By Renée S. Gordon
The Brandywine River Valley is made up of a number of historic towns and hamlets in Southeastern Pennsylvania and Delaware with a 19-mile scenic loop through the hills, valleys and tree-lined winding roads of chateau country. The area is nationally recognized for its beauty, culture, mansions and museums. www.brandywinecvb.org
The Lenni-Lenape Indians, the first documented residents to settle on the Brandywine River, referred to it as Wawaset. The first Europeans, the Swedish, named it Fiskiekylen (Fish Creek), in reference to the abundance of fish found there. Andreas Brantwyn, an early colonist, probably lent his name to the river as early as 1681.
William Penn’s 1681 charter granted him Pennsylvania and a portion of Delaware and Quakers settled the region. A Swede on Cobbs’ Creek established the first mill in the region in 1646 but Quakers soon followed and began milling high quality Brandywine Superfine Flour on the river. Two outgrowths of the colonial era in the valley were the first log cabins in America and the development of the Conestoga wagon.
Pierre Samuel du Pont de Nemours first arrived in America accompanied by his sons Victor and Eleuthère in 1800. He returned to France where he made the acquaintance of Jefferson who was instrumental in his moving permanently to America in 1815 where he died two years later. While Pierre is considered the patriarch of the family, it is Eleuthère who founded the gunpowder company that would become the foundation of the family’s wealth.
The historic structures and the natural beauty of the Brandywine Valley have been meticulously preserved and restored. The area is filled with unique sites and attractions, some dating from the Colonial Era, and several internationally renowned museums that are located on estates that once belonged to various members of the du Pont family. Each site is an individual gem and one can easily spend days touring and not see everything. Consider this column a list of suggested sites that are guaranteed to amaze you and no attraction is more than a 25-minute drive from any other location or Philadelphia.
Prepare to spend several hours at the Hagley Museum for anything less than that will not do it justice. The 235-acre Hagley complex relates the origin of the du Pont story and the tour begins in the Visitor Center with an excellent series of interactive displays that include a working mill model, a lighted map of the valley, a diorama of a native campsite and family history. Outdoor interpretive areas are accessed by bus and feature the Powder Yard, where gunpowder was made and Workers’ Hill, complete with homes and a school. Demonstrations of gunpowder testing and use of the 8-ton water wheel are highlights of the outdoor exhibits. The gardens throughout the grounds are also notable.
Eleutherian Mills, the first du Pont family home in the U.S., was constructed in 1803. Five generations lived in the house that became a museum in 1952. The original house is the center section with the two wings and raised roof added in the 1850s to double its size. It has been redone with furnishings to reflect how a wealthy family would have lived in that time period. The antiques are of the era but did not belong to the family. Of special interest is the 1834 wallpaper in the formal dining room. It depicts African Americans in daily activities as handpainted by a Frenchman who never visited the country. www.hagley.org
Pierre du Pont acquired Longwood from the Peirce family in 1906 and he spent his weekends there for the next 48-years. The house on the property dates from 1730 and today serves as a heritage museum.
The 1,077-acre Longwood Gardens consists of more than 10,000 plant species exhibited in 20 outdoor gardens and 20 gardens inside Longwood’s 4-acre Conservatory. There are two water gardens each of which is computer controlled. The Main Fountain Garden, completed in 1931, presents a stunning 30-minute evening show that can display 17 million light and water combinations. www.longwoodgardens.org
I dare you not to be awed by Henry Francis du Pont’s Winterthur Estate. Trams stop at various sites in the 60-acre naturalistic garden so that visitors can admire, photograph or simply contemplate the beauty that surrounds them. The 3-acre Enchanted Woods, a garden designed for the child in all of us, showcases 11 attractions including a delightful Faerie Cottage.
Henry du Pont’s country estate is a 96,582-sq. ft. mansion with 175 rooms specially designed to house his collection of decorative American arts dating from 1640-1860. He collected entire rooms and built rooms in which to display them. The collection today consists of 85,000 objects. Highlights of the 45-minute house tour are the Martha Washington china service, silver tankards crafted by Paul Revere and the Chinese Parlor with a ceiling du Pont had heightened just to accommodate the wallpaper. Make reservations for the tour and plan to spend an entire day. www.winterthur.org
The Brandywine River Museum began as a gristmill and is today a museum with six galleries that showcase the works of Andrew, N.C. and Jamie Wyeth as well as a number of other artists. The collection has grown from 40 works to 40,000 since it began in 1967. The restaurant and gift shop are open daily. N.C. Wyeth’s home, studio and Kuerner Farm are also on the grounds and may be toured by reservation. www.brandywinemuseum.org
The most recent du Pont estate to open to the public is Mt. Cuba Center. It features the best example of a woodland wildflower garden in the country. Mr. and Mrs. L. du Pont Copeland built the Colonial Revival house in 1937 and completed the landscaping in the 70s. Mt. Cuba is a learning institution and offers a variety of programs both for college credit and for fun. Admission is free but reservations are required for garden tours. www.mtcubacenter.org
In 1984, the New Castle, Delaware Historic District, 4-miles south of Wilmington, was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The site encompasses 517 structures within 135-acres. Originally founded by the Dutch It later became part of Penn’s land grant. www.newcastlecity.net
The most significant building is the 22-room Read House. Once the largest in the state, the 1803 Federal house was constructed with 4 floors in the center and 3 floors at the front and rear. Outstanding features include punch and gouge woodwork, ceiling stenciling and mahogany interior doors. Other historic highlights include the 1650 Town Green, the Episcopal Church, the New Castle Courthouse and a statue of William Penn situated on the Green. www.dehistory.org
Several hotels within the region have packages in partnership with Brandywine Valley attractions. Three that offer something extra are the Hotel dupont, the Wilmington Hilton and the Brandywine River Hotel. www.visitwilmingtonde.org
The du Pont is a registered Historic Hotel of America that has undergone a $40-million renovation and offers a shopping arcade, theater, valet parking, fitness center and gourmet dining in the famous Green Room. www.hoteldupont.com
The Wilmington Hilton replicates a chateau with noteworthy artworks throughout. Guest accommodations are spacious and public spaces are beautifully appointed. www.hiltonchristiana.com
Nestled in the heart of Chaddsford is the Brandywine River Hotel. Accommodations include free WIFI, 40 guest rooms, Jacuzzi suites, room service and fine dining. www.brandywineriverhotel.com
Brandywine Prime Seafood and Chops, www.BrandywinePrime.com, is a 1st place winner of the Chester County Choice Award. The food is outstanding and the restaurant caters for all occasions. Patrons are encouraged to BYOB and the obvious choice is a bottle from the Chaddsford Winery located one block away. www.chaddsford.com
Zagat and “Philadelphia Magazine” have recognized the Whip Tavern as a unique dining experience. The restaurant uses fresh, local ingredients in traditional English fare served in an English pub setting. www.thewhiptavern.com
The Brandywine Valley is in Philadelphia’s backyard. It makes a wonderful day trip or weekend getaway. There are ten museums within ten miles, routes are clearly marked and restaurants and points of interest are listed in the readily available “Sites & Bites Map and Guide,” www.sitesandbites.com. The Brandywine Treasure Trail Passport provides discount accommodations and one-time admission to participating museums. www.brandywinetreasures.org
A trove of treasures can be found in the Brandywine Valley and this is an opportune time to seek them out. www.thebrandywinevalley.com
I wish you smooth and splendid travels!