Interview with F.L. (Les) Mathewson, 1968 July 3 [audio](part 1)

Share/Save:
  • Mathewson family's Irish origins and his great-grandfather settling on the Brandywine; his grandfather Gilbert Mathewson's long career with the DuPont Company as black powder superintendent and later as foreman of the Breck's Lane cooper shop
    Keywords: Applegate, Frank; bag house; black powder; Breck's Lane; Carter, Harry; Christ Church Christiana Hundred (Wilmington, Del.); cooper shops; Du Pont, Eleuthere Irenee, 1771-1834; Du Pont, Henry, 1812-1889; Du Pont, S. Hallock (Samuel Hallock), 1901-1974; DuPont Company Centennial (1902); Gravel Block; Irish Protestants; Keyes' Hill; Mathewson, Gilbert; Naturalization; race bank; Rowe, William; Sandy Butt; Squirrel Run; Supervisors, Industrial; Swamp Hall (Henry Clay, Del.: Dwelling)
    Transcript: Wilkinson: This interview was given by Mr. F. L. (Les) Mathewson, Montchanin, Delaware on Wednesday, July 3, 1968. Participating were John Scafidi and Norman Wilkinson. Les, we're going to tap your memory as to what you may have heard about your family's beginnings in this area. We know the Mathewson family is one of the earliest that we have any knowledge of in the Brandywine locale and I'd like to know what you know about the first Mathewson who settled here. Where did he come from? Why did he choose the Brandywine rather than some other place? Do you recall hearing anything?

    Mathewson: I can't tell you why the first Mathewson chose to come here, but the story goes there were three Mathewsons who came to this country, which is a little bit confusing to me, because some said they came from Ireland and others said they came from Scotland. I don't know just where they did come from. One settled up in Pennsylvania, the other one went West, and the third one settled here on the Brandywine. He was Gilbert Mathewson, and he was supposed to have come here from Ireland, I believe, and went to work with the du Ponts when they established here. My grandfather told me that when Mr. Eleuthere du Pont moved out of what we call the bag house down there into his big house up here that his father moved into that house. My grandfather was born down on the race bank - that's where those two houses are up in the woods toward Christ Church, the two tenant houses of S. Hallock du Pont - in the Squirrel Run area. I think they are still standing. I know we always called it the race bank and it was right below where we used to go swimming in what we called Sandy Butt. Anyway, that's where my grandfather was born and my father was born. I think they called it the Gravel Block. It was the first block in Squirrel Run going up into Squirrel Run on the left hand side just above the old pulp keg - as you go up from Barley Mill Road.

    Wilkinson: You don't know the particular kind of jobs that, first of all, Gilbert Mathewson, the original Mathewson to settle here, what kind of work he did, do you?

    Mathewson: No, I don't know what he did. My grandfather, I was told by my father, was the first black powder superintendent the DuPont Company had who wasn't a du Pont. The story goes that he got to drinking pretty heavily and had a little run-in with old Mr. Henry and got fired. His name was also Gilbert after his father. He then opened up a store around 6th and Adams Streets and sold groceries but wasn't there too long until the Company got him back again. As far as I understand, he was then foreman of the cooper shop which was up in Breck's Lane, and he had three men working for him. I can remember when I was a kid he had a man named Bill Rowe, one named Frank Applegate and Harry Carter. I used to go down there with him - this was in the area of 1903. I know in 1902, when they had the Centennial up on Keyes' Hill, that my grandfather had sixty six years' service with the Company at that time. I have one of those lists of the employees who worked for the Company in 1902. His record had been broken briefly when he left to set up the grocery store. He lived on Breck's Lane right across from Swamp Hall.

    Wilkinson: Then your grandfather was boss cooper in the cooper shop on Breck's Lane. Do you remember anything else about your grandfather? He was the man with the long white patrician beard in one of the pictures you gave us and he wore a hat most of the time.

    Mathewson: Yes, I remember that about him. He never took his hat off, only when he went to sleep. I don't know why. I had an uncle who was the same way. My grandmother was from Ireland; her name was Walker. She died in 1898. My grandfather died in 1904. They were Irish Protestant. I still have my great-grandfather's naturalization papers. In fact, I think you have a copy of them.
  • Describing the wooden kegs made on Breck's Lane; willow peeling parties held at the Bell House in the Upper Banks; his father and Alfred I. du Pont electrifying Swamp Hall and his family's house on Breck's Lane; his father's siblings; his father becoming a machinist and later an electrical engineer by studying books lent to him by Alfred I. du Pont
    Keywords: "soak holes"; Bell House; Du Pont, Alfred I. (Alfred Irenee), 1864-1935; Electrification; Knox, Joe; Machinists; peeling willows; Remington Machine Company (Wilmington, Del.); Rising Sun School; Swamp Hall (Henry Clay, Del.: Dwelling); Trump Brothers Machine Shop; Upper Banks; willow knife; wooden kegs; Yellow School (Wilmington, Del.)
    Transcript: Wilkinson: The cooper shop made wooden kegs, but metal kegs were also the most common, weren't they, about this time? Do you know if this was an operation that was fading out at the turn of the century?

    Mathewson: It seems to me that the wooden kegs were pretty large. I don't remember my grandfather making these small kegs. They generally made kegs that would hold about 100 lbs. of powder - they were pretty large kegs. Mostly for government orders. I can't remember them making the small kegs or canisters like they made up at Henry Clay. I know they used to have what we called "soak holes" down in the cooper shop. I remember these "soak holes" must have been about 20 feet long and they used to put these bundles of hoops - I don't know if they were made of hickory or willow - which were, I'd say, about 16 to 18 feet long in these holes and let them soak for a week or so. They would bring them out and they could bend them better.

