An Explosive Time

The Millrace Series 1, Episode 1

1918—it was an explosive time. The nation was at war. Political movements for workers and women's suffrage were gathering steam. The world was on the brink of change.

What better place to explore an explosive moment in time than at an explosives factory?

In our first episode of this four-part series, we dive into the conflicts and disruptions of the year 1918—from U.S. entry into World War I to the influenza epidemic—and learn how they influenced the lives of the men and women who were making the munitions for the U.S. and its allies at DuPont's Brandywine Works, and the families and communities that depended on them.

Explore more episodes of The Millrace.

Episode Script

Series 1, Episode 1: An Explosive Time

BEN: 1918.  It was an explosive time.

MUSIC: The Zeppelin

Reefa Hackendorn: Saturday down on Market Street, nine people were killed and forty injured and I am one of the lucky ones myself as I was near the bomb explosion.  They had a preparedness day parade and someone against it set a bomb in a suitcase among the crowd.

Helen Edwards: I was making pellets…  Which was very dangerous…  Very dangerous, and we had an explosion while I was there…  And I went outside and I could see all these pieces of wood and stuff from the explosion whirling around in the air and I started across to get the hose because I saw fire coming down the line towards our place.

Edward Cheney: And I sat on the grass in wonder at rockets roaring into the sky / I felt secure and happy with father and mother nigh.

George Washington Jones: I almost died with the flu…  I was fourteen and a half… there were caskets all along the road.

Harvey Fell: World War I was right in its prime, and they were busy day and night down in the yards.  Of course, November 11th the armistice was signed and things began to fold very quickly, but during the summer I was here you just thought it was going to go on forever.

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, and we work in Hagley’s Oral History Office.

For our first series of four episodes, we’ll be looking back 100 years to an explosive moment in time: the year 1918.  The nation was at war. Political movements for workers and women’s suffrage were gathering steam. The world was on the brink of change.  

BEN: What better place to explore an explosive moment in time than at an explosives factory?

Today we think of the DuPont Company as a chemical company, but it started as an explosives company, here at Hagley on the banks of the Brandywine, just outside Wilmington, Delaware.  DuPont began producing explosives here in 1802. Its products, from gunpowder for shooting to the explosives that cleared land for settlement, opened pits and tunnels for mines, and paved the way for railroads, helped transform the United States in the 19th century into an industrial powerhouse.

AMRYS: Immigrants from England, Ireland, Scotland, France, Alsace, and Italy flocked to the powderyards for jobs making black powder, as well as in construction, quarrying, masonry, carpentry, blacksmithing, machining, hauling, and more.  They settled in workers’ villages around the factory and raised their families, making a home along the Brandywine.

Over a century later, DuPont was still making black powder on this site, but it had also built newer plants in other places.  Most of the machinery at Hagley was outmoded by the turn of the century, and operations in the yards were beginning to slow down.  It looked like the Brandywine Works’ best days were behind it.

BEN: But World War I changed things.  When the conflict broke out in Europe in 1914, DuPont was making 8.5 million pounds of explosives.  By the end of the war in 1918, it would be making half a billion pounds.  

AMRYS:  Over the course of the war, the company sold 1.5 trillion pounds of explosives to the Allies.  That’s 40% of all the explosives used during the war.

BEN:  For the people who worked along the Brandywine, the war might mean the difference between having a job or going hungry.

MUSIC: Stars and Stripes Forever

AMRYS:  But the war was still controversial, and while some Americans felt the nation needed to be prepared to enter the conflict, many were not convinced that the US should get involved at all.  The country was like a powder keg, ready to explode.

BEN: On July 22, 1916, the city of San Francisco hosted an enormous Preparedness Day Parade to rally popular support for the war.  The event, organized by the Chamber of Commerce, was huge, the largest parade ever in the city—over 50,000 marchers, over 2,000 organizations, and 52 bands.  

AMRYS: This was over ten percent of the city’s population just marching in the parade—and an enormous number of people watching and waving flags from the sidelines.  

BEN: Labor groups, especially the Industrial Workers of the World, strongly opposed the gathering, but were also worried that radicals might use the event to tarnish organized labor.  Tensions were high.

AMRYS: An unsigned flyer circulated throughout the city that month warning that someone might use “a little direct action… to show that militarism can’t be forced on us… without a violent protest.”

Reefa Hackendorn: Well, this was written by a girlfriend, and she says, "I received your letter and was glad to hear you were not killed in the ammunition factory.  Everyone around here thinks you were killed. Someone told me that one month ago and it still seems to circulate.”

