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24 Jun 2012

Beguiling Brandywine Valley

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June 24, 2012 Category: Travel Posted by:

ABOVE PHOTO: Nemours Mansion and Gardens.


By Renée S. Gordon


The Lenni Lenape Indians inhabited the Brandywine Valley prior to European contact. They made their home throughout the valley and on the shores of the Tankopanican and referred to themselves as the “common people.” They, the settlers to follow and the events that took place in the region were anything but common. The Brandywine Valley is comprised of a 50-mile area of stunning scenery, magnificent museums and singular architecture in southeastern PA and northern Delaware.


The valley’s name is shrouded in mystery but the most accepted explanation is that it was named after Andreas Brantwyn, an early grain mill owner along the river. Swedish colonists established the first permanent settlement in the Delaware Valley in 1638 at Fort Christiana, now Wilmington, and they are responsible for building the first log cabins in the New World.


In the Brandywine Valley more than 100-years later, on September 11, 1777, the Continental Army suffered the defeat that would give the British access to Philadelphia and allow them to occupy the city. The battle was one of the largest to take place during the Revolution. African Americans fought in the battle and, Edward Hector, of the 3rd PA Artillery, was cited for bravery. The battlefield, located on Route 1 in PA, became a state park in 1949 and today consists of several historic structures and a visitor’s center.


There is so much to see and do in the Brandywine Valley that a series of thematic trails have been developed to make travel easier and the Brandywine Museums & Gardens Alliance (BMGA) offers the Treasure Trail Passport Program to make exploration more affordable. The program provides passports for $35. per adult or $75. for a family of two adults and three children. It includes a map and a single admission to each of the 11 sites in the BMGA from Memorial to Labor Day. All of the sites and attractions are located within a 10-mile radius and many area accommodations and restaurants also feature discounts and packages. Passports can be purchased online.


The Brandywine Valley is also known as “château country,” an apt reference to the numerous du Pont estates in the region. Several of these mansions, as well as gardens and museums, are world renowned for their beauty, architectural significance and permanent collections and visiting exhibitions.


Tour routes are designed to be individually adaptable according to taste and time. It is impossible to ever see everything and at least a weekend is needed to even begin. Area residents have an advantage in that they can visit at a leisurely pace and take advantage of nearby dining establishments and shopping.


Visitors can begin where it all began, along the banks of the Brandywine River, now the Hagley Museum & Library. It was on this site that the du Pont’s established the gunpowder mill.


Pierre-Samuel du Pont* was born in France as were his sons Victor and Eleuthère-Irénée. The family was involved in politics and felt it best to leave France at the time of the French Revolution. They landed on Block Island in Rhode Island in 1800 and, it is believed at the urging of Thomas Jefferson, began a move to Virginia. They got as far as the Brandywine Valley, declared it both beautiful and fertile, and stopped there. Irénée’, who had prior experience working in the French Royal Powder Works, realizing that American gunpowder was expensive and lacking in quality, established a powder mill in 1802 that is the foundation of subsequent businesses and the family fortune.


Tours of the 240-acre Hagley Estate include the original Eleutherian Mill, first Du Pont office, Worker’s Hill, the Georgian mansion, the two acre garden, a National Recreation Trail and visitor center exhibition. A highlight of the tour is a visit to the mill buildings, constructed by Italian stonemasons of gneiss from the five on-site quarries, for a walk through the steps on the powder line complete with demonstrations. Black powder took one to four hours to make and powdermen worked six days a week, 10 hours a day. No metal was allowed in the area for fear of sparks. There were 288 explosions over the years and widows received benefits including a house with enough rooms to provide a rental income.


Currently on exhibit is “An Oath of Allegiance to the Republic: The du Ponts and the Civil War.” The exhibit interprets the role of the du Ponts and the regional response to the Civil War. One showcase focuses on the exploits of Robert Smalls, a 23-year old slave who stole a ship, his family and 12 slaves and turned them over to Admiral S. F. du Pont on May 13, 1862. Along with the warship the Planter he turned in a naval codebook and other intelligence information. He went on to serve five terms in Congress and to purchase the home where he had once been a enslaved.


Hagley is ADA accessible and there is a tour shuttle. The Belin House Organic Café and a wonderful gift shop are also on the premises. Plan to spend the day.


Winterthur is, simply, one of America’s grandest country estates. Your visit begins with a narrated tram overview tour of the 60-acre naturalistic garden that ends at the 235-room mansion. The estate, once over 2,000-acres, was totally self-sufficient and had its own zip code.


Henry du Pont began collecting American furniture and crafts in 1923 with a Vermont pine dresser that is on display. The collection would grow to include objects dating from 1850-1950. The “house” tour begins on the sixth floor and includes such wonders as the Chinese Parlor and an iconic spiral staircase that once graced a Carolina plantation. When the family was in residence the textiles were changed to reflect the seasons, only fresh flowers were used and only one type of flower was used in each vase in order to appreciate their beauty. There were 60 sets of china and guests never saw the same set twice. The house and gardens are phenomenal and you should reserve a minimum of three hours for a visit.


