Enjoy learning about America's history in Delaware, a tiny state where colonial architecture and culture are served up — in a very friendly way — on a silver platter.
We found ourselves hungering to search out Americana, to wrap ourselves in the security of our history and heritage. In the Brandywine Valley, we found something we never expected: virtually the whole history of America, its art, its social and economic development, laid out before us amidst the rolling hills of the Appalachians.
It probably comes as no surprise that the Brandywine, brimming with some of the most incredible mansions, collections and museums in the country, is a magnet for adults. What comes as a real surprise is how fabulous the Brandywine is for families with children. This is a marvelous place to spoon-feed art, history and culture to children in a way that will enchant and engage for a lifetime, and where grandparents can share their first-hand experiences with their grandchildren and forge lasting memories.
First Families of Pennsylvania & Delaware
There must be something intoxicating about this picturesque region that straddles Delaware and Pennsylvania. That could explain how it spawned two of the most famous family dynasties in the country, the du Ponts of the industrial world and the Wyeths of the art world. In both cases, the family “business” produced scions and in-laws who chose to remain in both the business and the Brandywine.
Here, you do not just visit museums and collections, exhibits and gardens, or merely view photographs and paintings. You have the feeling of being witness to the ages, a guest in one of the du Pont’s homes, or the Wyeth’s studio. You don’t just see the extraordinary collection of Henry Francis du Pont at Winterthur or Pierre S. du Pont at his Longwood Gardens house; you see the home as the family lived in it, complete with family photos, portraits, and toys. A visit to these estates, to the original gunpowder works and to the Wilmington/Brandywine area, we came to realize, is inextricably linked to the du Ponts and the company which still bears the family name. This is especially true if you base yourself at Wilmington’s Hotel du Pont. As grand as when it opened in 1913, it maintains the illusion of staying with the family, surrounded by their fabulous collection of paintings by the Wyeths and Brandywine artists.
For a long weekend, the Brandywine Valley is genteel, elegant and gracious, affording an extraordinarily high quality guest experience. It is a destination that has appeal regardless of the season, since just about all the major attractions are open year-round, adjust their programs for the season, and in most cases, have indoor as well as outdoor components.
Probably because so much of the land was part of vast estates which have been set aside by their benefactors for the public, you really have the sense of going back in time. You draw a sense of tranquility from the peacefulness of the landscape. The Brandywine comes to life in spring and veritably hums in summer, gets peaceful in fall and festive in winter.
Winterthur Museum & Gardens is a world-class attraction to rival the best homes and collections of Europe. Winterthur is the American country estate of Henry Francis du Pont, among the first to appreciate and collect American antiques. Beginning in the 1920s, he became such an avid collector, he expanded the house, originally built in 1839 over and over again just to accommodate his growing collection, until it reached eight stories and 175 period rooms. Today, the collection, which includes American antique furniture going back to the 1600s and a 1790 portrait of George Washington by John Trumball (said to have belonged to Martha) numbers some 85,000 objects.
Henry Francis Du Pont was equally avid about gardens, and the 1000-acre country estate encompasses rolling hills, streams, meadows, forests and gardens which visitors can stroll. Families will take particular delight in the Enchanted Woods; children can romp through a Tulip Tree House, the Faerie Cottage, the Troll Bridge, the Story Stones, S-s-serpentine path, and the Acorn tea room.
Tour Details: Such an enormous facility might be daunting to a visitor, but Winterthur offers several different 60-minute “Discovery” tours, each focused on a different subject. Individual rates for the complete Winterthur Experience tours vary by tour and age of participant. You should allocate at least three hours to visit on the first day, and you may want to return the next day to give more time to the galleries and gardens. After the first, additional tours are available for only $5 each. In addition, various specialized two to three-hour tours are offered; these focus tours give you the opportunity to explore your personal interest in areas such as furniture, textiles, and ceramics on a guided tour with a small group. Reservations are recommended.
Throughout the year there are special events for families, from April-July, Saturdays and Sundays. Enjoy a guided walk through the blooming landscape and learn about Henry Francis du Pont’s secrets of naturalistic garden design and detail; and “Yuletide” (mid-November through early January): View the rooms as the du Ponts would have had them decorated, and see the evolution of the American tradition of Christmas. Family-friendly tours are open to all ages; all other tours welcome visitors 8 and older. (Open daily except Monday, Winterthur, Rte. 52, Winterthur, DE 19735, 800/448-3883;
Enchanting Longwood Gardens
There are many magnificent gardens in the world, but Pennsylvania’s Longwood Gardens affords a unique experience. There are 1,050 acres of manicured gardens, with nearly four acres “under glass” of an architecturally exquisite Conservatory. In addition, there is the ca. 1730 house which served as the home of Pierre S. du Pont, and offers a fascinating exhibit about the property, the family and life at the estate. One of the many garden highlights and a true delight (that children often recall as a favorite childhood memory) is the Festival of Fountains choreographed with colored lights and music in what Mr. du Pont had designed as an outdoor theater, where there are summer concerts and plays in addition to the fountain displays.