BEN: In 1915, Reefa Hackendorn’s husband Eugene moved from San Francisco to Delaware.  Though only 17, he started working as a timekeeper in the booming Brandywine Works of the DuPont Company.  When Hagley staff interviewed her in 1989, Reefa read a letter he had received from a friend back west.

Hackendorn: “I wrote to Emma." Emma is his sister. "two times and I never got an answer. I came believing it in the end myself. When I received the letter I cannot express in words my great relief because I thought by this time you must be moulding in your grave. Why didn't you write, were you too bashful? I will now tell you about Frisco news. Saturday down on Market Street, nine people were killed and forty injured and I am one of the lucky ones myself as I was near the bomb explosion. They had a preparedness parade and someone against it set a bomb in a suitcase among the crowd on Stewart and Market. The City now offers $17,000 for the person that catches the man. They have about ten persons all locked up and just for the same crime until the judge decides. Every bum, man that was in jail, they think he put the suitcase there, but I think they caught the right one now - a boy 19 years old. He lives right next door to the college.Why didn't I know that? I would have gotten the $17,000. The papers are just full of that outrage.”

AMRYS: The headlines read, “Prepare! Message of San Francisco Spoken by 50,000” and “Missile of Death Scatters Mangled Forms in Street.”  

BEN: These were gruesomely familiar scenes, unfortunately, for people who worked in the powderyards—but on the streets of an American city?  

AMRYS: Explosions were marking the lives of two people a continent apart.

Hackendorn: “Everytime I pass your house on Geneva I think of you all. The name of the place where you have lived is dull enough."

Bennett: That's meaning Delaware, I think.

Hackendorn: That's right, in Delaware. "And you must be pretty dull too." [laughter]

BEN: But Eugene’s work in the powderyards was anything but dull.  As DuPont ramped up production for the war, it expanded its operations, building new plants across the country to produce the new, smokeless powder that was eclipsing black powder on the battlefield.  

AMRYS: Compared to these new factories, the black powder facilities at DuPont’s original Brandywine Works were old and outdated, artifacts of the 19th century: stone buildings, turbines running on waterpower from the river, roll mills built decades earlier.  But the economics of the wartime emergency meant that, for at least a little while longer, people like Eugene would keep their jobs.

BEN: And people who had never made explosives before would find new opportunities there.

MUSIC: The Zeppelin

Lucas Clawson: I am Lucas Clawson, I am the Hagley Historian... With the factory here on the Brandywine, WWI ends up being the last gasp for the black powder factory.  The sun was setting on the Brandywine works in 1917. And part of what kept this factory alive is that even with smokeless powder and high tech explosives, you still need black powder to make things like fuses.  So you can still use black powder in a big way, it’s just that as a product it was on the decline when WWI started and the massive wartime orders are what helped keep the Brandywine works afloat.

AMRYS: Even before America entered the conflict in April of 1917, manpower shortages were affecting the Brandywine Works.

Clawson:  Once the United States got involved with WWI they reinstitute the draft. So, a lot of white men get pulled immediately into the military, ones who weren’t already in the National Guard. So you’ve got in Delaware, to take an even bigger picture on this too, in 1916 the National Guard throughout the United States got called up to go to the border with Mexico. Whenever Pancho Villa made a raid into Columbus New Mexico  in March 1916 President Wilson’s response was to call up 110,000 National guardsmen and sent them to the border with Mexico. So the First Delaware regiment got called up, so these guys spent the better part of a year in Deming New Mexico. So a lot of people throughout New Castle County ended up going to the border. So they got home in 1917 spent about a month home and then got called right back up to go into WWI. So a lot of these guys were gone for a while. So they were gone from the middle of 1916 all the way up to when some of them got back in 1919. So you see that throughout the United States, a lot of these guys are gone for a while so who’s going to replace them?

MUSIC: Zeppelin

Helen Edwards: No, I was making pellets.

Vadnais: You were making pellets?

Edwards: Which was very dangerous, and I was in a little house, about four by four and it had a machine in there, and there was a needle in the machine, and I had to walk across the road and get a little jill of powder, you know how big a jill is?

Vadnais: No, I'm not ...

Edwards: Very small.

Vadnais: Very small.

Edwards: And it was like a - it was box about so big, on a pole.

Vadnais: About a foot by a foot, the box?

Edwards: Yeah, could have been a little bit - maybe 14", and there was only one jill of powder put in there at a time.

Vadnais: In the box?

Edwards: In the box. And when one jill got empty, I had to take that jill, put it in a box and get the other one and bring it back. And this machine compressed that powder, and the needle went down through the center for a fuse.

Vadnais: I see.

Clawson: A lot of the women who worked here were not necessarily women who lived in the workers’ communities on the Brandywine. A lot of them actually lived in downtown Wilmington. So, the DuPont Company got a bus where they would pick them up in Rodney Square bring them into the powderworks, have them work their shift, and then they would take them back to Rodney Square.  