    Wilkinson: You don't have any of the tools that your grandfather used as a cooper, do you?

    Mathewson: Yes. I think I gave you people a willow knife one time. A willow knife which they used to chop the trees with. My father never used to hack the willows. My mother and father used to talk about the willow peeling parties they used to have up at the Upper Banks at what we called the Bell House; this was before my day. The Bell House was a building up on the Upper Banks, and it had a belfry on it with a bell in it. I never heard what it was originally. All we ever called it was a Bell House and that was where they used to have the parties, and after the refreshments they would have a dance. This was all preceded by the willow peeling. They used to get prizes for the one who could peel the most. In fact, they used to pay them for peeling. It wasn't as much a game as a good evening's get-together.

    Wilkinson: We have a photograph showing that Upper Bank area after that explosion, we think of 1890 and there is a building which has a small belfry on it and chances are it was the Bell House. Do you think that was used for calling men to work and announcing the end of the day - ringing the bell?

    Mathewson: No, because that was done at Henry Clay. You could hear that bell all around. It used to ring every hour during the day, even in the night. A man named Joe Knox, who lost his arm in some kind of an accident (car or explosion), was the night watchman down there, and he used to ring the bell at night.

    Wilkinson: Then your father's parents moved into Breck's Lane. These were Company houses. Did you ever hear what kind of rent they paid or what the house was like on the inside?

    Mathewson: I don't know what the rent was at that time. We were the first house, at that time, outside of the du Pont family, that had electricity. We had it before some of the du Pont houses had it because Dad and Alfred I. built the first motor and hooked it up down there and ran a line to Swamp Hall. It wasn't long after that before they ran a line up to our house and put electric in it. I was born in that house.

    Wilkinson: We're going to stay with your father for a little while before we go on to you. We like to go as far back as we can. What year was your father born?

    Mathewson: In 1858 - Christmas Day. His sisters were Jenny, she died before I knew her; Annie; Elizabeth; and Stella. His brothers were George, Frank. George was a millwright down in the Yard; Frank worked in the powder and also in the electric light plant and then became a black powder inspector in later years before he retired or before Alfred I. had trouble with the Company and got out of the Company, and my Uncle Frank went with him. My father grew up in the Breck's Lane area and went to the Yellow School, and I think he went to the Rising Sun School, too, on Rising Sun Lane. He and Alfred I. were always together when they were young. They used to ride bicycles together, all over the country as far as Baltimore and Philadelphia; this was probably before Alfred I. went to M.I.T. My father was a machinist. He learned his trade at the Trump Brothers Machine Shop...I don't know if it was Trump or Remington. He worked at both places, but I don't remember which one he learned his trade at. He had finished his trade when Alfred I. went to M.I.T., and as Alfred I. would get through with his books he'd send them home to my father. Consequently, when Alfred I. became an electrical engineer, my father did, too, and a much better one, as I understand, according to Alfred I., than he was, but my dad never had a degree. Alfred I. got his. From then on my father gave up machine work and went into electrical work; he was head of the electrical department at Hagley Yard here from then until 1910 when he left there and went with Alfred I. personally.
  • His father's talent for electrical engineering and his building the first electric trolley line in Wilmington and working on several DuPont plants; Alfred I. du Pont bringing his orchestra to the "lawn fete" fund raisers hosted by local boys; his father's impression of Alfred I. du Pont as a mechanically-minded man
    Keywords: "lawn fete"; Bluefield (W. Va.); Breck's Mill Orchestra; Du Pont, Alfred I. (Alfred Irenee), 1864-1935; Du Pont, Alfred Victor, 1833-1893; Edison Electric Company; Edison, Thomas A. (Thomas Alva), 1847-1931; Electric generators; Electric railroads; Electrical engineers; General Electric Company; Hagley Yard; Hydroelectric power plants; Industrial relations; Menlo Park (N.J.); Meyers Electric Company; Riverview Cemetery (Wilmington, Del.); Street-railroads; trolley cars
    Transcript: Wilkinson: Was there any thought of your father becoming a powderman? How did your father get into the machinist and electrical part instead of following what his father had done?

    Mathewson: He was a natural born mechanic and mathematician. He never went past the 8th grade in school, but I don't think there was any problem he couldn't work out in mathematics. He got a lot of knowledge from the books that Alfred I. sent to him. Never went to night school or anything like that. I do know that in the material I found after his death he was offered all kinds of positions with Edison Electric, General Electric, Meyers Electric Company, and I don't know how many different electric railway companies. My father built the first electric trolley line in Wilmington - it ran from 10th and Market to Riverview, where Riverview Cemetery is now. There was a car barn out there. This was the electric line for a trolley system. I have a cane that was made out of the trolley pole of the first car over at my house. Then, he went from here down to Louisville, Kentucky with A.V. du Pont (Alfred I.'s uncle) and built an electric railway line down there. I don't know what the setup was at that time; he might have been on furlough from the company. That's where my oldest brother was born, in about 1883.

    Wilkinson: Alfred I. had contacts with Edison and spent time at Menlo Park, or so we've read. Did your father ever have any direct contacts with Edison?

    Mathewson: I think he went with Alfred I. every time he went to visit Edison.

    Wilkinson: This matter of electrifying the Brandywine region...the dates in my mind are about 1893, simply because we have a lot of records of equipment being bought by the Company at that time. You were born in '95, weren't you? Do you know when Swamp Hall and your place...

