Hopewell Furnace

Our youngest son turned 9 over Memorial Day weekend.  He likes to get out and explore new places so, after gfit opening and birthday breakfast, we decided to take a day trip to Hopewell Furnace.  Despite being relatively close to home, it is a National Historic Site we had not visited in our four years of living in PA so it was high time we went to check it out.

As Hopewell Furnace was in operation prior to the American Revolution, it is considered to be one of America’s oldest industrial sites and, therefore, a place of historic significance.  We began our trip in the Visitor’s Centre with a video providing us with a useful potted history of the “iron plantation”.  We learned about the site having been chosen because of a confluence of natural resources, about the evolving treatment of and attitude African-American workers – ranging from slavery to early desegregation and the Underground Railroad – and of female employees, its contribution to the War of Independence, and about the process of manufacturing iron as it was undertaken from the 1770s through to its closure in the 1880s.

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As with all National Parks sites, Hopewell Furnace was beautifully maintained and easy to navigate.  We found that we could walk in a loop and take in all of the buildings and ruins.  Hopewell operated as a charcoal furnace for most of its existence because the price of hauling coal to the site was prohibitive so we saw the area where charcoal would have been created.  We had learned that the furnace could consume as much as 800 bushels of charcoal in one day so it must have been a demanding job.  We all enjoyed seeing the blast furnace, not simply because it was very cool inside on such a hot day.  I normally find it pretty challenging to engage with industrial heritage but I had no difficulty imagining the workers operating inside the furnace as it all seemed so visually clear.  We had seen where the “ingredients” would be dropped into the shaft in order to be super-heated, and then the bit at the bottom of the “chimney” from where the molten metal would flow once the seal was broken.  There was then a nearby area where the skilled workers would pour the iron into sand moulds in order to manufacture various items.  We were all somewhat mesmerised by the water wheel.  Sure it was a nifty piece of engineering and critical to the manufacturing process but I think for at least the boys and me it was really just that there is something aesthetically pleasing and calming about watching a wheel rotate.

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We had been informed that the workers’ houses were not yet open to the public for the season but, in fact, we found that a couple of them were open.  They had been furnished with reproduction furniture and household items which was fantastic as it helped us understand how families utilised the space and also allowed the kids to engage a bit more since the experience became tactile.  My husband and the birthday boy even played a quick card game in one of the houses.  Industrial history doesn’t really do it for me so it was the social history regarding issues like racial (in)equality and the lives of the workers that really helped to anchor my interest in the site.

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After some time spent befriending Maximilian the horse, our final stop was the Ironmaster’s house.  The ground floor is open for viewing, with barriers keeping visitors back from the furniture and other artefacts that bring each room to life.  I think what my kids most enjoyed about the “big house”, however, was the porch complete with rocking chairs.  After months of dismal weather, they have not yet readjusted to heat and sunlight.  They better get used to it, however, as I intend for us to be outdoors a lot this summer after hibernating for months.

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The Mercer Museum

This summer, in addition to our recent road trip, my in-laws decided to take the Pictlings on vacation in pairs.  For the first time in over ten years, therefore, I was left with just two children to care for and keep busy.  The youngest two went off on their grandparent vacation first so I had the 11 and 14 year old at home.  I decided, therefore, to take them to explore a place none of us had visited: the Mercer Museum in Doylestown.

The Mercer Museum is named for Henry Chapman Mercer and reflects his pursuits and hobbies.  He was a tile-maker, an avid collector, and an archaeologist and the museum showcases all of these interests.  The museum building is, in fact, one of his creations.  Mercer designed three poured concrete buildings, all in Doylestown: his Moravian Tile Works; his home, Fonthill; and the museum.  The building, therefore, is an exhibit in its own right and – in my opinion – it was the best thing about the museum.

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We started in a modern extension to the building where there was a special exhibition about one woman’s collection of quilts and a selection of marvelous dollhouses.  I have no ability with sewing and could never even dream of embarking on something like a quilt but I enjoyed seeing the variety of designs and styles.  All three of us liked the dollhouses for all the tiny details and the meticulous crafting of scaled household items.  Soon enough, however, it was time to enter the actual museum building and it was a wow moment to step out into the central area.  We were surrounded on all sides by spaces full of interesting collections but the real impact came from looking up.  The museum is six or seven floors (it gets confusing) and we could stand in that first atrium area and look up through all of the floors, up to where a collection of chairs were suspended from the ceiling, our eyes darting past buggies and boats and even a fire engine that were dangling from the walls.

