Wednesday, August 16, 2017  

Jessie Ball duPont: A Life Well Spent


If you have ever traveled around Northumberland County, you are bound to have been on Jessie Ball duPont Memorial Highway and wondered: Who was Jessie Ball duPont? Was she one of the famous and fabulously wealthy duPonts from Delaware? Was she a Northern Neck country girl with a familiar last name?
    Jessie Dew Ball (duPont) was born on January 20, 1884 at Cressfield, Virginia. No one, least of all Jessie, could have guessed at the time that Jessie Ball would grow up to become a respected educator, businesswoman and philanthropist.
    This story really starts on a spit of land called Ball’s Neck, between Dividing Creek and Mill Creek, south of the Great Wicomico River. The plantation there was called Bayview and had been in the Ball family since 1675. In 1836, Thomas Ball was born on the plantation and grew up there. Thomas attended William and Mary College where he studied law. When the Civil War broke out, he obtained a commission as a lieutenant in the Army of Northern Virginia. Thomas raised his own company and was promoted to the rank of captain. Things were going very well for him when Thomas married Lalla Gresham, who came from an old Virginia family. He was appointed Assistant Attorney General for the state of Texas by Governor Oran M. Roberts. In 1882, Thomas and Lalla headed back to Virginia where he settled down to a local law practice. The couple went on to have seven children. Jessie Dew Ball was their third child.
    While growing up in the country and in the relative isolation of Ball’s Neck, young Jessie had plenty of playmates among her sisters and cousins, who lived nearby. Even so, her rural lifestyle was not without inconveniences, Jessie recalls as young girl, being snowbound at Cressfield and having to ride on horseback to reach a neighboring farm.
    Jessie, along with her siblings, attended the two-room Shiloh schoolhouse near Cressfield. She went to Sunday school at the Morattico Baptist Church, north of Kilmarnock. Jessie’s tranquil life in Virginia abruptly changed in May of 1892. She was eight years old, and her father had just been appointed a U.S. Special Attorney. The Thomas Ball family packed up and boarded a train heading for Austin, Texas. Prospects were very bright for the family and for Jessie, who had enrolled in a school in Austin. Then suddenly, Thomas Ball suffered a heart ailment. Despite his promising new job, Ball and his family journeyed to Baltimore for treatment, then back to Cressfield for his convalescence.
    By January of 1893, Captain Ball was feeling better, and he traveled to California to pursue his work. Fate struck him once again when the family home in Cressfield burned to the ground. He went home and set up his family in a nearby house, then set off back to Texas in the fall of 1893. By 1895, things were not going well, and Captain Ball was terminated. A broken and ill man, he returned to the Northern Neck to practice law. Jessie was, at that point, in her teens and was eager to work with her father at a time when the frontiers for woman were rapidly changing. It was a time when people were beginning to understand that people should be judged on their individual merits and not by their gender.
    Lalla Gresham Ball saw to it that Jessie and her sisters enjoyed a busy social life, attending dances in West End, Paradise, Kilmarnock, and Lancaster Courthouse. In fact, Lalla Ball started the traditional Holly Ball celebration and dance, which took place around Christmas time and continues to this day. The annual event includes a grand march and the coronation of the Holly Queen. Jessie once said her mother was “one of the best sports and one of the most Bohemian natures I have ever known.” The Ball girls were truly “belles of the ball” at the turn of the century. Their charm and good looks did not escape the attention of the young men marching off to fight the Spanish in 1898. Dances and bon voyage parties exposed them to numerous opportunities to meet new men. In his book about Jessie Ball duPont, Richard Greening Hewlett (United Press of Florida) said, “Jessie, who seemed to prefer the company of men, took advantage of this new heterosocial structure.”
    In the fall of 1898, a steamboat docked at Harding’s Landing, run by Fannie Ball Harding, the widow of a Confederate soldier. With five children to support, Fannie jumped at the chance to provide lodging for the steamboat’s passengers. Fannie had been providing lodging for hunters for years; but, these were no ordinary hunters. The three men included Alfred I. duPont, his brother Maurice, and another friend and employee of the DuPont Powder Company, located in Wilmington, Delaware.
    Before long, Alfred duPont met and befriended Captain Thomas Ball, Jessie’s father. Alfred enjoyed hearing Captain Ball tell colorful stories of the old days in Virginia. The Ball girls and their cousins did not escape the eye of Alfred duPont. Although he was twenty years older than Jessie, he seemed to enjoy her joking and adolescent humor. Perhaps the gaiety of the girls reminded him of his two daughters and the happy times he may have shared if things in his own troubled marriage had been more amicable.
    Since elementary school teaching was one of the few occupations open to young women at the time, Jessie and her sister Isabel were sent off to the State Female Normal School (now Longwood College) in Farmville, Virginia. Then in 1901, Thomas Ball sent all three of his daughters to a female academy in Wytheville, Virginia. After Wytheville, Jessie taught school in Lancaster County. By 1902, Jessie was eighteen years old and her childish notions about men were gone. She was starting to take an adult attitude toward men, particularly Alfred I. duPont. In December of 1903, he wrote: “Did we not have a fine time the night of the dance? I’ll never forgive you for preferring the orchestra to me. I always knew I danced poorly, but never had it rubbed in like that. However, my revenge will come someday.”
