Volume 12, Issue 16 ~ April 15-21, 2004
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Calvert at 350
County life shaped by land and waters
by Sara E. Leeland

Calvert County — that leggy peninsula between the Chesapeake Bay and the Patuxent River, its toes dipping into the water at Solomons and Drum Point — is celebrating its 350th birthday as a county this year.

English explorer Captain John Smith wrote the words that drew the Calvert family to Southern Maryland in 1634, with a ship full of folk dreaming of landownership, wealth and the chance to build a new society. “A coast well watered … the woods extream thick” Smith said, describing the cliffs of Calvert’s eastern shoreline. The waters, he said, were filled with fish (and oysters up to 13 inches long, others added); the woods filled with animals that could provide meat. The Patuxent people had already cleared small fields for corn and tobacco, suggesting fertile land, as well.

Celebrating Their Heritage
In 2004, Calvert folk — some descendants of settlers who arrived in Calvert in the mid 1600s — are celebrating their county. A yearlong series of public lectures has already told of the history of African Americans and the contributions of its women. On May 21, 22 and 23, a freshly written pageant will dramatize the history. The speaker series will continue with talks on changes in clothing, on Calvert’s fossils and the contributions of Quakers to the area. On May 15, there will be a tour of Calvert’s Champion Trees, and on June 13, Bernie Fowler’s Patuxent River Wade-in will mark the anniversary with a new commitment to the river. July 3 will bring a birthday celebration and at Jefferson Patterson Park September 25 and 26, a reenactment of the War of 1812. On July 13 a time capsule holding Calvert County memorabilia will be sealed at the courthouse, to let people of the future know what was important to the county in 2004. (The county website www.calvert350.com posts an entire list of events)

Soonest at hand, on Saturday, April 17, Calvert’s all-day extravaganza will feature a parade, music, arts and crafts, lots of food, Calvert authors signing their books and winning poets reading their work — including an epic tale of Calvert history.

Inevitably, most of the events will focus on what the people of this place have done. But, as wildlife expert Aldo Leopold said so well in 1948: “Many historical events, hitherto explained solely in terms of human enterprise, were actually biotic interactions between people and land.” By ‘land’ he meant all the life of both soils and waters.

What follows is a look at Calvert from that perspective.

A Well-Watered Land
In Maryland, Calvert is noted as the county at no point more than five miles away from navigable water. So it’s no surprise that Calvert waters have deeply shaped county history. Look at a county map and you’ll also see that, in the time of melting glaciers, the peninsula came close to being a series of islands: Solomons Island to the south and above it two larger islands north and south of St. Leonard Creek, which cuts in from the Patuxent and flows nearly to Chesapeake Bay.

From colonization to World War II, travel by water was easier here than travel over land. When Calvert High School was built in 1922 in Prince Frederick, it was the only school in the state that had a school boat instead of a school bus to bring in students from the southern and river sides of its district.

The first colonists coming up the Patuxent River from St. Mary’s discovered the spouting freshwater spring on the southeast side of St. Leonard Creek. Good drinking water drew settlement in this salty tidewater country. For decades, Spout Farm, named after the spring, was a stopping point for Patuxent River ships of all sizes to take on fresh water. Today, from waterside, you can still see both the farm and a small building down creekside that was built over the spring.

The four-mile reach of St. Leonard Creek was quickly explored. Its 20-foot-deep channel waters gave passage for ships, and its shores promised good space for shipping wharves. By the early 1640s, settlers began to claim land grants on St. Leonard Creek.

The rent was cheap. Local historian Ailene Hutchins found in the state archives a note of the payment made by creek resident John Smith in 1651: three and a half bushels of corn per year as rent for a 350-acre grant.

A number of the men who bought creek land rose to leadership in the Maryland colony. Richard Smith, the colony’s first attorney general, owned a portion of Creek land that is now Jefferson Patterson Park and Museum. Thomas Johnson, who became Maryland’s first elected governor, owned land just east of Smith’s. Two first ladies were also descendants of St. Leonard Creek area families: Louisa Johnson Adams (wife of John Quincy Adams and an advocate of both women’s rights and freeing slaves) and Margaret Mackall Taylor (wife of Zachary Taylor and likely the only first lady who knew, from her dangerous frontier days, how to handle a gun). John Quincy Adams, related to Calvert by marriage, earned enduring praise by arguing before the Supreme Court the case of the black Amistad rebels, and winning their freedom. Mackall Road, on the way to ‘Jeff-Patt’ Park, still commemorates Margaret Mackall Taylor’s family name.

