A town's long run as nylon capital

Seaford: The town that DuPont's miracle fiber built has been moving beyond its legacy for years.

October 05, 2003|By Jamie Smith Hopkins | Jamie Smith Hopkins,SUN STAFF

SEAFORD, Del. - Nylon ain't what it used to be for the Nylon Capital of the World.

This town of 6,700, a few miles over the state line from Maryland, was transformed 64 years ago as the site of the first nylon factory. DuPont, which invented the man-made fiber used in products ranging from pantyhose to swimsuits to bedspreads, infused hundreds - and eventually thousands - of jobs into an economically depressed corner of southwestern Delaware. Just like nylon's impact on apparel, the plant shook some of the wrinkles out of the town, bringing money, a white-collar work force and cosmopolitan tastes.

"I don't think there's ... anybody in the city that hasn't been touched by some aspect of DuPont," said Daniel B. Short, the mayor, who lives in a home moved from the farm that became the factory site.

Now some in town ponder what would seem to be the unthinkable: What would happen to the Nylon Capital without nylon? After years of worker layoffs and buyouts, DuPont is negotiating to sell Invista Inc., its recently renamed textiles subsidiary that includes the Seaford factory.

Surprisingly, perhaps, Seaford isn't nearly as concerned as you'd expect of a city with a nylon bobbin on its official seal.

It's partly optimism on the part of community leaders that a sale wouldn't lead to more job losses or, heaven forbid, the end of the plant. But though its identity and well-being are inextricably tied up in nylon, Seaford has been slowly moving beyond that for years.

The burgeoning local health system passed DuPont as the biggest employer in the area a few years back, a new business park is sprouting up, Wal-Mart and other retail stores line the roads and the city annexed 180 acres last month that could be used for commercial development. About 950 businesses operate inside city lines.

On the other hand, average salaries have slipped and some buildings in town stand empty. But state leaders believe the city has positioned itself to survive the long slide that manufacturing, textiles in particular, has suffered in America.

"Seaford is really a wonderful example of a community that has successfully transformed from a dominant one-company town," said Judy McKinney-Cherry, director of the Delaware Economic Development Office.

It's tucked away from the beach resorts, the state capital and the corporate towers of Wilmington, surrounded by fields of corn and soybeans. The downtown is seven blocks long, buttressed with charming turn-of-the-century buildings. The Wash'n Vac III next to the bowling alley offers this purposefully odd come-on to passersby: "AIRPLANES WASHED FREE." (The owner has gotten lots of comments, but no planes yet.) You can buy your groceries at - what else? - the Nylon Capital shopping center.

Three generations ago, Seaford had little beyond farms and canneries. Then, DuPont announced it was building a factory just outside the town limits, on the Nanticoke River, to produce a miracle of chemistry.

Some long-timers grumbled about outsiders. But others in the Depression-wracked community streamed into the streets for a spontaneous parade.

"It was a boom town, instantaneously," said Anne Nesbitt, a volunteer with the Seaford Historical Society, who arrived in 1948 when her husband took a job with DuPont.

The factory produced 4 million pounds of nylon fiber that first year. It produces 270 million pounds a year now, mainly for carpets, and has 650 employees plus 350 who work as on-site contractors, said Cheryl Parker, a spokeswoman for Invista.

But as many as 4,600 people worked at the factory in the peak years, in the 1970s - practically the entire population of the city at that point.

Friday afternoons 30 years ago would bring half-block backups at the local Bank of Delaware branch as workers tried to get paychecks cashed. Police would stand at two intersections during shift changes every weekday to keep traffic from snarling out of control as people flooded in and out of town - from Maryland, Virginia and other parts of Delaware. Residents set their clocks by the now-silent factory whistle that signaled shift change, and would arrange their lives accordingly.

"You didn't want to be around here at 4," recalled Tawn Shivers, 40, who grew up in Seaford and now teaches art at the middle school. "Bumper to bumper. It's almost like it just stood still."

Her family had no ties to the monolith, other than her mother's summer stint with nylon after graduating from high school. And at the time, for a child in Seaford, that was a sure way to feel left out. The cliques at school - and the country club in town - were filled with children whose parents worked for DuPont. Shivers was forced to miss practice with her high school tennis team once a week or so, whenever it met at the exclusive country club, to which she didn't belong.

"If your family was a DuPont family, then you were elite," Shivers said.

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