Jan 06, 2015 11:56AM
● By Cate Reynolds
By Anne McNulty Photography by Becca Newell and Jess Newell
As you stroll along Easton’s brick sidewalks—past boutiques, art galleries, and upscale restaurants, you understand why it frequently pops up on “Best Small Towns in America” lists. It’s also one of the oldest.
Imagine the lives that have come and gone in Easton’s historic brick homes and buildings, and the stories that have been told there—some remembered—most forgotten.
Instead of a vibrant and cosmopolitan town, imagine thousands of acres of leafy tobacco plants stretching over Talbot County plantations. Tobacco was king here—the currency that drove Maryland’s colonial economy.
Third Haven Meeting House, 1682In 1682, a rapidly growing group called Quakers or the Religious Society of Friends, is looking for a place to build another meetinghouse. Near the banks of the Tred Avon River, they find a shaded three-acre plot and purchase it from landowner, John Edmondson. Using saws, broadaxes, chisels, and gouges they finish their meetinghouse in 1684. This structure—renovated several times—still stands and is used during the warmer months.
On a summer Sunday morning, stillness pervades the wooden building as worshipers bow their heads in prayer and meditation. Sunlight peeks through the open windows while robins chirp and chatter. The low hum of traffic on Washington Street is the only reminder of modern times. Soon the busyness of life succumbs to a spiritual peace.
Marsie Hawkinson, a longtime member, explains that the Meetinghouse is the oldest documented building in the state and is the oldest continuous house of worship in the country. Currently, three major structures stand on the property—the old Meeting House; the 1880 Brick Meeting House, equipped with modern conveniences; and the Common Room, used as a gathering place for members. Bordered by a brick wall, the property includes an ancient cemetery filled with stone markers.
When asked about the unique manner in which Quakers worship, Hawkinson says, “We don’t have a minister. Each individual communes directly with God. When we feel called, we get up and speak, and we try to frame the message to reach everyone.”Quakers have no standardized dogma or creed. They search for the “light within residing in every soul.” They refer to it as “Centering down.” After about an hour, the meeting ends when the congregants shake each other’s hands. They then head to the Common Room for food and fellowship.
The Talbot County Courthouse, 1712Dominating Washington Street is the Talbot County Circuit Courthouse—an imposing structure consisting of a Georgian building enhanced by two wings. You begin to feel the power of the law as you walk along the wrought iron fence and onto the spacious green where the statue of Frederick Douglass resides.
Now imagine a 20' x 30' foot brick and timber courthouse with a pediment over the front door supported with “well turned Cullums.”
On two acres of a worn-out tobacco field, near a place called Pitt’s Bridge and costing 115,000 pounds of tobacco, this building was completed in 1712. Clustered around the courthouse were a few humble dwellings and taverns. Such was the beginning of Easton. First called Talbot Courthouse, it wouldn’t be incorporated and laid out as a town until 1786 and then renamed Easton in 1788.
The 1712 court ranged from six to 10 justices who were charged with keeping the Talbot County peace and to “inquire into all Mannor of Felonys, witchcrafts, and Sorcerys.”
Rebuilt in 1794, and renovated several times since, a Gothic brick and granite jail was added to the courthouse in 1881.
Ninety-year-old Dr. Kenneth Carroll, remembers this jail well because he grew up in the attached sheriff’s house during his father’s three four-year terms dating from 1930–34, and from 1946–1954. The retired professor of religious studies sits on his spacious porch while traffic rumbles by and recalls those days.
“The prisoners, often bootleggers, had to pass through our hallway to get into the jail,” he says. “My mother supervised the jail kitchen where she frequently cooked the most wonderful soup. Occasionally, she vacated our living room to let the men, whose families had traveled a long distance, visit them in comfort. She kept the jail records and gave some of the prisoners motherly advice. She was a saint to put up with that job.”
With only one deputy, his father, A. Raymond Carroll, would enlist trusted prisoners to assist with chores. Carroll remembers a prisoner named Jake. “Jake was in there often because he had problems with the bottle. When he was sober, he would help out at my dad’s roller skating rink.”
