By Victor Block
Some members of the wealthy family lived in a 175-room mansion set amid 1,000 acres of magnificent gardens and splashing fountains. Others resided in a chateau modeled after the palace where Marie Antoinette hung out. People who worked for that affluent dynasty had more modest quarters, some of which today provide accommodations for visitors to the area.
This contrast between members of the du Pont family who settled in and around Wilmington, Delaware, at the turn of the 19th century and those who toiled in the powder mills they founded is one of numerous diversities that characterize the destination today. They're among a long list of attractions that greet visitors to Wilmington and the surrounding Brandywine Valley.
The primary reason the place is a tourist magnet has to do with the saga of the du Pont family. The tale began in 1800, when Pierre Samuel du Pont, the son of a Parisian watchmaker, immigrated to the United States and one of his sons established a gunpowder mill near Wilmington. The company grew into the world's largest manufacturer of black powder and created one of the wealthiest family empires in the country.
There are good reasons why places associated with the du Ponts are the main attractions. They offer enticing tidbits of American history, provide introductions to outstanding collections of art and artifacts, and delight the eyes with massive and magnificent gardens.
A good place to begin is where the story did. The Hagley Museum and Library features the restored original gunpowder mills, the Eleutherian Mills ancestral estate where five generations of du Ponts resided, lovely gardens and the village where workers lived. The du Pont residence is chock-full of antique furnishings, valuable art and memorabilia collected by family members.
Buildings on Workers' Hill provide a glimpse into the lives of the mill employees. They include homes and a Sunday school for children. A modest garden filled with vegetables that factory families grew contrasts starkly with the elaborate ornamental plantings at du Pont family 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 Le Petit Trianon , a chateau that was built on the grounds of Versailles during the reign of French King Louis XV and occupied by Queen Marie Antoinette. This mansion also is crammed with precious antiques, artwork and hints of the lavish lifestyle that took place there.
Formal gardens, sunken pools and statuary enhance the sumptuous setting. It includes greenhouses, a maze garden and gates covered with 23-karat gold leaf.
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, rolling hills and babbling brooks that provide a backdrop for gardens that present a year-round explosion of color.
More than 1,000 acres of outdoor plantings and a 4-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 inviting as everything related to the du Pont story is, it represents just a sample 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 history. The John Dickerson Plantation was the boyhood 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, which occupies 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 was converted to a prisoner-of-war camp and held some 12,500 Confederate soldiers who had been captured at Gettysburg. Guided tours, Civil War re-enactors and other scheduled programs transport visitors back to that time.
Another story traces parts of the role and journey of African-Americans. Cultural achievements of Delaware-born African-Americans are recalled and celebrated at the Delaware History Museum. The Delaware segment of the Underground Railroad, which escaped slaves followed on their journey to freedom, includes pathways and sites associated with Harriet Tubman, Quaker abolitionists and others who risked much to provide assistance. An impressive and moving statue of Tubman 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. A sign at the dock from which the small ferry boat departs for Pea Patch Island and Fort Delaware reads, "Prepare to enter the past." That comment applies equally to much that awaits visitors to Wilmington and the Brandywine Valley.
WHEN YOU GO
Given the rich history of the area, it's not surprising that visitors have a choice of accommodations that relate chapters of that interesting story. The Inn at Montchanin Village traces its lineage back to the 18th century and sits in a tranquil setting of landscaped walkways, gentle terraces and attractive gardens. Guest rooms, which are located in buildings that originally served as apartments for mill workers, are lush with antique and reproduction furnishings: www.montchanin.com.
Colorfully named Krazy Kat's restaurant at the Inn, which occupies a converted blacksmith's shop, specializes in fresh seasonal ingredients such as butter-poached lobster ($18) and crispy duck breast ($19). Succulent sides (all $8) include "exotic mushrooms" and maple-scented sweet potatoes.
For general information about Wilmington and the Brandywine Valley: 800-489-6664 or www.visitwilmingtonde.com
Victor Block is a freelance writer. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.
The 77-room Nemours Estate was constructed by Alfred I. du Pont and modeled after Le Petit Trianon, a chateau that was built on the grounds of Versailles during the reign of French King Louis XV. Photo courtesy of Les Kipp.