St. Leonard Creek also welcomed less well-known men noted for their own firsts. Settler Henry Bishop built the first fort in the county. He’d brought pigs to his land and allowed them to run wild in the woods. The native Patuxent people killed the pigs. A stranger in this place he claimed, Bishop built his defense.

Well past the colonial period, from the 1820s to the 1940s, steamboats took Calvert folk to the larger world by way of Baltimore, Annapolis or Washington, D.C. Calvert had nearly 20 wharves or steamboat stopping points, located both on Chesapeake and Patuxent waters. Local newspapers featured the wares of Baltimore emporiums, from dresses and leather shoes to axes and potent remedies for any and all ailments. Calvert Countians either steamed up to buy their goods or sent orders by the paddle-wheelers.

Below decks, black men stoked the coal into the furnaces; on the freight decks were barrels of fish and oysters, 500-pound hogsheads (huge wooden barrels) of tobacco and crates of canned goods. First-class passengers getting on at Governor’s Run or other piers could anticipate a dinner of beef, lamb and oysters, complemented by corn bread, salads and fruits.

Sollers Wharf, on St. Leonard Creek just in from the Patuxent River, was mostly commercial, shipping out tobacco, canned oysters and tomatoes. If the prices were low, growers could hold out some of their tobacco for better prices. But the waters by Sollers Wharf ran red when the tomato growers dumped crops not worth the price of transport.

At North Beach and Chesapeake Beach, the traffic was tourist. The steamboat Dreamland, an early 20th century 284-foot side-wheeler, could carry as many as 4,000 passengers down from Baltimore to the wooden carousel and roller coaster that marked the shoreline of the north-county summer resorts. Spectators would line up just to listen to the screams of folk in the fast-rolling coaster cars. At Parks Café in Chesapeake Beach, both tea and pie were five cents a serving. A beach-side overnight room cost $1.50.

Some of Calvert’s remote inlets provided perfect spots for Prohibition-era bootleggers. The area today known as Flag Ponds Nature Park held three stills, and booze was shipped out across and around the Bay, usually covered by a layer of herring.

“Pay the river caution … no one can outguess that river,” says Ebb, the riverman in Ebb of the River, Richard Mears’ fictional account of growing up on the Patuxent. “If I listen hard, I can hear the seasons whisperin’ on.”

Today Calvert’s shores are sought out by homebuyers looking for vista and those whispering seasons. On any summer day, the waters at the mouth of the Patuxent will be marked by sport-fishing vessels of all kinds. It is, truly, a well-watered place.

Formed by Forest and Tobacco Fields
In 1654, when Calvert County was named by Lord Baltimore and English lawyer Robert Brooke became its ‘commander,’ the land was still mostly covered with old-growth chestnut, oak and sycamore. Tulip poplar, hickory and ash, sweet gum and pine flourished.

The Calvert streams that carried off the melting water of the last glaciers had cut deep on their way to the rivers and the Bay, creating ravines on whose sloping edges the primeval forests grew. At least three times, loggers cleared the valuable timber for building, fencing, boat- and barrel-making, and simply as firewood. But the hillsides were too steep to farm, and the trees grew up again.

In 1926, forester F.W. Besley noted that Calvert’s remaining forest was growing precisely along the steep ravine stream-lands. He projected that about half of Calvert County would always remain forest; and, indeed, in the early 21st century, 55 percent of the county is still forest, mostly tracing the lines of Calvert’s ravine stream-lands.

Like the Patuxent Indians before them, but in ever-larger measures, settlers demolished portions of forest to grow tobacco, corn and other staples. Tobacco from Virginia had become an instant fad in England and across Europe. With marketing mechanisms already in place, it quickly became the money crop of Calvert. “Tobacco is our meat, drinke, clothing and monies,” commented Hugh Jones, the pastor of Calvert’s earliest church, Christ Church, in 1698.

Christ Church, simple and beautiful on Broomes Island Road just west of Route 4, still serves Calvert, holding the county record for continuous church services in the same location over 332 years.

When tobacco growers needed cheap and steady workers, enslaved Africans were imported into Calvert. The first slave-ship to land in St. Leonard’s Creek was The Fly in 1708. It was followed by many others. Forced into a life of hard work and social separation from white landowners, the African Americans quickly began shaping their own culture. Drop into any African-American church in Calvert today, and you’ll get a sense of the passionate dreams and ideals that helped these worshippers’ ancestors endure a long and hard time. As they must have done, Thema Johnson, lay preacher from Brooks Methodist Church, makes her constant theme “The best is yet to come.”

