By Victor Block
Some members of the family lived in a 175-room mansion set amid a thousand acres of magnificent gardens; others resided in a chateau modeled after the palace where Marie Antoinette hung out.
People who worked for that affluent American dynasty had more modest quarters, including houses that today provide accommodations for visitors to the area.
This contrast between members of the du Pont family — who settled in Wilmington, Del., and the surrounding Brandywine Valley at the turn of the 19th century — with those who toiled in the powder mills they founded, is one of numerous diversities characterizing the destination.
The primary reason the area is a tourist magnet relates to the saga of the du Ponts. The tale began in 1800 when Pierre Samuel du Pont, the son of a Parisian watchmaker, emigrated to the United States, where one of his sons established a gunpowder mill near Wilmington. The company became the world’s largest manufacturer of black powder and created one of the wealthiest family empires in the country.
A good place to begin exploring the area is at the Hagley Museum and Library featuring the restored original gunpowder mills, the Eleutherian Mills estate —where five generations of du Ponts resided — lovely gardens and the village where workers lived. The residence is packed with antique furnishings and valuable art.
Workers’ Hill provides a glimpse of the life of original mill employees, including homes, a Sunday school for children and a garden filled with vegetables that factory families grew, contrasting with the elaborate ornamental plantings at du Pont homes.
The 77-room Nemours Estate was constructed by Alfred I. du Pont, the great-great-grandson of Pierre, for his second wife Alicia. It was modeled after a chateau that was built during the reign of French King Louis XV and occupied by Queen Marie Antoinette. The setting is enhanced by acres of formal gardens, greenhouses and a planted maze area.
The 175-room du Pont mansion, known as Winterthur, displays a collection of more than 90,000 antiques in stunning interiors. The house sits in a naturalistic setting of forests and rolling hills providing a backdrop for gardens presenting a year-round explosion of color.
More than 1,000 acres of outdoor plantings and a four-acre indoor conservatory make Longwood Gardens one of the premier botanical destinations in the world. A popular feature is spectacular displays of illuminated fountains. Technicolor streams of water rise and fall, spin and twirl in a precisely choreographed show.
As enticing as the du Pont story is, it represents only a small part of what awaits visitors to the area. For example, the Brandywine Valley inspired generations of Wyeth family artists. The Brandywine River Museum is renowned for its collection of works by N.C., Andrew and Jamie Wyeth. The houses and studios, where N.C. and Andrew lived and painted, are open to the public.
The region also boasts intriguing chapters of American history. The John Dickerson Plantation was the home of one of the country’s founding fathers. He penned the phrase “United we stand, divided we fall,” and was a drafter of the U.S. Constitution.
Fort Delaware on colorfully named Pea Patch Island was built in 1815 to protect the Wilmington and Philadelphia harbors, destroyed by fire and rebuilt prior to the Civil War. It served as a prisoner of war camp and held some 12,500 Confederate soldiers who were captured at Gettysburg.
Another story relates the role of African-Americans. Cultural achievements of Delaware-born African-Americans are recalled at the Delaware History Museum.
The Delaware segment of the Underground Railroad, which escaped slaves followed on their journey to freedom, includes sites associated with Harriet Tubman, Quaker abolitionists and others who risked much to provide assistance. A moving statue of Harriet looks out over the Tubman-Garrett Riverfront Park, which is named for her and fellow abolitionist Thomas Garrett.
The Wilmington Riverfront attracts people who stop to read the historical plaques, strollers and joggers, and others drawn by the selection of places to eat. Nearby is a sign at the dock from which the small ferry boat departs to Fort Delaware. It reads, “Prepare to enter the past.” That comment applies equally to much that awaits visitors to Wilmington and the Brandywine Valley.
For information about Wilmington and the Brandywine Valley call 800-489-6664 or log onto visitwilmingtonde.com.
PHOTO: Fort Delaware re-enactor. (Michelle Newman photo)