Carroll then recalls the time a lynch mob from Salisbury, looking for a black fugitive who had already been secretly escorted to Baltimore, stormed the jail. “My mother hid us in an inner hallway while my dad talked to the head of the furious mob. He finally let the men come in two at a time to prove the fugitive wasn't there.”The recently renovated jail has now been put to good use as the State's Attorney office.
The Bullitt House, 1801On Dover Street stands an impressive Federal-style house currently home to the Mid-Shore Community Foundation.
Upon entering the home’s spacious center hall, it’s obvious that only a wealthy man could have built a house like this in 1801. Thomas J. Bullitt, a local attorney and president of the Easton National Bank, was such a man. Attached to the home is the white, frame wing that Bullitt used as his law office.
Always dressed in old-fashioned garb, including a swallow-tail coat and wide pantaloons, he walked to his bank on Washington Street almost every day.
At this time, Easton was considered an up and coming town.With less than 1,000 residents, it boasted a newspaper, two private schools, a schooner line to Baltimore, a carriage maker, and a drug store among others.
The county’s economy was still driven by agriculture. Huge plantations grew enough wheat, corn, and tobacco to help feed Europe where wars were hindering its agriculture.
Between the years 1812–1829, however, calamities such as a smallpox epidemic, which took the life of Bullitt’s wife, along with several crop failures, left the county and Easton in ruins. Just as things began to improve, Bullitt passed away at age 77.
Real Estate Broker, Charles F. Benson, partner of the Benson and Mangold firm, used to be a partner/owner of the Bullitt house, which in the last 50 years, has been used as piano teacher’s studio, a children’s clothing shop, and an interior decorators shop.
Recounting a series of transactions, beginning in 1964, he remembers buying the house for $200,000. “I didn’t have two nickels to rub together,” he says. Benson financed the house by offering part interests to a few other investors. They later donated their interests to the Mid-Shore Community Foundation that now owns the house.
It’s been costly to maintain, however. “We had to take up the front steps, because they were deteriorating. Under the concrete sidewalk, we found octagonal bricks, and we also found them under the basement’s sand foundation,” Benson says.
“When insulating the frame wing, we discovered newspapers, dating from 1807–1810 that served then as insulation. In one of the Eastern Shore Intelligencer articles, we read that President Jefferson was sending six frigates and militia to the Barbary Coast.”
Although, he maintained an office there, Benson has never lived in the Bullitt house. He prefers to live on Leeds Creek in Talbot County. I have breakfast on my porch and I don’t hear a sound—just the birds. It’s a wonderful way to start the day.”He leans back in his comfortable office chair and says, “We're blessed to live in Talbot County and have Easton as its core.”
The Tidewater Inn, 1947Across the street from the Bullitt house stands the Tidewater Inn, which is on the National Register of Historic Places and widely known as the “Pride of the Eastern Shore.”
Hotel manager, Donald Reedy has worked here since 2008, and is amazed by the improvements that have been made to the hotel since it was bought by managing owner John Wilson and a group of investors in 2009.
Reedy, a practicing New York attorney for 18 years, first encountered Easton when he came to visit his sister in Caroline County. When he visited the hotel, he says, “I fell in love with this place.”
He takes his visitor on a tour of the hotel—through the stunning renovated Gold Ballroom and out to the newly constructed outdoor Gold Room Garden with its sail cloth canopy stretching high over the stamped concrete floor. This unique brick-walled room, with two built-in fireplaces, beckons couples to pronounce their wedding vows here. “We even held a wedding out here last New Year’s Eve,” Reedy says.
He walks through the main lobby that bespeaks comfort and elegance. “The front desk used to be dark and closed-off making it difficult to interact with our guests. In order to remodel this space, we had to keep historical integrity, while still utilizing functionality.”
Walking through two of the 95 guestrooms, Reedy points out that in order to renovate them, “We had to cut through plaster and cinder block walls.”
On a table in John Wilson’s office, sit rolled-up architectural plans for future renovations. Meanwhile, Reedy brings out a huge cardboard box containing the history of this unique place. Scrapbooks, photo albums, letters, and newspaper clippings recount the inn’s beginnings, ranging from a few humble taverns, to the Victorian-style Hotel Avon, built in 1891 and destroyed by fire in 1944.
