1917 Old Hickory

The U.S. government asked DuPont to take on five major construction projects to make explosives for Allied forces in World War I. The most challenging was to be the world’s largest smokeless powder plant and a town to go with it at Old Hickory, Tenn. The newly organized DuPont Engineering Company completed construction in only five months. Production of sulfuric acid began 67 days after groundbreaking, nitric acid nine days later, and guncotton, the raw material of smokeless powder, two weeks after that.Show more

DuPont first targeted the Old Hickory, Tenn., site for development in 1917 when it became likely that U.S. entry into World War I would greatly boost the demand for munitions. The federal government ordered DuPont to begin work at Old Hickory in the fall of 1917, but financial and administrative disputes held up the contract until the following March. DuPont more than made up for lost time, however. The first of Old Hickory's nine smokeless powder units went into operation on July 2, 1918, an impressive 121 days ahead of schedule. By the war's end, DuPont engineers had built what amounted to an entire city for 30,000 workers, with 3,867 buildings and 7.5 miles of double-tracked railroad. During the war, DuPont charged 1 percent of product value to operate the plant. When it was turned over to the government in 1919, the company charged only $1 for construction.


Old Hickory met an urgent national defense need, and the War Department lauded the company's "remarkable achievement." But afterward, public and private accusations of waste, fraud, and war profiteering dogged the company, culminating in the 1934 U.S. Senate Nye Committee hearings. No evidence was ever found to substantiate the charges. The government abandoned Old Hickory and it was becoming a ghost town when, in 1923, the DuPont Fibersilk Company bought 500 additional acres at the site and began constructing a rayon plant. By 1937 DuPont was producing moisture-proof cellophane film at Old Hickory as well as 4.2 million pounds of yarn a year. World War II brought more expansion. By 1946 Old Hickory was home to 228 acres of plant facilities, a housing development, and a golf course.


In the postwar years, DuPont continued to locate cutting-edge production at Old Hickory. By the 1960s the production of Dacron had superseded the rayon operations, and when the film plant closed in 1964, Corfam took its place, giving way eventually to Typar spunbonded materials. Today, Old Hickory manufacturers Sontara® spunlaced materials. These nonwoven fabrics are sold throughout the world into a variety of markets, including medical gowns and drapes, critical cleaning wipes and other industrial/commercial applications.


The Old Hickory facility site – on the Cumberland River 14 miles east of Nashville – is named for Andrew Jackson, the president whose home is just a few miles away.


The DuPont Fibersilk Company opened in Buffalo, N.Y., in 1921 as DuPont's first plant to produce the silk-like fiber that would soon be known as rayon. DuPont's new executives saw rayon as a potentially profitable opportunity to diversify the company's products beyond explosives while remaining within the general knowledge area of cellulose chemistry. DuPont's initial effort had been to buy into future rival American Viscose Company. But when this attempt was refused, the company struck a successful deal in 1919 with the French firm Comptoir des Textiles Artificiels, paying $4 million in return for a 60 percent interest in a new company, DuPont Fibersilk, which was established on April 16, 1920. Under the leadership of Leonard A. Yerkes, DuPont Fibersilk built a plant on 90 acres near Buffalo and began production of the new continuous filament viscose fiber in 1921. The fiber was named rayon in 1924.


DuPont opened a Rayon Technical Division Research Laboratory on the site in 1924 and invested in rayon-related research. The 1920s proved to be boom years for the rayon industry, with both women's and men's fashions taking advantage of rayon's silk-like properties at significant savings from the cost of silk. DuPont and other rayon producers such as American Viscose made up to a 33 percent return on their investment. During this period DuPont built additional rayon plants at Old Hickory, Tenn., and in Richmond, Va. DuPont Fibersilk was renamed The DuPont Rayon Company in 1925, and the Buffalo plant was demolished to make room for a larger facility in 1931. The entire complex at Buffalo, including the rayon plant and a cellophane plant, was renamed the Yerkes Works to honor the first director at his retirement in 1945.