BEN: Helen Edwards was one of the women from Wilmington who came to work in the powderyards. She came to the Brandywine out of a sense of patriotism—and also because she found her office job downtown to be a bit dull.  Her new job in the powderyards was certainly a change of pace.

Edwards: Very dangerous, and we had an explosion while I was there. It was in the packing house up above and one of the girls, I can't remember her name, she could have been in this crowd, brother was in it, he got killed. And there was hoses across this road and we were instructed that if there ever was a fire, grab the hose and, you know, start working on it. After I got myself together, it tore my machine up out of the floor, it was fastened to the floor, and the machine was about so high.

Vadnais: About five feet high?

Edwards: Yeah. And I went outside and I could see all these pieces of wood and stuff from the explosion whirling around in the air and I started across to get the hose because I saw fire coming down the line towards our place. Me and another girl grabbed the hose and started working it. In the meantime, one of these pieces of four by four or two by four, was heading towards me and I had a watch on and I put my arm up to ward it off. It's a wonder it didn't break my arm, but it smithered my watch, smashed my watch.

MUSIC: The Zeppelin

AMRYS: Like Helen’s watch, time stood still on the Brandywine.  The war meant a temporary stay of execution for the powderyards, keeping demand for its products high.  This was good news for the communities of workers and families that clustered along the banks of the river.  These little villages had colorful names—

BEN: Like Squirrel Run, Chicken Alley,

AMRYS: Duck Street, Free Park—

BEN: —also known as Flea Park—

AMRYS: Walker’s Banks.  

BEN: They were sustained by the work and the living the powderyards provided—a simple but good life, as Ethel Jones Hayward remembered it.

Ethel Jones Hayward: In the house we had oil lamps, no running water, and no bathroom facilities. My mother was at home all the time. She baked about 10 delicious loaves of bread about twice a week. The flour barrel in the corner of the kitchen was filled to the brim every fall. Sugar came in strong cotton bags. Five pounds in a bag. When the bag was empty, my mother would bleach the letters off the bag and make me little handkerchiefs for school. They were hemmed in feather stitching around the hem in blue, pink or yellow cotton. She also embroidered the initial "E" in the corner. I prized these sugar bag handkerchiefs so much. For Christmas I would receive one or two handkerchiefs with lace around the side. These handkerchiefs were used only on Sunday. When we went sledding on Breck's Lane, speeding under the trestle bridge, nothing gave us more joy and thrills. We would sled after school hours until dark, and always came home to a nice warm supper like hot vegetable soup or ham and dried bean soup. It was always delicious and satisfying. Coffee was ground for each meal in a little coffee grinder. My dad made my mother her first potato masher from an old railroad tie. It was a common thing and well used, and it felt the touch of loving hands for many years. To me it is replete with patience, courage, contentment and love as it hangs as a decorative piece in my kitchen today.

AMRYS: The solid home life of families like Ethel’s supported a rich community life as well.  Stores, taverns, churches, and schools anchored a lively social world.

BEN: On the Fourth of July—one of the few holidays at the Brandywine Works—the Catholic church sponsored a picnic that it seems everyone in the villages attended.  Edward B. Cheney, who grew up in Squirrel Run, even memorialized the event in verse.

We have some swell band concerts in the town where I reside,
With saxophone and clarinet and trombone with the slide;
But give me back the good old days, when they danced on Keyse's Hill,
With three or four old sawbones a-fiddlin' fit to kill.
They built the white-pile platform right underneath the trees,
And though you swung your partner 'round and 'round, you always got the breeze;
The tune of "Sweet Rosie O'Grady," gave you a light and happy heart,
With "After the Ball Was Over" and "Annie Rooney Is My Sweetheart."
It was a treat to watch their feet, the dancing it was real.
When they swung from the good old waltzes into the Irish Reel;
For the sons of dear old Erin from Kildare and from Cork,
Were there to show them how to jig and prance the old cake walk.
Oh how I loved those dear old days, when on a sunny Fourth of July,
I sat upon an old tree stump and drank a cool Red Eye;
When the folks all went up to the hill for a good old roaring time,
And a kid could have a mighty day on a nickel or a dime.
And after the big time was over and we all went up to La Motte's,
Where the night was rent by sky- rockets and beautiful flower-pots;
And I sat on the grass in wonder at rockets roaring into the sky,
I felt secure and happy with father and mother nigh.
But though I've been romancing o'er the good old days of fun,
There are no better days than the ones that just have come;
And though I'd like the loved ones back and go up on the Hill,
These times are filled with roses and you can have them if you will.

