The Great American Road Trip
Book: The Du Ponts: Houses and Gardens in the Brandywine 1900-1951 (2010) by Maggie Lidz
(Be sure to visit Music Road to see what music she has provided for our stop in Delaware. It may surprise you!)
A few years ago, Ken and I took a road trip to explore Delaware. I was on assignment for an automobile web magazine and Chevrolet loaned us an HRR to drive.
With the help of the Greater Wilmington and Brandywine Valley Convention and Visitor’s Bureau, we mapped out a visit to Chateau Country–the string of Du Pont mansions and gardens along the Brandywine river from Delaware into Pennsylvania. Maggie Lidz‘ book, [amazonify]0926494694::text::::The Du Ponts Houses and Gardens Along the Brandywine[/amazonify] would have been great background reading for that trip, had it been available back then.
The clannish Du Pont family, dating back to 1802 in the U.S., dominated
Delaware like no other family in no other state. They shared a conserative business sense, inventiveness, a love of beautiful things and a gardening gene tracible to E. Ireneé Du Pont who came from France to start the family gunpowder business. Thomas Jefferson reportedly urged him to come to America, and he was friends with Lafayette, as well.
It seems that this family just could not help but make money, and although some, like Pierre Du Pont at Longwood, lived fairly simply, they all built extensive gardens, if not mansions. Pierre, an engineer, took over the business from older family members in a sort of coup in the 1920’s and built it into a modern industrial giant. But at the same time he was running the business, he was personally designing the miraculous sound and light shows and visually stunning gardens of Longwood (in southern Pennsylvania).
After Longwood, we visited the enormous Winterthur, purposefully turned into a museum to display the early American furniture and decor that “Harry” Du Pont collected. He also oversaw his gardens and ran a self-sustaining farm of 2000 acres–so large that Winterthur had a railroad station and still has its own post office.
We drove through the countryside to Mt. Cuba where the wild forest paths and brook are all artful constructions and the family converted their property to research in the plants of the Piedmont.
We visited Hagley Mills and Eleutheria, home of the original powder mill and the home built in 1802 for E.I. Du Pont, who also kept his hand in the vegetable and fruit-tree garden, which has recently been restored with the original plant types. “Harry” bought the property and gave the house to his sister Louise.(Correction. It was Henry, the father of “Harry” and Louise who gifted Louise with Eleutherian Mills. Thanks to commenter below for pointing this out.) She and her husband filled in a hillside below the Georgian house with faux ruins and wild plantings around the real ruins of the original factory works. Unfortunately, this hillside, looking in a period painting like the forum in Rome, is now invisible because of erosion and overgrowth, but the house and many other structures are still available to tour.
Finally, we visited Nemours, the “Take This!” statement of Alfred, who was kicked out of the company in the afore-mentioned coup, and ostracized for his marital misadventures. (His biography makes for some racy reading.) We got a sneak peek at Nemours before the recent multi-million dollar restoration was complete, and would love to go back and see the spruced up “Gilded Age whirlagig of limestone, marble, bronze, glass and gilt” as Margaret Lidz calls it in her book about the Du Pont homes and gardens.
Maggie Lidz, estate historian at Winterthur, spent ten years gathering historic photographs and stories of these and dozens of other Du Pont mansions for this thick and visually exciting book. I learned so much from this book, like “By 1942 family members had at least 70 country houses of 20 acres or more in the Brandywine Valley.” Some of the homes are still privately owned, but those open to the public make a trip to Delaware’s Brandywine Valley a very rewarding stop on anyone’s road trip.
Transparency: The trip discussed here was partially underwritten by Chevrolet, The Inn at Montchanin, and other hotels, museums, and restaurants in the Brandywine Valley. If you visit Amazon through one of my links, which I hope you will, I make a few pennies on anything you buy.
All Photos the property of Vera Marie Badertscher. Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you wish to use a photo.
Is it any wonder that I dreamed of buying a big sprawling house after reading this book? Do you like to visit houses and gardens when you travel? What’s the best you’ve seen? If you have missed any road trip visits to states, they happen every Wednesday, starting here.