Interview with Harry E. Lee, 1955 February 2 [audio]

Hagley ID:
  • Family background; making experimental powders, nyalite, and black powder at DuPont Experimental Station
    Keywords: Breck's Mill; Diamond State Telephone Company; E.I. du Pont de Nemours & Company. Experimental Station; explosives; gunpowder; manufacturing processes; Nyalite; powder mills
    Transcript: My name is Harry E. Lee. I am now 73. My father was born at Fort Pike, Louisiana, when my-great—grandfather, Colonel Francis H. Lee, had charge of that fort in the South. My father died when I was six years old. I was six years old when I came to Wilmington.

    In September, 1906 I was employed by the DuPont Company. I was 27. Before coming with DuPont I worked as an installer for the Diamond State Telephone Company. However, I was only getting $9.00 a week, and to get a raise you had to go up to Philadelphia and take an examination. Well, I missed the examination on a simple thing -- wiring a doorbell -- and I didn't get any raise. So I went to the Experimental Station to get a job. I was the only one in the family working there. I had a cousin -— a boss lineman for the telephone company -- and he stopped in there one day. He said, "Why aren't you working for us?" I told him. He said, "You come back and I will see that you get a raise and get the same money you are getting here." I said, "No," that I would stay here.

    My first job was making experimental powders. A. J. Moxham, head of the company's Development Department, had a formula to make cannon powder that you could make and shoot right away. We called it "yellow kid". It was made from an oil imported here from Germany. We would nitrate it and then purify it and put in the ingredients with guncotton and make smokeless powder. We'd roll it on rollers and dry it and cut it in strips for cannon powder. Cannon powder was mostly in a grain form. But it took about three or four months to make cannon powder and this you could take and shoot it right away. But after it set awhile there would be crystals form on the outside. Well they didn't like it; they could keep those crystals. It wouldn't be uniform in shooting.

    I remember one time we made some cannon powder for the Government. We made it in long strips and punched holes in it with a punch. When we had it all finished, Mr. Kane, our ballistic engineer, had ordered boxes to put it in to ship it. These were zinc-lined boxes that they shipped for the Government. We found out that the strips were too long. He wanted us to cut it so that it would go in the boxes. Well, you had a big long table and a big knife, and you had to heat it before you cut so it wouldn't crack. He stood there and timed us and he said, "You fellows work here until you get it done. It will take you until after midnight." Hackendorn had charge there, so he went very slow. After he left we had it done by 11 o'clock. There weren't too many men at the Experimental Station. One hundred and fifty or two hundred in my day.

    We also made some nyalite. You couldn't set it off with a hammer or you couldn't set it off with fire. It had to be electrically detonated.

    We had a little wheel mill that held about 15 or 20 pounds of black powder. We would experiment with that -- run it about 4 or 4 1/2 hours. When you made black powder you wanted 6/lOth percent moisture. If it was dusty you would shut your machine down and put a little water on it, but if it was a damp day you didn't need any -- it took up enough dampness itself. They had a big round press there that they used years ago for black powder. But we only had a little press and we would put so much black powder in there, press it, take that apart and get a certain specific gravity. Then we would break it up, roll it, break it up in grain, and glaze it.
  • Working conditions; impressions of Ernest and Francis I. du Pont; Francis I. du Pont's project for iron ore separation using antimony bromide
    Keywords: Du Pont, Ernest, 1880-1944; Du Pont, Francis I. (Francis Irénée), 1873-1942; Industrial relations; Research, Industrial; Work environment
    Transcript: When I first went to work, I worked ten hours a day -— seven in the morning to six at night. We had two holidays a year -- Christmas and Fourth of July. No summer vacations. However, Ernest du Pont always gave me a vacation. There were three of us always worked under him. If the work went on through Saturday night or Sunday, we stayed with him. He never docked me for any time I was off and always gave us a week's vacation. I think it was 1908 they started on eight hours, or 1912.

    They didn't have the safety devices they have today. But there weren't too many accidents. There weren't too many men at the Experimental Station. All the stenographers and clerks were men -- no women worked there at all.