    Mathewson: It was before that, because they built this one single dynamo down there before they ever had any power up there at Hagley Yard. It was after they developed that they put the power in down at the Yard. They put the electric light plant down there right across from what we used to call the engine room - the hydroelectric plant. My father and A. I. built that hydroelectric plant and my father did most of the work. Breck's Lane, Alfred I.'s place, and a few others were the first ones to get electricity in this region.

    Wilkinson: Did your father ever talk about any other special kinds of assignments he did as either machinist or electrical engineer?

    Mathewson: He used to go around to different plants and get things straightened out when they were up against it. I remember down in the plant at Bluefield, West Virginia they had a couple of college men down there working on the electric light plant, and they couldn't get it running; they'd been down there working with blueprints for two or three weeks. Some old Irishman down there who did the oiling and greasing around the plant said, "Why don't you send up to Wilmington for that man Mathewson; he doesn't need any of those blueprints to fix this thing." So, Dad went down there and took me with him, and from the time he put his foot into the plant door until he had everything running was just 10 minutes. They used to do a lot of experimental work together, but I was too young then to think much about it. At this time Mr. Alfred I. was in charge of all the black powder plants; not just here but all over.

    Wilkinson: The pictures you see of Alfred I. as a young boy and later as a man - you never see him smiling. He always has a very sober expression. Do you have the impression he may not have been a very happy person? Did your father ever comment on his personality?

    Mathewson: He was a very happy person, I would say, prior to his second marriage. As a boy, I remember when we used to get a ball team up. The first thing we'd think about would be raising some money. The only thing we knew then was to run what we called a lawn fete. We generally ran it up on Breck's Lane under that row of trees which are right next to my house there, and we'd ask Mr. du Pont if he could bring his orchestra up there and play for us. Then we'd go down to Red Men's Hall and borrow the paddle wheel and paddles they had down there. You'd spin the wheel and sell these paddles - I think it was three for a quarter - and if your number hit on one of these paddles you'd win a box of candy or a cake or whatever it might be that our mothers used to make for us to sell. We'd sell ice cream and lemonade - soft drinks weren't very popular then - and he would bring his orchestra up there, and he was very jovial then. He just called it the Breck's Mill Orchestra at that time. He'd always buy some paddles, and we'd gyp the wheel so he would always win a cake. He'd take one of these big homemade cakes and break it in half and hand half of it to some of the younger kids standing around, and he'd eat the other half of the cake himself and lead the orchestra at the same time. I remember that very distinctly. He was always very jovial in those days, although I didn't have much to do with him after that - after he left Breck's Lane and went over to Rock Manor. I used to go over once in a while with my father. I would say if there was any change in his disposition it was because of family matters.

    Wilkinson: As a black powder man and a company executive, did your father ever make any comment on Alfred I.? His talents and abilities? I guess he admired him?

    Mathewson: He told me that Alfred I. was mechanically the smartest one in the du Pont family. He had a knack for engineering, but he was no financier by any means. He was strictly a mechanically minded man. That was the reason he and my father got along so well together for so many years.
  • Neighbors on Breck's Lane and Alfred I. du Pont's automobile; his father traveling to DuPont plants around the country and his own traveling in the blasting business; his mother being born in Walker's Banks
    Keywords: Agricultural Division; Alexis I. du Pont School (Wilmington, Del.); Automobiles; Blasting; blasting business; Breck's Lane; Coach drivers; Connable (Ala.); E.I. du Pont de Nemours and Company. Engineering Department; Experimental Station; Fairchance (Pa.); gun club; Guncotton; Indian Territory (Oklahoma); Kennett Pike; Kindbeiter's Hill; lawsuits; Neighbors; New Bridge; Patterson (Okla.); Pike Bridge; Schaghticoke (N.Y.); Walker's Banks; Walker's Mill
    Transcript: Wilkinson: Who were some of your neighbors down on Breck's Lane when your father was living there?

    Mathewson: Well, Sam Andrews lived next to us on one side of the house. On the other, across a lap between, was John Flanigan, who was Alfred I.'s gardener. Down below that was the stable. After my grandmother died, my grandfather came up and lived with us on up the way a little; Frank Bradley was the coachman. I remember when Alfred I. got his first car...they cleaned the garage out and fixed it up for this car; he would run this car into his office which at that time, I think, was at 8th and Orange Streets. Maybe he wasn't coming from work, but anyway he used to come up the Pike every evening and we kids used to go on up there and sit on what we called the Pike Bridge over the railroad by the school (Alexis I.) and watch for him to come. One time he came up there and broke down, and we all pushed him down to Breck's Lane and after that, just for the heck of it when he saw us there on that bridge, he'd pull the plug out and stick it in his pocket, and we'd all go up there, and he'd start walking. The first one who got there got the job of steering it and the rest of us would have to push him all the way down to Breck's Lane.

    Wilkinson: So, your father was a Company man up until about 1910? Was he in the Engineering Department of the Company?

    Mathewson: Yes, he was department manager. A man by the name of Major Ramsey was Chief Engineer of the Company at that time.

    Wilkinson: There was a department coming into existence about this time known as the Development Department. Was your father in that?

    Mathewson: No.

    Wilkinson: Engineering built many of the DuPont plants all over the country. Was your father sent to far distant places, or was he more localized in the work he did?

