There are some museums that (whether or not they are intended to do so) engage children immediately and with no effort. And then there are museums that take a little bit more work. The Hagley Museum and Library falls into that latter category, although it’s worth the effort, especially if your children are interested in machines and how things work.
Hagley is the site of the du Pont family’s original home along the Brandywine River just outside Wilmington, Delaware. It is where the du Ponts settled when they arrived in the United States at the turn of the nineteenth century and is also where they built the gunpowder mills that were the origin of their fortune. Along with nearby Winterthur and Longwood Gardens, both created by du Pont heirs, it represents an important piece of the history of the area which really was formed in many ways by the du Pont family and company. It’s also a beautiful spot, with water tumbling over weirs and the ground carpeted on a sunny March day with early blooming wildflowers. It’s hard to believe that the air was once sulphurous and crowds of workers worked along the water.
We started our tour by riding a shuttle from the Welcome Center (which houses a small exhibit explaining the history of the area and the du Pont Company) up to the du Pont family ancestral home, which is called Eleutherian Mills. While tours of the inside of the house are available (and I recommend one for adults who are there without children) I never had any intention of taking the boys inside since the rooms are small and hold little that would interest them. Instead I let them have a good run around the formal garden.
We explored the small exhibit of antique cars in the barn (for a brief time in the early twentieth century the company manufactured them).
Then we went upstairs and looked at the collection of weather vanes the Conestoga wagon, and one of the powder wagons that used to carry gunpowder into Wilmington.
All of this took about twenty minutes and then we had to wait another ten for the shuttle to come and get us and bring us back down to the Workers’ Hill area, where the Belin House Café is.
Travel-with-kids tip: Unless your children are really fascinated by antique cars and wagons, skip the house altogether and ask to be let off the shuttle at Worker’s Hill or the Powder Yard. Or walk to the Powder Yard from the Welcome Center. There’s really not much up at the main house to interest children.
After lunch (the café has a small but nice selection of sandwiches, soup, and on this March Saturday, hot dogs for a dollar each) we crossed over the Sunday School building, a misleading name as this was not a religious school but was only open on Sundays since children worked in the yard during the week. Here an interpreter offered the boys a chance to write with quill pens, which they both eagerly set to work doing.
We then walked down the hill to the Gibbons House, where the foreman of the yard once lived with his family. This was the highlight of the day for the boys.
For one thing, the interpreter working in the kitchen was using the woodstove to bake oatmeal cookies, which she shared with them. They also really liked playing “what’s different from now” in the kitchen, exploring the ice box and the ironing board. They were then invited into a small room off to the side where they took turns washing socks and putting them through a mangle before hanging them up to dry.
They are never this eager to help with the laundry at home, I assure you!
Travel-with-kids tip: The interpreters at Hagley really want to engage with the children who are visiting and know a lot about how everything there works. Encourage your children to ask them questions. You may find that they answer by letting your child physically explore whatever is being demonstrated.
We strolled down the hill to the machine shop. It is full of all kinds of ingenious lathes and nineteenth-century machines for making and repairing gears and cogs, all still in working order and authentic. This was where all of the machinery for the various mills was made and repaired and it has a sculptural and practical beauty that I find appealing along with the smell of grease and sawdust. I think that if we had started our tour there the boys would have been interested in how the various machines worked; as it was, they were really not able to pay very close attention to what the interpreter was saying, although Tommy did like it when she showed us broken spokes on a huge gear and how they had been patched and repaired.
And unfortunately at this point the boys ran out of steam, and so we really didn’t get to explore the Powder Yard beyond a quick walk up the railroad track to check out the cheerful yellow freight car that once ran along it.
If I had the day to do over, I’d skip our visit to the house and start exploring in the Powder Yard. I know the boys would have enjoyed the water turbine and the gun powder testing demonstration, which we skipped. And if we had done that before lunch then we might have had time to not only see Workers’ Hill but would have made it over to the simple machines exhibit for kids (called “Easy Does It!”, it’s a short walk from the Welcome Center but doesn’t open until 1 p.m.) before the boys got tired and wanted to leave for the greener pastures of the nearby state park. I do intend to return with them later in the spring so that we can see the things we missed. I’m guessing they will want to go back and write some more with those quill pens!