Soon after arriving in America and deciding that his future lie in rectifying the then-new nation's dependence on inferior gunpowder, French émigré Eleuthère Irénée du Pont determined that the banks of the Brandywine west of Wilmington would be an ideal location at which to manufacture his product.

The rest, as they say, is history.

That history will come into sharp focus this summer when corporate descendents -- and, most likely, a fair number of familial descendents -- return to those roots to celebrate the bicentennial of the company which bears its founder's name. The general public will have the opportunity to share in the unique bit of Americana what has been and, to a large degree, still is the Du Pont story.

Although there have been several companies closely associated with the individuals and, in some cases, families responsible for their being, none remained as 'the family business' for as long as Du Pont. Neither Ford, Rockefeller, Carnegie, Firestone nor Mellon held on for as long. From 1802, when Eleuthère Irénée established the original partnership, one or Du Ponts, or Du Pont in-laws, had the helm until Charles McCoy became chief executive in the late 1960s.

The coup de grâce to family ownership was administered in 1977 when Christiana Securities -- the family-controlled holding company which owned 28% of Du Pont stock -- was absorbed. Du Pont's acquisition of Conoco 1981, which resulted in Seagram Ltd. becoming the major stockholder, is generally regarded as the culmination of the transformation.

Native and long-time Delawareans are in agreement that the Du Pont of today is not the Du Pont of a generation ago. The company, in fact, has lost the distinction of being Delaware's largest private employer with the disposal of its pharmaceuticals business. It now ranks second to M.B.N.A. Bank.

Be that as it may, the coming bicentennial is expected to be the area's foremost public attraction during the coming summer and plans are to keep the history open to public view for an indefinite period after that. And, of course, that will happen at Hagley Museum, the restored site of the original powder mills -- which was closed as a manufacturing site in 1922. Du Pont finally quit its greatly diminished explosives business in the1980s.

July 19 -- the date of the 1802 partnership agreement -- is the designated anniversary, although no powder was produced until two years later. Two hundred years later, a ceremony will mark the occasion. Du Pont employees from around the world will participate in such activities as the burying of a time capsule.

That event will be a by-invitation affair, but Jill MacKenzie, director of external affairs and development for Hagley Museum and Library, said the general public will be welcome the next day and thereafter at new interactive exhibits at the main museum at the foot of Old Barley Mill Road.

Appropriately, the Du Pont history is broken down into centuries.

One floor of the museum will be devoted to 'The Explosives Era' which covers the period from its founding until 1902 when three Du Pont cousins, Pierre, Alfred and Coleman, formed the initial modern company to succeed the partnership, which was about to be sold by their elder relatives.

The other floor well bring the story up to date under the title 'Du Pont Science and Discovery'.

Admission to the exhibits will be $5 for adults and $2 for children. Access to them also is included in general admission to the entire Hagley property, which will be raised to $11 for adults and $9 for children and seniors, effective with the exhibits opening.

MacKenzie said there has been a reasonable effort to tell an historically accurate Du Pont story through the exhibits. "It's impossible, of course, to tell the full story because it is so complex," she said. Such things as the 'powder trust' anti-trust case early in the 20th Century and criticism of the company's role as a supplier of munitions in World War I are included. "We don't dwell on them, but we don't ignore them either," she said.

Hagley this year is looking to better annual average of 85,000 visitors, she said. A full agenda of public events separate from those associated with the Du Pont bicentennial will be maintained.

The library is available, she said, to those with a deeper historic or scholarly interest. The depository for company and family papers and materials dating back to the original Pierre Samuel du Pont -- Eleuthère Irénée's father, who brought the family to America in the wake of the French Revolution -- as well as collections pertaining to other companies and business organizations, Hagley is a research institution. It is not a lending library, but reading privileges are granted to those with a demonstrated interest.

In addition to Hagley, the company is sponsoring a variety of public events this year. Included are a Winterthur exhibit at the National Gallery of Art in Washington and the National Science Olympiad at the University of Delaware. Company spokesman Cliff Webb said other events are likely and will be announced as determined.

Posted on March 25, 2002

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