Brandywine Valley residents often touched upon household and neighborhood traditions and holiday celebrations in their oral history interviews.
Some of these occasions -- like celebrating a wedding with a community reception and exchanging gifts on Christmas -- will sound familiar to listeners today. Others have changed significantly, like the prominent role of wakes in the home for the deceased, a tradition brought by Irish immigrants to the United States.
Many former residents recall the St. Joseph's annual Fourth of the July picnic, held in an open field above the Squirrel Run neighborhood, as the biggest event of the year, filled with dancing and special goodies like lemonade, ice cream, and root beer.
Listen to the clips below for depictions of some of these bygone celebrations.
Grace Ferguson's husband's grandmother dances the jig
Born in 1895, Grace Toy Ferguson grew up in Long Row, and her father worked as a millwright and a cabinetmaker for DuPont. As a child, she always attended the annual St. Joseph's Fourth of July picnic, which was arguably the highlight of the year in the worker communities.
In this clip, Ms. Ferguson describes the event and watching her husband's grandmother and Jerry Casey "jig like nobody's business" on the dance platform.
Johnson: And can you tell me something about the picnics?
Ferguson: Oh, they used to have -- they'd build a platform and my husband's grandmother used to dance and jig -- her and Mr. Casey, Jerry Casey. And they'd play and then they'd dance. And I used to get out there and dance, too, but I was just a kid then.
Johnson: What was her name? Your husband's grandmother?
Ferguson: She danced all the time. Every Fourth of July, she'd dance with Jerry Casey. She was a good jigger. She'd jig. Irish jig.
Johnson: They had Irish jigs at Irish Day -- really fun to watch. And would they have a contest of any kind?
Ferguson: No, but there would be guests there like, you know, for the 4th of July. And then they had stands all around there with sarsparilla and all that kind of stuff. And ice cream. They'd have ice cream. You had to buy it, of course.
Johnson: And was that the entertainment that everyone would look forward to -- the jig?
Ferguson: And then that would last until it started to get dark. And the du Pont people would come pull up the platform. And you'd dance on the platform -- a great, big platform. And then they had a place where the musicians used to sit -- for violins and something else. Yeah.
Johnson: Would they be the same violinists that played with Alfred I. du Pont's band or was it a different band?
Ferguson: Different band, I guess.
Johnson: Do you remember their names?
Johnson: Would they come up from Wilmington?
Ferguson: Yeah, from Wilmington. I know Alfred I. - his – I don't know -- he never played there, I don't think. But that's where they had the music.
Johnson: And when did all the other people dance? Would they dance after the jig was over?
Ferguson: After the jig -- the jigging was over. That was the main hour. They'd get out there and everybody got off the platform. And then they would stand there and jig. And Bill's grandmother -- my husband's grandmother was quite old when she used to jig. She used to jig every year. Towards the last she couldn't jig anymore.
Johnson: And was she the only one who would do that?
Ferguson: Yeah, only one that jigged was her and Jerry Casey.
Johnson: Did anyone else dance at that time?
Ferguson: Oh, well, we all -- everybody danced. But she was the only one who jigged. Get out there and jig – she could jig like nobody's business. And my husband could jig with one leg but he couldn't make the other leg move.
Johnson: And did other people dance on the platform or did they dance after they took the platform away?
Ferguson: Oh, they danced on the platform. The platform would stay there until after the party was over and then the next day they would come and tear it down. du Ponts put that up free.
Image: Henry Clay and Walker's Banks neighborhoods seen from Rockford Tower, circa 1903. View image in the Digital Archives
Helen Edwards attends the Armistice Day parade
Helen Edwards, a Wilmington native born in 1900, worked at the DuPont powder yards packing ballistite rings for artillery shells during World War I. When Armistice Day and the end of the war finally arrived on November 11, 1918, Ms. Edwards and her coworkers dropped everything and took the bus to downtown Wilmington to join the celebrations, not even bothering to change out of their work bloomers on a cold November day.
Listen to her describe the day in the clip below.
Edwards: Oh, that three o'clock shift come out and they came out in the bus and they said, "What are you working for, the war's over?" So we all just simply quit, we didn't even bother with hats and coats. We got on the bus, that free bus, and went in the city and it was cold, it was in November, wasn't it?
Vadnais: In November?
Edwards: And it was partly snowing, and we didn't have any hat on, just these bloomers.
Vadnais: So you were walking around the streets of Wilmington with your bloomers?
