I used to spend hours riding my bicycle through wealthy neighborhoods in suburban St. Louis, where I grew up. I'd stop at the gates of estates, straining to glimpse the mansions beyond and imagining what they looked like inside. No one beckoned from the front door or offered to give me a tour, of course. So I had to satisfy my curiosity by fantasizing, always on the outside.
For people like me, who, even in sensible adulthood, can't help wondering how the phenomenally rich live, there is a place where the doors of some of America's oldest, greatest estates are open wide. It is the Brandywine Valley in northern Delaware and southeastern Pennsylvania, halfway between New York and Washington, D.C.
The Brandywine region encompasses Pennsylvania towns like West Chester, Chadds Ford and Kennett Square, and Delaware towns in the northern suburbs of Wilmington. Here, in about 50 square miles of rolling hills and rushing streams, early American aristocrats built country retreats surrounded by thousands of acres of gardens and working farms on the scale of Hearst Castle, but far more tasteful.
Around 1800, in the turbulent wake of the French and American revolutions, the Brandywine welcomed a family of well-to-do French immigrants, the Du Ponts, who went on to make billions manufacturing gunpowder and, later, chemicals and synthetics.
Today Brandywine visitors are invited inside mansions like Winterthur, an unparalleled museum just outside Wilmington devoted to American arts and crafts, established by Henry Francis du Pont in 1951. Its collection includes objects made mostly in the eastern U.S. from 1640 to 1860, with none of the Spanish colonial or Mission decorative arts we Westerners know. When I took the museum's highlights tour, the guide asked where I was from and I said California. "You're not a colonial," she replied graciously, "but you are welcome."
At Longwood Gardens, another Du Pont estate just across the Pennsylvania line, the delights of spring were on lavish display when I was there in early April. Delicate blue Siberian squill dappled the greening lawns, daffodils had popped, and every fruit tree and hedgerow was in flower.
It's pleasant to follow the winding country roads past Du Pont driveways and admire the way the valley's perfect pastoral landscapes unfold. Like the English countryside, the area seems inhabited by people with long and well-tended ties to the place. Thoroughbreds gallop across the fields in steeplechase and point-to-point races, and houses are built to last out of gray local fieldstone. Whenever you stop you meet people who look as though they came from old money or at least old stock.
Quaker farmers settled around the river in the late 17th century, attracted to the area by Pennsylvania colonist William Penn. In 1777, the Redcoats dealt Gen. George Washington a defeat at the Battle of Brandywine, leading to the British occupation of Philadelphia and a devastating winter for the colonials at Valley Forge.
After establishing themselves in the environs of Wilmington, the Du Ponts were well placed for the next revolution -- the Industrial -- and Brandywine became a New World barony.
In the 20th century, three generations of another prominent local family, the Wyeths, extolled the subtle attractions of the Brandywine Valley on canvas, leaving behind a museum on the riverbank in Chadds Ford.
These days, development in the form of shopping malls and ritzy subdivisions is eating away at the rural valley, and traffic can be thick in the spring and fall, the main tourist seasons. So it's wise to plan your visit during the week and stay off such main thoroughfares as Routes 1 and 202.
I spent four days in the Brandywine Valley with my sister, Martha, who drove from Washington to join me. Spring, arguably the area's most fetching season, was just getting started; we could see it hovering in a haze of pink and yellow buds on the trees. At Whitewing Farm Bed & Breakfast, on 43 acres adjoining Longwood Gardens, with ducks, geese, swans, a bunny hutch and Belted Galloway cows, the owner, Ed DeSeta, said, "Californians come here for a season fix."
They also come to Whitewing Farm to stay in handsome, comfortable rooms in the carriage house and other beautifully renovated outbuildings. Martha and I slept tight in a twin-bedded chamber with green and white striped wallpaper and a marble-floored bath. Swans slept in the pond just outside the door with their heads tucked into their breasts.
Breakfasts, served in the gathering room up the hill, were fattening feasts of homemade cherry coffeecake, omelets and pecan flapjacks. At dinnertime Ed and his wife, Wanda, directed us to all their favorite eateries, like Simon Pearce, a glass and ceramics workshop with a store and stylish restaurant in the village of Lenape. There we sat at a table overlooking the Brandywine River; my sister enjoyed excellent salmon in leek sauce, and I had horseradish-crusted cod.
We also tried the Pennsbury Inn Bed & Breakfast, up the road in Chadds Ford. It's a homey place, originally built of blue granite fieldstone in 1714 and thought to be the hostelry where Daniel Webster recuperated after a carriage accident on the Baltimore Pike (U.S. 1), which runs by the front door.
The noisy highway was annoying, but we got quiet rooms at the back of the second floor. I stayed in the beautiful Winterthur Suite, with a huge Palladian window overlooking the garden. From there a private hallway gave access to Martha's cozy John Marshall Room.