Tour Details: The gardens are open daily year-round, with special events and of course seasonal floral display (hours of operation shorten as the fall season progresses). Longwood Gardens is on U.S. Rte 1, Kennett Square, PA, 610/388-1000.
Living American History Museums
As so many of the attractions we had been visiting in the Wilmington/Brandywine Area, Hagley Museum turned out to be so much more than a museum, with so many different levels of exploration. Located along the Brandywine River on the site of the first du Pont black powder works, Hagley provides a unique view of American life at home and at work in the 19th century.
Spanning 235 acres, the museum offers not only a visit and live demonstrations by costumed interpreters of the mill works and a 19th-century machine shop, but the Blacksmith Hill workers’ community, and the first du Pont family home and garden, Eleutherian Mills, dating from 1803. (In one of the rooms is an 18th-century wooden toy, Noah’s Ark, that the family carried with them from France when they emigrated to the United States.) Interpreters demonstrate the technology of the Industrial Revolution, such as a steam engine that takes up an entire building; children can see gunpowder that has just been milled exploded in front of them to demonstrate the quality control that made the du Ponts so successful. Adults and children alike will revel in the many different layers and levels of fascination.
Tour Details: From mid March through December, Hagley is open daily but there is only one guided tour by bus on weekdays in winter. There are special events scheduled throughout the year oriented to children (like a Saint Patrick’s Celebration in mid-March). Plan on spending at least three hours, but it is easy to spend the better part of a day, if you want to wander the trails. Hagley Museum is located on Route 141 in Wilmington, less than 15 minutes from the Hotel du Pont (302/658-2400).
Brandywine Valley Attractions
The Brandywine Museum, showcasing the artists of this region, particularly the three generations of the Wyeth Family, is ideal for multigenerational families. We were delighted by the variety of programs that are offered throughout the year, including weekend and summer workshops for children and fabulous family festivities at Christmastime (a room-size display of vintage model trains decorated for the holidays is a major lure, as well as artfully decorated Christmas trees.) Open Daily, 9:30am to 4:30pm.
Also, the Delaware Toy and Miniature Museum (off Rt. 141) features over 100 dollhouses and rooms, antique toys, dolls and over 700 miniature vases from 600 BC. Open daily except Monday. A short distance away on, on the Christina Riverfront, is the Bank One Center on the Riverfront which hosts major exhibitions at the Delaware Art Museum. Open daily except Monday.
A river taxi provides transportation among the Wilmington Riverfront attractions, but also offers a recreational activity on the river: the 36-passenger pontoon boat shuttles passengers along a 30-minute loop from the Shipyard Shops (a distinct shopping experience with famous names like L.L. Bean in the district where the shipbuilding industry once thrived) to the mouth of the Brandywine River. Special history tours and cruises are available. (302/425-4890, runs mid April through the fall).
Historic New Castle, a town just south of Wilmington, is a veritable jewel of colonial history and architecture going back to Dutch times (in fact, it was laid out by Peter Stuyvesant in 1655), which played an important part as a commercial and transportation hub in the earliest days. (Historic New Castle Visitors Bureau, 800/758-1550,). Also in New Castle: Mike’s Famous Harley-Davidson Museum (I-295 and Route 9 at the Delaware Memorial Bridge) lets you see, hear and touch Harley-Davidson motorcycles.
Brandywine Valley Trip Planning Details
We were very impressed with the amount of special programming and events aimed at engaging children at the major Brandywine attractions. What is more, many of the area hotels offer family packages which bundle in accommodations and admissions.
The grand Hotel Du Pont, (800/441-9019) right downtown at 11th & Market Streets, offers an incredible opportunity to literally “live in history” and amid fabulous Wyeth paintings.
Other area lodgings (including suite hotels which are ideal for grandparent/grandchild trips) offering “Kid-friendly Getaways-with Parent-Pleasing Perks,” include: Brandywine Suites Hotel (800/756-0070); Courtyard by Marriott Wilmington (302/429-7600); DoubleTree Hotel Wilmington (302/478-6000); and Sheraton Suites Wilmington (302/654-8300).
For more information, request the brochure or further information from the Greater Wilmington Convention & Visitors Bureau site at Visit Wilmington Delaware or by calling 800/489-6664.
This story was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question, and stay up to date with current events to ensure a safe and successful trip.