Alfred Irénée duPont was a man of intriguing contrasts. A successful industrialist and banker, he also loved playing and writing music. His wealth allowed him to travel the world, but he had some of his happiest moments hunting in rural Virginia. He donated his fortune for the care and healing of crippled children, yet was not known to have had any significant relationship with disabled children during his lifetime.
As the eldest son of the eldest son of the eldest son of Eleuthère Irénée duPont, the founder of the duPont gunpowder dynasty, Alfred took seriously his sense of duty to his family's heritage. He was a man of intense convictions who held tightly to his own judgment of right and wrong. His determination to pave his own path earned him a reputation as the duPont’s "family rebel."
Alfred's passions, aside from business, were music and machinery. He was as adept at playing the violin as he was at conjuring up a business deal or designing a gadget for his home. An amateur musician and composer, he formed an orchestra called the Tankopanicum Musical Club with friends and his workers. During his life, Alfred published nine pieces of music, eight marches and one gavotte, a French peasant dance, which was performed at the Grand Opera House in Wilmington in 1907. Another musical highlight was when one of Alfred's marches was performed by his friend John Philip Sousa.
Born in 1864 into a loving family, Alfred was one of five children. He had a happy childhood swimming, hunting, and playing with friends and siblings in the Brandywine Valley region of Delaware. His father, Eleuthère Irénée duPont II, a partner in the family gunpowder business, was a major influence on young Alfred. Father and son often toured the family powder mills together, as the senior duPont explained the production process to his eager son. He also apparently picked up his lifelong fascination with machines from his father. In 1876, when he was 12, Alfred’s father gave him a small steam engine. It didn’t take Alfred long to figure out how to disassemble and reassemble the engine.
Even as a young boy, Alfred showed signs of a kind of individualism that he would exhibit throughout his life. Instead of playing with his privileged duPont cousins, he preferred the companionship of the children of DuPont mill workers.
Alfred also loved to hear his mother’s tales of exotic travel. He was particularly intrigued by her stories of trips to Florida, where she encountered alligators, the Everglades, white sand beaches, and the St. Johns River in Northeast Florida which flows north into the Atlantic Ocean.
His idyllic childhood ended, however, in 1877 when Alfred’s father and mother died of illness within a month of one another. The future of the five duPont orphans was in the hands of elder relatives.
When word reached the five siblings that they would have to leave the family home, Swamp Hall, and be sent to live with various duPont relatives, young Alfred, who was 13 at the time, led a rebellion to keep his family intact. The children armed themselves with a rolling pin, an axe, an antique pistol, and a twelve-gauge shotgun and refused to back down. They eventually won a victory. They were all sent off to boarding school, but they were able to keep ownership of Swamp Hall.
At 18, after attending Phillips Andover Academy, Alfred entered Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He was not an exceptional student, but he showed a knack for all things mechanical. At MIT, he studied mathematics, chemistry, shop work, and German. He was a champion boxer at Andover and MIT. He also enjoyed himself in the evening, often attending theater and concerts in Boston with his cousin, T. Coleman duPont, who was a year ahead of Alfred at MIT.
After the death of a favorite uncle, Lammot duPont, in an explosion at a DuPont chemical plant in 1884, Alfred decided to rethink his priorities. Another uncle, Fred duPont, in Louisville offered him a job in his paper mill or as a writer for the Louisville Courier-Journal.
Alfred had shown some interest in a career as a writer, but always true to his role as a bearer of the family tradition, he realized his place was in Brandywine, working in the family business. At the age of 20 Alfred left MIT and went to work as a common laborer in the DuPont Company’s Hagley gunpowder mills.
He worked his way up to yard supervisor, and along the way earned the reputation as one of the nation’s top powder men. He not only mastered the art of making gunpowder but also invented new machinery to improve the gunpowder-making process. In all, he registered over 200 patents during his life, mostly for machinery and equipment used in the powder-making process. “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,” he said of his contributions.
For the next 14 years, Alfred worked his way up through the DuPont Company. In 1898 Alfred proved himself when he was handed the improbable task of producing incredibly large amounts of brown powder for the U.S. military in the Spanish American War. But Alfred organized the effort, put in 18-hour days working alongside his crew, and delivered the gunpowder as promised.