    Francis I. du Pont used to come down there. He was a very fine man to work for. But you could always tell when he came in because he clicked his heels. You could tell if you didn't see him, that it was him. He would say, "What are you doing?" You would tell him and then he would go on. He had a horse and carriage and he would come down there and forget his overcoat and forget where he left the horse and carriage. He was an inventor. He was a very fine man. As long as you worked for him he wanted you to work, but if you didn't have anything to do he never bothered you. But if the whistle blew it didn't bother him. You just stayed on and worked.

    One time I was working on a special job for Mr. A. J. Moxham -- separating iron ore and Mr. Francis du Pont was interested in that. He sent me down one time to see Walter Tatnall, the Yard Superintendent. He said go down and tell them to send up a plumber. Mr. Tatnall said he wouldn't do it: "He will keep them there." I said, "Well, that doesn't make any difference to me. I'm just giving you the orders I got." But before very long a plumber came up and did just what Mr. du Pont wanted him to do. The men liked to work for him.

    There wasn't a very fast turnover of men. Mostly the men who worked there had worked first up at the black powder division of Hagley. There were no efforts to unionize the laboratory. There were no serious labor disturbances that I can remember.

    One of the chemists I used to work for, Charlie Arnold, wrote a book about the Experimental Station. He had worked for a steel company up in Canada before A. J. Moxham brought him down to the Station. He was an expert on steel. I don't just know how the steel fitted in with the work at the Experimental Station. But A. J. Moxham had a lot of iron ore mines down in Virginia that were worked out and he wanted to get some way of getting the iron ore out of that. So they built a plant. Mr. Francis I. du Pont was the engineer or the inventor on that project. They had a liquid antimony bromide. I mixed tons of it. It was so heavy it would float stone, but the iron ore would go to the bottom. Then they would crack it up in about 3/8-inch sieve and heat it and run it in this tank. Well, there was an endless chain going around taking it from the bottom and dumping in on one side. There was a big 20-foot, ten-inch pipe going out that worked the iron ore and gas underneath to heat it and dry off some of this antimony bromide. The stones came out one side and the iron ore came out the other side. A separation process. Mr. du Pont had charge of that.

    I remember one time the big pipe wouldn't turn right -- kept jumping. He came down and looked at it. Then he gave an order. Sent up to Hagley Yard for a great big wheel -- a balance wheel. He put it on the end and that stopped it. I had charge of the day plant and another fellow had charge at night. We had a tent there and we used to order milk and eggs and things and sometimes I would cook his meal for him. But he would stay there and watch those things. The greatest trouble was they couldn't get the heat up enough to get all the antimony bromide out of the iron ore. And then they had another different process that gave you a sore throat all the time. But he would go down there dirty, face black and everything and he would work right through meal time or any time. He would go home with hands black and face black. That was Mr. Francis I. du Pont. He was an inventor and he had something on his mind all the time. But he was a very fine man.
  • World War I at Experimental Station; handling nitroglycerin; running tests with black powder
    Keywords: E.I. du Pont de Nemours & Company. Experimental Station; Explosions;Gunpowder--Testing; Industrial safety; Work environment--Safety measures
    Transcript: There was one lay-off in 1914, and they were walking out of the Yard all the time. They were laying them off. There was a depression. Maybe it was 1913. One of us three went to Mr. du Pont and told him, "Everybody is leaving here. What are our prospects?" Mr. du Pont said, "well as long as there is anyone in this Yard, you three men will stay here." Soon after that in l9l4, war broke out and we got busy.