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Walking around the Mercer Museum is like poking around in someone’s really organised attic. Each collection has its own designated nook within the space.  Mercer appears to have been interested in the tools, equipment, and workshops of a wide variety of trades so each display space was themed around some industry.  We saw, for example, a collection of hair combs made from tortoise shell along with the shells and the tools used to slice and carve them.  There was a room dedicated to shoemaking with a large collection of cobbler’s lasts hanging on one wall.  Another space was full of hats and hat-making equipment.  There was a woodworking shop, a blacksmith’s furnace, a room full of spindles and spinning wheels, medical and apothecary equipment, a huge collection of lanterns, musical instruments (my kids laughed when I said the word “hurdy gurdy” with my Scottish accent), moulds for making confectionery, whaling implements, and so much more.  I confess to being not very enthused by industrial history but I found this collection quite charming.  With it being organised the way it was, I could quickly skim and scan the collections that I was not fussed by – such as gunsmithing – and spend more time with the items I did find more engaging, such as the glassblowing workshop.

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Now, being honest, my sons were not really digging the museum.  They gave passing glances to most displays but were not overly interested in the contents or in hearing me tell them about domestic industries of times past.  They were, however, more interested in the large items on display.  Seeing a whaleboat up close gave them an appreciation for how dangerous and difficult the job of whaling was when sent out in a relatively small, narrow and shallow whaling boat into the midst of large sea mammals.  They also thought the Conestoga wagon and stagecoach were cool.  One narrow little entry way took us into an area that was set up to look like a general store and they found that pretty interesting, spotting familiar items in unfamiliar packaging.  Being macabre little souls (they take after me in that respect) they also liked seeing a set of gallows and implements linked to crime and punishment.  We also entertained ourselves with our usual museum quest to find the ugliest and/or most offensive items on display.  The various tobacco advert carvings easily won the contest.

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There was a dog theme running throughout the museum.  Apparently Mercer loved dogs, especially Chesapeake Bay Retrievers.  We saw a statue of one on the way in and then, when we found ourselves in various children’s sections of the museum, there were a couple of cuddly dogs.  Best of all, however, were a set of paw prints, made by a dog named Rollo, imprinted into the concrete between two upper floors of the museum.  Finally, outside the museum, as we headed back to the car, we passed the grave markers for two pet pooches.

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For them and for me, however, the whole highlight of our visit was simply the building itself.  It was marvelously bonkers.  Each set of stairs brought us to another level lined with strange little nooks and crannies, there were weird doorways, steps that went up only to immediately go down again, and all manner of strangely shaped windows.  It was incredible to think that all of these shapes and forms and levels had been constructed by pouring concrete.  We really enjoyed the experience of wandering around and never quite knowing, despite having a map, where we were going to end up.  At one point, we took a staircase down to see a vast collection of stoveplates, entered an adjoining room showcasing tiles, and somehow found ourselves back in a room we had been in some time before and on a different floor altogether.  It made all three of us think of Hogwart’s Castle.  Thinking back to the dollhouses at the beginning of our visit, I could not help thinking about how much fun it would be to have unfettered access to the museum and play within its walls.  We will now have to visit Fonthill and the Moravian Tile Works some time.

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Mother’s Day Weekend at Hagley Museum

It was Mother’s Day weekend this past weekend in the US – UK Mother’s Day having happened in March – and it was a busy time in the Pict household.

On Saturday, Mr Pict and the three older Pictlings headed into the city to go to the Wizard World Comic Con.  They had a whale of a time.  They went to talks with the actor Michael Rooker and Stephen Amell – my 9 year old is a massive fan of ‘Arrow’ – and James and Oliver Phelps who played the Weasley twins in the Harry Potter movies.  They enjoyed all of the talks but found  the last one to be the most engaging and entertaining.  They also went to a talk and demonstration given by the creative geniuses at Weta.  Mr Pict and the kids are huge fans of the Lord of the Rings movies so they were in awe of seeing some of the costumes and armour demonstrated and learning a bit more about the processes involved.  They also visited various stalls and technology demonstrations, played some old school arcade games and took in all the sights and scenes of the visitors in their costumes.  Mr Pict geeked out when he got his photo taken with a chap who was dressed in a completely authentic looking Predator costume.

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While they were geeking out, meanwhile, our youngest son and I were supposed to be going to a zoo and then out for dinner.  But the car battery was dead as a dodo and when I called roadside assistance I found that we had exceeded the number of free call outs we were apparently permitted.  Aggravating.  So we decided to make our own fun at home.  We went to the play park, walked through the woods, painted, watched a movie and baked brownies.

