Exploding Popularity

Celebrating its 50th birthday, the former black powder mills we now know as Hagley Museum and Library is bigger and better than ever. It’s not just for school children anymore. And there’s plenty more on the horizon. If you haven’t been there in a while, you may be surprised.




- Advertisement -






- Partner Content -




Geoff Halfpenny, Hagley’s new executive director, says, “Our ultimate goal is to make sure that when a visitor to Wilmington gets in a taxi and says, ‘What must I see while I’m here?’ the driver says, ‘Hagley.’”
Photograph by Thom Thompson


- Advertisement -

In the epic of the du Pont family in America, Winterthur and Longwood Gardens remain colorful and compelling chapters. But the story of the DuPont Company’s industrial dominance, so closely identified with the Brandywine Valley, began in the black powder yards of what is now Hagley Museum.

Though the name exploded onto the scene with the opening of the E.I. du Pont de Nemours and Company gunpowder mills in the early 19th century, the family had much quieter pursuits in mind when it arrived here. Forced to flee the French Revolution and its aftermath, patriarch Pierre Samuel du Pont, a renowned economist who had attached “de Nemours” to the family name to designate its area of origin in a district south of Paris, had hoped to establish an agrarian community in the young United States.

Pierre’s endeavor failed to take root, but fortunately, the younger of his two sons, Eleuthèe Irénée, had brought with him the ability to manufacture gunpowder, a product that was in short supply and high demand here. E.I. sited his manufacturing facility on the Brandywine for several key reasons: An abundance of timber provided the raw material for charcoal, ingredients such as sulfur from Sicily and saltpeter from India could be shipped to the nearby Port of Philadelphia on the Delaware River, and granite for building the mills and homes for the workers could be quarried on the property. 

Of course, the most important resource was the Brandywine Creek, which drops about 600,000 tons of water from about 200 to only a few feet above sea level between Chadds Ford and Wilmington. Powered by the falling water, Eleutherian Mills, E.I. du Pont’s first manufacturing facility, began operation in 1902. When the War of 1812 brought E.I. du Pont de Nemours and Company to national prominence, it expanded onto the adjacent downstream acreage named, according to documents from the late 1700s, Hagley.

From 1813 to its closing in 1921, Hagley Yards was the foundation for a company that became the world’s largest producer of black powder. And from this mill community on the Brandywine sprang the $30 billion science and technology giant that has made DuPont a household name around the world.

For more than three decades after the mills ceased operation, Hagley remained in the possession of various members of the du Pont family. Those quiet years ended in 1952, when the DuPont Company returned to celebrate its 150th birthday.

With property donations from the family and an initial endowment from the company, the Eleutherian Mills-Hagley Foundation, Inc. was formed. Initially, the foundation had considered developing the site as a park and campground or creating an industrial version of Colonial Williamsburg, focused on the du Pont family and DuPont Company. However, few of the pre-1812 buildings still existed.

The Hagley Museum opened in 1957. This year it celebrates half a century of educating the public in surprising ways. And, boy, how it has changed.

When the museum opened in 1957, it consisted of a single floor of dioramas with light and sound features in a circa 1814 former textile mill named for American statesman Henry Clay. Visitors were also allowed to enter the long-closed powder yard. Fifty years later, water from the Brandywine Creek once again drives the wooden water wheel at Birkenhead Mills, powering a turbine that operates the eight-ton cast-iron roll wheels that once mixed ingredients for black powder. And the Hagley machine shop, one of only four 1800s shops still in operation in America, hums with activity, as craftsmen operate their 19th-century pre-electricity “power tools” driven by pulleys and belts.

“Many visitors reminisce about how their fathers or grandfathers worked here, or somewhere very much like it,” says 17-year Hagley guide Art Wheaton, a former machinist.

Another popular powder yard attraction is the 1870s steam engine. On weekends, an exhibit called “Easy Does It!” gives kids a chance to interact with a range of simple machines such as levers, wheels and axles, gears and pulleys.

 On Workers’ Hill, a restored 19th-century residential area, visitors can help the family of the Gibbons House, the period-furnished home of the powder yard foreman, bake cookies and wash clothes. Children write with quill pens and learn to read, write and cipher at the Brandywine Manufacturers’ Sunday School, an 1817 precursor to Delaware’s public schools.

High on a hill overlooking the powder yards, the first du Pont residence in America, E.I.’s Eleutherian Mills, offers a glimpse into the lives of five generations of the family. The first floor reflects the style of E.I. du Pont’s great-granddaughter Louise du Pont Cowninshield, who was its last resident. (She donated the home to the museum.) Open to the public in 1964, Eleutherian Mills’ rooms are furnished with antiques from the Empire, Federal and Victorian periods. 