    Mathewson: He was sent out as far as what was at that time Indian Territory - Patterson, Oklahoma. That was the Indian Territory at that time. It wasn't too far from McAlester, Oklahoma. They had a black powder plant there, and then they had one they called Fairchance; I think it was up in Pennsylvania. Then there was one called Schaghticoke; that was in New York state up near Valley Falls, above Troy. My father went to all these plants. Then there was one in Alabama, not far from Birmingham. Could have been the Connable. I just made trips with him locally; I never worked for the Company itself very much. I did work for them but it was more or less when I was in the blasting business. They would get these inquiries about blasting and turn them over to me, and I would make my own arrangements. There was this job up in Rochester, New York - the DuPont Company at that time, I think, set up an Agricultural Division, and they had a land-clearing program on. They would send a representative out to different sections of the country, and he in turn would take a man and set him up in the blasting business; teach him how to blow stumps and shoot ditches, plant trees, subsoil with dynamite. Up in Rochester there was a fellow by the name of Anks who was the representative of DuPont and he set a man up by the name of Carpenter in the blasting business and they went out to a dairy farm near Lake Ontario and they bid on this job for this man who owned this big dairy farm who happened to be quite a prominent lawyer in Rochester, but didn't know too much about blasting. I think he shot off about a ton of dynamite and didn't get a stump out of the ground. The owner brought suit against the Company and won it and the Company had to make it good. Then they sent me up there to clear it up, but before I got the job finished they sent a man by the name of Baskerville up from Huntington, West Virginia, who was a blaster and be cleaned up and I went from there to Hopewell and cleaned the site for that guncotton plant down there, I guess, in 1915.

    Wilkinson: I'd like to ask a few more questions about your father before we go on to your working years. On your mother's side of the family - what was your mother's maiden name?

    Mathewson: My mother's maiden name was Eva Reed. She was born - it's hard to say - when you came across New Bridge going up what we called Kindbeiter's Hill coming off the bridge you used to go right straight up the hill. The road didn't make that loop around toward Tyler McConnell Bridge like it does now. It went right straight up the hill, and on the right hand side was the Experimental Station, and then about 1910 or along about there somewhere they built this gun club. Then just after you cross the bridge where you go up now to Walker's Mill, you'd turn left. Well, there were a row of houses; of course it's been widened and the house in which she was born was probably sitting right about in the middle of where they park those cars now, close to the creek. There was another row of houses there between there and the gate and the road and she was born in the first one. I don't know how long her family had been in these parts. I know her father was a Company blacksmith in the blacksmith's shop where [Paul] Grimes lives now. He was the only member of her family to work in the powder works.
  • His siblings and childhood on Breck's Lane; going to Alexis I. du Pont School and working for Paul Wilson as a driver and doing various jobs with T.C. du Pont's dairy farms; starting in the blasting business
    Keywords: "hunt the hare"; "pergie"; "run, sheepie, run"; 1917 packing house explosion; Alexis I. du Pont School (Wilmington, Del.); Automobile industry; Blasting; Buck, Alice du Pont, 1891-1967; Chauffeurs; childhood games; Clover Dairy; Dairy farms; Delaware Hospital; Du Pont, T. Coleman (Thomas Coleman), 1863-1930; Hillside Dairy; Hydrants; Massachusetts Institute of Technology; Mechanics; Pipelines; Rokeby (Greenville, Del. : Dwelling); Wilson, Paul Edmondstone, 1886-1916
    Transcript: Wilkinson: Now, you were born on Breck's Lane in 1895, and let's get your brothers and sisters here on the record.

    Mathewson: I didn't have any sisters; I had two brothers, Alfred and Charles Gilbert...Charles Gilbert was named for the two grandfathers, Charles Reed and Gilbert Mathewson. The oldest one, Alfred, was for Alfred I., but they never put the I. in, it was just Alfred.

    Wilkinson: We've seen those pictures that were taken in the period you were growing up in this community. I take it it was not a farming community, but a sort of semi-rural environment. You had big back yards and grew your own vegetables. Did you have any animals?

    Mathewson: No, we never grew our own vegetables. We had a big back yard, but that was too much work for my father and too much for me, too. He liked flowers and grew flowers, but we never grew any vegetables. We always got our vegetables right across the road, from Alfred I.'s garden. He didn't supply his work people, but he did supply my father and his other personal employees.

    Wilkinson: Do you recall anything about those early years when you were just a boy?

    Mathewson: I have a lot of fond memories. I don't know what kind you'd want to hear.

    Wilkinson: Give us some idea of what it would be like to be a boy then - what kind of activities, what kind of sports, what kind of trouble and mischief, who were your teachers, where you went to school and anything like that.

    Mathewson: I went into kindergarten at Alexis I. and graduated from there. I went all the way through 12th grade. I graduated from there in 1912. I had some of the best school days that anybody could have because rather than being in many fights or anything like that, it was just one big family more than anything else. Once in a while, you'd get a fight or something like that up on Pike Bridge, but no one ever got hurt. There was a gang down the creek that didn't care too much about other guys coming in to see their girls or something like that, but we had a lot of fun. We played games in those days the kids today would never think of. There was a game called "pergie", which you played with a piece of broom handle about six inches long, sharpened on both ends [describes rules of the game]. Some people called it "peggie," but we called it "pergie." Then we used to play "run, sheepie, run," where you kept on the move all the time, and they'd try to catch you - you'd have boundaries. Then there was a game called, "hunt the hare." You used to hide in that game, sort of like hide and seek. I was pretty lucky. I never had too many chores to do around the house. As far back as I can remember I was hepped on electrical work and had wires strung all around my house and the shed down there on Breck's Lane, with buzzers and bells and lights, etc. My mother was very easy going about it. My mother's philosophy was that "if you can't say something good about a person, keep your mouth shut."

    Wilkinson: Over at Alexis I., were you asked to plan your future so you could take courses of study to prepare you for it?