    We had been in the chemistry division at that time. In 1913 they changed over and they moved us into high explosives division. They moved us up on top of the hill. And so we left the Experiment Station, and they had no more to do with us. When the war broke out we had so many orders for powder, especially from Russia. And we had all those inspectors there -- Italians, Russians, and English and the United States Government. The Russians bought an awful lot of powder until 1917 when they broke up over there. We had a Colonel there -- with one arm —- Colonel Jakowski. We was one bright man. We didn't try to cheat him, but he watched everything. He would measure the pressure cylinders to see that he was getting the right pressure. He was bright. He was thoroughly acquainted with the process. We could make eight or ten samples a day for him. That was above normal. We would shoot 20-foot velocity and ten for pressure. However, I think the U.S. Government was harder on us than any of the foreign inspectors because we could only make one test of the United States Government Powder. They had four or five inspectors there who would watch every move you made. We weren't trying to cheat them. We would have to shoot twenty rounds for velocity, ten rounds for pressure, and then one hundred rounds for ignition for the primer. We could make one sample a day for them. Where the Russian Government we could make ten, and the English Government we could make ten a day.

    Another thing, too, Mr. R. G. Woodbridge -- he had charge of the experimental powder and he worked on a new powder called I.M.R. You see we had M.R. powders and I.M.R. powders. His was called, "Improved Military Rifle Powder." There was a coating he devised to put on the powder to slow it down, and you could get a higher velocity with a lower pressure than you could with M.R. powder.

    When we would need nitroglycerin, we would order it from up at Repauno and the wagon with two horses to it would go up and get it. The 5-gallon can had about 20 percent acetone in it to help it so it wouldn't explode. We had a little place -— a little building down in the woods -- that had a big pan. We would pour it in there, and we had an electric light in there, and the electric light would evaporate the acetone. We'd take a little black box and pack it in there in glass jars -- about a quart. We would go down there, draw that out in that box and bring it up and use it in powder.

    We would put our guncotton and other ingredients in there and we would weigh the nitroglycerin out in a little bottle. Well, I weighed that one day. I picked the bottle up and was carrying it across the room. Mr. Ernest du Pont came in and bawled me out. He said, "Always put that in that box to carry it across the room. Don't carry it in your hand." We had a zinc-lined box. We put rubber gloves on. We mixed it in a little bread mixer that held about 15 pounds. Carrying the nitroglycerin from the woods to the station, I walked carefully so I wouldn't drop it. I had a lot of faith in it.

    He was very particular -- Mr. du Pont. There was never any experiment that you had to do -- anything new he would always try it first. He wouldn't let us try it until he tried it. I know one time we had a tank of this yellow kid. We were stirring it, washing it in there and he came up. He took a spatula and was scraping around the top. The spatula dropped down in there, and he shut it off. He reached down in there to get the spatula. Well, this yellow compound was poisonous. It would poison your arms, but he reached down there and got it. Some people couldn't come in the building. It would poison them right away. But it didn't bother us. Our arms, hands, and face would be yellow and through our pants. But in the spring we would roll up our sleeves and we would get a little bit on our upper arms until we got used to it again. But us three -- it didn't bother us at all. We became immune to it.

    The worst explosion at Hagley Yard that I remember was I think in l9l4. They had an explosion up there in the packing house. We were up on the hill. We heard it. Ran out. The rafters shook in the building and dust came down. We ran out and you could see it. Things started to blow around; it looked like white paper coming down. We didn't go up there at all. No one was allowed to go up. Ten or twelve people were killed at that time, maybe more.

    Our only connection with Hagley was running tests with black powder. And also we tested black blasting powder for pressure only. We had a one-pound cannon down in the woods. We would shoot the projectiles into a wooden butt, and we would take the pressure only. They were according to grain -- 2F, 3F, 4F, or unglazed blasting. The pressure ran anywhere from three to five or five and one-half tons. According to what the pressure was, we would shoot five rounds and take the pressure on a lead cylinder and these one pound shells after using would then be reformed, washed, and cleaned and new primer put in. Ready to use again.

    I had a son killed in l943 at Carney's Point -- Smokeless Powder end.
  • Boarding at the Upper Banks; walking or taking the Peoples Railway trolley to Henry Clay
    Keywords: Driving of horse-drawn vehicles; Rental housing; Street-railroads; Trolley cars
    Transcript: When I first worked for the company, I boarded up at the Upper Banks with my sister. The company owned all those houses up there by the Club House. They used to cut and peel the willow branches up there. The willow wood made the best black powder. That is the charcoal. I lived up there until 1907 when I was married. I was getting $48.00 a month.

