Start with a little bit of charcoal, add a helping of sulfur and throw in a dash of saltpeter and you'll end up with concoction that's sure to go off with a bang.

Just 199 years after a French émigré chemist named Eleuthere Irenee parlayed that recipe into a fortune, 15 excited and eager eight- and nine-year-olds got to test his formula a stone's throw or so downstream from where he first did it. To be sure, they employed some ersatz materials -- wood shavings, for example, made for a reasonable stand-in for saltpeter -- but that didn't prevent their transporting imaginations back a couple of centuries.

The youngsters were participants in the annual Hagley Museum history camp -- now in its 15th year.

Lisa Marcinkowski, the museum's education coordinator, said the camp is one of the more popular of the many educational and cultural activities conducted throughout the year on the 230-acre tract on the banks of the Brandywine, a half mile north of Wilmington, where the Du Pont Co. got its start.

If longevity doesn't fully speak to the impact of the experience on the kids, Elizabeth Dempsey sums it up nicely: "It's really fun; I've been coming here forever." The St. Elizabeth High School student is now a junior counselor after several years as a history camper.

Her counselor partner, Andy Houghton, who will be an Archmere Academy freshman come September, said he has been into hands-on history since going on a grade-school field trip to Hagley.

Chris Ball, a current camper, said playing the roll of a 19th Century powderman has it all over studying history from a book. Jenna Davis agreed from her position at the business end of a laden wheelbarrow and Gina Covelli accepted having hands and legs blackened with charcoal residue all part of the good day's work.

If the kids fit easily into the swing of things, Dick Mickles stayed well out in front setting an example. Styling himself as powderyard foreman Mr. Gibbons and raving about the $35 a month he's paid for having to work only 10 hours a day, six days a week, the retired chemical engineer led the crew through the proper procedures for mixing the ingredients in the large stone mills.

"This is the most-fun job I ever had," he explained.

While he would not be exactly be willing to have swapped his Du Pont Co. career for that of the corporate forebear he was impersonating, he admitted the exchange would have its rewards -- such as being the one to open the sluicegate and unleash the latten power of Brandywine water as it cascaded from the somnolent millrace to turn the giant stone.

Climax of the afternoon activity was getting to see black powder -- a dollop of the real stuff this time -- perform.

More satisfying than the explosion to the youngsters, however, was the opportunity to actually rub some of the explosive between their fingers after being assured that, even if they happened to touch metal, they would not -- in the words of the powdermen who toiled long ago at that very spot -- 'go across the crik' if they did so.

Delaforum visits the Hagley Museum history camp



'Mr. Gibbons' opens the gate to let the water flow and make it happen.  

The crew watches as the ingredients they mixed are ground into powder.


The kids get close up and personal with the real stuff.


Making black powder can be dirty work, but somebody has to do it.

Posted on July 13, 2001

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