The DuPont Story (1950) (5:44–6:09): It all began here, near the River Brandywine, a few miles from the present DuPont building. This stone building, overgrown with foliage today, was the first office. And here was the first permanent home in America of the man whose name the DuPont company now bears so proudly. These were the first DuPont mills. The historic River Brandywine applied the powers to turn their wheels.
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 got to know the people who lived in the villages surrounding the original DuPont powderyards on the banks of the Brandywine. These families relied on the jobs that DuPont provided: making explosives, hauling gunpowder, shipping the finished products overseas to fight the First World War.
BEN: But these communities were living on borrowed time. The war had kept this old factory running longer than anyone had expected. In the meantime, DuPont had built more modern plants elsewhere, and was beginning to diversify beyond explosives. Making everything from dyes to plastics to textiles like nylon, it was starting to become the chemical company that we recognize today.
A New World Through Chemistry (1939) (10:41–11:01): This is marketable nylon yarn, the wonder creation of modern science, stronger and more elastic than any textile hitherto spun by nature or by man.
A New World Through Chemistry (1939) (12:13–13:13): Miss Gloria Glamour thrills to the ultimate in hosiery, a chemical miracle in which coal, air, and water are converted into a fabric as intangible as moonbeams and finer than the fiber of a butterfly’s cocoon. Everything she has on is made of nylon, the fabric of the future derived from coal. Did we hear someone say, “Hadn’t you better put on a little more coal my dear?” From underwear to slippers, her entire wardrobe is fabricated from the same fine yarn used in nylon hosiery. Moth-proof and resistant to wear, pleasing to the touch, even this airy blue gown may be washed in soap and water. And, wonder of wonders, it will dry out as smooth as though pressed. Behold, then, the maid, chemically garbed—even her jewel-like necklace from the same substance as her satin-like slippers. Garments seen and unseen, from head to toe, a synthetic symphony from DuPont’s magic pile of coal.
AMRYS: DuPont’s new activities would mean huge changes for the folks whose lives revolved around the Brandywine works. Hagley Historian Lucas Clawson explains.
Lucas Clawson: They knew that it was not a viable factory and they were trying to sort out what to do with it when WWI Began. It was definitely on the chopping block, but at that point they had no definite plans. Part of the expansion program you see in the early twentieth century is letting go of factories that don’t work. You see them get rid of a lot of properties that are no longer useful, shut down capacity that’s no longer useful. You see a big business of creating efficiencies… The last saving grace was WWI, they needed all of that capacity so they kept it in operation until everything was done.
BEN: But it wasn’t just the war that had kept the powderyards going. It was also a sense of history.
Clawson: So with DuPont too, a lot of it’s the heart strings, they know this is where it started, so a lot of the family—the du Pont family were still the ones that ran the business at this point—that’s us, that’s our home, that’s where we came from. So keeping it running a long for a little while longer than it really should have I think is part of that too, just the whole mentality of it. Loyalty to your place, loyalty to your people. A lot of people that lived in the adjacent communities are people that had worked in the communities for a long time… All these homes that are right here that they still live in. All these folks, they get out of bed every morning, they look out the door and they’re looking at the powderyards which are their family, and homes that had been in their family in some cases since 1802.
AMRYS: The end of World War I spelled an uncertain future for this historic place and the people who lived and worked on the Brandywine. For our last episode in this series, we’ll ask: What would be their fate in the wake of war?
MUSIC: Stars and Stripes Forever
Helen 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?"
BEN: When the Armistice was signed, Helen Edwards and the other bloomer girls joined the throngs of people gathering in Wilmington for a celebratory parade.
Edwards: 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.
Edwards: And I was one of the last that was left at the plant after the Armistice was signed, they kept us on until January - why I don't know, I didn't never stood in with any of the bosses or any of them, maybe my work was better than some of them and I was there until January that year - the next year it was, after the Armistice.
Wagner: That would be 1919?