Calvert stayed a land of segregation up to the civil rights era of the 1960s. Schools, movie theaters, taverns, restaurants, baseball, even churches had separate spaces for blacks and whites — or separate establishments altogether. Calvert also had its own resisters.

In 1937, Harriet Elizabeth Brown represented the county’s black teachers in a court suit that asked for equal pay for black and white teachers. Thurgood Marshall, then a lawyer with the NAACP, came to court with Brown — and they won the day. Later, on a brisk 1960s’ weekend, after a concert, the members of the black Brooks High School marching band sat down in the white Prince Frederick drug store and asked to be served. To Calvert’s credit, the owner did just that.

The seasons and sale of tobacco shaped the lives of Calvert folk up to the mid-20th century. “Christmas didn’t come at Christmas; it came when the tobacco was sold,” said Cassandra Parran Briscoe (recorded in The Money Crop). Calvert’s “soil is the natural habitat of the tobacco plant,” wrote Charles Stein in his 1976 history of the county. “Three hundred years of cultivation have resulted in the perfection of a unique type of tobacco for which there is a world-wide demand.”

In 2004, barns where tobacco hung for drying still mark Calvert’s countryside, but the state program offering farmers payments if they don’t grow tobacco has ended its growth on all but a very few fields.

Today, vistas of farm fields and forested stream lands still attract newcomers to the county’s hundreds of new housing communities. Even one-quarter acre of land with trees gives privacy from neighbors for much of the year, along with providing the treat of bird watching. More and more of the land, no longer tobacco-filled, is now again growing trees along with houses.

By-Passing ‘Progress’
One of Calvert’s special features is that, as Baltimore and Annapolis grew as centers of government and commerce, this southern county remained rural. At the end of the Civil War, its population stood at about 10,000. In 1940, the population was 10,484. More families were involved in farming than in any other work.

Colonial Calvert had boasted tobacco plantations 5,000 acres and bigger. But that economic structure depended on political stability, good soils and enslaved workers. At the end of the Revolutionary War, the largest landholder in Calvert had only 1,300 acres. When tobacco workers were freed at the end of the Civil War, the plantation structure came apart. Gradually slave-farming was replaced by a system of smaller landowners whose workers were sharecroppers or tenant families. Even farmers or tenants who were dirt poor kept at the work and earned a sense of self-sufficiency and family that gave meaning to their lives.

Calvert’s coastal plain soils were mostly sand shot through with some clay. The top layers of fertile soil, laid down by rotting forest leaves and limbs for more than 3,000 years, was shallow. The colonists hadn’t observed Patuxent farmers for long enough to know that the natives regularly moved from old fields to new ones, but the English found themselves doing the same thing for the same reasons. Calvert produced good tobacco, but its soils demanded constant re-fertilizing, which would always limit the county’s agricultural wealth.

From its beginning, tobacco sales demanded wharves for shipping — but not from towns. As a county, Calvert seemed to be filled with people who wanted to live out on their own rather than together. Even when the state government mandated that St. Leonards Town be built at the head of the creek, it took nearly 30 years to build. In 1696, the prolific Christ Church pastor Hugh Jones wryly commented: “There are several places allotted for towns, but hitherto they are only titular ones.”

Small towns grew up around particular needs. St. Leonards, Lower Marlboro and Huntingtown were shipping (and taxing) ports on the Patuxent. North Beach and Chesapeake Beach grew in response to the desire of urban folk for a summer resort reachable by train from Washington, D.C., and by steamboat from Baltimore and Annapolis.

When in 1867 Isaac Solomon built his oyster canning factory on the island that bears his name, Solomons constructed itself around his business. Watermen with a destination for their oysters and crabs needed craft, and Solomons’ boat construction business began.

Men who worked a 12-hour day shucking oysters earned about $2.25 in the 1880s. The oyster-shucking speed record was cracking open 100 oysters in three minutes and three seconds, according to one history of the industry.

First Calverton, on the north shore of Battle Creek, and then Prince Frederick were built as centers of county government. Robert Brooke, Calvert’s ‘commander,’ laid out the plans for Calverton himself, including public wells along with courthouse, jail, hotel and tavern. In 1708, satirist Ebenezer Cook described his overnight stay in the town as marked by the loss of his hat, wig, shoes and stockings while he slept, but Brooke’s government generally brought legal order into early Calvert.

