By Steve Hendrix
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 9, 2000
There were more than a thousand of them, all duly certified blood relations, poking about the cupboards and crannies of Irenee du Pont Jr.'s little place up on the hill. Du Pont, 80, scanned the faces of his beloved family--and didn't recognize a one.
"I don't think I knew any of them," says du Pont, the cheerful patriarch of one of America's most famous industrial clans. He recently hosted 1,200 extremely distant cousins at Granogue, his 17-bedroom stone mansion.
"Only 32 of them stayed with us," he says. "We put mattresses on the floor and cleaned out six servants' rooms that haven't been used in years. Oh, they went through every broom closet. I think they went through my underwear drawer. It was a jolly time."
And well it should have been. A family reunion like this comes along only every couple of centuries. It was 200 years ago exactly that Pierre Samuel du Pont de Nemours--a French watchmaker's son turned royal confidant--fled the excesses of the French Revolution and landed on American soil. A few years later, his son, Eleuthere Irenee, built a gunpowder mill on the Brandywine River in Wilmington, Del. Business boomed, so to speak, especially during the Civil War and World War I, and Pierre's descendants ended up doing pretty well in the New World. Today's du Ponts decided that something more than a family potluck was called for to mark the 200th anniversary of their primogenitor's arrival.
"We sent about 3,000 invitations to everyone registered with the genealogy office," says Lynn Herrick Sharp, a du Pont by marriage and one of the reunion planners. (If outlying relatives want to maintain official ties to the du Pont bloodline, they register their litters with the Family Genealogy Committee in Wilmington. Further, each descent is assigned a coded pedigree number that details just where their fruit fits on the family tree.) "The acceptances started pouring in from all over."
Du Ponts, each one paying $3 per year-of-age for the privilege, flew in for the weekend reunion from as far away as Canada, Europe and Asia. Many of them had never set foot in Delaware before. What they found was a state built largely in the image--and with the money--of their wealthy cousins. Some of them stayed downtown in the hard marble elegance of the four-star Hotel du Pont, Wilmington's finest. Some drove in on the Du Pont Highway, or past the A.I. duPont Middle School, the Du Pont Country Club, the Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children. (The spelling has evolved: It's the du Pont family, but the DuPont Co.)
"I can't think of another area of the country where one family has created so many institutions, especially ones open to the public," says Daniel Muir, deputy director of Hagley, the site of Eleuthere Irenee's first powder mill and now a fascinating museum of 19th-century American industry and the barons who birthed it. "In all, it's quite inconceivable to think what Delaware would be like if the DuPont Company had not been successful."
It all started here, Muir says, standing where the racing Brandywine River still spins an old mill waterwheel. The bank of the river is lined with stone ruins and restored walls. They are oddly shaped buildings--three sides of stone with one side of wood facing the water, a configuration that directs the force of inevitable explosions away from the yard. "He needed water, he needed stone, he needed wood. He got all of them here, plus a small French community in Wilmington."
When the first du Ponts fled the populist mobs in Paris, they weren't headed for Delaware and industrial riches. Indeed, father Pierre Samuel had dreams of founding his own colony, a utopian settlement to be called "Pontania." But after settling in New Jersey, they found land prices too high for private kingdoms, so they turned to business instead. Young Irenee, appalled at the high price and low quality of black powder in America, decided to put to work his knowledge of France's more modern methods of mixing saltpeter, sulfur and charcoal into gunpowder. He set up shop on the Brandywine with a $36,000 stake from the family and built a gunpowder plant and a house--still standing and open to the public--called Eleutherian Mills. The powder he began producing really was better than the rest, and Thomas Jefferson notified du Pont that the Army and Navy would be buying du Pont powder. The family fortune began to build.
There were setbacks, of course: Explosions were common, including some deadly ones. Partnerships went sour; bankruptcy threatened more than once. And there have been scandals: a nasty factional feud; a once-explicit family policy of cousins marrying cousins; and recently the murder of an Olympic wrestler by the mentally disturbed John E. du Pont. But still, family and company prospered. They progressed to the bigger bangs of dynamite and, eventually, plutonium. Ultimately, the company shifted its focus to chemicals, bringing the world such innovations as nylon, Kevlar and Corian. And along the way, more and more du Ponts built stately homes on sprawling estates in the part of northern Delaware and southern Pennsylvania known locally as "Chateau Country."
"There's been a lot of open space preserved around here because of the big homes that we built," says patriarch Irenee from his office adjacent to the Hotel du Pont. "It would look like Chester County [a nearby rust-belt swath of Pennsylvania] without them."
A surprising number of those exclusive drawing rooms and once-private grounds are now open to the public. Winterthur, the house of antique collector extraordinaire Henry Francis du Pont, is now a world-famous museum of American furniture and decorative arts. Longwood Gardens, where the reunioning du Ponts assembled for a 2,000-head reception, is a manicured botanical wonderland that draws plant enthusiasts from all over the globe; it was the estate of gardener and former DuPont president Pierre S. du Pont. Eleutherian Mills still looms over the mills at Hagley. And Nemours, the house of outcast cousin Alfred I. du Pont, is preserved as a sterling model of a Louis XVI-style chateau surrounded by 300 acres of gardens and woods.
The latter, while open to the public, is still considered enemy territory by some living du Ponts. The 1915 split between Alfred I. and cousin Pierre over control of the company grew so ugly that Alfred built a high stone wall around his property, lined it with broken glass and told his relatives to keep out. The two factions bought competing newspapers in town, and local legend has it that Alfred meant the soaring bell tower he built to rep-resent a permanent finger to the rest of his clan.
"One thing I've known since I was a boy was that nobody, but nobody, went behind that wall with the glass," says Irenee. Most of the family has given up on the feud between long-dead cousins, but not all of them. "I haven't set foot in there yet. I'm sticking with Pierre."
Today in Wilmington, old plastic has given way to new--a credit card bank, MBNA, now dominates business and philanthropy. The du Ponts themselves long ago signed away family control of the chemical company. But they still rank highly in the standings of the wealthy (Fortune estimated in 1999 that the many descendants of Pierre S. du Pont were worth about $13 billion). And the du Ponts and their homes still command the attention of gossips, socialites and tourists from Delaware and beyond.
"They think of us as an aristocracy, but we're not," says Irenee, a half-billionaire who lives in a house the size of a sanitarium but proudly drove the same 1980 Chevette hatchback for almost 20 years. "We're people whose parents struck it rich by working very hard. All in all, we're a pretty regular bunch."
For a comprehensive list of Brandywine Valley attractions, contact the