    Mathewson: No, we weren't interviewed like they are today. You just graduated and then went on to do what you wanted to do. Of course, Alfred I. wanted to send me to M.I.T. and take up electrical work, but just about that time the automobiles first started to come out, and I was crazy about automobiles. So I took up the automobile business and went to work for George H. Pierce people in Buffalo for a short time. My first job out of high school was for Paul Wilson, who married Alice du Pont, T.C.'s daughter, in 1913. Just prior to that he stopped down at the house one time to see if my father would go up and re-wire Rokeby. The wiring was bad up there and he didn't know that Dad was working for Alfred I., he thought Dad was just retired. Dad said he didn't have time to do it, but he had a son he thought could do it. I was only 17 then, but I met Paul Wilson up there the following morning, and he told me to go ahead. So, I went and re-wired the house and after that was finished he asked me if I knew anything about putting in a fire system and running a pipe line to Fleming's barn down here where the Brown's house is - Route 100 and Buck Road. I said, "No," but he said, "You can never learn any younger." So, I hired a couple of Italians from up there and dug a couple of ditches and put in a big pump and ran a three-inch pipe line and put in some fire hydrants. I just asked my father some things and that'd be all. I guess I worked for Paul Wilson until he died.

    Wilkinson: What was [Paul Wilson's] line of work?

    Mathewson: Well, see, T.C. ran these dairy farms all over around Mt. Cuba and also a dairy farm down at Rokeby, then he had one on what they called the Crozier farm and the Mundy farm and all that property there behind Walnut Green school and the Echols place - that was all his. Out on the present Route #82, beyond Hoopes Reservoir. Paul Wilson managed all these and I don't know what my title would have been, but if anything went wrong he always asked me to look into it and see what I could do with it. Then he had a dairy on the northeast corner of 8th and Tatnall, called Hillside Dairy, which eventually turned into Clover Dairy. This was T.C.'s operation, and Paul Wilson supervised it. He was one of the finest men Delaware ever had, Paul Wilson. It's a shame he died the young man that he did. His wife was a widow for four years, and I was with her during that time. Then after she married Buck, why, he and I couldn't see eye-to-eye, so I got out. The Bucks lived at Rokeby at this time. Paul Wilson was a local man. His brother Roger Wilson worked here in the Yard and he had another brother Wren Wilson. Roger Wilson was superintendent of the Yard during the "big blow" where that 31 were killed. I was at Rokeby and had just brought Mrs. Wilson out of town and had run over to the garage and was standing talking to the gardener when the "blow" came. I jumped into the car and drove down, which we always did, and I made two trips to the Delaware Hospital. One fellow I took was named Meredith, and I think the other fellow's name was Oliver. This was 1915. I was 20 years old at the time. I chauffeured Mrs. Wilson at this time. Prior to that T.C. had a shop at 10th and Clayton Streets, and I worked out of there. This was an automobile shop and there was a fellow there by the name of Brady Wiley who was the boss of the shop, and I worked under Wiley. Then I used to drive Mrs. Wilson wherever she wanted to go. She married Buck in 1921. At this time I was married and lived up by Longwood, at Red Lion. I lived up there when I was in the blasting business. After Paul died in 1916, I was married in '16, Mrs. Wilson went in to live with her mother at 808 Broom Street. That was the same year I was married and went in the blasting business. I don't know just how I got into that business. I heard about it and got to fooling with it and took it [to a supplier?]. I just set myself up as blaster and took on my own jobs. I was clearing oak when I was 15 - as an individual hired by the Company.
  • His work managing the land clearing and blasting work during the construction of the DuPont Hopewell, Virginia, plant
    Keywords: Advertising Department; African American household employees; African Americans--Railroad construction workers; Blasting; City Point Hotel; Clearing of land; Davis, F.B.; dynamite plants; E.I. du Pont de Nemours and Company. Hopewell Plant; engineers; Foreign workers; Fraud; Industrial films; Lord, George Frank; Norfolk and Western Railroad Company; Railroad construction workers; Railroads--Design and construction; Reed, Luther; Timekeeping
    Transcript: Wilkinson: Mr. Reed, as I think I told you, we interviewed Luther Reed...

    Mathewson: I remember he was down there as a clerk.

    Wilkinson: Yeah, he gave us the office side of the operation [at Hopewell] and that kind of function, could you give us some idea what Hopewell looked like when you went down there?

    Mathewson: I was there long before Reed because I went down to clear the land. There was a small dynamite plant down there, and I think it was Paul du Pont who went down there and put the dynamite plant up. I'm not sure about that, but I think he did. Anyway, they had a cyclone fence around it and other than that it was nothing but just a pine forest with trees anywhere from 3 inches to 12-14 inches in diameter. There was a small office force of engineers down there and the chief engineer at that time was a man named Johnson. His assistant was F.B. Davis, who in later years became president of U. S. Rubber. Those fellows all lived down at what they called the City Point Hotel; they'd sleep with six and eight in a room. I don't know, but that is what I was told. Rather than do that I took a bunch of carpenters out and just one mile from the gate of the dynamite plant in the pine woods I had them build me a shack of hemlock boards and covered it with tar-paper; it was 12 x 12 with a 6 x 8 room on it for a kitchen. We were using all colored help down there, and I found one fellow in my crew that the laborers belonged to the Norfolk and Western Railroad. DuPont would hire a bunch of men and they would live in a commissary car, but I found this one fellow who was a pretty good cook so I took him to be my cook and housekeeper. I lived there and in just one week from the time that shack was finished, just one week, there were seven structural steel buildings and thirteen railroad tracks running all around, and I had to move my shack farther out into the woods. I have never seen work done as quick or fast as at that time.

