Alfred Irénée du Pont
– April 28
) was an American Industrialist, Financier and Philanthropist.
Alfred was born in the Brandywine Valley region of Delaware; the middle child and first male of five children of Eleuthère Irénée du Pont, II and his mother, Charlotte Shepard Henderson. His father was a partner in the family gunpowder business founded by Alfred's grandfather and Alfred often accompanied his father on trips to the factory. His childhood was happy until, at age 13, both parents became ill and died within a month of each other. When the children learned that their relatives planned to split them up and sell Swamp Hall
, the family home, the siblings refused. They took up weapons: an axe, a rolling pin, an ancient pistol and a shotgun. The relatives eventually agreed not to sell the home, but all the kids were sent to boarding school. Alfred went to Phillips Academy
at Andover, Massachusetts
until age 18, when he enrolled in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology
. He wasn't a great student, but had an exceptional mechanical aptitude and studied mathematics, chemistry, shopwork and German. Alfred took up boxing at Phillips and was a champion at Phillips and MIT. Both Alfred and his cousin, Coleman, who began at MIT one year ahead of Alfred, became members of the Sigma Chi
fraternity and frequented evening events in Boston, including Theatre and Concerts.
In 1884 he went to work at the family's gunpowder manufacturing plant in the Brandywine mills as a common laborer. He worked his way up to yard supervisor, earning the reputation as one of the top powder men in the nation. Alfred registered over 200 patents during his life, mostly for machinery and equipment to improve the powder-making process. Regarding his contributions, he said:
"Most of my inventions were powder making machinery which led to greater safety, the elimination of men from the mills and reducing the number of accidents, handling large amounts of powder at one time."
Alfred married Bessie Gardner (1864-1949) in 1887, and she was the mother of his first four children. He was made a partner in the company at age 25 and traveled to Europe at the request of the U.S. Army
's Chief of Ordnance to acquire the patent rights to make smokeless powder. A few years later, he was promoted to assistant superintendent of the Hagley and Lower Yards. The company was reorganized in 1899 and renamed, E.I. du Pont de Nemours and Company
. Existing partners became directors and Eugene du Pont
, senior partner, became president.
Saving the family business
Just three years later, Eugene du Pont died with no obvious successor. None of the three senior partners wanted the job and the majority of directors recommended selling the company to competitor, Laflin & Rand
. Alfred proposed that he become chairman, but the other directors considered him too young (at 38) and inexperienced. With the looming threat of the DuPont
business being sold, Alfred enlisted the aid of his cousins T. Coleman du Pont
and Pierre S. du Pont
, who formed a partnership with an audacious plan to buy the company. They had no money, but the cousins were able to convince other family members to exchange their company shares for a promissary note
instead of cash, plus shares of the reorganized company.
The company was purchased for $15.4 million; $12 million in notes and 33,000 shares of the reorganized DuPont. They retained ownership of 86,400 shares, valued at $8.6 million. The actual cost to each of the cousins was $700, a total of $2,100 in lawyers fees for the legal documents.
Coleman became president of the new E.I. du Pont de Nemours (they dropped the "and Company"), and Pierre was named Treasurer and Executive Vice President. Alfred served as Vice President for operations and took over the black powder manufacture and sat on the Executive Committee.
The trio envisioned changing the business from an explosives manufacturer into a diverse chemical company with new products that included paints, plastics and dyes. Alfred helped create the extensive research program needed to achieve that goal.
Divorce and remarriage
Alfred divorced his first wife, Bessie in 1906 and the following year, married Mary (Alica) Heyward Bradford (1875-1920), Alfred's second cousin and a divorcée with one child whose husband worked at the DuPont factory. Most of the du Pont family considered his conduct scandalous, and he fell out of favor. Alfred fathered three children with Alicia; only one survived infancy.
Music was one of Alfred's passions and he was an amateur musician and composer. He played the violin and was very competent. Using friends and his factory workers, he formed an orchestra that was named the Tankopanicum Musical Club
. Alfred published nine pieces of music during his lifetime: eight marches and one gavotte
, a French peasant dance. Alfred had the privilege of seeing the gavotte performed at the Grand Opera House in Wilmington in 1907 and one of his marches was performed by his friend, John Philip Sousa
Alfred ignored the criticism and family grumblings and gave his second wife a new home built on 300 acres in Wilmington, Delaware
. Construction began in early 1910 and was completed in 1911. The Nemours Mansion and Gardens
is a five story, 77-room, 47,000 ft² structure that was designed by renowned architects, Carrère and Hastings
, who also designed the New York Public Library
, New York City’s Frick Mansion
, and Whitehall
, the Henry Flagler Museum
in Palm Beach, Florida
. The building looks like a French château
and the architectural style is Louis XVI
. The estate was named for the French
town affiliated with his great-great-grandfather, Pierre Samuel du Pont de Nemours
DuPont Securities Company
Within a few years of the buyout by the cousins, Coleman began to experience health problems, and his absences from work became more frequent and of a longer duration. Pierre became the De facto
president, taking over most of Coleman's responsibilities. Pierre and Coleman wanted the company to buy Coleman's shares and redistribute it to some of the most highly valued executives outside the family, but Alfred opposed more ownership by non-family. Pierre, Coleman and several directors from outside the company formed the DuPont Securities Company to accomplish their goal from the outside.
Finally, in 1915, Coleman resigned as du Pont's president due to declining health and Pierre purchased Coleman's shares through the securities company. Alfred thought Coleman's shares should have been sold back to the company and joined a lawsuit with other family members, but failed to gain support from the DuPont shareholders. Two years later, a judge ruled that the sale to DuPont Securities was not improper and dismissed the legal action.
