The Brandywine Valley may be serene today. But in past centuries, its creek was lined with dozens of mills. There are still places today that echo the turning of their giant wheels and turbines.
Photos by Jim Graham.
One of the most bucolic natural sanctuaries in the Mid-Atlantic region is the stretch of Brandywine Creek that flows between Chadds Ford, Pa., and its Wilmington terminus. There you’ll find tree-lined parks, thickets of woodland, winding lanes along the hillsides, and few sounds except the rippling of water flowing over rocks and boulders.
It wasn’t always like this. During the 18th and 19th centuries, the Brandywine was a major manufacturing center for the young nation, thanks to the weight of water. Its liquid force first turned giant wheels, then turbines, to produce everything from flour to cloth to gunpowder.
The first local miller is believed to have been Timothy Stidham, a Swedish colonist who, in 1679, constructed a mill in Wilmington on the west side of the Brandywine near where Adams Street comes down to the water. It was a time of change. The area was passing from Swedish and (later) Dutch control as it became an English colony under the guidance of William Penn.
Stidham and his sons began by milling barley and producing flour. From that modest start, milling flourished along the Brandywine through the next century. According to H. Clay Reed’s Delaware: A History of the First State, a 1791 report on industrial Wilmington listed 12 flour mills, six sawmills, one paper mill, one barley mill, one slit mill for manufacturing nails, and one snuff mill. In 1804, the du Pont family added gunpowder and blasting powder to that list. Their fiber mills for wool and cotton would come later. Water- driven manufacturing continued through the 1800s.
Today, almost all of the mills have vanished, with the exception of a few preserved for other purposes. Hoffman’s Mill in Chadds Ford is now the Brandywine River Museum of Art. Walker’s Mill in Wilmington is an office building. Breck’s Mill, on the opposite side of the creek from Walker’s, now houses a U.S. Post Office, an art gallery and a studio. The du Ponts’ milling legacy has been preserved for visitors and researchers as the Hagley Museum & Library in Wilmington. Here and there, traces of other mills linger as pieces of rock and brick peaking through the undergrowth.
Lucas Clawson is one of the foremost authorities on local mills. A reference archivist at Hagley Museum, he keeps a historical map on his office wall at the Soda House, which was once a storage building for black powder ingredients. “All along the river were great places for mills,” Clawson says.
The gradual decline in the Brandywine’s altitude was just right for powering the giant wheels used to grind ingredients or move machinery. Mill races channeled water into the building. More than 60 pounds of weight on the paddles lining the wheel would set it spinning.The water then flowed back into the creek for its continued journey to the Delaware Bay.
With his handlebar mustache, hair parted in the middle and modern clothing with a historic flair, Clawson looks the part of an archivist. Pointing to the map, he explains the public policy of the day. “Mill owners had water rights to the center of the stream,” he says. “But they also had to get the approval of the people who owned the land opposite. Additionally, there was to be no turbidity to the water as it left the mill.”
As Clawson points out mill sites on the map and relates their histories, it quickly becomes apparent that it would be almost impossible to account for them all. Many changed hands and names multiple times, along with the materials the mills produced. Others cropped up on sites where previous mills had been destroyed by flood or fire, because the locations were good ones.
Arriving from France at the beginning of the 19th century, Éleuthère Irénée du Pont de Nemoursand his family were late to the milling industry. But they quickly made up for lost time. “He began buying up properties on both sides of the river starting in 1801-1802,” says Clawson.
Du Pont de Nemours’ intention was to become a leader in the production of the black powder used as ammunition for hunting game and making war. It was also an explosive perfect for carving out roads, canals and mine quarries.
Though most material for clothing was then manufactured in Great Britain, early trade disputes, followed by the War of 1812, enticed American manufacturers—among them du Pont—to open woolen mills along the Brandywine. After the war, foreign competition resumed. “In the 1830s, mill technology changed,” says Clawson. “Turbines began to replace the water wheels.”
Powder mills were an especially dangerous place to work. DuPont company lore had it that any employee caught with a match would be immediately fired. The family member or employee who managed the mills lived in on-site housing, so as to have a personal interest in safety. Just in case, the part of the mill adjacent to the creek was designed to carry the force of an explosion away from houses and offices.
During the 1800s, the DuPont company owned several mills along the creek. The final one ceased operationsin 1921, though the company continued to makeblack powder elsewhere until 1975. A 235-acre venue on the west side of the creek, Hagley became a nonprofit library and museum open to the public in 1972. The site includes restored mills, a workers’ community, and the ancestral home and gardens of the du Pont family.
Less than a mile downstream from Hagley, Breck’s Mill was built in the 1810s as a cotton-spinning mill. The interior later burned. By the turn of the century, it was being used as everything from a community center to a small playhouse to a live music venue. Eventually, it was donated to Hagley, who needed tenants. “Hagley Museum heard I was looking [for a new gallery space], and the second floor was opening up for rent,” says Vickie Manning, whose Somerville Manning Gallery is now a tenant.
The site is among the most beautiful along the Brandywine. The mill faces the creek at the site of a small dam, with a placid pond on one side and a rocky torrent below. Across the creek, the much larger Walker’s Mill was once a cotton-manufacturing facility. “It was unusual [because] the mill race came in behind the building,” Clawson says. “The water went through the center of the mill and came out in the front.”
Perhaps the region’s best-known mill is farther upstream. In the 1960s, residents of the Chadds Ford area were fearful that their pristine area would be a target for industrial and residential development. Led by the late George (Frolic) Weymouth, a landowner, painter, businessman and philanthropist, the Brandywine Conservancy was formed in 1967. One of its prizes was Hoffman’s Mill, built in 1864 as a gristmill. Weymouth thought it could house a museum to serve as a local showcase for works by his friend, world-renowned painter Andrew Wyeth, whose studio was just upstream. Though he interviewed several architects, Weymouth chose a friend from Baltimore, James Grieves, for the job. In a 2004 article in the Baltimore Sun, Grieves related how Weymouth took him to see the mill. “I said, ‘The first thing I wouldn’t do is take the sag out of that roof.’ He kind of liked that,” said Grieves. “It turns out I was being interviewed for the job, but I didn’t know it.”
The Brandywine River Museum of Art opened in 1971, and Grieves subsequently did an expansion to the building. (He also redesigned the Grand Opera House in Wilmington.) Like Hagley, the museum is now a stately reminder of a past era. And the Brandywine has reclaimed its original role as
a scenic stream.
When there are strong rains or a rapid snow melt, the creek re-asserts itself, flooding the lower parts of the old mills along its banks as if to declare, “Don’t forget I’m still here—and that I’m the reason for your existence.”