Interview with Edwin G. Smyth, 1974 January 29 [audio]

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  • His father beginning an apprenticeship at the Hagley carpenter shop; his father's family history; his mother moving to Hagley to live with her aunt; his father's work on the construction of DuPont Carney's Point plant; a handsaw owned by John Q. Stirling, his father's uncle
    Keywords: Apprentices; Boardinghouses; Brandywine Hundred (Del.); carpenter shop; Carpenters; Contractors; E.I. du Pont de Nemours and Company. Carney's Point Works; E.I. du Pont de Nemours and Company. Chambers Works; E.I. du Pont de Nemours and Company. Dye Works; E.I. du Pont de Nemours and Company. Hagley Yard; Jacos contract; MacPherson, Margaret; Saws; Smyth, James M.; Stirling, John Q.
    Transcript: Ward: This is an oral interview with Edwin G. Smyth, of 28 Paschall Road, Shellburne, Wilmington, Delaware on January 29, 1974. [He had no personal employment at Hagley, but did in later years contract for renovation and improvements to two homes in the area that had served du Ponts during the active life of the yard. His father, James M. Smyth, was employed at Hagley as outlined below. The interviewer is Mary Sam Ward.]

    Mr. Smyth, let's begin with your father. Where was he born and when did he first come to the Wilmington area?

    Smyth: My father, James M. Smyth was born in Maryland just across the line not far from Newark, Delaware. His father had a small farm and as a boy my father helped about the farm. When he reached the age when boys enter apprenticeships he came up to Brandywine Hundred to the home of his uncle John Q. Stirling. His uncle was head of the carpenter shop and yard carpenters at Hagley. In [1877], my father entered an apprenticeship as a carpenter at Hagley and served the full term of four years and a few months. He then worked as a carpenter for a period of time.

    Ward: Before we go on with his work, do you know where your [paternal grandparents] came from?

    Smyth: They came from [Scotland to Ireland and later to Philadelphia, where they met for the first time.]

    Ward: Your mother, what was her name and where did she come from?

    Smyth: My mother's name was Margaret MacPherson. She was born in Philadelphia. Her father died while she was quite young and left a widow and several children. Money was not plentiful in those days, and my mother as a young girl came to the neighborhood of Hagley to live with an aunt. The aunt, [also a MacPherson], operated a small boarding house for employees at Hagley. My father met [Margaret MacPherson], and they were attracted to each other and ended up as a happy married couple.

    Ward: Then, did they just continue to live on in this area then?

    Smyth: [Their first home was west of city limits.] He later was identified with the construction of the first buildings at the Carney's Point Powder Plant. My father was the general foreman and supervised the construction of all of the original buildings known as the Jacos contract. This work was completed in 1892. My father then started his own contracting business. He was awarded the contract for work involved in the next expansion of Carney's Point in 1895. This involved much more construction than the earlier contract and continued until the summer of 1904. A memento of the time he spent at Hagley is one of my prized possessions. It is a 10-point handsaw with the name of the original owner stamped on the handle; the name is John Q. Stirling. It was manufactured by John Spear of Sheffield, England. It is a real and perfectly kept relic of the early days of the mill.

    Ward: Mr. Smyth, can you tell me about the Stirling who originally owned the saw and how you happened to have it?

    Smyth: The saw came to my attention when a son of John Q. Stirling, Harry, who had served his time at Hagley and later worked at Carney's Point and subsequent to that at the Dye Works, now called Chambers Works. He was a cousin of my father's and had been acquainted with our family. I saw him several times at Chambers Works and he offered to give me the saw that had been his father's as a memento of the fact that in the past our families had been related. I have kept the saw in good shape without use as is deserved by a relic of this nature.
  • His father's Hagley work history and beginning to work for Alfred I. du Pont around 1909 on the building of Nemours and its outbuildings; Alfred I. du Pont living in a stone house near Concord Pike while Nemours was being built
    Keywords: Concord Pike (Del. and Pa.); Construction industry; Du Pont, Alfred I. (Alfred Irenee), 1864-1935; E.I. du Pont de Nemours and Company. Carney's Point Works; Garages; Gatehouses; Interstate 95; Interstate Highway; Journey workers; journeymen; Nemours (Greenville, Del. : Dwelling); Rock Manor (Wilmington, Del.); Water towers
    Transcript: Ward: Did you ever happen to hear your father say how he happened to go into the construction business and what got him interested in the first place?

