this fairy tale, Seaford already has glass slipper
By Lynn R. Parks
In 1972, James Phelan, a member of Nader’s Raiders, a consumer advocacy
group headed by Ralph Nader, wrote an investigative report on the
effects of the DuPont Company on Delaware. In it, he concluded that
the company, which established a nylon plant in Seaford in 1939,
was “horrible for the state and for Seaford.”
“I was looking to verify that,” said Carmen McWilliams, who completed
a master’s thesis, “Seaford, Delaware: 1938 - 1998, DuPont’s Cinderella
Story?” in January.
Instead, she said, her research indicated that “DuPont did not hurt
Seaford. It brought in some nice paychecks and formed a nice partnership
with the town.”
McWilliams, who with the completion and defense of her dissertation
obtained a master’s degree in geography from the University of Delaware,
will discuss her research and con-
clusions Thursday, Sept. 23, in a program sponsored by the Seaford
Historical Society. The program, free and open to the public, will
start at 7 p.m. in the Methodist Manor House.
“I did my research in two ways,” said McWilliams, who has done graduate
work in anthropology through American University, Washington, D.C.
“First, I studied urban growth through the town’s annexations. How
did the town grow? When did the influence of DuPont on that growth
stop? Then I conducted interviews with a lot of people.”
McWilliams said that she first became interested in Seaford when,
on her way to visit her mother-in-law in North Carolina, she passed
the town on US 13 and read on a sign that its calls itself the “Nylon
Capital.” As a student at the University of Delaware, she had heard
a lot about the DuPont Co. and became curious about its effect on
“I wanted to investigate the influence of a big corporation on a
small community like Seaford,” she said. “And I approached it with
the idea that the big, nasty company had come in and ruined the
In the first step in her research, McWilliams looked at the character
of Seaford before the arrival of DuPont and compared it to surrounding
communities, including Laurel, which DuPont also considered for
its nylon plant.
“Seaford had a lot going for it in the first place,” she said. “A
headline in the local paper announcing that the plant was coming proclaimed
that Seaford was a ‘Cinderella town.’ But really, it was a town that
had a lot going on before Prince Charming arrived. It was already
For example, Seaford already had established its city power plant,
which generated enough revenue to allow the town to provide for the
kind of growth that DuPont would bring. It also had a town government
that courted the plant and that made it easier for the workers when
McWilliams said that in addition to bringing jobs to the area, the
company also aided the school system. “That was a two-fold thing because
they helped encourage the students and when they graduated, the students
came back and worked for DuPont,” she said.
As for what Seaford would be if DuPont had not located its plant here,
McWilliams said that considering the type of people who were running
the town government at that time, there probably would have been another
plant to step in. “They were looking for the sort of employer to make
use of the huge pool of personnel they had to offer,” she said.
While McWilliams said that there is no data to show what the presence
of the nylon plant meant to the health of the Nanticoke River, she
was able to research air quality standards. “DuPont always met all
legal requirements,” she said. “And with the new 1980 state regulations,
even though the company had a good deal on influence on how they were
written, they always met them or better.”
To investigate Phelan’s allegation that the DuPont Company, due to
its monopoly of area workers, could pay whatever it liked, McWilliams
looked at wages of the time in a 60-mile radius. “I even went as far
as Washington, D.C., and found that they were comparable or better
with wages in the area,” she said.
As for the future, McWilliams said that she detected no “sense of
panic” about the plant closing. “Seaford will not have long-term detrimental
effects from downsizing at the plant, or even if it closes,” she said.
“The town has a definite eye to the future. That helps make it unique.”
Biography: Carmen McWilliams, 53, lives on a dairy farm near
Richfield Springs, N.Y., with her husband James. She has bachelor’s
degrees in geography and anthropology from the University of Delaware.
She and her husband have two children, Kelly Madden and Tim.