Edwards: I was - no, most of us was riding the bus. I was riding on the front of the bus, and I was more or less warm from the heat from the motor (laughs). But we waded through confetti a foot deep or more, it was up to our knees. My Mother cleaned confetti out for months.
Vadnais: So that was the signing and everyone just left their work and said - that was it?
Edwards: But we went back the next day and they had the things - that quick, they just said that things had to be cleaned up, you know, ended up. So we ended the work that was there, I suppose. Because I was kept on until - that was in November - I was kept on until January.
Image: Armistice parade in Wilmington, 1918 November 11. View image in the Digital Archives
James Kindbeiter celebrates with bootleg liquor
When he married in 1925, Mr. Kindbeiter did not let Prohibition stand in his way of having a reception to remember.
In this clip, he tells the story of how he managed to procure enough alcohol from Maryland for a weeklong celebration at Breck's Mill in 1925.
Kindbeiter: ...so, then, they held the reception up at the Hagley House. And that lasted for a week up there -- or longer. A week, anyway. I know it lasted for a week. We were hauling alcohol out of Rising Sun, Maryland. The gang come up from down in the South and they run stills up there and they never bothered them all the time they were running them. They were making pretty good whiskey. And they come up to Newark, and Cunningham was the chief of police of Newark. And he was a son-of-a-gun. They had the main street in Newark was two ways. And we always carried a hatchet on the floor to chop the can in case he came up. So, he never bothered us. We came through there. He knew we weren't selling it. We were -- for our own use. We'd take that five-gallon can of alcohol up to the Hagley House. Take another five-gallon can and pour it into a ten gallon can. And pour the alcohol in that and stir it up. And then we finally got so we put color in it. To stop you drinking it colored. So that went on for, I know, a week.
Bennett: Did you have music?
Kindbeiter: Yeah. They had dancing every night.
Bennett: And did you have food?
Kindbeiter: Yeah. They had food. Well, it finally ended up after the first two or three nights we finally had sandwiches.
Bennett: What did they have like the day you were married?
Kindbeiter: Oh, it was a catered affair when we were married. They had all steak and everything else. Half that gang never ate steak before.
Bennett: Did you have a wedding cake?
Kindbeiter: Yeah, wedding cake and that was up on the table in the middle of the floor.
Bennett: Things haven't changed that much.
Kindbeiter: No, it hasn't changed.
Image: "Prohibition Probes" postcard, circa 1930. View image in the Digital Archives
Born in 1903, James Gamble spent his early childhood living on Rising Sun Lane and visiting his grandmother in Squirrel Run. As an adult, he spent 39 years as a metalworker at the DuPont Experimental Station.
In this clip, he remembers witnessing an election day parade stopping at every saloon in Henry Clay Village.
Lotter: Do you remember any special celebrations along the Brandywine or any parades down in that area?
Gamble: Well, not a whole lot, because we didn't go over Brandywine Hundred.
Lotter: Well I meant in Henry Clay Village?
Gamble: Only on election day, election night, the night before election. They had a parade and I was down here, let's see, where was that - down there where the tavern is, you know. Well this side of it, there was another tavern, well that wasn't a tavern.
Lotter: Which tavern, do you remember?
Lotter: Which tavern?
Gamble: Well, that's Hagee's. That wasn't there then. Aunt Rose's father kept a tavern on this side, that was - Oh, Tom Toy's. Then my uncle had the grocery store and the post office about two doors down. Well anyway, I was a kid and I was down there and they had this parade. And in them days, oh had long coats on, and they all carried these flares you know, you put a match to them and they come red. They all were walking along the street with them red things. And the kids were stealing them [laughs]. They stopped at every tavern from Montchanin up there at Tommy Lawless's, clear down to where up Rising Sun Lane and then they went in town. I'll bet they were in fine shape [laughs].
Lotter: I'll bet they were too. Now these were the politicians who were running for office?
Gamble: Yeah, them and the people who were voting for them. I saw that one, that was the only one I ever saw of that.
Lotter: Anything else you remember about the parade?
Gamble: No, only they stopped the parade at every tavern and they'd holler and they'd go in and somebody would come out and holler again. They didn't have any bands in those days, holler again, and they would come out.
Lotter: This was for a local election?
Gamble: Yeah. But they mostly had their own fun up there, Squirrel Run, Henry Clay and those places.