Nemours Mansion and Gardens were part of the estate of A. I. du Pont and the 47,000-sq. ft. 77-room mansion must be seen to be believed. The 80-minute tour begins on the exterior, designed after Marie Antoinette’s Petit Trianon at Versailles, with two sets of gates, from palaces belonging to Henry VIII and Catherine the Great. Highlights on the interior include a 220-sq. ft. silver safe, a dining room chandelier from the palace of Marie Antoinette’s birth and a Honduran dining table with 15 leaves. The contents of the mansion are all original. The walls are 18″ thick, there are 24 fireplaces, 22 bathrooms, 24-kt gold gilt ceilings and two of each operating system in case one should break.


The garden, the largest formal French garden in North America, is equally stunning and the best place for photographs is in front to the 23-kt gold, 12-ft., statue “Achievement” on the Long Walk or Vista. Directly in front of the sculpture is the 800,000-gallon reflecting pool. The pool is 2/3-acre and was used for both swimming and boating.


Tours begin in the visitors’ center with a film and a corridor length 3D timeline that relates the du Pont story to events in each era. A tram takes you onto the grounds to continue the tour.


Mt. Cuba Center, a gardener’s paradise, focuses on native Appalachian Piedmont plants. Mrs. Lammot du Pont Copeland and her husband purchased the 200-acre estate in 1933. There are no tours of the Colonial Revival house and visitors are encouraged to “look out not down” at the surroundings. The series of gardens are designed so that the casual gardener can get ideas and duplicate them. Gardening information is available both on-site and online and classes are scheduled regularly.


National Geographic Traveler designated the 1,077-acre Longwood Gardens as one of America’s “50 Places of a Lifetime.” Longwood was once the estate of Pierre du Pont who incorporated the 1798 Pierce’s Park into his gardens. Numerous gardens surround neoclassical conservatories that feature exhibition space and more than 5,500 plants. The site has more fountains than any other garden in the hemisphere. The du Pont house on the property can be toured and 90 percent of the gardens are ADA accessible. Longwood is most famous for its Christmas display and seasonal fountain shows. It is located in Kennett Square, PA.


The 72-acre Rockwood Park & Mansion, though not a du Pont property, is both interesting and unique. The 1851-54, 50 room, Gothic Revival mansion is the oldest of its type in the region and the furnishings reflect decorative arts from the 17th-19th centuries. The Gardenesque landscape requires that the grounds and gardens be harmonious and visitors can see that the grey stone of the house and the large glacial rocks left on the grounds accomplish this. Approximately 70% of the furnishings are original. There are 2-miles of paved trails and public use is encouraged through programming and ease of use.


The Delaware Museum of Natural History is just the right size for a manageable day trip. The foundation of the museum was John du Pont’s personal collection. The museum currently holds the largest shell collection in the country, over 2-million, and two dinosaur skeletons that are the only ones on display in the state. A huge diorama of an African watering hole, a 500-lb. clamshell, a glass walk over portion of the Great Barrier Reef and the children’s interactive Discovery Room are featured exhibitions.


Delaware Art Museum showcases a superb collection of American art and illustration, including the works of Howard Pyle, Parrish, Homer and West and British Pre-Raphaelite art with works by Rossetti and Phelps. The Pre-Raphaelite collection is the largest outside of Britain. On the exterior visitors can tour the Copeland Sculpture Garden.


Balancing the Delaware Art Museum is the Delaware Center for the Contemporary Arts established in 1979. The DCCA has no permanent collection but focuses on artists that interpret current issues through their art. There are seven galleries and artist studios. It should be noted that many of the featured artists are from Philadelphia.


The Brandywine River Museum, Kuerner Farm and N.C. Wyeth House and Studio Tours are being offered this summer and it is the ultimate PA Brandywine Valley experience. The museum, located on Route 1 features the largest and most comprehensive collection of three generations, N.C., Andrew and Jamie, of Wyeth paintings. Housed in a former gristmill the three story museum provides a perfect setting for the artworks. Currently on the second level there is a display on the history of Scribner’s illustrators. The museum is ADA accessible. Transportation to the Studio and Kuerner Farm, inspiration for more than 1,000 of Andrew’s artworks, are by shuttle from the museum.


A number of hotels offer special packages that include a variety of add-ons but the Best Western Plus Brandywine Valley Inn, a few blocks off I-95, is a unique find. A limited number of rooms have names and replicate rooms in the Brandywine mansions with poster beds and crystal water decanters. A room here can make the trip really exceptional.


I wish you smooth travels!

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