The Brandywine Valley Oral History collection offers a wealth of material on the working lives of residents at the turn of the twentieth century.
While there are some accounts of men who worked directly in gunpowder production, there are also recollections of those who worked for the DuPont Company or du Pont family in other areas such as machining, electrical engineering, farming, chemistry, sales, office work, and keg production. Many of those interviewed were children when the powder yards were still operating, and they offered secondhand accounts of the work of their parents and grandparents. Some interviews address the job opportunities brought about by the First World War. Many others detail the unpaid labor of women running households without electricity or indoor plumbing.
Interviewers also asked questions relating to the interviewees' later careers beyond the Brandywine, resulting in discussions on a variety of professions. The series of clips below is a small sample of the many interviews relating to labor in the oral history collection.
Edward Bader builds a gasoline locomotive
After hearing about an opening for a machinist at the DuPont powder yards in 1894, Edward L. Bader, a Wilmington native born in 1872, met with Francis Gurney du Pont about the job. Although du Pont stated that more than fifty men had inquired about the position, he decided to hire Bader, telling him, "I like your face better than any man that's been here."
As a machinist, Bader often worked to implement mill improvements designed by A.I. du Pont. In this clip, he describes one such project - an experimental gasoline engine - while looking at a Pierre Gentieu photograph, seen at right.
Interviewer: ...we might put it back in the yards, it'd be the narrow gauge tracks on which these carts were pushed or hauled. Do you happen to know when that was put in. It was here when you came I suppose.
Bader: It was here when I came... I don't think they ever did away with it.
Interviewer: I brought some old photographs I thought might stir your memory on some things.
Bader: I built a gasoline locomotive. I built the gasoline locomotive. That was Alfred I.'s idea. I built it and operated it, and then went up through the Yards with it. We didn't have track enough to go everywhere. Now, there was one I had made, off of that. [...] getting any better.
Interviewer: Looks like a rainy day, doesn't it?
Bader: [..it's] wet and rainy. [?] fella by the name of Gentieu.
Interviewer: Oh, Pierre Gentieu.
Bader: Yea, he's the man that took that. [inaudible]
Interviewer: We have a number of copies of photographs he made.
Bader:[...inaudible] that's the locomotive.
Interviewer: Yes, we have a copy of that one.
Interviewer: Is this you here?
Bader: No that's me inside. I was the engineer. This was the boss machinist, that was Maloney I thought he was talking about. He was the boss [blacksmith?].
Interviewer: Mike Maloney is on the left in this picture. You're in Alfred's car, the engineer. Who is the man in the derby?
Bader: That's an expert he brought here from New York. He didn't know a damn thing about it.
Interviewer: Who's the man on the right hand side leaning against the engine?
Bader: You might have known him. His name is William Houston. He lived on king street for a quite [..] years. Boss Machinist. He come there about 1904 and got out about 1933...
Interviewer: What happened to this engine, did they use it?
Bader: No, no. It weighed eleven tons. It had two thousand pounds of water. See the water sink...
Interviewer: Water jackets, mm-hm.
Bader: That's the cow catcher.
Interviewer: What cows were you planning on catching with that?
Bader: Well we caught a man standing on here one day. On this step..damn near killed em. He went in to feed a tree...
Interviewer: They used to run through the yard, huh?
Interviewer: Now the point of this was to pull what? To pull the...
Bader: To pull the powder cars instead of horses
Interviewer: Did they ever really use it?
Bader: No, they kept trying to testing it.
Interviewer: You mean powder cars such as this?
Interviewer: Not the big freight cars?
Bader: Oh yea, the big freight cars. They had three horses on the big freight cars. That is the big cars at the packing house.
Interviewer: And you say it was found.. why wasn't it continued.
Bader: I don't know why they ever abandoned it, they let it lay..
Interviewer: The idea was to replace this, replace horsepower with this. Get rid of the horses.
Bader: We pulled five ton up a two percent incline with snow on the ground. Alfred was on it. And we broke the time[?] shaft. Do you know what the time shaft is? The shaft that has all the valves on it. Has cams on it, works the valves. We broke that. Alfred says to me, "What are you going to do with it?" I sws, "I'm going to fit a new one in there.” He said, “Do you think it will work?" Well, I didn't think anything about that, you know, but when he said that to me, that put me on my guard. But I took it out and I struck a line all the way across it, you see, and they marked every one of them and they numbered every one of them down on a piece of paper, all the data I could get. And I built that thing just as I prescribed, you know, and put them in there, and she run. So he come along,and after we got it done he said, "Will she run?". I said, "try it." She run, and he never opened his mouth, never said a word.