Prince Frederick was constructed in 1725 in the midst of flat open fields, when more northern county residents demanded a county seat more convenient to them. Two centuries later, it was still a sleepy small town. “Horses and buggies and saddle horses mixed with Model T Fords on its main street,” wrote Arthur Wilson Dowell in his Growing Up in Prince Frederick during the 1920s and ’30s. “There was not much traffic and the cars didn’t go too fast.”

Though its rural population was always small, Calvert still sent its leading citizens off into state and national politics. Two 20th century U.S. congressmen, Augustus Sollers of Prince Frederick and Thomas Parran of St. Leonard, were Calvert Countians, as was Civil War-era Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger B. Taney and Franklin Roosevelt’s surgeon general, Dr. Thomas Parran (nephew of the congressman with the same name). Louis Goldstein, born in Prince Frederick to immigrant parents, was affectionately recognized as the longest-standing state official in Maryland’s history. He may well have followed the motto posted so prominently in his father’s Prince Frederick Department Store: “He profits most who serves best.”

In the 1940s, most of Calvert’s children were still learning how to grow tobacco, raise chickens, milk cows and plant the vegetables that would be canned for the winter table. Elders today who grew up in that era talk about the butter made from their own cow’s cream, churned in the farmhouse kitchen. Winter chicken and pork was canned, along with cherries, peaches and strawberry jam. Baseball was central to life, as were the nickel slot machines in Calvert’s groceries and taverns.

Then Came the Navy
In 1942, the U.S. Navy set up an Amphibious Training Base in Solomons, marking the first major wave of population pressure on the area since the colonial era. Thousands of men were trucked down through Calvert to learn on county beaches the warfare tactics of invasion planned for the beaches of North Africa, the Pacific Islands and Normandy. The men not only tossed Hershey bars to kids and drank all the cold and warm beer in the county. They also exposed its people in new ways to the worldwide event of that war.

Early Calvert Countians had been scarred by war. Royalist and Puritan factions fought each other. The Revolutionary War brought British assaults on their shoreline farms and shipping. In the War of 1812, a major battle was fought in St. Leonard Creek, and the British burned St. Leonards Town, Calverton, Prince Frederick, Huntingtown and Lower Marlboro along with other valuable, water-accessible plantations. While the Civil War was not fought on Calvert’s land, the experience was bitter as some countians rowed across the Potomac to join Virginians in the Confederacy, and others went north to join Union troops.

But for the century after the Civil War, Calvert County was largely left to itself.

Then, in the 1960s, planning for the Calvert Cliffs Nuclear Power Plant began, encouraged by the cooling waters of the Bay and a low population density that would ease any catastrophic evacuation. To prepare for the nuclear future, a second wave of people hit the county: construction workers from Baltimore and Washington, D.C. By the time the first nuclear reactor went into service in 1975, the four-lane divided highway was reaching south into mid-county, to be finished in the 1980s and later named for Louis Goldstein.

The Patuxent River Naval Air Station in Lexington Park was built in the 1950s just across the river from the Solomons shoreline in St. Mary’s County. Connecting the two counties, the Thomas Johnson Bridge in Solomons opened in 1977.

The combination of highway and bridge opened the floodgates. People poured into the county. The numbers tell the story of Calvert’s rise as Maryland’s growth hotspot. In 1960, Calvert’s population had climbed to 15,826 people. By 1970, the census counted 20,672. In 1980, Calvert had 34,638 residents. By 1990, that was 51,372. In 2000, the count jumped to 74,563. Newcomers brought a welcomed flood of economic progress to the county, as per-capita income rose along with the population curve.

The towns grew a bit, but a great deal of modern development follows the Calvert pattern: one’s own chunk of land in the country. A look at the county map tells the story: in the Dunkirk area alone, more than 50 housing developments. Proceed south or east and you read more names of housing centers. Across to North Beach, count another 50 or so communities. Like the colonial Maryland government before it, the county is mandating “town centers,” but it’s far from clear that people want to live in them.

The farmland that drew the English settlers was along the Patuxent. Today’s green-space agricultural easements are there as well.

Questions for the Future
On April 17, the marching bands will play, floats will vie for ‘the best,’ proclamations will be read and outstanding achievements and citizens will be noted.

