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Greenville & Hockessin Life

Things you didn’t know about Hagley

Dec 07, 2022 12:22PM ● By Tricia Hoadley
By Gene Pisasale
Contributing Writer

While most people know that the du Pont family transformed America with the creation of E.I. du Pont de Nemours and Company, its gunpowder and later extensive chemical operations, many may not be aware of the vast storehouse of information that is the Hagley Museum and Library. Plans for the museum date back to the year 1952, when the Du Pont Company was celebrating its sesquicentennial. Opened to the public in 1957, it is a showcase of American entrepreneurism. You don’t have to be a petrochemicals analyst to appreciate the huge assortment of displays in the museum and enormous collections of documents, books and manuscripts in the nearby library which is home to both family and company-related items dating back more than two centuries.

In 1802, E.I. du Pont wanted a place for his gunpowder works and chose land along the Brandywine River in northern Delaware. He purchased it for $6,700—not bad for a company which would later have revenue of more than $28 billion. The name Hagley has hazy origins. The word is known to have existed since at least the year 1797 when, according to the Hagley Museum and Library website, a Quaker merchant applied for insurance “on buildings at a place called Hagley situated on Brandywine Creek.”

It is known for certain that the name Hagley was already in use when E.I. du Pont expanded his operations downstream from the original Eleutherian Mills by purchasing land that would become known to the world as Hagley, associated with the company’s operations. Some historians consider the name Hagley to be related to an English estate in the West Midlands countryside approximately ten miles southeast of Birmingham.

Hagley is located on 235 acres near Wilmington. The site is home to a museum which showcases the history of the du Pont family and the corporation. The library has aided scholars and researchers over the years in the study of business and technology in America through their Center for the History of Business, Technology and Society.

Visitors to Hagley have a wide variety of things to explore. In the Powder Yard, one can see where gunpowder was created beginning around 1804. Up through 1840, according to their website, the business was expanded twice to include “three dams, upper and lower mills races, dozens of mill buildings and over a mile of infrastructure…” There you can see demonstrations of the only black powder rolling mill in America, a 16-foot-high Birkenhead water wheel, an 1870s steam locomotive, 19th century machines and staged black powder explosions.

The newest arrival is an outstanding exhibit which showcases the scientific and creative genius of Americans. “Nation of Inventors” opened in October 2022 and it takes the visitor on a “walk through time,” beginning with the creation of the Patent Office through an Act of Congress in 1790. The Founding Fathers recognized that a republic would thrive if its citizens had the right to their inventions and this exhibit is a superb visual tour de force through the past 230 years of American innovation. More than 100 exquisite patent models are present—including one from Thomas Edison for a carbon filament—displaying the enormous range of improvements the human mind generated since the first patent was issued to Samuel Hopkins for a process to generate potash, used in fertilizers. It was signed by President George Washington on July 31, 1790.

The du Pont family stands prominently in this timeline. The family’s operations would become one of the largest chemical companies in the world, generating a wide array of useful and popular products like nylon, Teflon, Kevlar, Corian and others which were vital in energizing the growth engine that was the American economy. “Nation of Inventors” is a wonderfully inspirational exhibit. It will be a treat for inquiring minds, young and old. This author previously worked as an energy/petrochemicals analyst for many years, covering Du Pont and other companies—and the beautifully displayed models along with captivating visuals were a pleasure to behold, even for someone well versed in the subject. Anyone interested in the scientific, creative and economic history of America will thoroughly enjoy “Nation of Inventors” and it is highly recommended. Many thanks to Lucas Clawson, Adam Albright and Caroline Western-Osienski for the guided tour of the facilities.

This author was also treated to a private tour through the powder works, machine shop and power station. The machine shop since the mid-19th century helped service numerous types of equipment. The powder operation created millions of pounds of gunpowder, black powder and other variants that were critical in mining, road building and in the defense of our nation. The Du Pont powder works eventually became one of the largest suppliers of gunpowder to the U.S. government, from the War of 1812 up into the 20th century. Du Pont powder was critical in winning the Civil War, and the du Pont family were staunch supporters of the Union, vowing never to sell powder to the Confederacy.

For those interested in research, the Hagley Library and Soda House provide extensive collections relating to family history and voluminous archives in which to explore the history of America’s premier corporation and others whose roots go back to the earliest years of the 19th century. One can find handwritten letters sent to and from E. I. du Pont, including those that were sent to or from Presidents Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and many others who helped create the country we know today.

The Hagley Museum is located at 200 Hagley Creek Road in Wilmington. the Library is at 298 Buck Road. Their website gives information on the many things to explore at www.hagley.org. Tours are available; school field trips are regularly conducted there for children. There is so much to see and learn about our nation’s early industrial and economic heritage, you can never be bored at the Museum or Library. Appointments for research are requested.


Gene Pisasale is an historian, author and lecturer based in Kennett Square. His ten books focus on the heritage of the Chester County/mid-Atlantic region. His latest book is “Forgotten Founding Fathers: Pennsylvania and Delaware in the American Revolution.” Gene’s books are available through his website at www.GenePisasale.com and on www.Amazon.com. He can be reached via e-mail at [email protected]


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