    Wilkinson: Well organized and lots of help.

    Mathewson: Lots of help. There were all nationalities.

    Scafidi: Did they get paid well for their help?

    Mathewson: I would say that was really the start of the high-wage labor. They had everything down there - Austrians, Poles, Hungarians, Greeks, everything there you can imagine.

    Wilkinson: Any problem with the languages? Was there trouble in getting the instructions over to them?

    Mathewson: The state of Virginia at that time had a law that you weren't allowed to pay by check; you had to pay in cash. The men were carried on a time book with a brass time check that had a number and you had to present that check at a payoff window to get your money. They would sign up these foreigners and if the American timekeepers couldn't understand what they were saying, they'd write any name down because all they had to do was keep a record of his time check. It was pretty soft-picking for timekeepers down there because I know one time a timekeeper down there was carrying as high as 20 checks on his book. This was as surplus - no individual behind it. He'd come up to some of these foreigners who could understand a little bit of English, and he'd say, "Here, I'll give you $5.00 if you get my check cashed." He'd give the foreigner the check and the guy would pick the money up and come back and give it to the timekeeper and he'd get five dollars out of it.

    Wilkinson: Mr. Reed said that one of his problems was to clean up some of this crookedness. Now, in your job clearing the land you had to keep ahead of the people doing the actual building. What was the timing on this? What were some of your problems?

    Mathewson: I had as high as 200 colored fellows working for me with about three foremen. This wasn't all blasting, we called it land clearing. For instance, I had a gang going ahead cutting the trees down; another gang came along and cut them up, piled them up and burned them at night; another gang came with steel bars and hammers and put holes under these stumps; then a fellow came along loading and another fellow wiring them up. At twelve noon to one we would shoot them and from five to six in the evening we'd shoot what we loaded in the afternoon; from five to six in the morning we'd shoot what we loaded that night. We worked twenty-four hours around the clock. I remember one time Davis came up to me and said, "We want a right-of-way through the woods here." I said, "All right, give me your stakes." So, he sent engineers out to run a line through, and it was just a mile. I put a gang in to take the trees down and a gang in to load and a gang to pull the stumps out of the road. Right behind me the railroad company had a gang coming laying ties and dropping rails, and when they came to a stump hole they would send a car up with sand and gravel on it and fill the hole up and lay the track down over it. That night we had a train running over that mile of track. It was amazing the way work went on down there.

    Wilkinson: This was in 1915. It seems like a big responsibility for a person that age, because you were just 20.

    Mathewson: I guess they thought I could handle it or they wouldn't have brought me from Rochester down there. I was responsible to Mr. Johnson down there, but my orders really came from the Wilmington office and a man named George Frank Lord, who was head of the Advertising Department. I came under the Advertising Department because I used to go around and give these demonstrations on how to blast. As a matter of fact, I used to shoot some movies.
  • Quitting the Hopewell project after the labor foreman refused to let him have an African-American crew; Hopewell jitney drivers conspiring with others to rob passengers; using black powder to split logs instead of dynamite
    Keywords: black powder; Brigands and robbers; Discrimination in employment; Dynamite; Explosives; gelatin; gunpowder; Hercules Powder Company; jitneys; Race discrimination; Supervisors, Industrial; TNT (Chemical)
    Transcript: Wilkinson: Mr. Reed mentioned a man by the name of William Porter Allen.

    Mathewson: He was superintendent down there, but I don't know if he was there before this fellow Johnson or not. I don't think he was.

    Wilkinson: I got the impression he was superintendent of the actual production after the plant was built.

    Mathewson: I think that was it. I didn't know Allen; I knew of him. I had gotten the place cleared down there and we were doing a lot of ditches for pipelines and stuff like that and doing a little bit of everything down there. So they issued an order there would be no more niggers working on the plant. They used to have fights and cause trouble. I went down to see a man by the name of Connell who was an Irish-Protestant - that's why he pronounced it Connell - and he was the labor foreman; so, he sent me up a bunch of Greeks, and none of them could understand English or speak English. I sent word back to the office here that I wanted the colored people because if I had to handle the dynamite I wanted someone who could understand and speak English. They wouldn't let me have them so I just threw it up and quit, and came back and went into business for myself here. That's when DuPont and Hercules used to turn all their work over to me. I was at Hopewell from February 1915 to May 1916, more than a year.

    Scafidi: Was Hopewell pretty wild? I heard Mr. Reed say it was like Nome, Alaska.

    Mathewson: It was. But as I said before, it was all cash, and every payday they had jitneys that used to run in from Hopewell to Petersburg. There was sort of an S-turn through what we called the swamp or a thicket on this old road and they called it "Death Valley" and these jitney drivers, if they thought they had any money on board would toot their horn when they made the first turn going into Death Valley and when you came to the second turn there would be a couple of guys standing out in the middle of the road with a gun. He'd very politely stop his jitney and they would take the money from the passengers, and then when the jitney driver came back out again empty they'd share with the jitney driver. I can't remember where I got hold of it but I got a gun down there from one of those niggers, and I think it was the biggest pistol I ever saw. I said to this colored fellow who did the cooking for me, "Warren, lend me that gun." I was going into Petersburg and there was a fellow with me by the name of Doc Strayer who used to run a drug store at the corner of 10th and Orange. He wanted to get out of the drug business so I took him down there to blast with me. We'd both been paid that day and I think we had about three or four hundred dollars with us. This jitney driver yelled, "Are you ready?" I said, "Not yet." "What's the matter?" he said. "I want to have a couple of words with you before we start up." I said, "See this gun?" If you stop this jitney between here and the Chesterfield Hotel in Petersburg you're going to be the first damn one I take a shot at." We sailed right through - he never did blow the horn. Some of the other fellows got wise to it, too, and that put an end to the robbery.