Image: Gasoline traction engine with Edward Bader at controls, December 13, 1905. View image in the Digital Archives
Martin Dillon peels willows with his father
He and his father would purchase willow wood from farms and a clay yard near Hockessin, Delaware. They would then remove the bark, dry it, and then deliver the peeled willows on a hay wagon to the powder yards where they were used to produce charcoal, a primary ingredient in black powder. For a cord (128 cubic feet) of peeled willows, the company would pay $7.50.
In this clip, Dillon describes using his hands and then a corn husking peg to peel a piece of willow wood.
Scafidi: Did you peel willows yourself?
Dillon: Many a time.
Scafidi: How do you do it?
Dillon: You do it with a husking peg, like corn, that's how you get the bark started. You use your fingers until they got so sore you couldn't do that then you'd get the husking peg. You'd break it loose and if it was peeling good the peel wouldn't even stick--it was all right then but when you're pinching just a little at a time, that's when to quit.
Pizor: How long would it take you to peel a piece of willow piled about 2 or 3 feet high?
Dillon: Less than a minute. If it was peeling easy you could do it in less than a minute. It will run the whole length of the stick; it won't break loose.
Scafidi: Your father went out in the spring and cut these?
Dillon: We peeled them the day we cut them. Then we threw them on the pile to let them dry. Then you would load the wood, and bring them down here.
Scafidi: Was this known pretty much around that you could sell willow?
Dillon: Oh yeah. Up around where I was, there was more of them done it. All the fellows are dead who did do it. Dan McCurran, [?] Pyle, Herman Marvel, some more. Some of the farmers, too, individually. They would cut them and bring them in here anyway. They would buy them off anybody.
Image: Martin Dillon's father with empty willow wagon, circa 1900. (Hagley ID: 1969118_001)
Walter Aurand “perfects” tracer bullets for DuPont
A Wilmington native born in 1891, Walter Aurand helped to pay for his chemistry degree at the University of Delaware by working as a college sports reporter and performing chemical analysis for his fellow students. From 1915 to 1917, Aurand ran a laboratory at the DuPont Experimental Station, where his primary project was "perfecting" tracer bullets for use in airplanes during World War I.
In this clip, he describes the difficulties of the project and how a solution unexpectedly came to him during the middle of the night.
Interviewer: You were working in the Experimental Station, so did you wear lab coats?
Aurand: Just to...I went in the lab...I had my own private laboratory on the second floor. And I just went in in my working clothes. That's when they put me to work on perfecting tracer bullets. Well I had nothing to go on...to start with on tracer bullets. The only thing I could start with, I mean I thought I could start with, was either Red Fire that you use in parades, or Roman Candles. And that was where I started. And from that I experimented with different things to try to get this bullet, because they told me they needed the bullet for airplane work, because every tenth bullet in a plane was a tracer. So the man who was guiding those bullets could watch where they went. Well the first ones I made were red. And they were a failure, for the simple reason that it exposed the muzzle of the rifle and do everything, and I couldn't control them. I tried to control them with certain kinds of grease, and I couldn't do a thing with them. And we lived on West 8th Street in Wilmington, Delaware. And one night I give a leap out of bed, and my wife says, "What's the matter with you?" And I said, "Something just came to me." And I jotted down on a piece of paper, went in the next day and started. And inside of six weeks I went to Pompton Lakes, New Jersey and took a crew from the Experimental Station. Oh about 10 men. And went to work and started manufacturing tracer bullets out in Pompton Lakes, New Jersey.
Interviewer: That's fascinating. How it came to you.
Aurand: It's a fascinating story. Well, when you're studying experiments, your mind is functioning all the time. You're after something. And this thing came to me. And that bullet was so intense, that I could shoot it straight at the sun and you could see it. But it was a dangerous bullet.
Image: Testing area for powder at DuPont Experimental Sation, circa 1915. View image in the Digital Archives
W.F. Lynch manages unruly pipefitters
Born in 1864, William Frederick Lynch, the grandson of Irish and English immigrants, began working for DuPont at a young age, having worked previously in plumbing. At Hagley, he was the boss plumber for the powder yards, running a crew of pipefitters that typically consisted of about six men.
In his interview, Lynch gives his perspective as a manager. In this clip, he recalls how he and the local priest once ensured that the crew worked "double time" after they caught two men stretching the truth about their mass attendance on a Sunday.
