Named for a river that in its upper reaches could pass for a creek, the Brandywine Valley stretches 35 miles from the rolling hills of southeastern Pennsylvania to the northern part of Wilmington, Delaware. And almost every acre is rich with romance, history, or just plain beauty.
1. Nemours Mansion
Go almost anywhere in Brandywine country, and you’re likely to encounter the name Du Pont. The first member of this notable clan to arrive in America, Pierre Samuel du Pont de Nemours, emigrated from France with his family in 1799. Three years later one of his sons, Eleuthére Irénée, established a gunpowder plant beside the Brandywine River in Delaware. By the early 20th century, the family business had grown into the world’s largest chemical company. The Du Ponts eventually became one of the richest families in America, and they poured a good deal of their wealth into their properties.
The first of several monuments to the Du Pont dynasty to be seen here is the Nemours Mansion, located on Rockland Road between Rtes. 202 and 141 north of Wilmington. A modified Louis XVI- style chateau, this 102-room masterpiece was built in 1910 by Pierre Du Pont’s great-grandson Alfred, who used it as a refuge from scorning relatives after his divorce. Antique furnishings, tapestries, and a fine collection of 17th-century Dutch paintings are among the items on exhibit here. Visitors to the 300-acre estate can cap a house tour with a stroll through gardens that some say rival those found at the Palace of Versailles.
2. Hagley Museum
Turning south on Rte. 141, the drive reaches the Hagley Museum, site of the Du Pont Company’s early gunpowder mills. In use from 1802 until 1921, when the mills closed, these works made the Du Pont family the largest manufacturer of gunpowder and construction explosives in America. Much of the original machinery has been carefully restored and can be toured in the Hagley Yards, part of the indoor-outdoor museum that traces the long history of powder making. Also found on these 240 wooded acres are several interesting buildings — including a furnished cottage and school — that vividly evoke the lifestyle of Du Pont workers and their families. Farther upstream, overlooking the original powder mills, sits Eleutherian Mills, an 1803 Georgian-style residence whose furnishings reflect the tastes of five generations of Du Ponts.
The rolling countryside near Centerville, Delaware, is a cornucopia of palatial estates. But no piece of real estate here can quite compare with Winterthur (pronounced WIN-ter-toor), the ancestral home of Henry Francis Du Pont. This 983-acre compound — which explodes with lyrically beautiful combinations of flowers from February until November-was lovingly landscaped by its owner, whose passion for his property led him to eventually become an expert in horticulture.
The magnificence of the grounds at Winterthur is perhaps exceeded only by that of its centerpiece, a nine-story museum housing some 90,000 examples of American decorative arts dating from 1640 to 1860. Installed in nearly 175 meticulously restored, period-accurate rooms, these rare objects — including silver tankards crafted by Paul Revere and a dinner service made for George Washington — form one of the largest treasuries of its kind in America.
4. Longwood Gardens
In 1906 Pierre S. Du Pont, following in the tradition of his nature-loving ancestors, bought land in the Brandywine Valley to rescue an arboretum in danger of being destroyed for timber. With time — and the help of the Du Pont fortune — his investment evolved into Longwood Gardens, one of the grandest gardens in the world.
Located just west of the intersection of Rtes. 1 and 52, this paradise of plants boasts more than 11,000 different species in two types of settings: outdoors on 350 exquisitely manicured acres, and indoors in conservatories that shelter 20 indoor gardens. Among the most notable attractions here are the Flower Garden Walk, the Italian Water Garden, the Main Fountain Garden, the indoor Children’s Garden, the Orchid Display, and the Silver Garden, featuring plants that flourish in some of the world’s harshest environments. On summer evenings you can spread a blanket beside one of the three Fountain Gardens and enjoy a concert, a play, or a fireworks display.
5. Chadds Ford
Just south of the intersection of Rtes. 1 and 100 lies another institution that inspires deep pride among area residents, the Brandywine River Museum. Displayed on its walls are works by Howard Pyle, Rockwell Kent, and some 300 other artists. But it is the Wyeths — America’s so-called First Family of Art — who give the place its special éclat. Three generations are represented here: N. C. Wyeth, one of the most popular and prolific illustrators of his day; his son Andrew, the celebrated realist painter; and Andrew’s son, Jamie, who carries on the family’s tradition of richly textured landscapes that capture the quiet splendor of their beloved Brandywine Valley.
The building that houses this unique collection of Americana — a converted 19th-century gristmill — is something of a work of art in itself. The galleries (including one illuminated solely by natural light) are graced by the original hand-hewn beams and wide-board pine floors. The lobbies, walled with glass, look out onto gardens of wildflowers and, beyond, the Brandywine River, where herons can sometimes be seen nabbing fish in the shallows. Heading north on Rte. 1, the drive passes through Chadds Ford. The town is named for John Chad, a farmer who ran a ferry back and forth across the Brandywine River in the early 1700s. At the intersection of Rtes. 1 and 100, head north on Rte. 100. About half a mile up the road you’ll find Chad’s carefully preserved two-story house, now a museum.
6. Brandywine Battlefield
On September 11, 1777, British troops marched past the site of the Brandywine River Museum and, less than a mile to the east, handed a defeat to those of General George Washington. The future president then met the greatest test of his leadership by pulling the Continental Army through a brutal winter encampment at Valley Forge. The clash is recounted at the visitor center and reenacted each September. Nearby are the headquarters of Washington and his French ally, the Marquis de Lafayette. Just east of the park, a turn either north or south on Rte. 100 leads through a lush green landscape where, on one side of the road, you may spot a herd of Holsteins grazing in their pasture and, on the other, thoroughbreds leaping over split-rail fences and standardbreds trotting with dapper riders at their reins. Length: About 20 miles.
When to go: Pleasant year-round, but best in spring and fall.
Nearby attractions: Phillips Mushroom Museum, Kennett Square, PA; Franklin Mint Museum, Franklin Center, PA; Valley Forge National Historical Park, King of Prussia, PA; Colonial New Castle, Delaware’s first capital.
Further information: Brandywine Valley Tourist Information Center, P.O. Box 910, Kennett Square, PA 19348; tel. 800-228-9933, www.visitdelaware.com.
[sale-item img=”http://media.rd.com/rd/images/rdc/products/the-most-scenic-drives-in-america-pd.jpg” title=”The Most Scenic Drives in America” price=”25.00″ link=”http://www.readersdigeststore.com/The-Most-Scenic-Drives-in-America/M/0762105801.htm?trkid=rdv_store”]