Mother’s Day itself began with a breakfast in bed of patisserie and fruit juice and then gifts and cards.  My kids being the geek children of geek parents, my gifts were all pretty geeky.  They had bought me a set of Walking Dead custom lego at Comic Con and a cuddly xenomorph from the Alien movies.  After being stuck at home the day before, I wanted to go on a day trip so we headed across the border to Delaware so that the boys could claim a new state.  Our rules for collecting a state are that two of three things have to be done: eat, pee or sleep.  I had managed to claim Delaware back in 1995 only by virtue of having consumed a milkshake and falling asleep in the car so really this was my first really proper visit to Delaware rather than just passing through.

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Our destination for the day was Hagley Museum which is on the shore of the Brandywine River.  It is the site of the original black powder works founded by Eleuthere Irenee du Pont de Nemours in 1802.  He chose the site because the river would enable him to harness the power generated by water wheels.  Du Pont is significant in this area’s industrial and economic history so it seemed appropriate to learn a bit more about the company.  Furthermore, my direct ancestor Joseph Scrine was a black powder manufacturer in London in the nineteenth century so I was keen to learn more about the process for that reason.

We began inside the museum, housed inside what had originally been a cotton mill.   We learned about the history of the company’s foundation.  Du Pont, realising that American gunpowder was inferior because of a substandard milling process, spotted an opportunity in the market.  We learned that he had selected the site because of the access to water for power but also the use of the river for transportation  of resources and ingredients, the abundance of willow trees to turn into charcoal as part of the process and nearby stone quarries for building the mills.  Another gallery in the museum housed a large hooked rug crafted by a member of the family depicting the history of the Du Pont family through visual symbolism.  My 8 year old had fun spotting the skunk, which was some sort of family in-joke.  The final floor of the museum told the story of Du Pont’s pioneering work in scientific discovery.  Essentially if you can name a polymer it was probably invented by the scientists at Du Pont: nylon, neoprene, teflon and lycra were just a handful of those featured in the exhibition.  For the kids, this was the most engaging bit of the museum as there were more hands on things for them to do.  They could climb inside a space suit, pretend to drive a nascar rally car, look through microscopes at slides comparing natural materials to the synthetic versions created by Du Pont and investigate various subjects on touch screen computers.

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We had been told that the family’s Georgian mansion, on the banks of the river a short distance further on from the powder works, was closed for renovation of its heating system.  We decided early on, therefore, not to trudge all the way to see the house and gardens as we could always return to focus on those another time.  Instead we decided to concentrate on the industrial buildings and take a gentle amble along the tree-lined river bank to see them.

Back home in Scotland, my boys had loved playing among ruined castles, tumble down chapels and standing stones so we thought they would enjoy exploring the ruined powder work buildings as we reached each in turn.  For the most part they did.  They particularly liked scrambling through small tunnels in the building’s foundations and guddling about on the banks of the river.  There was, however, a fair bit of griping and moaning.  It was another one of those days where the kids were tag-team whinging.  Rare was the moment when all four were happy as clams at the same time.  I, however, was determined to enjoy every moment of the trip and Mr Pict and I found the whole trip to be engaging because of the interesting history and also because it was a scenic and peaceful walk  – if we ignored the thrum of child moaning.

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Some of the buildings housed artifacts so we could see the milling equipment, line shafts, methods of sorting the powder into different sized pieces and even guddle around with a model water turbine.  A highlight of the trip was seeing a sixteen foot water wheel in action.

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We walked back on the other side of the canal so that the kids could just run around a bit more freely without us stopping to “educate” them at every stop.  They found a ruined powder store that they turned into a stage.  Our 9 year old noticed a circular pile of ramshackle bricks and immediately transformed himself into the Iron-Man Hulkbuster from the current Avengers sequel.  They also did the Karate Kid crane move, did shadow boxing and tried to run up the walls.  It was handy way to get everyone to burn off some energy and everyone’s mood was finally in synch and positive.  Then they found a fuzzy caterpillar, named it Special and starting pleading to be permitted to take it home with us.  Repeatedly told no, the happy vibes got grumpy again.  Sigh.

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Towards the end of our walk we passed the spot where a building had blown up in 1920 killing five workers.  We could see the remains of the obliterated buildings and the kids enjoyed exploring a piece of metal equipment that had been smashed to smithereens.  It was a useful reminder for the kids to see how dangerous the work at the powder mills could be and to comprehend the power of gunpowder generally.

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Despite kid grumblings, our trip to Hagley Museum was a great day out.  I would definitely recommend a visit and I am sure we will be back, especially given that we did not manage to see the house and gardens.

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