In 1947, local businessman Arthur Johnson Grymes replaced the Avon with a world class hotel. The inn changed hands a couple more times, before being sold in 2009.
Tidewater chef, Raymond Copper, who’s worked here 51 years, has witnessed its many changes. At 77, he has no plans to retire or stop taking his daily eight-mile bike ride. He takes out his smart phone and shows his visitor the interview he had with Fox News 45. “I showed them how I make my turtle snapper soup.”This goodwill ambassador takes care of many projects including banquets and special events and works four days a week. He first meets with executive chef, Paul Shiley, to plan the day’s menu, which, of course, includes “snapper soup.” From there, the day unfolds.
“I never asked for a pay raise, I just got them,” Copper says. “Sometimes they say to me, ‘You still here?’ and I say, ‘huh?’ I’ve never looked at the clock.”
Copper remembers coming to Easton from his parents’ home in Philadelphia to visit his grandparents. On one visit, he walked into Hill’s Drug store, sat at the counter, and ordered a milkshake. “It didn’t occur to me that this southern town wouldn’t serve a black man. I was about to walk out when Doc Hill told me to sit back down and he would serve me. ‘Times will change,’ he assured me.”
Times have also changed for both the hotel and for Copper. Beginning as a busboy, then a waiter, and now a chef, he’s still cognizant of his humble beginnings. “I tell the dishwasher, you’re as important as me. How can I serve great food without putting it on a newly washed and dried plate?” He walks through a bustling kitchen that’s home to three shifts every day. A stack of clean silverware is set out on a counter as he walks past.
During the years, the inn has accommodated many famous guests. “We try to give them their space,” says Copper. He remembers the thank-you note he received from Harrison Ford commenting on his delicious crab cakes. Richard Dreyfuss told him that he loved “This quaint, laidback, and beautiful town.”
Of the present owner, John Wilson, he remarks, “His vision for this inn is beyond anyone else’s I’ve ever worked for.”
How long does he plan to work? “As long as I have the strength and health to do it.”
The Waterfowl Festival, 1971On a brisk November weekend, Easton’s tree-lined streets are ablaze with red and gold leaves as 20,000 visitors walk along crowded sidewalks. Their energy fills the air as they study their maps and decide whether they want to first visit the Academy Art Museum, stroll the art-filled aisles of the Armory, or watch the dock dogs leap into the air and land in the pool far below them. The kids don’t want to miss the Blackwater puppet show or the fishing derby. And what’s a fun-filled day without visiting the Wine, Beer & Tasting Pavilion?
Megan Miller is the Marketing and Event Director for Easton’s annual Waterfowl Festival held every November. While she eats a hurried lunch, she remarks, “It’s amazing how much revolves around one weekend in November.” For 44 years it’s been just that way.
The festival began in 1971 as the brainchild of a small group of men and women who wanted to hold an art show with three exhibits displaying waterfowl carvings, artifacts, and paintings. Held in the Gold Ballroom in the Tidewater Inn, they made about $7,500 dollars, which they donated to Ducks Unlimited, a waterfowl habitat conservation organization.
“It’s now grown to 10–15 exhibits,” Miller says. “We’ve gone from a local exhibition to a national one.”
With only a full-time staff of three, Miller stresses the importance of the 1,500 volunteers needed to put on this event, held throughout the town. In October the energy really builds as 50 committee chairpersons handle the myriad details.
The Festival is a nonprofit organization that’s donated nearly six million dollars to conservation organizations. “Corporate sponsors along with community effort make this possible,” she says. “We have a symbiotic relationship with the community.”
Already in February, the staff lines up next year’s exhibitors. Even with some challenges, such as finding artists willing to rent tables on a commission basis and a 2010 November hurricane, the festival continues to be Easton’s most popular attraction.
With more than 16,000 residents and many visitors, Easton continues to grow and change.Yet its past lingers in the hearts and minds of those who helped to tell its story.