you were hauling coal you had two girls to shovel coal and one man. We had to all wear rubber-soled shoes. No one with nailed soles was allowed to go into a magazine for fear it might strike a spark. I never heard anything of a labor union; I know I didn't pay any union fees, but apparently all the driver was to do was to handle his team.

AMRYS: From their specialized roles to the clothes they wore, powderyard workers led regimented lives on the job.  Mary was one of the people who helped maintain that order. She worked as a foreman and collected the workers’ timeslips so they could be paid.  She also kept track of the different loads of black powder as they were loaded onto railcars for shipping.

Ward: Now let‘s get back to the girls where you worked when you first Went out - do you remember just approximately how many girls were working out there?

Collins: I think it was either - about 10 - 8 or 10 but it has been so long I don't remember.

Ward: Now, what did some of these other girls do? You mentioned you took the slips around. Did some of them help in the packing of these crates or boxes?

Collins: I don't think they worked in the magazine and yet they brought them to the area. Some of them was in the coach with me helping me to pack them. You know and the men brought them to me. Now there was one man there and he had been there quite a while and that was a Lester Polk. I do remember him and he would bring the powder boxes to us. And they would put them on the floor of the coach and then we would pack them.

Ward: Sounds as though you would have to be real accurate in what you were doing.

Collins: Oh yes. I had to take the number of it and name of the coach and the number of it - you know those freight cars have those numbers on them and I had to take the numbers and also the numbers on the bombs - what they called bombs - that they would put on the coach.

Ward: How long did you work there in Hagley?

Collins: Well, I went there in the - I can't seem to remember - I didn't work there too long. It wasn't a year because most of the girls left and just we two - two - or three of us was there to go back and of course my mother didn't want me to go back and work there any longer because of the danger because she thought they would have another explosion.

BEN: Even for a daring girl like Mary, the dangers of the powderyards were ultimately too much for her family to handle.  Explosions struck terror into the hearts of everyone whose loved ones worked along the Brandywine.

AMRYS: Most of the men in Catherine Hackendorn Sheldrick’s family worked in the powderyards.  She never forgot the panic, grief, and gruesome scenes that followed an explosion.

MUSIC: Transit

Bennett: Do you remember any of the explosions?

Catherine Hackendorn Sheldrick: I remember quite a few of them. Especially the ones during the First World War. Oh, they were... I would like... If there were anything that you could ever want to blank out of your mind, that was one thing that I would like to think I never experienced. I saw...you know when there would be an explosion, all the people within earshot would run to the...you know where you go in to Hagley now? The women and children and all. And they would wait there at the gate for word to come back. Who was killed. You talk about the mines, you know, the men in the mines. At least when they were found they were whole. Their bodies were whole. And I never saw it myself, but I have heard them say that the men would be going over in the woods, you know, picking up parts of bodies. Wasn't that horrible. You know, you would wonder...that's the reason my grandfather, well he worked in the powder himself, but he'd never allow his own sons to work in it. And you would think that to work under those conditions, that they would have gone somewhere else to work. Wouldn't you?

Bennett: Knowing? Yes. Yes, I know what you mean.

Sheldrick: You know. It was almost like sending your son off to war. They didn't know whether they would be home for dinner or not .

BEN: War increased the dangers along the Brandywine.  As workers produced more explosives, the inevitable accidents became more common.  Black powder claimed lives on the production line as well as on the front lines. And the influenza epidemic only compounded the risks.

Edwards: Oh yes, girls were going down right and left. You see, we was making aerial bombs - there was a ring, so big of cellophane or - I don't know what that was like - a celluloid, and it had pieces of yellow powder, and it looked like spaghetti, we called it spaghetti anyway, and it had a lot of ether in it, and we couldn't work inside and they had a pavilion like you'd find in a fair you know, four sides to it, but it was all open, bitter cold weather we was working outside, that cold, cold winter. We could only work there so long because the ether, it would get us, and then we worked so many hours there, and maybe somewhere else and that's when the flu epidemic was there. Girls were going down all around me and I never did get it, but my Father said, "Helen, you drink a glass of wine before you go to work and you will never get the flu." I said, "I'm not goin' in there drunk." He said, "Drink a half a glass." But I did drink about that much in a glass, I never got it. My girlfriend that was working with me, she got it.

AMRYS:  In the midst of all these dangers, Helen Edwards made friendships that kept her spirits up.  The bloomer girls had fun together on the job, and seem to have laughed at least as much as they cried.

Edwards:  ...I think it was at twenty-four, in this box that was put through a chute and run down into the dipping house where they dipped - in tar I believe - it was taped together and then dipped in tar. And I remember one day one girl friend that worked there with me, her name was Elsie Honor, she decided - she had been up - the work was slack and she had come up to our house and talked to us, and she decided she would go down through the chute - it had rollers on it and she - we got her in and she got stuck in the chute and we had an awful time getting her out again (laughs). I can remember poor Elsie, she said they will have to come and take the chute apart to get me out. We used to do some funny things then.

Wagner: She didn't get in any trouble, did she, with the boss?

Edwards: He didn't know it.

Wagner: No, he never knew.

BEN: The dangers and the hijinks forged a certain esprit de corps among Helen and her fellow bloomer girls.  They shared a sense of friendship as well as patriotism.

Vadnais: So why did you - you decided to work at the powder mills because the pay was good and jobs were available and you didn't like working in an office? Why do you think - do you have any idea why the other women were there - was it because the pay was good?

Edwards: I imagine, because they were working or wanted to do something for their country, I don't know.

Vadnais: So there was a patriotic feeling there?

Edwards: Yeah.

Vadnais: How would the worker - how would you - were you brought together as a group, was there a lot of camaraderie, good feelings there when you - among the women when you were working, or was it...

Edwards: Oh yeah, yeah, we were all friends whether we knew each other's name or not.

MUSIC: The Zeppelin

AMRYS: Brought together by war, fellow-feeling, striving, or circumstance, the men and women who worked in the powderyards found opportunities, forged friendships, and built a community along the river.  If they were willing to endure the dangers, they could make a better life for themselves and their families.

BEN: Next time on The Millrace, we’ll learn more about the home lives and communities sustained by this dangerous line of work—and what would become of them in the wake of war.

AMRYS: We hope you’ll join us.

MUSIC: 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 The 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 Hagley Historian Lucas Clawson, and oral history interviews with James Gamble, Helen Edwards, Mary Hazzard Collins, Harvey Fell, Edward B. Cheney, and Catherine Hackendorn Sheldrick.  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.