    Wilkinson: What was your arrangement with the Company? Were you being paid regular monthly wages? Or were you a contract man from the outside?

    Mathewson: I wouldn't take it any other way but on time and material. I was an outside contractor selling my services.

    Wilkinson: Was only dynamite used for this blasting or did you ever use any other explosives?

    Mathewson: I used gelatin and T.N.T. after it was developed during the war and black powder for splitting logs. I had what we called a log gun; I still have it over at the house. It was a thing like a crowbar, about 18 inches long, and about an inch and a half in diameter and had a 3/4 inch hole one-half way up the center and bored into it from the side was a touch-hole and you filled that with black powder and a fuse. It was pointed on the end, and you'd drive it into the end of a log up to the touch-hole and then you'd light the fuse and that charge would go through the log and split the log open. That's the reason you used black powder and not dynamite in it because black powder picks the point of the least resistance and otherwise it might blow up the log gun. The best explanation I can give of a dynamite blast would be if you took a mud ball and threw it up against the wall, the way the mud splashes is the way the force of dynamite goes when it explodes; every which way.
  • Advantages of various types of explosives for blasting ditches and stumps; sub soiling blasting; losing an eye while supervising the blasting of stumps for R.R.M. Carpenter
    Keywords: 40% Red Cross Extra dynamite; 60% straight N.G. dynamite; agricultural blasting; agricultural dynamite; Augers; bulldozers; Carpenter, R. R. M. (Robert Ruliph Morgan), 1877-1949; Explosives; Goodstay (Wilmington, Del. : Dwelling); Industrial accidents; Nitroglycerin; Optometrists; sub soiling
    Transcript: Wilkinson: We've heard it said that 40 percent dynamite was the most popular, most useful kind of explosive for most types of blasting work, was that your experience?

    Mathewson: What we used to call 40 percent Red Cross Extra was the best all around because you could use it both for ditches or stumps, but using that, you had to use a detonator with each charge or stick. Later on if you got into a moist ground I found out you could use 60 percent straight N.G. (nitroglycerin) dynamite. In moist ground you could go maybe 20 yards with one detonator - twenty different holes, spaced about a yard apart, with the detonator in the center one, and that would discharge the whole line. With Red Cross Extra you couldn't do that, but at the same time Red Cross Extra was a lot safer dynamite for inexperienced people to handle. And, in sub soiling we only used 10 percent or 20 percent because it was a lot cheaper.

    Wilkinson: What would sub soiling blasting be?

    Mathewson: You'd sub soil to break up a hard pan underneath the ground where you would have a clay condition. Maybe you would have a top soil of six inches and then you'd come into a hard pan. If you broke it up underneath you'd have better drainage and some nutrients would come up from down below. I recall several jobs I did on farms where you would drive along a road and you'd see a field which would have a large area that would have water in it continually laying in it most all year round. I've gone to work in some of those areas where it would involve five or six acres of land. I'd go into the center and bore a hole down as far as I could with an auger until I struck sand or some water-bearing strata and fill it all the way to the top with dynamite and shoot it. Then I'd have it cleaned out and fill it up with rock and next spring they could plant right up to that hole - it would drain that whole area.

    Wilkinson: In agricultural blasting, we have been told, there was a time when soil was blasted loose not for the sense of making a hole but simply to loosen it up so it would be better farming soil. What kind of an explosive would you use in this case, where you don't want it actually heaved out, just moved apart?

    Mathewson: That is sub soiling. You'd use mostly 20%.

    Scafidi: Wasn't there something after the war called Agritol - where they used old cannon powder and nitroglycerin?

    Mathewson: That must have been after the Second World War. I don't know. What really put the agricultural dynamite out of business was the bulldozers and that machine they used for ditching with the caterpillar wheels. Really, sub soiling was a little bit expensive, but ditch digging in those times weren't. I used to be able to go out and with no trouble at all finish 100 yards of ditch a day.

    Wilkinson: When you were at Hopewell did you have any accidents with this group?

    Mathewson: No. No accidents or trouble at all. Blew a couple of them for the hell of it, that's all. We had an old colored fellow there by the name of Rabb, we called him Rabbit, and he was wiring up on day, and he got right in the middle of it, and we cut it loose. It lifted him five or six feet off the ground. It didn't hurt him any, but gave him a scare.

    Wilkinson: Did you carry heavy insurance on yourself as a blasting man?

    Mathewson: I didn't carry any. I don't know if I could get any or not. I never tried. When you are twenty years old you don't think anything about that.

    Wilkinson: Now, after Hopewell, you came back to Wilmington and...

    Mathewson: I came back and went in business for myself for quite a while, and then Ruly Carpenter called me up one time and asked if I'd come up and blast some stumps out of his yard up there because he wanted to enlarge his garage. So, I told him I would see if I could get hold of some men. I told him I wasn't in the business anymore, that I was going to give it up, because I'd started work with T.C. down at Goodstay, but I'd see if I could get a couple of men who used to work for me. So, I went down and got a couple of colored fellows who used to work for me, and I brought them out to Dilwyn and started them drilling these stumps. I didn't have any dynamite on the job at all. Walter Tatnall, who was his brother-in-law, was superintendent, and he and I were standing there talking and these men were drilling the stumps about twelve or fifteen feet away, and a chip of steel flew off the end of a drill and hit me in the eye. I thought when I stooped down that I heard this piece of steel hit the ground because I've known chunks as large as the end of my thumb fly off that piece of steel. I went on down to my mother's and went in there. My uncle had died that day and there wasn't anyone home. Well, I was laying there and my father came in and I told him what happened. I called the doctor and left word for him to call me or come see me because Dad said it was nothing to fool with. Dr. Hanby, who was Alfred I.'s doctor, came out right away and said it was a case for a specialist. We went into Ellegood; this was old Ellegood, not the one who just retired, but anyway, he said it had cut the sight in half and I'd never be able to see out of it. He could take the steel out and leave the eyeball in there, but his advice was to take the eyeball out. So I went into the hospital next day and that was the only trouble I ever had.