    Smyth: My father's interest in the construction business started with his apprenticeship as a carpenter at Hagley and for some time after he had become a journeyman carpenter with work of that nature at Hagley. When he left Hagley and worked for a contractor in the first buildings at Carney's Point his management of that work convinced him that he could manage work for himself. And this caused him, before the second section of Carney's Point was built, to enter into the contracting business on his own.

    Ward: When did he first start working for Alfred I. du Pont?

    Smyth: In the early 1900s, he performed certain work for Alfred I. du Pont in possessions that Mr. du Pont then held. Somewheres around 1909, Mr. du Pont had him to take on the building of his mansion now called Nemours. The exact date of this I cannot recall, but it was approximately as I have noted.

    Ward: Do you know about how long it took them to build the mansion?

    Smyth: There was considerably more work to be performed on the estate than just the mansion itself. This involved garage, gatehouses, a [photo?] plant, water tower and other service buildings. The development of the entire estate extended over a few years.

    Ward: Where was Alfred I. living at the time that the Nemours estate was being built?

    Smyth: Mr. du Pont, sometime before this, had purchased a stone house just off the Concord Pike above the B & amp; O Railroad from Isaac Elliot. He engaged my father to make alterations and renovations to the house and service buildings connected to that estate. This was quite some time before the building of Nemours and was quite extensive in nature.

    Ward: Can you locate this area along the Concord Pike? Where would I find it today?

    Smyth: This house is now surrounded somewhat by other homes that have been developed in the immediate neighborhood and the entrance to the tract which was at one time off the Concord Pike at the brow of the hill interfered with some of the Interstate Highway work. That entrance then was transferred to the southern approach to the tract, [known as Rock Manor, opening onto Augustine cutoff.]
  • Use of Brandywine granite and stucco in building the Nemours mansion; his father's confidence in his ability to complete the Nemours contract
    Keywords: Brandywine granite; Building materials; Contractors; Nemours (Greenville, Del. : Dwelling); Quarries and quarrying; stone crusher; Stucco
    Transcript: Ward: Where did most of the material for Nemours come from? Was it local stone? What was the building made of?

    Smyth: The Nemours mansion is built of Brandywine granite all of which was quarried on the estate. There was also adjacent to the quarry a stone crusher which broke stone for the roads that were built within the estate. The stone does not show in the walls of the house having been stuccoed as a finish at the time of the erection.

    Ward: Do you know why they always stuccoed those buildings? Some people like the stone itself. Now why stucco a beautiful material like that?

    Smyth: Well, someone like the stucco [laughs]. The stone was laid at random, which is a technical word, and as such served its purpose for strength and stability but would leave a rough finish. Stucco applied to the stone gave the building its present appearance.

    Ward: How did they get that color, do you know?

    Smyth: Stucco is plaster. What color is it now?

    Ward: Well, the inside walls are a kind of whitish. Now the outside is a sort of tannish, light brown.

    Smyth: Some of that might be age.

    Ward: You think so - it might have been a different color when it was -

    Smyth: Might be. The most, if not all, of the exterior walls were re-stuccoed many years after the original work was done. The old stucco was cut off, chopped off, and new stucco applied because of the worn appearance of the original stucco.

    Ward: Did your father think this was quite an undertaking to start building a house of this size?

    Smyth: My father had great faith in his ability and when questioned by Mr. du Pont if he felt he could build a mansion like was being planned he was told, "If you provide the money and the plans, I could build a battleship." That was a great saying of my Dad's. My Dad told me that himself.

    Ward: Did he have any problems, do you remember his speaking of, during the time of the construction - getting materials or men to work? Anything of that sort.

    Smyth: All the work proceeded smoothly due to good planning and cooperation of the subcontractors and the workmen who were employed directly by my father.