Clawson: One of the things that comes out of WWI is that a lot of the people that got hired were able to stay on. The end run for the Brandywine Works is that once WWI was done, it’s only a matter of time. By 1921, that’s it. A lot of the women that got bought on they ended up either getting transferred to other jobs like working in the buildings in downtown Wilmington or other factories. That’s not just with the Brandywine Works there are other plants as well. It’s not “O.K., the war is over, we’re locking the doors, you’re all out of a job, go home.” But DuPont was able to keep a lot of people in work when the war’s done in part because of how they structured what they did in the run up to the war and during the war.
BEN: All the same, the end of the war brought new challenges to the workers’ communities. As production decreased, many people had to find other jobs. And when the gates closed for good in 1921, the families who lived and worked near the powderyards pursued new opportunities beyond the banks of the Brandywine.
AMRYS: Some, like Mary Hazzard Collins, who had found upward mobility through her job as a foreman, stayed with DuPont. She became an elevator operator in the company’s downtown headquarters.
Mary Hazzard Collins: Then I heard that they were going to employ girls at the DuPont Building for elevator operators and my cousin begged me to go but I was afraid of the elevator but I finally decided I would go and I went and I was there for 28 years.
Ward: Now, where was this, which building was this?
Collins: 10th and Market. The first DuPont Bldg.
Ward: You mentioned that you had been afraid of the elevators but not afraid to go to the magazine.
Collins: Well, I'll tell you. My mother used to send me in one of the buildings to pay insurance and every time I was all right going up but when I'd come down I'd hold my stomach as though everything was coming out of me. And that's why I was afraid of the elevators. Finally, my cousin trained me and told me not to be afraid going up and down.
BEN: Just as she had done in the powderyards, Mary quickly moved into a supervisory role. She became an elevator starter, the person who dispatched the elevators as they loaded up at busy times. She got to know all the company bigwigs.
Collins: I soon got used to it and then later on I was made a starter and I came in contact with everyone that used the elevators on the 10th St. side.
Ward: Do you remember any people that you met while you were working in the elevator there at 10th and Market?
Collins: I met Mr. Lammot du Pont and Mr. Irénee; they knew me and Mr. Frank du Pont. He's the one who died, didn't he? That was T. Coleman's son. And oh, at Christmas time they'd always give me a nice gift of money.
BEN: There was money to be made beyond DuPont’s Wilmington headquarters, too. The company was modernizing and changing, putting more effort into research and development.
A New World Through Chemistry (1939) (16:50–17:07): The brains of American scientists, who in the brief period between 1914 and the present, have brought America’s scientific achievements from second place, trailing Europe, to first place leading the world, a position it not likely soon or ever to relinquish.
Clawson: If I had to make one statement about DuPont and WWI it would be that the DuPont Company we’ve all come to know and love is a product of WWI. The chemicals giant, the materials giant, the company that we are all familiar with as DuPont, that is as a result of the First World War.
AMRYS: This was good news for some workers. DuPont’s growth could be a ticket to a wider world. Our poet, Edward B. Cheney, continued to follow DuPont where it assigned him, moving his growing family around Delaware, Virginia, and New Jersey. He left DuPont briefly, but ended up returning to the company because the hours were so good.
Edward Cheney: Then the war ended. And they formed the DuPont Chemical Company to sell all the machinery and plant sites. ...my boss came in one day. His name was Rockefeller, chief clerk of the chemical company, and a good one. He said I had been transferred to assistant to him. He said, "well, I got my notice." Things were getting bad, about 1921, so I thought this brilliant fellow is going to be let out and he had nearly as much service as I did. I wonder what will happen to me? They transferred me over into another department of the chemical company, which was still working finishing up the odds and ends. But finally I got my notice.... I had a year and it wouldn't break my record. So I went and got a job with H. A. Stone and Company, bankers, and sold stock around Wilmington and in the country. The first month I made $395. That was a good salary then. This was 1921.
