Lewes Mason’s Norwegian and P.S. du Pont connections

June 28, 2013

Several months ago, when Bill Reardon was on his deathbed, we spoke about Pierre S. du Pont and all he did for Delaware, including financing the construction of two public schools in Lewes - one for white students and the other for so-called colored students - as well as several other schools in Sussex.

Bill grew up in Wilmington and did odd jobs for the du Ponts from time to time. He admired the family’s sense of philanthropy.

Bill also mentioned Charles Mason, who lived in Wilmington, had connections to Lewes and was head chauffeur for du Pont. P.S. du Pont, in the early 1900s, was in leadership positions with both the DuPont Company and General Motors. That piqued my interest. How did a man from Lewes end up as head chauffeur for P.S. du Pont?

When I discovered that Charles Mason had a younger brother named Lewes who had also been du Pont’s chauffeur at one time, I shifted into a higher gear. There are several men who have been named Lewes, because of the town, and every one of those stories fascinates me. When I discovered further that Lewes Mason died in the 1918 influenza epidemic and that P.S. du Pont subsequently donated $1 million to the Chester County (Pa.) Hospital for a new facility to be named in Lewes’s honor, I had to go deeper.

It turns out to be a story that includes lots of Lewes, Rehoboth, U.S. and Delaware history, and all those interconnections. Jenkie Lingo, a Mason by birth, directed me to Virginia Mason Morgan. Ginny Morgan is Jenkie’s and Jennie Hopkins’ great-aunt and lives in Kennett Square, Pa. At 93, her mind is tack sharp, and she remembers the family history well.

She told me that her father, Charles Mason Jr., and his brother Lewes were both born in Lewes around the turn of the 20th century. They were sons of Charles and Marguerite Lauritsen Mason, both of Lewes. Marguerite’s father was Louis Ludwig Lauritsen. “He was Norwegian and came over on a ship,” Ginny told me. “Lewes was one of the first ports where ships stopped, and he got off there. He eventually went back to Norway for his wife, Marie, and they settled in Lewes. They had a house on Savannah Road.”

Sharp family figures in

Hugh Rodney Sharp, a Seaford native also with Lewes connections, eventually became private secretary to P.S. du Pont and married his sister, Isabella. “Mr. Sharp was familiar with these honest and hardworking Mason brothers and recommended them to Mr. du Pont,” recalled Ginny. “They both relocated to his Longwood estate and lived in houses there. [According to research by Hazel Brittingham, Mr. du Pont hired Charles Mason as his chauffeur in 1914 and soon after hired his younger brother, Lewes, as a handyman.] I was born in one of the houses known as The Anvil, near the corner of Route 1 and Route 52. There are two identical houses side by side,” said Ginny. “In the other house was the Brewer family. One of the Brewer offspring, Louise, went on to marry the astronaut Alan Shepard. Lots of celebrities in this story.”

Lewes Mason became Mr. du Pont’s chauffeur after his brother, Charles, went to France to fight for his country during World War 1. In October 1918, an influenza epidemic took the lives of hundreds of thousands in this country. Lewes Mason was one of the epidemic’s victims.

“Uncle Lew died in Mr. du Pont’s home,” said Ginny. Very fond of Lewes, and moved by his death, Mr. du Pont gave a million-dollar gift to the Chester County Hospital to be named in honor of Lewes Mason. A plaque with recognition of Lewes Mason and Mr. du Pont’s gift continues to hang in the Chester County facility. When Charles Mason came home from the war, he returned to his previous position as Mr. du Pont’s head chauffeur.

Other early deaths

Early deaths continued to plague the family. “My mother, Marguerite, contracted spinal meningitis and died in April of 1934,” said Ginny. “I was 14 at the time. “Then, in July of that same year, my mother’s brother, Allen “Skutch” Lauritsen, died in a plane crash just off the beach at Rehoboth.”

At the age of 40, Lauritsen had already established himself as a prominent, quality builder in Delaware. Not long after completing the Zwaanendael Museum building in Lewes in 1931, he was contracted by Hugh Rodney Sharp to build a beach house fronting on the ocean and Silver Lake, just south of the Boardwalk.

According to a newspaper account from Brittingham’s files, Lauritsen had been entertaining guests at a construction-completion party with short rides in his airplane, flying out of Rehoboth Airport.

At the end of the day, in the evening while it was still light, Lauritsen apparently lost control of his airplane while making one last solo flight low over the beach. The report said the plane suddenly plummeted in an almost-vertical dive and crashed into about seven feet of water not far from shore at the end of Pennsylvania Avenue in Rehoboth.

“It’s all quite a story,” said Ginny, “but I’ll have to say I’m quite proud of my family and happy to still be here to tell about them.”

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