Interviewer: How many men were in the plumbing gang, that you were [inaudible].
Lynch: Well, that varied. I had, as a rule, until the war broke out, about six men. Six men.
Interviewer: Were you boss plumber immediately when you went in? Or did you slowly work up to that?
Lynch: I was boss plumber.
Interviewer: You were boss plumber from the beginning. Can you recall the names of any of those men...
Lynch: Why yes, the first man I hired was a fellow by the name of Thomas Beatty, and he was the last man I fired when they dissolved... well, anyhow, they were this Pete Kimbiter, son of this old fellow down there, and Louis Hardwick, and then George Cochran, a very fine mechanic, (and) "Chippy" Glasgow. He was a town boy. Then, of course, later on, as the war broke out, why maybe I had 25 or 30 men all the time.
Interviewer: How were your working conditions for these fellows? Did you get along well with them?
Lynch: I had no trouble at all with the men. I was the boss, and they knew I was Irish, and that settled it. [...] Du Pont never worked Sundays,[...] but we worked all day Saturday, occasionally 'til midnight. But only the rolling mills, the wheel mills worked day and night. The press rooms and the corning mills didn't work after a certain hour in the day. They had a certain amount to do and when they were through, why they were through. But, if we had any important work to do I had to make preparations for weeks ahead. I had all the material on hand, the piping and everything, and the excavating all done. (I'd say I had eight or ten laborers [?]) I had a fellow by the name of John Maranco. He was [...] He was the "bigga-de-boy", and I told him - "Now, here...everything's all set. we have everything, the fire pot, and everything ready...pitch right into it. Shut the head gates down if necessary. Go across the [...] (we) notified all the people the day before that at certain times there would be no water. So, uh, had the main shut off. Well, I told him Saturday - "Now, go to mass. They all went to St. Joseph's Catholic Church. Be here just as soon as you possibly can." Well, they did, they were pretty good. I only had trouble with two fellows, little Jimmy McLaughlin, an apprentice boy, and that young Jimmy Boner. Them devils, they lied to me and they said that they went to St. Anns, well, I Come to find out when Father Scott got after me about them missing mass. I told him, I said, "They're damn liars." I had no trouble after he got after them. He gave them the devil. I said, "Now, here, men - finish, double time, and go home." Boy, they worked like the devil. Double time on Sunday you see, I had no trouble. They’d do anything for me up there. Every one got treated alike. I showed no partiality between any of them.
Interviewer: Now how many hours a day? Ten, eleven hours a day?
Lynch: Ten hours a day.
Interviewer: And whatever was needed on Sunday. On emergency
Lynch: That was very seldom, - very seldom. But the wheel mills ran up until 12 o'clock at night.
Image: W.F. Lynch (with mustache) with his group of pipefitters, December 16, 1905. View image in the Digital Archives
Helen Edwards joins the ballistite "Bloomer Girls"
Born in 1900, Helen Edwards attended Beacom Business College (later Goldey-Beacom College) in Wilmington but soon after realized she disliked office work. When a friend told her about jobs available for women in the DuPont powder yards during World War I, she jumped at the prospect of better pay and more exciting work.
During her time as a "Bloomer Girl" - so-called for the work pants she had to wear - Edwards worked in the black powder pellet house on the "black powder side" as well as with smokeless propellants on the "ballistite side."
In this clip, she describes assembling the ballistite rings and canisters and details an instance when her coworker Elsie found herself in a predicament during a particularly slow day on the job.
Edwards: ...but there was a government inspector that liked us - after we was over on the ballistite side - there was only six girls allowed in each little house, twelve by twelve they were. And there we was making powder rings, they were about so big and and there was these two women sewing them up together. And this ballistite did not explode, it just flared, and they sewed these rings together and then we had a long - two girls had a long stick that they - the place where it was measured, had to run them down on this stick, and if they were the right size, then they laid them aside. And so many of them was packed in a can, a small can, and then after there was twenty-four of them, 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.
Image: Woman filling silk bag with propellant for 3-inch Stokes Trench Mortar, 1918. View image in the Digital Archives
Anthony W. Grieco in the keg mill during World War I
Anthony W. Grieco was born in 1900 to Italian immigrants living in northeastern Maryland. At the age of sixteen, he and his older brother, Jack, left home to find work in Wilmington to help support their parents and ten younger siblings. They rented a room in Mrs. Jackson's boarding house on West 7th Street in Wilmington and commuted to the DuPont powder yards on the trolley.