I sold stock for six months but it required such long hours and I had a large family. Also the rent was very high over there and my wife's people came from New Jersey. Finally her father and mother moved to Ohio, but we liked it over there in New Jersey and we knew all those people. So I went back to Carney's Point to the ballistics range and stayed on ballistics for several years.
BEN: Edward ended up staying with DuPont until he retired. He wasn’t alone—lots of people got jobs with DuPont in the decades after the war, finding opportunity on this modern chemical frontier.
A New World Through Chemistry (1939) (19:00–19:32): The achievement of DuPont chemists working with nature’s own forces and materials to produce by design what nature has failed to produce in all the chancy progress of millions of years of evolution, cumulatively enforcing the DuPont slogan for its 55,000 employees, “Better things for better living through chemistry.”
AMRYS: But as people got jobs away from the Brandywine, the villages that had sustained community life began to change.
Clawson: A lot of them, from what I can tell, a lot of them start going in the 20s and 30s, some of them stick around even a little later that. A lot of them, they need opportunity and go somewhere else, now that the factory is gone. It got to the point where I think a lot of the people who lived in these adjacent communities didn’t even work in the Brandywine Works. It was just the place that their family lived, so they’re here. You’ve also got places like Walker’s Banks, you know, over by Walker’s Mill which has that long run of people, it’s that same kind of thing, that’s where your family had lived for a long while so that’s where you are. You know, as the leases come up or people die, move on, the communities eventually fade. Also the fact the the du Pont family purchased up a lot of the property too. It goes from being part of the factory, part of these communities to private estates. A lot of the homes which were worker’s home are now part of, or became part of a lot of these estates.
BEN: Harvey Fell, who had worked as a wagon driver while he was in college, was able to stick around after he finished his veterinary degree, caring for the du Pont family’s animals. But he saw many longtime residents who didn’t know what to do once the powderyards closed.
Scafidi: I'd like to know what people did who worked here when the end came.
Harvey Fell: Well, I guess just faded away. Some of them just stayed here - they belonged here -and there was some talk of what was going to happen to them when they started remodeling some of the houses down at Henry Clay where some of the mill workers lived. I think a good many of them were taken in by members of the family. I think S. Hallock du Pont probably took in quite a few of them who had lived in Squirrel Run, found something for them to do, because he took in that lower section of the yard you know, and most of them - you've run across a lot of them - are still around this neighborhood. If it's home to you, you stay there because most of those people were deep-rooted right here. They weren't travelers who just went from place to place. They didn't know any place else.
AMRYS: Helen Edwards and the other bloomer girls had always lived in Wilmington, so their transition to new jobs was a bit easier.
Edwards: Well, after the powder plant closed down, I went to work at Candyland, that was next door to Docksteader's. I was - the people's name was Williams that owned the candy store there and they made all their own candy and the girl that got stuck in the chute there at the powder plant was a chocolate dipper and we used to pack candy in the boxes, they made their own candy. And then I'd go out and work in the ice cream parlor too.
Wagner: Govatos was there at the same time Williams were there?
Edwards: Yes, and these people were Greek, and they used to always celebrate all the girls that worked for them's birthday and they would cook it downstairs in the basement where they made their candy and they'd borrow from Govatos - tablecloths and silverware and china for our dinner - they'd always give us a dinner. They were very nice people to work with. They closed up, they're not there anymore either. Now what happened to them, whether they went back to Greece or not. I can remember one of the men that worked there, candy maker, his name was Alec, but I cannot pronounce his last name. He had a case on me and wanted to marry me and take me back to Greece and I said "No way."
Wagner: Did you work after you and your husband went to Philadelphia?
Edwards: We went to Upland, Chester, it's near Chester. Yes, I worked at Visco's, that's where I met my husband in Visco's, he was my boss. And I worked at Visco's, I went to work there in 1921, I worked there until I was married, well I worked nine months after I was married and I decided I didn't want to work any more, so we had bought a house and I wanted to be a housekeeper. And my daughter wasn't born until I was married ten years, and I only have one.