Cheryl Grono, the proprietor, had more restaurant suggestions for us, like the elegant Dilworthtown Inn nearby, a warren of small, candle-lighted, colonial-style dining rooms with a menu that included such delicacies as shiitake and cremini mushroom soup, Stilton cheese and spinach salad and pan-seared Maryland crab cakes.
We also tried casual eateries like Hank's Place, a local favorite in Chadds Ford that serves a fortifying meatloaf lunch, and Buckley's Tavern in Centreville, on the Delaware side of the valley, where I ordered a delicious concoction called portabello mushroom and eggplant Wellington. (Portabellos, shiitakes, enokis and creminis are menu stars in many area restaurants because the valley is a major producer of exotic mushrooms.)
The abundance of fine restaurants and inns in the little valley reflects the taste and wealth of its inhabitants, including the Du Ponts, of course. Only three family members sit on the board of E.I. du Pont de Nemours & Co., which was founded by Eleuthère Irénée du Pont on the banks of the Brandywine in 1802 and made $28 billion in revenue last year. Other family notables have included public servants like former Delaware governor and 1988 presidential contender Pierre S. (Pete) du Pont IV; philanthropist Alfred I. du Pont; John Eleuthère du Pont (who, in what his lawyers characterized as a delusional fit, in 1996 shot and killed an Olympic wrestler living on his estate); and gentleman farmers like Henry Francis du Pont -- a mixed bag, in the way any family is. Among them, Henry Francis was a leading light. He turned Winterthur, the estate where he was born in 1880 and died in 1969, into a museum where everyone was welcome to share his delight in decorative American craftsmanship.
Henry Francis studied horticulture at Harvard, started managing the 2,000-acre estate (it had prizewinning Holstein cows and its own post office) in 1914 and married Ruth Wales, a New York debutante, in 1916. Seven years later he saw an early American pine dresser with pink Staffordshire plates on its shelves that "just took my breath away," he later said.
That pine dresser inspired him to devote the rest of his life to collecting Americana. It is the first thing Winterthur visitors see on the museum's 60-minute Highlights Tour. From there, Martha and I proceeded through a sampling of Winterthur's 175 period rooms (which, unlike the gardens, exhibition gallery and Campbell Collection of Soup Tureens, can be seen only on guided museum tours). These included a Federal-style dining room with six gleaming silver tankards made by Paul Revere, a parlor lined in 18th century Chinese wallpaper with no repeating scenes and a spiral staircase from an 1822 North Carolina plantation home that would outshine any bride.
Martha, a Japan scholar with an understanding of aesthetic subtleties, helped me appreciate Winterthur, and we signed on for a second, more specialized, hour-long tour that took us through period rooms in the museum's eaves. There we saw some of the American woven woolen rugs Henry Francis loved, and we learned that Shaker designers invented the swivel chair.
We also took a garden walk, in a light rain, with a guide who knew where to find Winterthur's earliest spring blooms -- buttered-popcorn-yellow winter hazel and purple Korean azaleas, Henry Francis' favorite garden color combination.
From Winterthur we drove a few miles to Chadds Ford and the Brandywine River Museum, a handsomely converted 19th century gristmill on the river, where the artwork of N.C., Andrew and Jamie Wyeth is on display. N.C., a book illustrator, bought property on the north slope of Rocky Hill in 1911 and set up his studio in a barn above his home.
Among the three generations of Wyeth painters, we liked N.C. best, for his dramatic renderings of scenes from Robert Louis Stevenson's "Treasure Island" and "Kidnapped." N.C.'s youngest son, Andrew, is represented by his paintings of a neighbor's farm. And Jamie, Andrew's son, seems to have started a school of art dedicated to animal portraiture; his nearly full-size 1970 "Portrait of a Pig" hangs magisterially in the museum.
Martha had to get back to Washington, leaving me to tour the Hagley Museum, set on 230 wooded acres in suburban Wilmington, on my own. The Brandywine River falls 120 feet in its last five-mile rush to its confluence with the Delaware; the water power is what drew canny E.I. du Pont to this spot for the first of a series of gunpowder mills that would make the family fortune, beginning with the War of 1812.
Small stone buildings, where workmen went about the dangerous business of making gunpowder from sulfur, saltpeter and charcoal, line the west bank of the river, and the first Du Pont mansion, Eleutherian Mills, stands on a hill about a half-mile beyond them. Five generations of Du Ponts lived there, including Louise du Pont Crowninshield, sister of Winterthur's Henry Francis and a founder of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. She restored the graceful Georgian home and lived there part time until her death in 1958. According to a museum docent, she had a standing order for four truckloads of spring flowers to arrive at Eleutherian Mills every Easter, when she returned from wintering in Florida.