    Wilkinson: This happened when somebody else was drilling with this bit into a stump?

    Mathewson: They were hitting the steel with a hammer. You see, you drove it with sledges. It's like when they drive these stakes at the circus. The steel flew off the bar. It was about 1/8 inch square and about as thick as heavy writing paper. I was about 12 or 15 feet from it.

    Wilkinson: What did Mr. Carpenter say about this when he heard about it? It was on his property and you were working for him.

    Mathewson: Yes, but I don't think I'd better discuss my feelings toward Ruly Carpenter on this deal. I told him how I felt about it. He made no offer to do anything. I was 25 then. I finished that job and then quit as a blaster. Of course, I've done it over here at our farms.
  • Running a gas station on Kennett Pike with his brother Gilbert; going to work as a chauffeur for Ethel Hallock du Pont and later for her daughter, Polly Dean
    Keywords: African violets; Automobiles--Tires; Chauffeurs; Dean, J. Simpson (Junius Simpson), 1898-1978; Dean, Paulina du Pont, 1903-1964; Delaware Route 52 (Del.); Du Pont, Ethel Hallock, 1876-1951; Du Pont, Samuel Hallock, 1901-1974; Laird, W. W. (William Winder), 1878-1927; Service stations; Tydol gasoline
    Transcript: Wilkinson: What was your next job after you quit blasting?

    Mathewson: After I quit blasting, my brother and I opened up a gas station down here at the corner of Breck's Lane and Kennett Pike. Gilbert and I had that gas station about two years. This was before the Kennett Pike was widened.

    Wilkinson: I think it was in 1921 or 1922 when Mr. Pierre bought it and gave it to the state.

    Mathewson: That wasn't when it was widened at its most. He had that gas station up there until 1925 or 1926. We had an argument over finances. We made a lot of money there and we could have made some real good money there, but he got to hitting the booze up and had too many hands in the cash register for me. So, we flipped a coin to see whether he would buy me out or I would buy him out, and I lost.

    Wilkinson: Wasn't this rather early to go in the gas station business? Was it a gamble?

    Mathewson: There was good money in it then. It was Tydol gasoline. We were selling it on a 6 cent margin then. Today you are only selling on a 4 cent margin. Another thing, in those days there were no credit cards, everything was cash. We had two 1500 gallon tanks over there at that station and I've pumped them out on a Sunday myself.

    Scafidi: How about tires?

    Mathewson: We sold a lot of tires. We had a lot of good accounts. Amy du Pont, Archie du Pont, Paul du Pont, we sold to all of them. It was a good business. Besides we used to sell about $200 worth of candy and soft drinks to people and the kids going to school. We had two stations - one on either side of the Pike. We first started on the east side and then we went over to the west side.

    Wilkinson: There are residences on those corners now.

    Mathewson: Oh yes. You see, Winder Laird owned that property. He owned Breck's Lane. He owned the property where we had the first gas station and Willie du Pont owned where we had the second one. After I sold out to my brother, Winder Laird came up one day and I said to him, "I understand Mrs. W. K. du Pont wants a chauffeur." This was in 1922. And he told me, "Yes." I said, "Think I could get that job?" He said, "You wouldn't want that job. You wouldn't last fifteen minutes with her." I said, "I've always worked for pretty good people, and I'd like to work for somebody like that to see what it's like." She was abroad at that time and he cabled her and got a reply saying by all means to get me. So, I went over there to Still Pond, and the following October, a year, her daughter Polly got married to Dean. She called me up one day and told me her daughter was getting married and said she (Polly) was a young thing who didn't know anything about running a house or anything else and would I go up there with her. I said it was all right with me and I've been there ever since. This was in 1923.

    Wilkinson: While you were with Mrs. William K. you were her chauffeur. We don't know much about her except that she was the mother of Mrs. Dean and Mrs. Ross and S. Hallock and maybe one or two other children I can't recall at the moment. What other duties did you have there? I know she was a garden enthusiast. Were you involved in anything else?

    Mathewson: Not to a great extent. I used to make things for her - mechanically, like lily boxes and window boxes and bird houses and all like that.

    Wilkinson: Did she improve certain types of pansies?

    Mathewson: No, she was an African violet grower, but that was more or less after I left there. And then she got into orchids. I wasn't with her quite two years. But you see I lived in Breck's Lane and Hallock was born in 1901 and A.V. was born in 1900, and I was born in 1895 and was just a little bit older than them, and we three used to play together. Hallock was always crazy over chickens when he was a kid, and he and I used to discuss a lot about chickens. Then when I used to go in town we'd walk through their drive over to the trolley car and I would see Hallock and I'd stop and talk to him or Mrs. du Pont's father, who was a Hallock and quite an interesting old man to talk to. He was, I believe, ambassador to Syria at one time. I think that was where Mrs. du Pont was born. I'm not sure about that. Then I used to fool with Mrs. Dean - it was when I was about 17-18 years old and she was just a kid of about 8 or 9 years old.