MUSIC: Transit

AMRYS: But dangers lurked on the home front as well as on the job.  The Influenza Epidemic swept the country in 1918 and continued its ravages well after the armistice.  Ethel’s brother, George Washington Jones, fell ill suddenly, in the midst of his paper route.

BEN: And, just so you know, George is a little hard to understand, so we’ll do our best to help you out.

George Washington Jones: See, I almost died with the flu… I was fourteen and a half. I served papers all around DuPont and this very, very - the old Wilmington Country Club. They turned it into a hospital and I used to have to take papers down there and there were caskets all along the road.

AMRYS: So George’s route took him all around the area, and he could see the ravages of the flu everywhere he went.  He delivered papers to the Wilmington Country Club, which had been turned into an influenza hospital, and when he went up there, he saw the coffins of the dead lined up along the road, waiting to be buried.

BEN: So when he suddenly got sick, you can imagine how scared he would have been.

Jones: And I came to Mr. Lammot's house and I come in the kitchen and put my papers down and put my head on the table and the cook asked me what was the matter. I said, "I'm awful sick, but I'll be alright in a minute. Just let me rest for a minute and then I'll go serve the rest of my papers."

AMRYS: He was probably mortified, falling ill right in the house of his employer, Mr. Lammot du Pont.

Jones: And just then Mrs. du Pont walked in and she asked the cook, "What is the trouble with the boy?” She says, "He's sick.” And I looked up, "Good evening, Mrs. du Pont."  She says, "You're not going to serve any more papers tonight. I'm going to call the chauffeur and send you home."

BEN: So Mrs. du Pont is doing him a favor, helping him get home, when he’s so sick…

AMRYS: ...but at the same time, she’s also trying to make sure her own household doesn’t get infected.  I mean, here’s this kid, obviously sick with the flu, nearly passed out at the table, talking to the cook who makes her food.

Jones: So she sent me home and I was sick for - all during the flu and then I took walking typhoid fever and from walking typhoid fever I went into pneumonia. It all happened in the wintertime, so the doctor wouldn't let me go to school...

BEN:  The flu could strike anyone.  George was a model kid: he had a job, did well in school, and played a musical instrument. His parents were proud of him. And then, all of a sudden, this awful thing happened, and he was out of school for a year, falling behind his classmates.  It’s difficult to imagine what that might have felt like—to have your life disrupted like that.

Clawson: At that point war is disruption… make no mistake DuPont made a lot of money off of WWI. But war is a disruption nonetheless. They realize that a war disrupts the flow of raw materials in, disrupts the flow of products out changes the nature of what you do and how you do it, changes the nature of your labor force, increases your costs, increases a lot of overhead that goes with it. A peacetime footing is always a better footing to be on. Plus in addition to all of that you didn’t have the War Industries board, once the United States got involved, telling you what raw materials you could have in your possession where you could get them from and how you can sell them to. ….That’s how a lot of that worked out. Realizing that the war was not gonna last forever… Its always a question of what happens after… they were smart enough to realize that there’s typically always an economic slump once a war is done, so what can they do to keep from being caught up in that slump

AMRYS:  But the people who worked in the powderyards—like Harvey Fell, who drove the wagons that carried loads around the factory—were not necessarily aware of what the company had planned.

Fell:  No, not at all, then. World War I was right in its prime, and they were busy day and night down in the yards. Of course, November 11th the armistice was signed and things began to fold very quickly, but during the summer I was here you just thought it was going on forever.

BEN:  The war had extended the life of the Brandywine Works, but what would happen when the war ended and demand for black powder declined?  What would be the fate of the workers who depended upon the yards? And what would happen to their families in the communities that clustered along the riverbanks and trolley tracks—going about their daily lives, baking bread and hanging the wash, having a beer at the end of the day, going to school and to church, and gathering in celebration to dance and eat and watch the fireworks?

AMRYS: Would it all go up in smoke?

MUSIC: The Zeppelin

BEN: Next time on The Millrace, we’ll find out what life was like for the men and women who worked in the powderyards during the First World War.  Why would somebody take a job in such a dangerous place? And what kind of work did they really do? What were the dangers, and how did they and their families deal with them?

AMRYS: We hope you’ll join us.

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 The Zeppelin and Transit by Blue Dot Sessions, available at This episode also featured a 1915 recording of John Philip Sousa's Stars and Stripes Forever, from the Library of Congress

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 Reefa Hackendorn, Helen Edwards, Ethel Jones Hayward, Edward B. Cheney, George Washington Jones, and Harvey Fell.  You can listen to their full interviews, and explore the rest of the Brandywine oral history collection, at

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

AMRYS: Thanks for listening.