    Ward: Do you know whether any of those men had worked earlier in the Hagley Yard?

    Smyth: Probably not.
  • Attending Wilmington public schools and taking civil engineering at Delaware College; working at different DuPont sites on civil engineering projects, primarily construction of high explosives plants; later career with DuPont as construction engineer and subsequently in the Design Department
    Keywords: Camp Dix (N.J.); civil engineering; Delaware College; E.I. du Pont de Nemours and Company. Barksdale Works; E.I. du Pont de Nemours and Company. Dye Works; E.I. du Pont de Nemours and Company. Engineering Department; E.I. du Pont de Nemours and Company. Repauno Works; Explosives; Fort Dix (N.J.); Tetraethyllead plant; TNT (Chemical); Trinitroxylene (TNX); Wilmington High School; Wilmington public schools
    Transcript: Ward: Now, Mr. Smyth, let's hear something about you. We've been talking about your father. Where were you born? Where did you spend your childhood? Where did you go to school?

    Smyth: I was born in Wilmington in the home that my father had built for himself many, many years before. I attended the Wilmington public schools, graduated from Wilmington High School. I entered Delaware College and took a civil engineering course and finished in 1917. After a few weeks in Camp Dix they decided I was not soldier material. I had to wear glasses, and I was released. I was disappointed and wanted to do something toward the war effort. I applied to DuPont for work and because I had, previous to going to camp, worked for a short while at Repauno on a map survey they employed me to go to the Barksdale plant in Wisconsin to [help supervise] work on high explosives TNT and TNX construction. This work was drawing to a conclusion when the company decided to build another high explosives loading plant near Racine, Wisconsin. I was sent there from Barksdale to work on a preliminary survey of the farmland that had been optioned by the company. This land was on the lake front [of Lake Michigan]. The survey continued at a rapid pace but was brought to a halt when the armistice was signed.

    From then it was a short time until I returned home and was looking for employment. I entered construction for a few years but when times became quite lean I went back to my first love, DuPont, and asked for employment. I was engaged to join a construction crew [as a construction engineer] at the Dye Works, now Chambers Works, and entered the construction section there and participated in building quite a few buildings including a tetraethyl lead plant. With consolidation of the Engineering Department into the general plant organization, our department was divided into areas to cover the mechanical maintenance of all repair work and installations on the plant. This was quite a successful operation. It lasted for many years.

    [Within five years of retirement, I moved to the Design Department where plans are made to develop the need] for buildings and equipment used to equip new operations or to renovate old ones. This was my occupation until the time of my retirement.
  • Gathering broken glass from the Kiamensi Spring water bottling plant to decorate the top of the stone wall at the Nemours estate; attending the 1902 DuPont Company centennial anniversary celebrations as a child
    Keywords: Anniversaries; glass bottles; Kiamensi Spring Water Company; Masonry; Monasteries; Nemours (Greenville, Del. : Dwelling); Punch and Judy; Rifle-ranges
    Transcript: Ward: What did you do when you were working for Alfred I. du Pont?

    Smyth: Well, you mean when I was working for my dad? The biggest thing I did was gather the glass -

    Ward: Well, let's hear about that. I think everyone in the community is aware of that.

    Smyth: During the construction of the mansion itself I was not old enough to do a man's work. I did work toward the windup of the actual building of structures. I worked for one summer's vacation helping carpenters employed by my father. Sometime later when the construction of the stone wall surrounding part of the estate was projected I was occupied in the summer of that year in gathering up as much old glass as I could find to decorate the top of the stone wall.

    Ward: Where did you find most of this glass?

    Smyth: Much of this glass was found on the refuse pile of broken glass at the Kiamensi Spring water bottling plant. The glass had been discarded over the edge of a fairly steep hill, and the valley below was filled with it.

    Ward: Do you know whether that plant is still in evidence today?

    Smyth: No, the name isn't [in use today].

    Ward: Then did you actually help install the glass? On the wall?

    Smyth: No. My job was finished when I delivered the glass which I had hauled in a small half-ton [bin?] truck.

    Ward: Then were the bottles broken up?