For spring blooms I drove to Longwood, near the town of Kennett Square, with 1,050 acres of outdoor gardens and a 20-room conservatory largely dedicated to seasonal floral displays. Yet another Du Pont was responsible for this horticultural museum: Pierre S. du Pont, who for a time was chairman of both Du Pont and General Motors, and who bought the Longwood property as a country retreat in 1906.
Like Winterthur, Longwood Gardens is so big and full of wonders that it would take days to see it all. I concentrated on the Topiary Garden, with its huge chocolate drop-shaped Japanese yews, and the conservatory, whose main rooms were banked with daisies, grape hyacinths and snapdragons.
Between museum and garden visits, I took a run in Brandywine Battlefield State Park in Chadds Ford, and went horseback riding at a stable near Kennett Square.
Later I drove 10 miles south into downtown Wilmington to have a cocktail and a gander at the elegant Gold Ballroom in the Hotel Du Pont. The 12-story hotel, opened in 1913, looks like an Italian Renaissance palace and is still owned by E.I. du Pont de Nemours & Co.
Next to Winterthur, though, my favorite Brandywine Valley spot was Baldwin's Book Barn, just south of West Chester. It is run by Thomas M. Baldwin, the son of the founder, and is more like an institute of higher learning than a shop. (Most of the employees have doctorates, according to Baldwin.) A quarter of a million rare and used volumes are crammed into the white-plastered 18th century dairy barn.
When I asked Baldwin about his most valuable treasures, he produced a collection of speeches by President Theodore Roosevelt called "The New Nationalism," signed by the author. "I still buy more books than I can sell. I can't help myself," Baldwin told me. "I never did make a lot of money at it, but I live well."
His sentiments summed up the Brandywine Valley nicely. Whether or not your name is Du Pont, it's a place where people love fine things and live well.
GUIDEBOOK: SAVORING BRANDYWINE
The Brandywine Valley is easily reached by car from Philadelphia or Baltimore via I-95. In Wilmington, Del., exit at Route 52 and follow it north about 10 miles. The entrance to Winterthur is on Route 52 near Centreville, six miles north of Wilmington; Longwood Gardens is about five miles farther, on U.S. 1 just east of Kennett Square, Pa.
WHERE TO STAY
Whitewing Farm Bed & Breakfast, 370 Valley Road, West Chester, PA 19382; telephone (610) 388-2664, fax (610) 388-3650, Internet www.whitewingfarm.com. Rooms and suites range from $135 to $245 Sundays to Thursdays and $145 to $269 on weekends and holidays; breakfast is included.
The Pennsbury Inn, 883 Baltimore Pike (U.S. 1), Chadds Ford, PA 19317; tel. (610) 388-1435, fax (610) 388-1436, www.pennsburyinn.com. Six rooms and suites; $150 to $190 midweek, $170 to $225 on weekends, with breakfast.
For those who prefer hotels to B&Bs, there's the contemporary, 70-room Mendenhall Hotel, Route 52, Mendenhall, PA 19357; tel. (610) 388-2100, fax (610) 388-1184, www.mendenhallinn.com. Near Winterthur; doubles $129.
The Inn at Montchanin Village, Route 100 and Kirk Road, Montchanin, DE 19710, tel. (302) 888-2133, fax (302) 888-0389, www.montchanin.com, has 27 pleasant rooms and suites for $135 to $350 in a onetime Du Pont workers' village.
Hotel du Pont, 11th and Market streets, Wilmington, DE 19801, tel. (800) 441-9019, fax (302) 656-2145, www.hoteldupont.com; doubles $169 to $302.
WHERE TO EAT
The Dilworthtown Inn, Old Wilmington Pike, West Chester, tel. (610) 399-1390; founded in 1758; dinner entrees $17.95 to $36.95.
Simon Pearce Restaurant, 1333 Lenape Road, West Chester, tel. (610) 793-0948, is a stylish spot on the Brandywine River; entrees $18.50 to $32.
WHAT TO DO
Brandywine River Museum, Route 1, Chadds Ford, PA 19317, tel. (610) 388-2700, www.brandywinemuseum.org, is about 15 miles north of Wilmington; daily 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
Hagley Museum, P.O. Box 3630, Wilmington, DE 19807, tel. (302) 658-2400, www.hagley.org, is on Route 141 north of Wilmington; daily 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
Longwood Gardens, P.O. Box 501, Kennett Square, PA 19348, tel. (610) 388-6741, www.longwoodgardens.com, is near the intersection of Routes 1 and 52; daily 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Winterthur Museum, Route 52, Winterthur, DE 19735, tel. (800) 448-3883, www.winterthur.org; Monday to Saturday 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., Sunday noon to 5.