In 1902, the death of then-family patriarch Eugene duPont left the family company adrift. With no apparent duPont ready or willing to take over leadership of E.I. duPont de Nemours and Company, the elders on the board decided to sell to rival Laflin & Rand.
Despite his stellar performance supporting the military during the Spanish American War, Alfred was considered too young to lead the company. Outraged at the prospect of seeing the family company sold to outsiders, he convinced his cousins, Pierre S. duPont and T. Coleman duPont, to join him in an audacious plan to buy the company.
It was one of the best business deals in American history. The cousins bought the company for $15.4 million—$12 million in notes and 33,000 shares of the reorganized DuPont—and retained ownership of 86,400 shares, valued at $8.6 million. Their out-of-pocket cost at the time of closing was just $700 each for drawing up the legal documents.
Once in control, the duPont trio set about transforming the 100-year-old company from an explosives manufacturer into a more diversified chemical company. They modernized management, built research labs, and marketed new products such as paints, plastics, and dyes.
Small fissures in the cousins’ partnership began to form. Alfred felt his contribution to the company’s successes had not been fully appreciated by Pierre and Coleman. Meanwhile, Alfred’s personal life caused serious consternation among the duPont clan. After divorcing his first wife, Bessie Gardner, mother of his four children, he shocked the duPont family when he married second cousin Alicia Bradford, a divorcee with one child, in 1907. A divorce was frowned upon by the duPont family, but marrying a cousin whose husband worked for the DuPont Company was considered an intolerable act.
Undeterred, Alfred gave Alicia a most spectacular gift—a new home built on 300 acres in Wilmington. The 47,000-square-foot mansion was designed in classic French style, based on Marie Antoinette’s petite Trianon, by New York architects Carrère and Hastings. Their renowned firm had been responsible for the edifices of the New York Public Library and the Senate Office Building. Alfred named the estate Nemours, after the French town his great-great-grandfather, Pierre Samuel duPont, represented in the court of Louis XVI. Alfred’s relationship with cousins Pierre and Coleman continued to deteriorate. In 1915, Coleman’s sale of a block of his stock to a group of company officers and directors irked Alfred, who, contending the stock should be bought back by the company, sued. When the courts finally upheld the sale two years later, Alfred resigned from the family company he had helped rescue 15 years earlier.
Once out of the family company, Alfred pursued his own business ventures in Delaware and New York. He established an investment firm, Nemours Trading Corporation, and an import-export operation in New York. He also invested in banks, eventually acquiring a 60 percent interest in Delaware Trust Co.
Alfred also took an interest in political and social issues. Concerned about the financial hardships among the elderly, he lobbied the Delaware Legislature to enact a public pension plan. When the legislature failed to act, Alfred funded the pensions himself for several years. He helped launch the Delaware Symphony. And, as he had been doing for years, he continued to privately give money to the needy.
Alfred’s life took yet another dramatic turn in January 1920 when his wife Alicia died of a heart attack while en route to Florida. The duPont family motto, Rectitudine Sto, or “I stand upright,” always seemed a perfect description of Alfred. No matter the hardship of the situation or the consequence of his decision, he stood tall and pushed on, which is just what he did in the next phase of his life.
A year after Alicia’s death, Alfred, then 57, married Jessie Ball, a 36-year-old teacher, and moved to Florida. The two had known each other for some 22 years. They first met in the late 1800s, when Alfred traveled to Ball’s Neck, Virginia, Jessie’s birthplace, for hunting trips. A bright woman who was a high-school teacher and administrator in San Diego when she married Alfred, Jessie quickly assumed the role of business confidante and protector of Alfred, who, by the early 1920s, had become almost entirely deaf. After making several trips to Florida on Alfred’s yacht, named Nenemoosha, the duPonts gradually gravitated south.
In 1925 they completed their southward migration and became legal residents of Florida, when Alfred’s cousin, Pierre, was named Delaware’s Tax Commissioner. Loath to allow Pierre to poke around his property holdings and investments, Alfred decided to relocate to Jacksonville, Florida, a city he’d often heard his mother talk about when he was a child.
Once in Florida, Alfred and Jessie set about building a new mansion. She helped in the design of the house and selected the furnishings; he designed the formal gardens. The result was a stunning Mediterranean Revival estate by architects Marsh & Saxelbye. Jessie named the estate Epping Forest after the Virginia plantation of Mary Ball, George Washington’s mother and Jessie’s ancestor.