    Smyth: The glass was broken to smaller sizes by one of the laborers working in the mason crew that erected the wall.

    Ward: Then were the pieces put in by hand?

    Smyth: Yes. The setting of the glass on top of the wall was accomplished by installing first the semi-rounded cap of cement to the wall, the glass was inserted piece by piece by hand in the fresh cement. When it set the glass was there for keeps.

    Ward: Do you have any idea how long that took? Was that a summer's job for instance?

    Smyth: I don't know. For all that wall - I don't know.

    Ward: Where did Mr. du Pont get the idea for the wall?

    Smyth: The idea for the wall according to Mr. du Pont had been in his mind for some time. The decoration of the top with the glass mentioned, he had seen in France at a monastery where the glass was installed on top of the wall.

    Ward: Did you have any theory about why he built it? Just for protection, so he would have his privacy?

    Smyth: I don't know, [but strongly suspect privacy].

    Ward: Now what are your earliest memories of the whole Hagley area? Do you have any childhood memories of anything that is outstanding in your mind?

    Smyth: In 1902, the DuPont Company celebrated its 100th anniversary of the conception of Hagley. The celebration was held, which involved a large picnic on the grounds adjacent to the powder property and was attended by powder makers, old and young with their families. I remember as a child being present at that celebration. They had amusement for the kids in a Punch and Judy show and as amusement for some of the men they had a small rifle range where .22 caliber ammunition was used, supposedly shielded from any of the pellets getting loose. However, one youngster was hit, not seriously but hit with a stray bullet and was immediately given an examination and cleansing of the slight wound. I remember one of the old-timers wanted to affect a cure, he said, by putting some warm ashes from his pipe on the wound. The child's mother refused to accept this.
  • Attending the 1952 DuPont Company sesquicentennial anniversary celebrations to manage delivery of supplies from Chambers Works; his religious upbringing and father serving as ruling elder at Green Hill Presbyterian Church; his father's good working relationship with Alfred I. du Pont
    Keywords: Anniversaries; Children--Religious life; Du Pont, Alfred I. (Alfred Irenee), 1864-1935; E.I. du Pont de Nemours and Company. Chambers Works; Elders (Church officers); Green Hill Presbyterian Church (Wilmington, Del.); Industrial relations; Working class--Religious life
    Transcript: Ward: Did you attend a later celebration?

    Smyth: In 1952 the Company celebrated its 150th anniversary of the organization. The site for this was the upper part of the Hagley Yard. I attended this anniversary celebration in a very minor official capacity. I was employed at the Chambers Works at this time and there was a requirement for benches, chairs, platforms, tarpaulins, and odds and ends for emergency use in case the weather turned bad. They were to be supplied by Chambers Works and I was delegated to see that they were provided and delivered. This entailed my visiting the celebration so that I have attended both of the large anniversary celebrations of the original Hagley Yard [and the DuPont Company].

    Ward: What would you say was the biggest change in that 50-year span of time as far as this part of the country is concerned?

    Smyth: Well, the biggest part was the elimination of the powder making at Hagley.

    Ward: And just the living conditions in general? Do you think they have improved or stepped backward in that 50 years?

    Smyth: You mean up around - in general? I'm a poor one to say because I'm trying to compare when I was this big and when I was this big it didn't make much difference, I was well taken care of.

    Ward: I guess that's a good way to look at it. Mr. Smyth, what do you remember of your father's teaching or philosophy of life that you think has been good for you to live with through the years?

    Smyth: My father was a very religious man. He showed that by naming me for two Presbyterian ministers. He was the ruling elder in Green Hill Presbyterian Church for many, many, many years. He was faithful in his attendance and in his administration and he lived the kind of life he professed. He gave me a bringing up that was not at odds with the selection he had made for my names. They were good teachings and they are still with me.

    Ward: We have heard that the working men at the mill had such a high regard for Alfred I. du Pont. What do you remember of your father's opinion of Mr. du Pont?

    Smyth: Mr. Alfred served his time at Hagley, too, and I'm not sure how much of that time my Dad was there.

    Ward: Just the period of time that your father knew him.

