Delaware – Hagley Museum

Delaware – Hagley Museum

Teflon®, Stainmaster® carpet, Lycra®, gunpowder.  The first three are brands that the average American family has undoubtedly heard of and likely purchased. Do you know what they have in common with gunpowder?  All are products that have been produced by the DuPont Company over the years.  DuPont, formally titled E. I. du Pont de Nemours and Company, prides itself in being a science company and employs 9500 scientists and engineers, so it probably shouldn’t be a surprise that the historic site of their original headquarters is the most science-oriented history museum I’ve ever visited.  Having an engineering background myself, my impression while I was there was that it was an ideal museum for future engineers to visit.

E. I. du Pont selected a location along the scenic Brandywine River for his gunpowder factory because the mills were initially operated by waterwheel and needed close proximity to water.  Founded in 1802, the historic home is known as Eleutherian Mills and was home to five generations of du Ponts before being converted into a museum.  The area was named Hagley by a previous owner and left unchanged by the du Ponts.

A tour of Hagley starts in the Visitor Center, a three-story building that was originally a cotton spinning mill and now contains exhibits.  Before starting to view the exhibits, you’ll need a touring strategy.  Shuttle buses take you from the Visitor Center to the Powder Yards, Eleutherian Mills, and Workers’ Hill.  Some demonstrations start on the hour and others on the half-hour. The friendly staff members at the Visitor’s Center can assist you with planning how to spend your time.  But do be sure to plan to spend some time at the Visitor Center because the exhibits there are top notch and are worth at least an hour of your time.

One aspect that engrossed us was the considerable number of miniature models, starting with a model of the cotton mill in the entry. One exhibit presents the evolution of industry along the Brandywine. Another model showed different types of gears and how each of them works. A waterwheel exhibit displays three different types of waterwheels and discusses which is the most efficient design and a water turbine exhibit shows how water turbines work and why they replaced waterwheels. The detail in each of these exhibits is more than enough to give the technical mind something to chew on.

The second floor displays changing exhibits and the third floor contains some fun hands-on exhibits that show other products DuPont has made over the years, such as materials used in space suits.

Next, we took a shuttle to the family home, Eleutherian Mills.  The fast-paced, guided, one-hour tour packs in history of the du Pont family, a walk through the family gardens, a tour of the First Office building, and a tour of the home.  The restored garden contains flowers, vegetables, and trees, both ornamental and fruit-bearing.

Gardening enthusiasts will want to spend some extra time exploring the gardens in more detail.  Additional brochures are available with plant lists, garden plans, and information about the big trees, including this 350-year-old Osage Orange tree.

The First Office sits adjacent to the residence and has an exterior of stone, as do all the factory buildings.

The residence is situated on a hill above the Powder Yard, convenient to the factory, but also close enough to be affected by explosions.

Photography is not permitted inside the home, but the museum provided some pictures so that I can show you the beautiful furnishings and architectural details inside the home.  I loved this curved stairway in the entry.

Courtesy of Hagley Museum and Library

And here’s the parlor.  Gorgeous, isn’t it?

Courtesy of Hagley Museum and Library

After the guided tour of the home, you can spend some time exploring the barn which contains a Conestoga wagon, carriages, and antique cars.

After leaving Eleutherian Mills, the shuttle bus makes a brief stop at the Steam Engine House.  This exhibit shows you the next generation of power generation, after the waterwheel.  Rather than just displaying some antique equipment, they actually fire up the steam engine and show you how it operates.

The shuttle bus makes stops at the Powder Yard and Workers’ Hill.  We headed to Workers’ Hill first.  The Belin House makes a perfect lunch stop.  You can either order hot food or, for a quick lunch, grab something from the refrigerated cases.

Next we visited the Brandywine Manufacturers’ Sunday School, a cooperative effort between all the companies in the valley.  Children who were old enough worked in the factories Monday through Saturday, so Sunday was the only day left for education.  This one-room schoolhouse often squeezed in over a hundred students.

When you go inside you can try your hand at writing with a quill and ink.  It gives you a new appreciation for ballpoint pens.  One tip:  watch the little ones so that they don’t end up with ink all over their hands.

The Gibbons House illustrates how factory foremen and their families lived.  Unfortunately, we had to bypass this building so we could make it to the Powder Yard in time for the next tour.

There are two demonstrations in this area:  Gunpowder demonstrations start on the hour and Machine Shop demonstrations on the half-hour.  Both of these are must-sees, but especially the Gunpowder demonstration; not only do you inspect the powder mill equipment up close, you can watch an explosion.  Kids and adults alike will be impressed by the immense size of the equipment that was powered by just a stream of water.  Each of these wheels weighs 8 tons!

The Machine Shop tour fascinates as guides turn on the equipment and show you how it works.  You can watch how gears were made and repaired.

This building also contains more miniature dioramas showing how the mills operated.  From there, you can take a self-guided walking tour of more mills along the powder yard trail while taking in the natural beauty of the area.

Relish the tranquility of the Brandwine Valley.

It’s an easy walk from the Powder Yard back to the Visitor Center across this lovely stone bridge.

But first make sure you stop at the “Easy Does It” exhibit which is a hands-on display of machines and is open only on weekends.  It contains both simple machines and more complicated displays, like this one about rack and pinion steering.

We spent several hours at Hagley, but could have easily spent several more.  I recommend allotting an entire day to absorb all that Hagley has to offer.

Hagley Museum and Library

Route 141 Wilmington, Delaware

(312) 658-2400

This attraction appears in my e-book, How to Visit All 50 States in 12 Trips.

Scroll to Top