    Jessie loved hearing the many stories about the ups and downs of Alfred’s business. He dealt in millions of dollars, while in her home, money was ever more scarce. Jessie’s brother Tom set off for California in 1904. Soon Jessie followed, but not before Alfred, on a trip to the Northern Neck, was injured in a hunting accident which cost him his left eye. The early years of Alfred’s marriage to Bessie Gardner were happy, no doubt partly because of their two daughters Madeline and Bessie. The duPonts were married in January of 1887, but by the end of the century, the marriage was falling apart. Alfred’s biographer, John Wall, in his book Alfred I. DuPont (Oxford University Press) wrote that he (Alfred) was “ignored, or worse, ridiculed by his wife, embarrassed in front of guests, isolated by his own increasing deafness and by her increasingly sharp denigration.” After a brief attempt at reconciliation and a third child, they were divorced in December 1906. Alfred married Alicia Bradford in May of 1907 and fathered a child named Alicia.
    Jessie was flourishing in California and had become well-respected in her profession. In 1919, her lifelong interest in Alfred I. duPont was rekindled through letters. Then suddenly, Alicia duPont died of a heart attack on her way to Florida. In March of 1920, Jessie took a six-month leave of absence from her teaching job and went to New York to be with Alfred. It was all very proper. She stayed in rooms Alfred obtained for her at the Belmont Hotel. Two years after Alicia duPont’s death, Alfred and Jessie were married on January 22, 1922 in Los Angeles. As she was often known to say, her “kittenhood” days were over.
    So began her new life as the wife of a man “born to the purple and ermine,” an icon who built a gun powder company into one of the world’s greatest chemical empires. Jessie took on the role of wife and became a trusted advisor and business partner as well. She loved being involved in the business and was a fast learner. In March of 1921, the couple moved into Nemours, duPont’s 3,000-acre estate in Wilmington, Delaware, once the scene of discord between Alfred and his first wife. Jessie set about immediately to reunite Alfred’s family and provide a happy life for him.
    Alfred had suffered substantial financial losses, but was determined to pay all his debts without entering into bankruptcy. The country girl school teacher rose to the challenge of big business finance and became his partner in returning to financial health. With the help of her brother Edward, who became Alfred’s financial manager, they invested wisely in Florida banks and made huge sums of money. Alfred was a very generous man and contributed lavishly to worthy causes. Jessie never forgot her Northern Neck roots. She was the principal backer for an orthopedic clinic in Kilmarnock. She provided scholarships for Northern Neck children and cash for the needy.
    Jessie cherished the memories of her life in the Northern Neck, although she lived primarily at Nemours, as well as on the family’s 58-acre Epping Forest estate on the St. John’s River in Jacksonville, Florida. Jessie named the estate Epping Forest after the Virginia plantation of Mary Ball, George Washington's mother and Jessie's ancestor. Alfred had a boathouse and docks built at Epping Forest for his 130-foot yacht Nenemoosha, another shallow-draft 107-foot houseboat he called Gadfly, and a speedboat named Hellcat. Jessie duPont was able to buy the 156-acre Ditchley Plantation near Kilmarnock in 1932. She had wanted a home in the Northern Neck and had even considered rebuilding her family homestead at Cressfield; but the cost was prohibitive even for a duPont. Instead, she bought the old Ball-Lee homestead across Dividing Creek from Harding’s Landing. Jessie used Ditchley as a gathering place where her family could renew old relationships. She was also very involved in the rebuilding of Stratford Plantation, the birthplace of Robert E. Lee. When the Fairfields United Methodist Church in Burgess wrote to her asking for money for stained glass windows, Jessie payed the bill.
    After Alfred’s death on April 29, 1935, Jessie vowed to fulfill Alfred’s dreams of helping the less fortunate, particularly children. He left an estate valued at $56 million. Their plan was to build a hospital for children at Nemours, and she began the project in 1940 with the Alfred I. duPont Institute. Jessie continued her efforts and the Nemours/Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children in Wilmington, Delaware, thrives today. In 1984, the Nemours Health System expanded and built the Nemours Children’s Hospital in Orlando, Florida.
    During the remainder of her life, Jessie Ball duPont worked tirelessly for a variety of philanthropies and served on the boards of many charitable institutions. Her charities included hospitals, churches, community centers, individuals, historic preservation projects, colleges, universities and civil rights efforts. The Alfred I. DuPont Testamentary Trust’s sole charitable beneficiary is the Nemours Foundation, which runs the children's medical facilities in Delaware and Florida. The trust was valued at $72.5 million in 1939, $2 billion in 1981, and $4.5 billion in 2006.
    Jessie Ball duPont died on September 27, 1970 at the age of 86 — a long life, well spent.