    The day I was married -- I don't know whether you saw in the paper that this undertaker, Mr. Daugherty, who just died, he was in his 80's, one of the oldest undertakers in Wilmington. Well, Hackendorn was a great friend of his. He hired a cab for me for $7.00 from two o'clock in the afternoon until five or six at night. My wife lived on a little farm that has since been sold and torn down. You know where the Black Gates are? Well, they drove the cab up there and down through there is a curvy road through the woods. I had been down there many times at night when it was dark, I could always tell by the light through the trees where the road was. There was a swinging bridge that goes across there. I was taking my sister and her husband home -- they lived up on the Upper Banks. Upper Banks was across the Creek from Chicken Alley. The cab driver ran into a stump -- he didn’t make the turn. I got out and I said, "You let me." I backed the horses back in this cab. It was a regular cab -- seat in front and seat in back —- they don't have them any more. So I got up and took the horse —- pulled him back —- and I drove on down through there across the swinging bridge and up on top of the hill where Daughertys lived. Then I got out and let him get up. I had rented a house on Springer Street at Bancroft Parkway Apartments there and the street wasn't fixed -- it was full of mud. And he drove up there and he said, "Will you please not tell the boss anything about this." I said, "All right, I won't say anything."

    I paid ten and a half for a four-room apartment -- first floor. Mr. Charles Beck had charge of them, a very fine man. They charged me a dollar more a month after they papered them. That was at Sixth and Springer Street. It was about a mile or mile and a quarter from the Experimental Station. I used to walk to work on clear days. I could walk pretty near as fast as the street cars. Wawaset Park then -- that's where they used to have a race track, races in the summer time -- I used to go through there, out Pennsylvania Avenue, and across to the Experimental Station. Then if it was a wet day I used to ride the trolley car -- the Peoples Trolley Car -- it went on up there to Henry Clay. The trolley car came up Woodlawn Avenue, turned at 19th, went up the square and then went down that street that goes to Bancroft Mills. There was a school right there and they turned to the left, on up through the woods to the end of the line. The trolley was one of the principal means of transportation. I used to walk as I said except on a bad day and I could meet the trolley there and walk and when I got up to 19th Street coming down I could see the trolley going over Woodlawn Avenue.
  • Reaction to explosions at the powder yard; anecdotes of Frank, Alred I., and Ernest du Pont; social life of DuPont workers
    Keywords: Bars (Drinking establishments); Du Pont, Alfred I. (Alfred Irénée), 1864-1935;Du Pont, Ernest, 1880-1944; Du Pont, Francis Gurney, 1850-1904;Explosions; Industrial relations; Shooting
    Transcript: I remember when they had an explosion people ran to the gates -- they closed the gates -- people ran to the gates to try to get a job. Sometimes they would find only pieces of the men.

    Most of the du Pont men when they were young had to serve an apprenticeship in the black powder. I remember one time Mr. Hackendorn was telling me about Mr. Frank du Pont -— his son fired a man in the black powder for doing something there. He asked him what he fired him for and he told him. Well, he asked him, "Don't you know that man has a family? He has a family to support. Now you take him back again." It was done. Hackendorn used to play in the band with Mr. Alfred I. du Pont. When he was a boy, Mr. Alfred used to be down there and they would play in the Yard with the little trucks that they trucked powder in.

    Alfred I. was a wonderful man to the old employees. If they couldn't get satisfaction on a pension through the company they would go to him, and he would get it for them. And at Christmas time he always sent his chauffeur around -- he was the first one to have an automobile in Delaware, in l904. He would send him around with baskets of food and things for the old employees at Christmas time. He was very good. I know one time, he came down there, and they had an experiment going on there with a continuous process of blasting powder. There was a chap there by the name of Ward -- a great big, stout heavy set fellow. He said, "Bill, what are you doing here? You ought to be back of a bar instead of working here." Alfred I. was a black powder man.

