Stories of past come alive in Hagley's oral history project
By AMY CHERRY
Jul. 15, 2018
WILMINGTON, Del. (AP) — Catherine Hackendorn Sheldrick, who grew up along the Brandywine near the site of the former DuPont powder mill where gunpowder was made, was one of millions who caught the flu in a 1918 pandemic that killed between three and five percent of the world's population.
"I had it, my father had it, and my sister had it...I can remember being awfully sick. My sister will say, 'Yeah the worst headache I ever had in my life was when I had the flu.' The schools closed, there were no services at church...the movies were closed. No public places were open...couldn't get a doctor for love nor money," she recounted.
She was one of the lucky ones who did get a visit from a doctor — who happened to be in town to see her neighbor.
"He gave us some medicine, I can remember he asked my mother for a cup...he never said what it was, but we took it — it could've been aspirin, it could've been anything — but we took it and we got better. Of course some people didn't get better, and they were dying...it was just a horrible, sad, I don't know a word that would fit it."
So many died, Sheldrick said undertakers couldn't be found.
Her story was among 350 hours of oral history recorded between 1950 and 1990, transcribed and curated by Hagley Museum & Library as a way of better understanding the powder yards and the lives of the workers and their families. But Dr. Roger Horowitz, Director of the Center for the History, Business, Technology and Society at Hagley, wanted to make these extraordinary recordings more widely available to the public.
With help from a grant from Delaware Humanities, Tuesday, July 10, 2018, Hagley launched the Brandywine Valley Oral History Project online, and Horowitz said the project is important not just for recording history, but sharing it with those to whom it would mean the most.
"Especially, (to) the descendants of the people who worked and lived in the powder yards, whose great grandparents might well be part of this collection and might not be aware that their voices had been preserved," he said.
Now-deceased adults were recorded as they recalled fond memories of their childhoods in late 19th and early 20th centuries. The perspectives shared of children who were 10 to 15 years old during World War I, told decades later as adults, are fascinating.
"Summertime was a pleasant time up there on the old banks of the Brandywine. We always played marbles or various games — run sheepy run, kick the stick, baseball," said Herbert James Devenney, who was interviewed in 1984. "Every kid in the crick played marbles, everyone had a bag full of marbles...brilliant glass of all different colors, and we prized them."
"You think of, kind of like, old-timey games; there's this great segment of a fellow describing the intense marbles competitions that happened in the neighborhood and describing in pretty good detail...and speaking in the way that only someone remembering their childhood can about the value they placed on these different marbles and how beautiful they were to them, to their 8- or 10-year-old selves," said Dr. Amrys O. Williams, Associate Director and Oral Historian at Hagley.
Ella Fitzharris, among the 150 people interviewed for the project, recalled in her interview a girls baseball team which dated back to 1985.
"Girls, I would say, of maybe 18-20, that worked at the (DuPont) Experimental Station; they had a baseball team...they called them the 'Bloomer Girls.' They wore black sateen bloomers with white tops and white navy sailor ties," said Fitzharris. "They played also in the field back where Walker's Bank is, those houses."
There's also difficult memories that are harder to listen to — stories of explosions at the gunpowder manufacturing site.
"You have stories of people's parts being scattered all over the area, finding fingers and hands and things like that," said Horowitz.
Mary Perrone remembered one hard day for her family which stood out.
"One particular time my husband was in it, and we heard this explosion, and well, what are you going to do? We wait until they come back see which ones come back and which didn't come back...I remember I was standing on the porch, waiting for my husband and the other men to come up; everybody came home but my husband, I had one man...he was alongside of me said: 'Why don't you go home?' I said: 'What for?' I said, 'I'm waiting for my husband.' He said 'If he wasn't dead he'd be here by now,' that wasn't nice."
But that story — unlike others — had a happy ending. Perrone's husband didn't die that day.
"The reason he was late, he was in the washhouse and the window blew out, and it hit him in the face, and he had to go to the hospital to get stitches put in, and that's why he was late coming home," said Perrone in her 1984 interview.
Stories of segregation during WWII also surfaced.
"I remember two servicemen — one white, and one negro — stopped at the desk and said: 'Can you tell me any place where we two can sit down together and have a meal? We have been buddies for years in the war, and now we can't find a place in this city where the two of us can sit down together and eat.' That made me cry almost. I couldn't tell them any place they could go where they could both eat," said Louise F. Poole, who at that time worked at the Traveler's Aid Society in downtown Wilmington, in her interview in 1974.
The emotion in Poole's voice makes you feel almost as if she were talking across from you.
Ben Spohn, an oral history project assistant recalled a particularly part of history, he encountered in listening to hundreds of hours of audio.
"A recollection from a person who had witnessed a lynching that happened in the area in 1903 — -I think hat was the probably the single most shocking thing I heard over the course of describing it because he was there like in the mob as an 11-year-old child and described in pretty good detail what he saw and heard," said Spohn.
Broken down into categories, the oral history archive is searchable by descendants' names or by topic.
"It's sort of like a greatest hits collection; there's so much in there, 350 hours that it's daunting to actually get into it, so we want to motivate people to explore it, and one way to do that is we have some of the best clips that we found," said Horowitz.
For subjects who aren't pictured, Horowitz is hoping family members may recognize their relative's name and send in their own memories to update the archive. Hagley is also planning podcasts to help share the stories of the past to a wider audience.
"The voices, the sound is so powerful and so evocative, and so many people would like to be able to hear their grandparents or great grandparents, maybe just a short little snippets to feel what the voice tells you about that person," said Horowitz. "This is extraordinary to have collections going back this far, you simply don't find these kinds of recollections going as far back as the 1880s."
Information from: WDEL-FM, http://www.wdel.com/