BEN: Many of the folks who had lived on the Brandywine for generations moved together to new places so they could help each other out. A number of Italian families found work growing and harvesting mushrooms just over the Pennsylvania border. Vera Marenco and her family established themselves as mushroom growers in their own right, exchanging their factory jobs for lives as farmers.
Bond: Did a lot of people move from Squirrel Run up here in Pennsylvania?
Vera Marenco: Yes they did, yeah, up in Kennett Square. We was from New Garden, but a lot of them moved up in Kennett Square.
Bond: Why did they move up here?
Marenco: Went into the mushroom business, everyone went in the mushroom business.
Bond: All the Italians. Why did the Italian people go into the mushroom business?
Marenco: I remember Joe Pacey was the first one that came up in here, you know, in Kennett Square. I guess people went to visit him, they got to talking, you know this place is for sale, that place is for sale, and that's how each one got up here. And some here in Avondale.
Bond: Was this about the time that the Du Pont Powder Mill shut down? You see they closed down in 1921.
Marenco: I think so, yeah because we moved up here in 1925, so that's right, was around that time, must have been. That could have been one of the reasons a lot of people went up. Most came up around '25, '27, '26, like that, that year.
AMRYS: But it could be hard getting started in a new line of work—especially as the country plunged into the Depression. Rocco and Margaret Perrone struggled to make ends meet.
Rocco Perrone: I'm going to tell you a story. It was 1920 — must have been '24 because in '25 we went up New Garden...
Margaret Perrone: Roc, you get mixed up — we came to Kennett in 1932.
R. Perrone: Thirty—two?... I'm saying - we were there in line, there was about 500 men looking for work, things were slow.
M. Perrone: Oh, things were bad. This was in the...
R. Perrone: So they hired three men, I happened to be amongst one of the three, so they sent me down — oh what's the hospital on the end of Market Street, you go over that way?
Frazier: State Hospital. Yes, Farnhurst.
R. Perrone: Alright — I went there to do some work. I was working up 'til twelve o'clock, I went for lunch, when I came back, my tools were gone, somebody stole my tools. I went to the boss, I said, "Look, I can't work, I can't afford to buy tools." So I quit, and that's what made my decide to come up here, in the mushroom business.
Frazier: Oh, you stopped being a carpenter, and became a farmer?
R. Perrone: I became a farmer for a little while. I was working from — well around December I'd be done working outside...
M. Perrone: Even before that, Roc.
R. Perrone: Then I started to work inside the mushroom houses, I worked through May or June, then I go out again.
M. Perrone: Then he'd go out, so he was carpenter one time, mushroom over the next time, like that. Back and forth. But we didn't make the money in the mushrooms like most of them did. Because they came earlier, they came in the late twenties, but we came afterwards in '32 so when we, our first crop that we grew, we made twenty—three cents a basket.
R. Perrone: We averaged 23¢ for a 3-pound basket. Imagine that. You can't grow them for that.
M. Perrone: We lost.
R. Perrone: So I lost money that year. I lost all of what I had saved up.
M. Perrone: So then he tried again, he tried again, he had to borrow some more money and tried again, but we just didn't have the luck.
BEN: Eventually, the Perrones did get back on their feet, and established themselves as mushroom growers. Their grandchildren are now leaders in the mushroom industry in a place that produces about two thirds of the mushrooms grown in the United States.
MUSIC: The Zeppelin
AMRYS: Even for people like Helen, whose lives were not as rooted along the Brandywine as those who had been there for generations, the wartime powderyards remained a transformative place.
Vadnais: So when you think back on it, what did you enjoy the most about that, about that year you spent - what sticks out in your mind?
Edwards: Interesting work, I think.
Vadnais: It was different, wasn't it?
Edwards: Yeah - I liked it better than office work.
Vadnais: What did you like the least about it?
Edwards: I don't know there's anything.
Vadnais: You really enjoyed it?
Vadnais: Were you sorry that you didn't work there anymore - I mean you were glad the war was over...