Image: Toy’s Tavern in Henry Clay. View image in the Digital Archives
Edward B. Cheney describes A.I. du Pont’s holiday events
Born to Irish immigrants during an 1888 blizzard in Squirrel Run, Edward B. Cheney spent most of his career working at DuPont’s Carney's Point facility in New Jersey. He also wrote poems about his childhood memories of the Henry Clay area.
In this clip, he describes the events A.I. du Pont hosted for the workers and their families, including Christmas parties at Breck’s Mill as well as Halloween and election night gatherings at his Swamp Hall home.
Cheney: He took over Brecks Mill. Wasn't used any more by the company, for the orchestra, and also for the entertainment of the boys and girls of the community. Every Christmas we were invited there, and they had a large Christmas tree trimmed and lighted, and we had entertainment. That's where I first saw Punch and Judy. And we were given boxes of candy, and then we all filed by Mr. du Pont and the wife and children, and were presented with presents. It was in Breck's Mill that I first saw moving pictures.
Interviewer: What year was this. Do you remember? You were born in '88. This would be what, late 90s?
Cheney: That was during the late 90s. Mr. du Pont also invited us to come to his house on Halloween night. He always had a large bag of dimes and nickels, and he threw them up in the air and watched us scramble for them.
Interviewer: John Rockefeller huh? This was swamp hall?
Cheney: Swamp Hall. We also went to Mr. du Pont's home on election night and saw the returns. And had refreshments.
Interviewer: How did those returns get reported in those days? How did they come in?
Cheney: They telephoned them from the journal office, or Every Evening, the old republican papers. And they were flashed on a sheet. A screen. A white screen. We had a great time around there. Fathers and mothers were there. He always had the interest of the young people at heart.
Image: A.I. du Pont and his orchestra, circa 1900. View image in the Digital Archives
Ethel Jones Hayward discusses funerals and wakes
In this clip, she remembers details concerning local deaths, including how a death would provide a peculiar opportunity for a little competition among the neighborhood children.
Hayward: Well, the one thing I remember that isn't done now, when a person died in the home, of course the under- taker was sent for, and they placed what they called a crepe on the door.
Myers: What did that look like?
Hayward: Well, it was usually made of wide ribbon and formed in a rosette and for the elderly people, it was always black, and for a middle-aged person, around fifty or sixty, it would be a very lovely shade of orchid would hang. So you would know that it wasn't an old person. Now a young person always had white. When my sister passed away, she had a little white crepe that was hung by the side of the door. So anyone passing knew that in that home there lay someone deceased, because the body was not taken from home until it was taken for burial, as a rule, in that time.
Myers: So there was no embalming, no embalming?
Hayward: We had no funeral parlors, no, the type of embalming they did in those days, they would bring in sort of a tank and it was strange, very few people had refrigerators, and so when the ice wagon came, we knew that somebody, perhaps had died in the community. So right away, and when we saw that ice wagon, well the children that happened to be around, they would see it, we'd immediately get together and as a group, we'd follow that ice wagon to the home.
Myers: To the home.
Hayward: And of course we realized that someone had passed away and we'd linger around to find out whether it was grandmother or some aunt, and then, of course, when the crepe went up on the door, well we had a little, some idea who it was. And sometimes I guess we were bold enough to go up to the door and ask, you know, because then we wanted to be the first to go through the community and announce who had died. That's what we often did.
Myers: And they put the body on ice?
Hayward: Yes, they would, as far as we knew, how I happened to know as much about that, our house the C.I.D. then, there were two families lived in it, and the family next door to us, the very nice, the family was called Dougherty, and he was a very nice man, but he was much older than my Father. In fact, all of his children were grown up when we moved there, but he was a very nice man and he passed away and of course, you know, it was so close to us we couldn't help seeing this large container that was brought in. It was really the shape of the coffin and then it wasn't very long until the ice wagon arrived and delivered these large cakes of ice. And that was put in there and then the, I guess it was a box of some sort that the body was placed in, and it was kept that way. You know, they brought ice almost every day, and the only thing...
Myers: A lot of ice, a lot of ice.
Hayward: Yes, a lot of ice. And we...
Myers: In big chunks, you mean?
Hayward: Oh yes, big blocks, huge blocks of it that they put in there. I don't think they kept the body quite as long as they are able to keep it now, with the body being embalmed, but the bodies then were not embalmed and of course the funeral service was usually in the home or taken to the church. Many of our Catholic friends had their funerals in the church, and sometimes the protestants did too, but very often the service was right in the home.
Image: Charles I. du Pont house where Hayward lived, 1920. View image in the Digital Archives