Outside, E.I.’s French-style gardens—almost two acres of espaliered dwarf fruit trees patterned after those at Versailles and other seasonal blossoms—are living reminders of his botanical background. After E.I. du Pont’s death, the garden reverted to sheep pasture until restoration began in 1969.

 Since 1961, Hagley’s library has been a magnet for students, professional scholars and inquisitive individuals who are welcome to avail themselves of its collection of hundreds of thousands of books, manuscripts, archives and trade catalogs; examples of advertising and public relations; personal and business papers of well-known entrepreneurs; millions of photos and films; and artifacts such as patent models.

Founded by Pierre S. du Pont as the Longwood Library in 1953, it merged with and moved to the Hagley Museum eight years later. The library traces the backgrounds of products ranging from coffee makers to computers, early cure-all elixirs to today’s pharmaceuticals, and companies from Avon to Cuisinart.

“Hagley Library is all about offering extraordinary materials about the ordinary products that are part of our daily lives,” says Dan Muir, deputy director of museum administration.

It’s also about offering in-depth explorations of key topics such as American women’s history, food production and consumption, and industrial and commercial architecture.

Over its first 50 years, Hagley Museum has evolved into one of the nation’s most dynamic centers of innovation. The property, with its 67 intact buildings and 17 ruins, is designated a National Historic Landmark and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. More than 4.5 million people from 49 states (88 percent from Delaware and nearby Pennsylvania, Maryland, New Jersey and New York) and 38 countries have visited the 235-acre site.

Each year, close to 18,000 school children visit the museum on field trips that offer up-close-and-personal interactions with the early American industry. Programs can include an all-inclusive overview of 19th-century work and life or focus on topics such as domestic life, scientific innovation and waterpower.

Until her recent retirement, Christina School District teacher Pam Worrall took her first-graders to Hagley every year.

“I firmly believe that children remember better when they are involved in first-hand situations,” the Newark resident says.

Worrall’s personal history is closely associated with Hagley. “Three of my ancestors came over from France in 1818 in response to an ad for employment at the du Pont powder yard, and their children attended the Brandywine Manufacturers’ Sunday School here,” she says. “My grandfather and mother also worked for the du Pont family.”

Last summer Worrall began a new career as a volunteer guide on Workers’ Hill. Many of the 500-plus volunteers who work at Hagley are retired educators or business professionals, a number of whom had been DuPont Company employees. Several have been with the museum for 20 to 25 years. Others are students who earn community service credits while they develop their interpersonal and public speaking skills as costumed interpreters.

During her 40 years at Hagley, Doris van Bever has been a witness to Hagley’s evolution. But working as a guide at the museum has been more than a job for the 91-year-old. It has been a life-changing experience.

“Like many women in my generation, I went right from school to marriage and, although I was always very active in my church and community, I never worked outside the home,” she says.

Five years after moving to Wilmington from Jamestown, New York, with her minister husband and children in 1967, van Bever entered Hagley’s guide training program, then only in its second year. She was there when the Machine Shop was restored and re-opened, as well as Workers’ Hill and the Gibbons House. She saw the roll mill’s two huge wheels come to life. “Before that, I thought they were rooted to the ground,” she says.

Hagley still plays an important role in van Bever’s life—and vice versa. She works an average of two days a week at jobs ranging from selling tickets in the Visitor Center to answering phones at the library.

“Just about every year I’ve seen Hagley add new programs, particularly for school children,” she notes. “Working here has opened up and enriched my life in so many ways. It’s a place that everyone should experience.”

That’s exactly what new executive director Geoff Halfpenny likes to hear. Halfpenny is a former Director of the Delaware Museum of Natural History, where he launched its first capital campaign and completed a major expansion of its exhibition program and increases in attendance and memberships.

It was Hagley’s first car show in 1996 that brought Halfpenny to the site. He took the helm last spring to boost programming, create exhibits that are relevant to life and work today, and preserve environmental resources.”

“Our ultimate goal is to make sure that when a visitor to Wilmington gets in a taxi and says, ‘What must I see while I’m here?’ the driver says, ‘Hagley,’” Halfpenny says.

Hagley Museum and Library continues to break new ground. Last spring President Edward B. du Pont announced that the institution ha

Our Best of Delaware Elimination Ballot is open through February 22!

Holiday flash sale ... subscribe and save 50%

Limited time offer. New subscribers only.