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Growing up at Winterthur

Dick Kendall shares fond memories

Dorrie Anshel
June 21, 2019

Route 52 between Delaware and Pennsylvania puts you at the heart of du Pont country. This picturesque rural road contains the family's most iconic estates, museums, and gardens: Hagley, Nemours, Longwood, and Winterthur. 

Millions have visited these storied properties, but few can claim that they grew up on one. Maris Grove resident Dick Kendall has that unique distinction. He spent his formative years at Winterthur, the most lavish of the du Pont properties and one of the largest historic homes in America. 

First, a little history 

Winterthur was the childhood home of Henry Francis du Pont, the only surviving child of Henry Algernon and Mary du Pont. Born in 1880, he was fascinated by horticulture and agriculture from an early age. In 1903, he graduated from Harvard's Bussey Institute and returned to Winterthur, where he lived with his wife Ruth and two daughters until 1969. During his lifetime, he expanded the original house to 175 rooms and the property to more than 1,000 acres. 

His chief passions were collecting American antiques and decorative objects; creating spectacular gardens; and breeding Holstein-Friesian dairy cows. This is where we pick up Dick Kendall's extraordinary story of his years at Winterthur. 

In 1945, Dick's father joined the dairy staff at Winterthur and moved his young family to the property. There were homes for 40 employees on the estate. Dick, who was in the second grade, boarded the bus with the other kids each day and returned to Winterthur every afternoon. They played together on the vast rolling hills without giving much thought to the opulent surroundings. "Growing up there was idyllic, but we weren't aware that we lived on one of the most expansive properties in the country," Dick recalls.

The dairy was the largest agricultural enterprise at Winterthur, with 60 milking cows and separate barns for the bulls, heifers, and calves. In that era of small family farms, this was considered a huge herd. "Those cows produced so much milk that we shipped quite a bit to local creameries to make cheese, butter, and ice cream," says Dick. "You could buy a quart for just seven cents." 

Despite the massive mansion and lush gardens, Winterthur was a working farm. Most farms at the time required everyone to pitch in on every task; Winterthur assigned staff to only one aspect of the operation. "The people who worked in the dairy handled only the cows, the planters planted and harvested, and so on," Dick explains. "There were plumbers, electricians, carpenters, stone masons, butchers, landscapers, painters, even a staff to tend the nine-hole golf course. The estate was self-contained, with everyone and everything you needed to keep it running smoothly." 

Work hard, play hard

Many of the kids living at Winterthur held part-time jobs during the school year and worked full-time in the summer. "Mr. du Pont made sure we had jobs if we wanted them. Starting at the age of 13 and through high school, I worked in the dairy on the weekends in the winter and six days a week during the summer months. The workday consisted of two three-hour milking sessions at 3:30 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. After each milking, we had to muck the stalls. That was the worst part of the job," Dick recalls with a chuckle. 

The only time Dick's family would grocery shop was on Friday nights and rarely for food. "We bought paper products and canned goods. Everything else we ate was grown or raised at Winterthur." Mr. du Pont extended the bounty to everyone living on the estate. "He provided vegetable plots to employees at no charge. His farm group prepared the beds, depending on what the employees planned to grow," says Dick. "All they had to do was plant and harvest." 

Life at Winterthur offered a wonderful balance of work and play. Dick remembers sledding at breakneck speed down the massive hill that led from the dairy barn to the mansion. "There were a bunch of S turns on the way down, so it was quite a thrill ride," says Dick. There was a minor league baseball team with uniforms and a regular schedule of games against other area communities. "We played in a cow pasture. The infield was surrounded by an electric fence to keep the animals out, but if you played in the outfield, you had to watch where you stepped," says Dick with a smile. 

The annual Christmas party was another special memory. "Santa was always there, but Mr. du Pont handed out each gift personally. He didn't buy trucks for all the boys and dolls for the girls; each present seemed individualized to each kid. It made you feel special that he had picked out something just for you."

Dick looks back at his years at Winterthur with great fondness and appreciation for the unique experience. "People say, 'Wow, you grew up in such an extraordinary place,' but to us, it was home. There was such a nice community feel. Winterthur was the employees' backyard. We could roam freely through the woods, picnic on banks of the pond, ride bikes along the flower garden paths, or fly a kite in the meadows. I was lucky to have lived there." 

Dick's new adventure

Since moving to Maris Grove with his wife Anne in 2017, Dick has formed many new friendships and become deeply involved in the community. He serves on the Dining Advisory Committee, a group of residents and Dining Services leaders working together to enhance the dining experience. He also is a volunteer ambassador for the sales staff, welcoming potential new community members, answering questions, and sharing his experiences during open-house events. 

Most recently, Dick became a member of the Follies, a group of talented residents who stage three performances annually. Dick bills himself as a humorist, sharing stories about the mishaps, surprises, and unusual dates he and Anne have had over the years. His next venture: playing doubles tennis year-round as part of Maris Grove's tennis group.