Edwards: I was sorry I wasn't there sooner, but of course our war didn't start that soon, you know.
WHISTLE, HAGLEY SOUNDS
BEN: After 1921, the Hagley yards stood quiet for decades. The powdermills fell into disrepair. During the Second World War, much of the metal gearing and machinery was sold for scrap. And what had been a working factory slowly transformed into a picturesque ruin.
AMRYS: In the 1950s, a group of Du Pont family members, former employees, and historians joined forces to turn the site into a museum. And to figure out how workers made explosives in the powderyards, and what life was like along the Brandywine, they started to interview people. They talked to the powdermen, and their families, and their children.
BEN: And they kept talking. Between 1954 and 1990, Hagley staff interviewed nearly 200 people who had lived and worked here. These recordings formed the basis for the Hagley Museum and its oral history collections.
AMRYS: The interviews are the reason we know so much about the daily lives of the men and women who worked in the powderyards, grew up in the workers’ villages, and spent their lives on the banks of the Brandywine. The stories of bloomer girls like Helen Edwards, longtime residents like Catherine Hackendorn Sheldrick, Italian immigrants like Rocco Perrone, industrious Wilmingtonians like Mary Hazzard Collins, and merry pranksters like John Krauss and James Cammock are with us today, even though they themselves are gone, and the places they loved have changed dramatically.
BEN: As the workers’ communities began to shrink and families moved away to new opportunities, the Brandywine Valley still retained a powerful hold on its people. Although he had moved to New Jersey, Edward Cheney returned to his home village of Squirrel Run the day the wrecking ball came for the old workers’ houses. And, as always, he wrote a poem about it.
AMRYS: His words bring us back to a place that now lives largely in memory.
Cheney: The Passing of the Village of Squirrel Run
Strange that I should return to view,
The passing of the landmarks that my boyhood knew;
As one who views the passing of a friend,
So I came one August afternoon to see the end
Of this quaint village set among the hills,
Its two main streets the banks of laughing rills.
Here once the sounds from happy children rose,
Here once bloomed geranium and rose;
And traveler passing on the hill above,
Paused to look down upon such scenes of love;
Around the doors grapevines gave restful shade,
In sunny yards stood hollyhocks arrayed.
The houses, whitewashed, glistened in the sun,
The barefoot children waded in the run;
In spring, the lilac's perfume filled the air,
The maidens wore orange blossoms in their hair;
On sheds the mottled pigeons billed and cooed,
And fowls of all descriptions roamed the wood.
Here thrifty housewives plied their skill,
The many hungry mouths to fill;
Large families of eight or ten or more,
They never turned the beggar from ‘the door;
Here tarried new arrivals from Old Erin,
Treated as guests until their living they could earn.
Here stately trees gave tranquil shade,
Old trees, kind trees, what memories they made;
Each villager cared for his with pride,
And as they grow there side by side;
They bring back thoughts of long ago,
of dear old friends I used to know.
There's Dougherty's thorn and Miller's maple,
Ward's beech, the oak near Blakely's Stable;
Our walnut tree behind the shed,
The sycamore in the streamlet's bed;
And in the churchyard on the hill
The walnut trees are bearing still.
Now all is silent in the sun,
All but the murmur of the run;
No more the children's laughter rings,
No more the watchdog at the stranger springs;
As slowly up the hill my way I wend,
I turn in sadness to say farewell to this old friend.
BEN AND AMRYS: 1918. It was an explosive time.
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 www.sessions.blue. 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, archival audio from the 1939 film A New World Through Chemistry and the 1950 film The DuPont Story, and oral history interviews with Helen Edwards, Mary Hazzard Collins, Edward B. Cheney, Harvey Fell, Vera Marenco, and Rocco and Margaret Perrone. You can listen to their full interviews, and explore the rest of the Brandywine oral history collection, at www.hagley.org/brandywineprojecthttp://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: Until next season, we hope you’ll tune in to our other podcast, Stories from the Stacks. Thanks for listening.