It is unclear whether he was forced to resign or did so voluntarily, but Alfred, still the company's second largest stockholder, left E.I. du Pont de Nemours in 1917 and established Nemours Trading Corporation
, an investment firm, and an import-export business, both in New York. He also acquired a majority interest in the Delaware Trust Company
Still upset over leaving his family's company after 33 years, Alfred entered politics, mostly to impede the political ambitions of his cousin, Pierre. He dismantled the old DuPont machine that had dominated Delaware politics for years, and although he never held public office himself, he was largely responsible for bringing progressive reforms to Delaware, including an old-age pension plan effective statewide, which he himself funded for a time.
Untimely death and Remarriage
Tragedy struck in January, 1920 when Alfred's wife, Alicia, enroute to Florida, died of a heart attack at the age of 45.
Alfred received a letter from Jessie Ball later in 1920. The two had met in 1898 when Jessie was fourteen and Alfred was twenty years her senior. He had come to Ball's Neck, Virginia, to hunt. Other visits followed for fishing or duck and quail shooting and a friendship formed. Between trips, he exchanged letters with several new friends, including Jessie. This correspondence had been ongoing for 22 years, albeit infrequently.
Jessie was an assistant principal at an elementary school in San Diego, California. Her father had died in 1917 and her mother passed away about the time Alfred's wife died.
In early 1921, Alfred boarded a train for the West coast. After a brief courtship, Jessie resigned from her position and they were quietly married by an Episcopal clergyman on January 22, 1921. They returned to the East coast and settled into Nemours. She was 37 and he was 57, but they had no children. However, Jessie accepted Denise, a 6-year old child from Alfred's second marriage, as her own.
Partly because Alfred had lost most of his hearing, Jessie set up a business office adjoining his offices in Wilmington. She kept regular business hours and sat in on many of his business meetings, then began to accompany him to board meetings and conferences. She became his "ears" and his trusted advisor. As Jessie's knowledge of her husband's diverse business interests expanded, he came to value her objective judgment and discussed his ideas with her before making important decisions.
was Jessie Ball's younger brother. He and Alfred hit it off and Edward began working for his brother-in-law in 1923 at the lofty salary of $5,000 a year, and moved to Delaware where he was publicly named manager of the Clean Food Products Company. Privately, he was Mr. du Pont’s confidential business partner and became a shrewd financier and caretaker of the du Pont de Nemours estate fortune.
Alfred and Jessie made several trips to Florida on their motor yacht, Nenemoosha
, and were contemplating a move south, when Alfred's cousin Pierre was named Tax Commissioner of Delaware in 1925. Alfred despised his cousin and couldn't bear the thought of Pierre sticking his nose in Alfred's business, so they decided to relocate. Alfred recalled his mother's stories about Jacksonville's beaches, alligators, and a huge river that flowed North to the Atlantic Ocean. The couple moved to Jacksonville
in 1926, where they established permanent residency. In 1927, Alfred wrote:
"We are now in Florida to live and work. We expect to spend the balance of our days here. We have all the money necessary for any reasonable effort to help Florida grow and prosper. Our business undertakings should be sound, but our primary object should not be the making of money. Through helpful works, let us build up good in this state and make it a better place in which to live. In my last years, I would much rather have the people of Florida say that I helped them and their state than to double the money I now have."
Alfred purchased 58 acres of land on the St. John's River
and built a 25-room mansion and landscaped grounds, as well as a berth for their motor yacht. It was small compared to Nemours, but adequate for their needs. Jessie named the estate, Epping Forest
after the Virginia plantation of Mary Ball Washington
, George Washington
's mother and Jessie's relative. Alfred designed the formal English gardens while Jessie selected the furnishings.
Alfred opened offices in Jacksonville and formed Almours Securities, Inc., transferring everything he owned to it with the exception of Nemours. His assets were reported to total $34 million. Edward moved to Jacksonville also, and helped Alfred develop banking and real estate interests in the state. Florida suffered a real estate bust in 1927 and land values, particularly in South Florida, plummeted. During the late 1920s and early 1930s, Edward purchased huge tracts of land in Florida's panhandle, often for "dollars an acre".
They purchased shares in several banks before focusing their attention on Florida National Bank
(FNB) of Jacksonville. A large interest was acquired in 1927, but they were unable to gain control until the Great Depression
struck in 1929. The FNB stayed solvent throughout the 1930s because Alfred put $15 million of his own money into the institution to cover Bank runs
. During the early 1930s, six other Florida National Banks were opened throughout Florida, including Lakeland and Bartow; Jessie was named a director of the bank.
Death & Legacy
When Alfred died in 1935 in Jacksonville, Florida
at age 70, his estate was valued at over $56 million, which, after estate taxs of $30 million, left $26 million.
His fortune was left in testamentary trust
with Jessie named as the principal trustee with complete discretion regarding use of any money, but in reality, she deferred business decisions to her brother, who took control of the assets, which included large Florida landholdings and industrial interests, including the Florida East Coast Railway
. Jessie preferred to handle the philanthropic activities of the trust while Edward concentrated on making money. The fortune did not become a charitable trust until Jessie's death in 1970, which explains why $30 million in estate taxes were paid in 1935. The trust's primary beneficiary is the Nemours Foundation
, which runs children's medical facilities in Delaware and Florida.
The trust was valued at $72.5 million in 1939; $2 billion in 1981; $4.5 billion in 2006.
Both Nemours and Epping Forest have been restored to their original splendor. A public school in Jacksonville, FL is named after him. The Alfred I. duPont Middle School is located not far from his Epping Forest estate.
Alfred du Pont was designated a Great Floridian by the Florida Department of State in the Great Floridians 2000 Program. A plaque attesting to the honor is located at the entry gate to the Epping Forest estate in Jacksonville.