Beneath the hoopla, nearly everyone in Calvert has a sense that their county is at a decisive movement. What local song-writer Tom Wisner called “this easy-flowin’, downright-knowin’, Southern Maryland river country way” is slipping away … almost gone. Newcomers are joining county elders in asking how we shape the county’s future.

Will the remaining forest stay unbroken? Can we bring back the oysters and crabs that once provided a living for many Calvert countians? The shad and herring? Are we using up the drinking water from our aquifers? Will the best farmland be kept to ensure sustenance for the future? As both farming and fishing lose their economic importance, will tourism replace them? How are we building community among the layers of folk who make up this new Calvert?

On the 350th birthday, it’s time to at least imagine the 400th. What do we hope for Calvert in 2054? And how is that future related to the land and waters, the essential foundation and life-source of the county all these years?

About the Author
Sara Ebenreck Leeland, an environmental ethicist and writer, formerly a coordinator of environmental studies at St. Mary’s College of Maryland, recently wrote St. Leonard: A Maryland Tidewater Community, published by the St. Leonard Vision Group.

Places to Explore Calvert’s History
1. Jefferson Patterson Park and Museum, St. Leonard has exhibits about the lives of the Patuxent people, the agricultural heritage, the war of 1812 and archeological digs around historic St. Leonard Creek, in which the Museum is located: 410-586-8500.

2. Calvert Marine Museum has exhibits on the marine life of the region, the oystering and ship-building era and whale fossils dating back to the time when all Southern Maryland was covered by water: 410-326-2042.

3. Calvert Cliffs State Park has walking trails that lead back through hardwood forests to the Chesapeake Bay and beaches that are famous for finding sharks teeth and other fossils: 410-394-1778.

4. Chesapeake Beach Railway Museum traces the history of the two northern beach towns of Calvert and the railroad that brought visitors from Washington, D.C.: 410-257-3892.

Music to Get You in the Spirit
1. Tom Wisner, local songwriter and singer whose Chesapeake and river songs have been featured by National Geographic and Maryland Public Television, has three CDs: Made of Water, Come Full Circle and Chesapeake Born. ‘Southern Maryland River Country Way’ is recorded on Chesapeake Born: www.chestory.org.

2. Folk and country singer Joseph Norris has a new CD Mariner’s Compass, with songs of Southern Maryland that include a ballad about Joshua Barney’s fight on St. Leonard Creek in the War of 1812: Holy Cow Records, P.O. Box 414, Chaptico, MD 20621.

Good Reading
1. Fishlighters: The Story of the Vanished Commercial Fisher at Flag Ponds, Chesapeake Bay, Calvert County, Maryland, by Harry C. Knott. Tells of the fishery and its people in the early part of the 20th century.

2. Growing up in Prince Frederick during the 1920s and ‘30s, by Arthur Wilson Dowell, 1999. Memories of growing up in Calvert’s county seat.

3. Run to the Lee, by Kenneth F. Brooks, Jr., 1965. A fictional account of a schooner captain headed from Baltimore south to Solomons, caught in a fierce winter blizzard.

4. The Money Crop: Tobacco Culture in Calvert County MD by Sally V. McGrath & Patricia J. McGuire. Maryland Historical and Cultural Publications, 1992.

5. St. Leonard: A Maryland Tidewater Community by Sara Ebenreck Leeland, 2004. Story of the Calvert settlement beginning on St. Leonard Creek, beginning with the geological formation of Calvert and moving to the present: www.saintleonardvisiongroup.org. Read a Bay Weekly review in this issue.

On April 17, the celebration runs from 10am–5pm

  • Parade and Festival ~ Starting at 10am, the parade travels down the old town main street with reviewing stand in front of the Courthouse. Events following include interactive children’s activities, crafts, food, music and other entertainment. For inside entertainment, crafts and food, visit the Calvert Farmer’s Market in the shopping center at the corner of Duke Street and Route 2/4.

  • Author Extravaganza ~ The Prince Frederick Library on Duke Street overflows with dozens of local authors, who’ll gladly autograph books you purchase.

  • Living History at Linden House ~ Corn-doll making, quilting, spinning at the historic home of the Calvert Historical Society. Also, author Leeland and illustrator Gary Pendleton (both Bay Weekly contributors) sign the new heritage book: St. Leonard: A Maryland Tidewater Community. Up the hill back of the Library.

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Last updated April 15, 2004 @ 1:12am.