For his part, Alfred began looking around for new business opportunities. Alfred hired Jessie’s brother, Edward Ball, to assist him in any new ventures. At the time, Florida was in the midst of a real estate boom, as properties changed hands at higher and higher prices. Alfred and Jessie invested in South Florida real estate, making a profit buying and selling a few properties. But sensing the boom was sure to bust, Alfred stayed clear of making any major investments.
Sure enough, by 1926 the Florida real estate market crashed. Property values plunged. Thousands of families lost everything, as millions in paper wealth vanished. Florida banks began failing. With real estate and bank prices depressed, Alfred began looking for possible acquisitions of banks and large tracts of land.
Alfred and Ed Ball began buying shares of several Florida banks before setting their sights on Florida National Bank of Jacksonville. They gained control of the bank in 1929 and subsequently opened six other Florida National Banks throughout Florida.
Acquiring assets for the sake of acquiring assets wasn’t Alfred’s primary motivation. He was also keenly interested in helping Florida and its residents. The state’s economy was in shambles, especially the impoverished Panhandle. At one time the northwest part of the state had been the most populous and prosperous. Its economy had been buoyed by cotton plantations, timber, sawmills, and deep-water ports. In the 1830s, Port St. Joe had been a boomtown; the state’s first constitutional convention was held there in 1838. But an outbreak of yellow fever decimated the population in the 1840s, and the Civil War and Northern blockade led to the final economic collapse of the area in the 1860s.
Alfred had a vision for this neglected part of Florida. While most Floridians didn’t see any potential in Northwest Florida, Alfred saw opportunity in its great pine forests, in its pristine beaches, and in its natural harbors, with their close proximity to major shipping lanes serving trade between Latin America, Mobile, and New Orleans.
He summarized his intentions in 1927 when he 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’s grand vision for Northwest Florida included transforming Port St. Joe into a well-planned, modern city. He envisioned a paper mill on the banks of St. Joseph Bay as a large regional employment center. Alfred, with Ed Ball acting as his agent, bought tens of thousands of acres in the Panhandle, including most of the city of Port St. Joe, the Apalachicola Northern Railroad, and the St. Joseph Telephone & Telegraph Company.
During Alfred’s last years, he was intensely focused on the reconstruction of the dilapidated Port St. Joe. His dream was to turn the town into a workers’ utopia, where a large paper mill provided employment and a deep harbor provided access to oceangoing ships. Alfred had hired renowned city planner Earle S. Draper to draw plans for the rejuvenated Port St. Joe.
But he never realized that dream. Alfred I. duPont died in Jacksonville in 1935 at the age of 70. His last words: “Thank you doctors. Thank you nurses. I’ll be all right in a few days.” It would be up to his beloved wife Jessie, pugnacious brother-in-law Ed Ball, and a succession of Trustees to see that his greater vision was carried out.
The bulk of duPont’s estate was willed to the Alfred I. duPont Trust. His wife, Jessie Ball duPont, became the Trust’s first chairperson. Serving with her as Trustees were Jessie’s brother, Ed Ball, and Alfred’s son-in-law, Reginald S. Huidekoper, with the Florida National Bank of Jacksonville as Corporate Trustee. During her life, Jessie pledged a substantial portion of her personal income to The Nemours Foundation. When she died in 1970, those contributions totaled $22.5 million. Jessie Ball duPont also left a separate, namesake trust, the Jessie Ball duPont Foundation, which benefits a long list of colleges, churches, and scholarships.
As a lasting memorial to Mr. duPont’s passion for freedom of information, Jessie Ball duPont created the Alfred I. duPont – Columbia University Awards which honors excellence in broadcast and digital news. It is regarded today as the Pulitzer Prize equivalent and one of the most prestigious awards in journalism.
Those seeking a more in-depth look at the lives of Alfred I. duPont, Jessie Ball duPont, or Edward Ball may take interest in the following websites and publications. The publications are out of print, but copies can be found on used and out-of-print book websites such as biblioz.com:
By Joseph Frazier Wall
Oxford University Press, 1990
By Marquis James
The Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1941
By Richard Greening Hewlett
University Press of Florida, 1992
By Raymond Mason & Virginia Harrison
Dodd, Mead & Company