When the young French chemist Eleuthere Irenee du Pont de Nemours arrived in America on the first day of the last century, he was merely fleeing the revolution that toppled the monarchy in his native land. But after things cooled off for his family's royal pals back home, E.I. du Pont decided to stay and start his own empire here.
That kingdom still exists to an extent today. It's called Delaware.
The bucolic region along the Brandywine River where generations of du Ponts have worked and played is now America's chateau country -- a scaled-down version of France's Valley of the Kings. The grand country homes and gardens open to the public makes the area along the Delaware/Pennsylvania border a rich, relaxing destination even for non-millionaires.
You'll never see all the estates in one weekend, so don't try. Wander the wooded hillsides, sample other attractions of the region and take time to smell the roses. Then come back again and drop in on more du Ponts another time.
On a recent three-day visit, I explored three major du Pont domains: the Hagley Museum, Winterthur and Longwood Gardens. All are vast but endearingly down to earth. The estates' floral displays are at their peak in early spring and late summer, but there's invariably something blooming through the growing season, and extra events are added to enhance midsummer visits.
This is also Wyeth country, and you can see many works by three generations of this famous family, as well as the landscapes that inspired them and other noted American artists. Stone farmhouses and meadows of wildflowers still far outnumber shopping malls along the Brandywine, which empties into the Delaware River in Wilmington.
The area is dotted with bed and breakfasts, but if you're feeling flush you can stay in Wilmington's opulent Hotel duPont, once home to the dynasty scion who developed Longwood Gardens. However, I decided to avoid downtown Wilmington and make my base around historic Chadds Ford and Kennett Square, Pa. Most major attractions are within a 10-mile radius of these villages, along U.S. Route 1 or Pa./Del. Route 52.
Chadds Ford's Brandywine River Museum is a converted Civil War-era gristmill that's now a showcase for American art -- most famous for its unparalleled Wyeth collection. Outside, canoeists drifted past as I strolled along the wooded River Trail to the 1725 John Chads House, home of the ferryman and innkeeper who founded the town (which over the years mysteriously acquired another "d").
The Hagley Museum
The logical first stop on an ascent of the du Pont family tree is the Hagley Museum, where the family began building its fortune. This Sturbridge Village-like complex a few miles north of Wilmington features exhibits and demonstrations showing how the du Ponts and their employees
lived and worked during the Industrial Revolution.
Throughout the 19th century, E.I. du Pont de Nemours & Co. was the nation's largest manufacturer of gunpowder.
Since Eleutherian Mills stood perilously close to the powder yards, it was rocked by frequent explosions -- which persuaded E.I. du Pont's daughter Evelina to set up housekeeping a couple of miles away. She and her Swiss-born husband named their house after his hometown: Winterthur.
Surrounded by 985 acres of naturalistic gardens, Winterthur's staggering 175 rooms contain the world's premier collection of American decorative arts -- collected almost single-handedly by E.I. du Pont's great-grandson, Henry Francis du Pont.
About 10 miles up the road in Kennett Square, Pa., cousin Pierre S. du Pont created his own priceless legacy: Longwood Gardens. In 1906, he bought an old farm to save its lofty trees from being cut down for timber, and over the next half-century, he turned the 1,050-acre spread into one of America's premier horticultural displays. The threatened giant trees remain in a section called Peirce's Park.
The Peirce-du Pont House is closed for renovation until next spring, but you can wander among several hundred fragrant acres. There are also color-themed gardens, topiary gardens and fountain gardens.
Longwood's schedule of summer events includes fountain illuminations set to music on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday at dusk. Some presentations, including fountain/fireworks shows scheduled for Fridays -- Aug. 12, Aug 26 and Sept. 9 -- require extra advance tickets, but otherwise the Longwood Gardens day admission (usually $10 for adults) allows visitors to come and go until closing time. (Bring your own chair to ensure a seat at evening events.)
Longwood's theatrics reportedly prompted another du Pont cousin and business partner to build gardens inspired by Versailles at Nemours, named after the ancestral home in France. But I had to save that estate for my next visit.
IF YOU GO . . .
Extras: Museum admissions run $2 to $15. Add 6 percent Pennsylvania state tax to everything but groceries and clothing.
Information: Brandywine Valley tourism, (800) 228-9933; Brandywine River Museum, (610) 388-2700; Hagley Museum, (302) 658-2400; Longwood Gardens, (800) 737-5500 (recorded information) or (610) 388-6741; Winterthur, (800) 448-3883; Greater Wilmington information, (302) 652-4088.