Mar 24, 2011 03:00AM
● By Anonymous
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“That’s how it started,” Mary White says. “Marian Steuart called me to see if I would help and I said, of course. We were in church together, in choir. We could work pretty well together.” Three other local ladies⎯Emily Deny, Mildred Schoch, and Annie Mae Price⎯were recruited, and a nascent organization began planning several events.
The first Kent Island Days were held that May. A homes and gardens tour included eight fine properties dating as far back as the mid-17th century, as well as both the 1880 Christ Episcopal Church building in Stevensville, and the congregation’s original Broad Creek site, where some of Maryland‘s earliest Christian worship was conducted. A crafts exhibition showcased such old-school skills as blacksmithing, chair caning, and quilting, along with region-specific know-how like decoy carving and oyster tong construction. There was a patriotic themed parade as well as a ballet recital and performances by various choirs.
All in all, it was quite a party.
The women in charge met their objective and were awarded Bicentennial recognition, but early on they also realized their work was just beginning.
Everywhere around them they saw an Eastern Shore that was changing drastically, no place more so than the largest island in the Chesapeake Bay. A way of life that had stayed the same for generations was now disappearing before their eyes. They believed in our haste to embrace the future we were too eagerly letting go of our past. They knew for sure that if action wasn’t taken, centuries of local culture would be lost to future generations. With the new mission to “discover, identify, restore and preserve the heritage of Kent Island” the Kent Island Heritage Society was formed.
All the founders but Mary White have since passed away.
Hindsight: Born Mary Jones in December 1914, she and her family moved from Cecil County to Centreville when Mary was 10 years old. Her father was a Water Street merchant who occasionally loaded up his two-door sedan and drove to Kent Island to sell his wares. After graduating from Centreville High School, Mary worked at Hubble’s Hotel across from the Court House on Commerce Street.
Faith and music have always been big components of Mary’s life. She vividly remembers her grandfather’s fiddle playing. A horse doctor and a magistrate, he had a joy in music which had a long-lasting effect on his granddaughter. Without any formal training Mary sang in her church choir, and played organ at historic Christ Church. With just a hint of mischief in her smile, she says she “fooled them for 40 years.” She met the blue-eyed Kent Island farmer Alfred White at a dance where local musician Happy Palmer and his band were playing the popular sounds of the day. Alfred asked her to dance and they decided, “We were good dancers.” The couple married in 1932, and was subsequently blessed with two daughters.
The Whites moved into Alfred’s family’s farm, Bellevue, on Kent Island’s northwest quarter, and though the old house no longer exists, members of the White family worked this bayside homestead for decades. Bellevue, like most Eastern Shore farms of the era, was far more diversified than many modern agricultural operations. The Whites grew corn and wheat, and later, soybeans. There was a grape arbor and a garden full of vegetables as well as cows, pigs, sheep, and turkeys. For their quality, Kent Island farm-raised geese always got a few cents more at market than other, lesser, waterfowl.
Mary always had an interest in history, and she was aware of the importance of the everyday items and events that others overlooked. Over the years she rescued many old time farm and household implements from the junk heap. She has an eye for things that matter.
Starting an organization like the heritage society from scratch is never an easy proposition. “Even back then,” says Mary, “there were a lot of things you had to do.”
First there were the basics: organizing, writing by-laws, assembling a Board of Directors, forming sub-committees, and setting both long and short term goals. A seal was adapted incorporating elements of original settler William Claiborne’s coat of arms. But obtaining a tax exempt status turned into a long, long process.
In 1976, amidst the Bicentennial festivities, an early 19th century house of rare post and plank construction was donated to the society by the heirs of Nora Cray. A year later, the third weekend in May was officially designated Kent Island Days by governor’s proclamation.
Kent Island is the United States’ third oldest English colony after Jamestown, Va., and Plymouth, Mass. The colony was established by Claiborne in 1631. In 1981, just in time for their 350th anniversary, Kent Islanders received official recognition as Maryland’s first settlement. The Heritage Society’s persistence was essential in this accomplishment.
St. Mary’s City in southern Maryland used to claim to be the state’s earliest settlement. The state resolution cleared up any contention about who was here first.
Events during Kent Island Days that special year varied from art and cultural exhibits to the dedication of a 100-year time capsule. Visiting dignitaries like Claiborne descendent U.S. Rep.Corrine Claiborne Boggs from Louisiana were official guests. A pageant entitled “A Patent for Conflict: Founding of Kent Island” was commissioned and performed. Also in 1981, the society was finally granted that tax-exempt status, and Mary White started the organization’s newsletter.
Mary is a meticulous record keeper. She has a large personal collection of family bibles, documents, writings, photographs, and clippings. She’s donated even more to the heritage society’s impressive genealogical and historic archives stored at the Kent Island branch of the county library. Forward looking, yet pragmatic, Mary wanted people to have access to the wealth of information she’d amassed. She also needed the space. She’s downplaying her efforts when she says, “I had a lot of records.”
Insight: Today The Kent Island Heritage Society is a thriving civic organization that continues to contribute to an ever-changing community while following its original mandate. Their presence is perhaps most evident in the heart of Stevensville where along with the restoration of Cray House, the society cares for the town’s century-old post office and bank. A spiffy little railroad station will soon be complimented by its very own donated caboose. Initiatives have been launched to help preserve Christ Church. And in Chester, down Dominion Road, there’s the James E. Kirwan Museum’s re-creation of an old time country store.
The heritage society has supported archeological digs and surveys. Members have written books about Kent Island and created brochures for a comprehensive walking tour. Active docent programs are vital to making historic properties available to the public. Attention has been brought to island family burial plots at risk of being destroyed and forgotten. An oral histories project is ongoing. So is an effort to encourage county officials to be more proactive in the preservation of important heritage sites.
And every year in May, Kent Islanders commemorate the origin and traditions of this place they love so⎯thanks to women like Mary White. She and the other co-founders of the Kent Island Heritage Society provided vision and leadership during a time when vast amounts of knowledge were threatened with careless abandonment.
They were among the first to realize that remembering what the Eastern Shore always was would serve us well in deciding what we would be in the future.