In this clip, Grieco describes the work he did on the "three to eleven" shift soldering the tops and bottoms of zinc cans in the Henry Clay keg mill, which he calls the box shop.
Scott: Okay, you were in the old mill building?
Scott: Okay, what did you call that building in those days?
Grieco: I don't know what - Box Shop the way I figure it.
Scott: The Box Shop.
Grieco: Yeah, where they soldered zinc cans.
Scott: M-huh, and that was B-O-X Shop?
Grieco: Yeah, well - tops and you soldered the tops and the bottoms and the tops. I forgot where I left off. Anyhow, I went from there, from sorting out those tops for zinc cans, I went upstairs, up on the top floor. That's the top floor that goes, the ramp goes even with the bank where they had a ramp, and I went soldering, soldering the bottoms and the top. First we had gas stoves for starting our irons, then later on we had electric and we put them off - and it was piece work. We'd get $28.00 about every two weeks - I think that's what it was, about $28.00.
Scott: Every two weeks?
Grieco: Every two weeks, I think it was eight cents a can, soldering the bottom and the top.
Scott: And they paid you eight cents a can to solder the bottom and the top?
Grieco: And the top. Then, after we soldered them, they would take them down to a big tub - oh great big tub full of water, and the wooden tops, air tight, and the guys over there would put air pressure on them and see if they would leak, and if that leaked, it went on back to - on the tables where we were soldering, it had our numbers on them, and we had to re-solder it and re-solder that leak. And that went on like that for, well I think about a year anyhow.
Image: Metal keg mill workers, circa 1900. View image in the Digital Archives
Les Mathewson’s father and A.I. du Pont
Born in 1895, F.L. "Les" Mathewson grew up on Breck's Lane in a family of DuPont workers. His grandfather, Gilbert Mathewson, was foreman of the cooper shop while his father, Thomas Walker Mathewson, worked closely with A.I. du Pont on electrical work, becoming the manager of the DuPont Engineering Department.
According to Les Mathewson, his father and A.I. du Pont built the hydroelectric plant in the powder yards, and they installed electricity in A.I. du Pont's Swamp Hall residence as well as the Mathewsons' Breck's Lane home.
In this clip, Les Mathewson details how his father first trained as a machinist and then taught himself electrical engineering with some special assistance from his friend A.I.
Mathewson: My father was a machinist. He learned his trade at the Trump Brothers Machine Shop...I don't know if it was Trump or Remington. He worked at both places, but I don't remember which one he learned his trade at. He had finished his trade when Alfred I. went to M.I.T., and as Alfred I. would get through with his books he'd send them home to my father. Consequently, when Alfred I. became an electrical engineer, my father did, too, and a much better one, as I understand, according to Alfred I., than he was, but my dad never had a degree. Alfred I. got his. From then on my father gave up machine work and went into electrical work; he was head of the electrical department at Hagley Yard here from then until 1910 when he left there and went with Alfred I. personally.
Wilkinson: Was there any thought of your father becoming a powderman? How did your father get into the machinist and electrical part instead of following what his father had done?
Mathewson: He was a natural born mechanic and mathematician. He never went past the 8th grade in school, but I don't think there was any problem he couldn't work out in mathematics. He got a lot of knowledge from the books that Alfred I. sent to him.
Image: Hydroelectric Plant in Hagley Yard, 1903. View image in the Digital Archives
Mary Braden Jackson’s stepmother’s weekly routine
Born in 1895, Ms. Jackson grew up in the Brandywine sections known locally as Chicken Alley, Long Row, and Squirrel Run. After her mother's death in 1897, her father, who had six children, remarried a woman with three children of her own.
In her interviews, Jackson describes the physically-demanding nature of her stepmother’s work running their large household, mentioning that her stepmother often got up at four in the morning to start heating the Harvest Home stove for their breakfast.
In this clip, Jackson describes laundry - a weekly task requiring two full days for her stepmother to complete.
Jackson: But those irons were heated on the cook stove and no matter how hot the day was, that stove had to be red hot so it must have been uncomfortable ironing with the heat and no fans, no nothing, nothing like that.
Julian: And all those starched petticoats.
Jackson: We lived through it. We used to iron, sometimes Mother ironed until supper time and then after supper some of the older girls then would iron until eight and nine o'clock. With eight children, and everybody had two petticoats and change of underwear and ironing the pillowcases and the towels — almost everything was ironed. Of course now there wasn't so many Turkish towels, what we used then was what they called roller towels and that was like - it wasn't linen, but it was something like linen, and it went all around. You just kept using that until the last bit of it was soiled and then that was changed and another one put up, but every bit of that towel had to be pulled down and used - roller towel.
