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Exploring Delaware’s duPont Estates with Teens

by Barbara Rogers

Aug 8, 2019

Stillman Rogers

Age Specific / Teens

The Brandywine River may be short — it flows for only 20 miles through southeastern Pennsylvania and northern Delaware — but it packs a lot of American history into those few miles. It packs a lot of flash and wow, too, in the glittering estates and over-the-top gardens of one of America’s wealthiest families. Those two stories are intertwined, and there’s a lot in both to interest teens and tweens.


A good place to begin, historically and geographically, is at the Brandywine Battlefield, where George Washington’s Continental Army was outflanked by the British in his attempt to protect the then-capital of Philadelphia in 1777. The small visitors center has exhibits and a hands-on room that brings some of that era to life, and the “main character” in the story, George Washington, is a familiar one.


Hagley Museum and Library, Wilmington, Delaware. Photo: Stillman Rogers

Hagley Museum and Library, Wilmington, Delaware. Photo: Stillman Rogers


Skip ahead 25 years and a few miles downstream to the Hagley Museum to hear the story of gunpowder and how it changed not just defense, but mining and railroad building, too. This giant open-air museum features the gunpowder works founded by E. I. duPont in 1802. Exhibits in the museum show detailed models and dioramas on how water power works to drive machinery, how turbines operate, how power transfers by line shafts and how that technology has changed in two centuries — fascinating even to kids not mechanically minded.


But the real fun comes at the powder works themselves. Here in a long series of stone shops (can they guess why these are all built of stone?) beside the Brandywine River they can see a 16-ton black powder roll mill in operation, an 1870s coal-fired steam engine, a giant watermill wheel and watch as a gear is created in a fully water-powered machine shop, using original equipment. But the thing all ages will remember longest is the demonstration of black powder exploding. Step into the barn at the duPonts’ original home to see the Conestoga Wagon that carried black powder from the yards to ships in Wilmington harbor.


Hagley Museum and Library, Wilmington, Delaware. Photo: Stillman Rogers

Hagley Museum and Library, Wilmington, Delaware. Photo: Stillman Rogers


In the Civil War, Hagley sold 4 million barrels of powder to the federal government, and gunpowder made at Hagley enabled mining and railroad construction as America grew. Needless to say it made generations of duPonts a lot of money, and the estates they built and furnished should be the next stops on a trip.


Kids will think they’ve stepped into a European royal palace at Nemours Estate, a Gilded Age confection aglitter with gold and crystal. Along with its lavishly decorated rooms, be sure to follow the tour into the basement to see the inner workings of this huge house. The duPonts were inventors and innovators, and you can see their clever early air-conditioning system and the giant freezers and refrigerators — one just for ice cream, one for fur coats. The gardens are just as spectacular, with flowing fountains and reflecting pools.


Although Winterthur was built as a showcase for one of the finest collections of American antiques and decorative arts, it was a DuPont home as well, and a tour of its furnished rooms combines anecdotes of family history with a look at priceless examples of furniture and craft. Special exhibits are particularly engaging, often showing the craft processes and revealing glimpses into surprising customs and tastes of the past. Admission includes a ride through the extensive park and its gardens on an open trolley.


Longwood Gardens are enchanting for any age, with dancing fountains, topiary trees carved into fantastic and untree-like shapes, and the four-acre conservatory filled with a bonanza of blooming flowers and collections of fragrant orchids, Bonsai trees and roses. Inside it is a rainforest of full-sized trees, a palm house and a plantation of tropical fruit trees. Each season brings new floral displays, from spring bulbs to fall chrysanthemums and Christmas poinsettias.


We stayed in the midst of all these attractions, at the Fairville Inn in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania. Our suite in the Carriage House had a sitting area and a second bedroom, perfect for a family. Full breakfast each morning was cooked to order, and in the late afternoon we joined other guests for tea and an array of fresh-baked goodies that threatened to ruin all our appetites for dinner. The adjacent parlor was a welcoming place to play board games in the evening.


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