Mention Delaware’s “First Family,” and the name that would come to just about everyone living in the Blue Hen State would be “du Pont,” the family whose fortune was created by the manufacture of black gunpowder some 200 years ago.
Originally from France, the du Pont family settled in the Brandywine Valley, constructing sprawling and grand estates for themselves and their heirs. Chateau Country: du Pont Estates in the Brandywine Valley is an intimate portrait of the homes built by the Delaware family. Their first dwelling was a modest six-room house just steps from the gunpowder mills that made the du Ponts wealthy. Nearly a century later, their largest home had 176 rooms and 36 servants with 2,300 acres of land.
Daniel DeKalb Miller’s Chateau Country explores thirty-three du Pont homes, taking readers inside and describing a way of life that has all but disappeared. Miller recently shared his historical insights with Town Square Delaware.
Town Square Delaware: Please tell us your motivation for writing Chateau Country.
Daniel DeKalb Miller: As a former reporter for The Washington Post, a Marine Corps correspondent and publisher of an international travel newsletter, I have always had a keen interest in history and journalism. To better appreciate Delaware’s history, I have spent several years learning about the du Ponts and their impact on our great State.
TSD: Indeed, the du Ponts had major roles in the history and politics of our state for the last two centuries. But why write about their homes?
Miller: I have always been interested in architecture and large, older houses. So I thought I would write a book about those houses in Delaware — and that meant the du Pont houses.
TSD: Did you know many of the du Ponts who lived in theses houses?
Miller: No I do not, and I thought that might make gathering information a bit more difficult. But I thought I would start the book and see how it went.
I developed a list of about 30 or so houses that I thought should be included and then wrote three chapters on houses that were originally private du Pont houses but were now museum houses. These included:
Eleutherian Mills – the first du Pont family house
Nemours – Alfred I. du Pont’s house
Winterthur – owned originally by Antoine and Evelina du Pont Bidermann and later greatly expanded by Henry A. du Pont and his son Henry Francis
Armed with the list and the three chapters, I approached the patriarch of the family, Irenee du Pont, Jr. Mr. du Pont was extremely cordial, and we visited for some time, during which I explained the scope of the project. Following my visit with Mr. du Pont, I wrote a chapter about his house, Granogue, and made a follow-up visit with him so he could offer changes and corrections.
TSD: Is this the process you followed with each of the houses in the book?
Miller: Yes, I met with each current home owner then returned after I had written the chapter about his or her house to make sure that everything was accurate. I later returned with a photographer to photograph each of the houses.
TSD: Did everyone agree to have their house included?
Miller: Everyone on my original list agreed to participate and they were all welcoming. Only one homeowner, whom I contacted at the suggestion of his friend whose house was to be included in the book, declined. This particular homeowner was concerned about a map with home locations I had intended to include in the book. After our conversation, I decided not to include the map.
TSD: Was there any sort of commonality that you found among the houses?
Miller: Yes. All of the homes used Brandywine Valley materials like the blue rock called ‘gneiss,’ which was found and used at Hagley Powder Works. And while most of the homes were done in the traditional Colonial or Colonial Revival style, some were in fact English Tudor style. And several du Pont homes feature eagles as part of their decor, carved into the structural materials, to commemorate the ship named the American Eagle, on which the du Ponts sailed from France to America. many of the homes In addition to being gracious homes in which to live, all of the houses had some link to previous generations who lived there, whether it was furniture, portraits, or a prized heirloom. Their houses are pretty much like other houses of weathly homeowners but on a grander scale and with many more historical points of interest.
TSD: How long did it take you to write Chateau Country?
Miller: It took two and a half years of research and writing. From the time the manuscript was given to the publisher until the book was published took another year.
TSD: Where is the book available? How big is it? And what is the price?
Miller: Chateau Country is available in Wilmington downtown at the Ninth Street Bookstore, in Greenville at Apropos, Artemis, Petals and The Station Gallery and at the Hagley and Longwood Museum shops. It’s also available online at Amazon and through Barnes & Noble. It’s coffee table book with 272 pages and 172 color photographs. The suggested retail price is $59.99.