    Smyth: My father always had a good relationship with Alfred I. du Pont. It was strictly a business relationship at all times. Mr. du Pont trusted my father to do what was right, and my father respected Mr. du Pont in all of their work relations. Over the course of many, many years when my father performed work for Mr. du Pont there was never a written contract or any kind of signatures exchanged on any of the work in which my father engaged. This indicated a perfect trust with one for the other, and it paid off in the long run.

    [Inserted audio] Ward: In a previous discussion Mr. Smyth had this to say about the same question.

    Smyth: I recall that my father's early education in the business world started at Hagley. I note from history that Mr. du Pont also got his start at Hagley, a short while after my dad went there. Both of these men worked at Hagley back in the time when truth and honesty were great qualities. You might say they were graduates of the same school and in later life when my father was in business and was engaged by Mr. du Pont to build his Nemours mansion there was absolute trust between the two. There was no semblance of a written contract for all of the work that my father performed. Everything was on a business basis and no preference was shown because of any other contacts these two had had.

    Ward: Thank you very much Mr. Smyth. I certainly appreciate your time in sharing your and your father's memory with us.
  • Additional comments about his father's work history and work on Alfred I. du Pont's estate at Nemours; later project with his brother to extend the service wing and re-plaster the original building at Nemours
    Keywords: Apprentices; Building; Contractors; E.I. du Pont de Nemours and Company. Carney's Point Works; glass bottles; Jacos contract; Macadam roads; Nemours (Greenville, Del. : Dwelling); Quarries and quarrying; Roads--Design and construction
    Transcript: [additional comments by Smyth, possibly from another interview]

    Smyth: My father, James M. Smyth, came up from his home across the line in Maryland to the home of John Q. Stirling to live during his apprenticeship in the carpenter's shop at Hagley. Mr. Stirling was his maternal uncle and also in charge of the carpenter's shop. After serving for four years and three months from 1877 to 1881, my father was accepted as a full-fledged carpenter and served as such for several years.

    In 1891, the first land for a smokeless powder plant at Carney's Point was purchased by DuPont. In October of that year, John W. Jacobs of Elverson, Pennsylvania was given the contract to erect the first buildings at Plant One. My father was his general foreman and supervised the construction of all of the original buildings known as the Jacobs' contract. This work was completed in 1892. My father then started his own contracting business. He was awarded the contract for work involved in the next expansion of Carney's Point in 1895. This involved much more construction than the earlier contract and continued until the summer of 19[?].

    One of the younger members of the du Pont family during my father's time at Hagley was Alfred I. du Pont. In later years around 1909, Mr. du Pont approached my father concerning the building of his mansion now known as Nemours. My father, well established as a builder for some time, was asked by Mr. du Pont if he could build his proposed home, which was planned by Carrere and Hastings architects of New York. Father's answer was, "I could build a battleship if you provided the plans and the money." He was not unknown to Mr. du Pont, who knew Father's background with the DuPont Company. Construction started and was carried through to a successful conclusion. Other buildings were erected: gatehouses, garage, filter plant, water tower.

    One later project was the erection of that wall that encircles the estate along the public roads. The glass atop the wall was suggested to Mr. du Pont by similar treatment of stone walls surrounding a monastery in France. I was old enough at this time to drive a small truck, and I remember the summer spent in collecting glass debris from bottling plants and from basements of people who had amassed a lot of bottles for which they had no use. The stone used for both the mansion and buildings as well as for the wall was quarried on the estate. A stone crusher was used to break stone to be used in the estate macadam roads. A pump house was erected at the Brandywine Creek to pump water to the filter house to provide the mains for sprinklers about the estate. I recall the driving of an artesian well to provide water service for the buildings.

    In a subsequent year, early in the 1920s, my brother and I built quite an extension to the service wing of the mansion and completely re-plastered the exterior of the rest of the original building.

    Ward: Mr. Smyth has two photographs of his father, James M. Smyth, that he says we can photograph for our files. He also said he would be happy to present the 10-point saw to the Hagley Museum as a memento of his father. We accepted these with pleasure.