    Once I decided that I wanted to get out of the Explosives Department. I wanted to be a letter carrier. So I said to my boss, Mr. Ernest du Pont -- he had charge of experimental powder work and ballistics tests -- what I wanted to do. He said to go ahead and make application, use his name, and get two other prominent men. "It will make a big difference who you have in back of you." I went to see a man -- I can't think of his name [Mr. Townsend] -- he was in the Security Trust Company. He wasn't there, but he sent me a letter that he would sign my application. I finally decided I didn't want to be a mail carrier. So I stayed on.

    I was there forty years and three months in all. The last year I was off on the sick list for eleven months and I got my full pay all the time I was off and two raises while I was off, too.

    [Discussion continues on social life of DuPont workers, particularly the tavern on Rising Sun Lane and shooting tournaments.]
  • Early education; learning on the job; P.S. du Pont visiting the Experimental Station
    Keywords: Carneys Point; Daily Republican; Du Pont, Pierre S. (Pierre Samuel), 1870-1954; Employees--Training of; Newspapers
    Transcript: [Mr. Lee describes his early education.]

    I lived on a little farm out on Maryland Avenue with my stepfather. George Vernon and I used to walk from there in to school. He was a cripple. The Vernons ran the “Daily Republican" at 2nd and King Street. I used to serve three newspapers at night -- Daily Republican, Journal, and Every Evening. You would pay one-half cent and I would take one—half cent on them. They sold for a penny. Mr. Vernon was a big tall man with whiskers. He would come out, look around, see what the weather was and then go in and publish the weather.

    I finished grammar school, but I had no technical training. Learned on the job. I made powder from the beginning from nitrate and cotton -- purifying it, and then pressuring it in blocks, and then making powder out of it. I went all through the powder line from making powder, testing powder, storing powder. I know when I retired Mr. Lloyd -- he was director of Burnside Laboratory -- said, "Harry has learnt me all about powder." I said, "I don't think I have learnt you much." He said, "You know more about powder than I do."

    I went from testing, examined it when it came in from the plant. We inspected all powder that Carney's Point made. Regardless of what it was. I'd send it for moisture. If the moisture wasn't right they would have to make it right. But they didn't like it very much. If you turned a sample down that was thirty or forty thousand pounds and they had to dump it again. If the moisture wasn't right or they had other powder in that besides the powder that was supposed to be in it -- we made so many different types of powder -- if there was any other grade that didn't look right, I would report to Mr. Lloyd and they would have to come over and look at it and they would have to either dump it and screen it again and make it all right before they could ship it. He was very strict. He would not allow them to ship the powder unless it was exactly right. Also if the moisture was off, too much or too little, they would have to dump it all and dry it down or put some water in to bring it up to the right moisture.

    I guess politics was about as much as it is today. As always in politics there was somebody arguing about it.

    Mr. P.S. du Pont had charge of the Experimental Station from the main office when I first went there. I know he would come out occasionally, sometimes every two months or so and look over the Experimental Station to see what they were doing. That #1 Building is still there. They would say, "Clean up today. Have everything in good shape. Mr. du Pont is coming out." Of course, maybe he wouldn't even see you. There was one fine man.

    #1 Building is still there. At that time it had a machine shop, a carpenter's shop, laboratory, tin shop, and our ballistics equipment was in there upstairs. #1 Building is still down there -- further down in the Yard. There are so many new buildings. I was out there for a visit a few years ago. Dr. Tannberg, who was Director for many years, was in a meeting but he came out and had a talk with me. "Well, you go around wherever you want and see if you can find any old employees to talk to." But it was nothing like it used to be. So many people.
  • Political feelings among powder workers; concluding remarks
    Keywords: Gunpowder; Historic buildings--Conservation and restoration; Historic sites--Conservation and restoration
    Transcript: [Interview continues after transcript ends. After briefly asking about workers' political affiliations, interviewers discuss the restoration plans of the Hagley site with Mr. Lee. After learning the museum will be in the former keg factory, Lee recalls a failed attempt by the company to switch from metal kegs to pulp kegs for black powder.]

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