Now of course upstairs, I don't know whether you were going to ask these questions or not, upstairs we had the pitcher and basin and the slop bowl. Now the pitcher and basin, Mother always kept the pitcher full of water and we had the basin, and in the morning we could wash upstairs in the basin, and then later on Mother would go up, empty the soiled water into the slop jar and then she'd empty all the slop jars and carry it down to the outhouse. We had an outhouse. Boy how did they live through it? But they did.
Julian: It's a lot of work. This is the reason we feel we have a real challenge. We have to figure out a way to do some of this work and make it so the volunteers will want to do it.
Jackson: No electric of any kind, just swept with a broom.
Hanrahan: On a weekly basis, did you have, say you said you did your wash on Monday or Tuesday.
Jackson: Monday or Tuesday, the early part.
Hanrahan: And then maybe Wednesday you would do ironing. Did you have a baking day or a day for cleaning the house?
Jackson: Yes, yes Mother baked on Wednesday or Thursday, mostly Wednesday. She baked twice a week, on Wednesday and Saturday, or sometimes Friday — if she baked earlier, she baked on Tuesday — two times a week she baked and that would be about thirty-five loaves.
Julian: Oh my goodness.
Jackson: Fifteen loaves - twelve or thirteen loaves each.
Image: Harvest Home stove from 1899 trade catalog. (Hagley Published Collections ID: 08060971)
Edward Devenney's machine shop apprenticeship
Edward Devenney was born in 1897 in Henry Clay as the oldest child of Thomas and Annie Devenney. His father, an Irish immigrant, worked for a time in the DuPont saltpeter refinery before joining Joseph Bancroft and Company. His mother, an English immigrant, raised Edward and his eight siblings. In 1914, his uncle, a DuPont teamster, secured Devenney an apprenticeship in the machine shop at Hagley. He completed a four-year apprenticeship but lost his job at the end of the First World War.
In this clip, he remembers how the pay scale for apprentices compared to the one for full machinists.
Devenney: See, I built black powder machinery and I don't know [Laughter] them that way.
Bond: Where did you work - in the machine shop at the mills?
Devenney: Yeah. Right there at Hagley Mill - Hagley Shop - that big shop - the old machine shop.
Bond: A lot of that is the Hall of Records now?
Devenney: No. That's up in Barley Mill Lane. This is down right close to the creek. Great big beautiful stone. Oh, boy. Beautiful shop. Plenty of room in it and everything. Oh, yeah.
Bond: How long did you work there?
Devenney: I started there, I'd say 1914. To serve my trade, and I served that all through the First World War. Yeah. I got six cents an hour, ten hours a day. But, it was, of course every six months, I got two cents raise. I was serving an apprenticeship, see. When they mean apprenticeship, they mean you learn by working! Those machinists you worked with they saw to it that you behaved yourself, too.
Bond: How long an apprenticeship did you serve?
Devenney: Four full years. They kept you to your word. Yeah.
Bond: Did you have to sign an agreement that you'd stay four years?
Devenney: No, I didn't sign anything. You agreed when you took the job - when your father signed. I don't remember whether my father signed a paper or not. But I got the job because my Uncle Bob who was a teamster - he drove teams up there, you know. He got the job for me. See, most of these Irish sons that you find living up at Squirrel Run - all over - would serve in trade - carpenters, electricians - you could learn anything up there, You know. Yeah.
Bond: Once you served your apprenticeship, you started out making six cents an hour and you got a two cent raise.
Devenney: That was the first day you started you got six cents an hour. Ten hours a day.
Bond: Once you finished the apprenticeship, then did you get a big raise. In pay?
Devenney: Nope. No, if you stayed on, you got the minimum or maximum wage at that time. See, I quit during the War - was dismissed. I made up - let's see. The wage at that time - a full-fledged machinist - that's when you're finished at the end of four years - I got 78 cents an hour. The top going was 80 cents.
Bond: You worked there in the machine shop at the powder mills for a long time.
Devenney: Yeah - my whole trade all the way through.
Bond: And then, where did you work after the powder mill. Did you work until the powder mills closed?
Devenney: That's right, I did. I was laid off.
Image: Man working in New Machine Shop in Hagley Yard, 1910. View image in the Digital Archives