Visitors tour the inside of the Phillips Packing House during an event to celebrate the restoration of the iconic smokestacks.
Eastern Shore Land Conservancy
The monthly Heritage Partner Spotlight focuses on our Heart of Chesapeake Country Heritage Area (HCCHA) partners and how they have supported heritage tourism in Dorchester County with a project funded by either a Maryland Heritage Areas Authority (MHAA) grant or a HCCHA mini-grant.
This month’s spotlight shines on the Eastern Shore Land Conservancy. Their mission is to preserve and sustain the vibrant communities of Maryland’s Eastern Shore and the lands and waters that connect them – a goal that enhances Dorchester County heritage. Projects like their Packing House restoration support heritage tourism while protecting and preserving historic, cultural and natural resources.
Committed to heritage, conservation
Perhaps the most notable testament to Eastern Shore Land Conservancy’s (ESLC) commitment to heritage preservation in Dorchester County are the towering Phillips Packing House smokestacks. Just off of U.S. Route 50, these iconic Cambridge landmarks were recently restored as part of a venture to redevelop the building.
The work at the Packing is just one example of the projects that demonstrate ESLC’s commitment to preservation and how their efforts align with the mission of the Heart of Chesapeake Country Heritage Area. In fact, the Heritage Area’s five-year Strategic Plan specifically cites “securing preservation support and resources for the Phillips Packing Plant” as a way to the support the protection and preservation of historically and culturally significant buildings and sites.
ESLC was founded in 1990 when a group of visionaries recognized that an increased interest in living on the Eastern Shore was putting productive farmland and one of the region’s backbone industries at risk. After noticing development signs being placed on prized farmland in Queen Anne’s County, the founders gathered funds and resources to work with agricultural landowners to protect their land using conservation easements. Some of the first properties protected by ESLC were right in Dorchester County, and they now work across six counties: Cecil, Kent, Queen Anne’s, Talbot, Caroline and Dorchester.
Community leaders joined ESLC representatives to celebrate the completion of the smokestack restoration in 2019.
Preserving land and property
Over the years, ESLC has grown from a small land trust tucked away in a home office on Wye Island to an organization recognized nationally for the scale, scope and strategic acumen of its land protection. They have preserved more than 65,000 acres of land across 311 properties.
Their efforts have provided access to nature and outdoor recreation in and around local towns for people; protected migratory hubs and corridors, and habitats for wildlife; and promoted the rural heritage of the Eastern Shore so that future generations can continue to make a living off the land and water, said Darius Johnson, ESLC communications manager.
“We look at our work through a lens that recognizes our changing climate and changing landscapes,” Johnson said. “We collaborate directly with municipalities to help them with planning and projects to ensure that the Eastern Shore towns have thriving rural economies and that they are resilient to any environmental threats for the foreseeable future.”
The Phillips Packing Plant was once part of the empire of vegetable and food packing businesses, which once employed thousands of people in Cambridge.
Projects throughout Dorchester
In Dorchester County, ESLC has about 11,328 acres from 66 easements. The first conservation easement was signed with Cooper Bright, preserving his 92-acre farm on Brannock Bay in Dorchester County. Some of the properties have been highlighted at ESLC’s Annual Fundraiser called Party to Preserve, where they celebrate their supporters and their conservation “wins” over the year by hosting members of the community on preserved land.
“We also are spearheading an initiative to protect 50 percent of the Delmarva Peninsula by 2030,” Johnson said. “This has broad implications depending on who you are and what you value and how you connect with the landscapes around our region, but you should know that it is a critical undertaking for the people who call this place home.
“Under Delmarva Oasis, we are locking arms with partners in Delaware and Virginia to connect conservation across state lines. The Delmarva-wide approach will ensure that our efforts are linked with our neighbors, protecting critical lands for nature, food, and people for generations to come. We believe that Delmarva Oasis will inspire creative solutions to our complex problems and it will spark the energy and support to accomplish strategic conservation goals.”
This initiative also reflects one of the nine themes that define the Heart of Chesapeake Country Heritage Area: The Environment. It speaks to the Heritage Area Strategic Plan goal to Practice Stewardship, specifically by positioning Dorchester as a center of environmental and ecotourism experiences in the mid-Atlantic.
“ESLC is an organization that brings people together around a common love for the Eastern Shore and it’s beautiful, bountiful, unique landscape,” Johnson said. “The sheer amount of land protecting that ESLC has done is a testament to our deep, long-lasting relationships with landowners and farm families who trust us with land that they have held for generations.”
“The preservation and restoration of the building ties economic development and tourism to conservation in a powerfully, unique way. It demonstrates the manner in which ESLC approaches its mission — not looking at land conservation as an isolated effort, but as a linking factor between the landscapes, towns, and people of the Eastern Shore.” – Darius Johnson, ESLC communications manager
The Phillips Packing House smokestack restoration was made possible, in part, by a capital grant from the Maryland Heritage Areas Authority. They also have received support for this project from the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Bartus Trew Providence Preservation Fund.
ESLC has been working with Cross Street Partners to restore and revitalize Phillips Packing Plant Factory F, now named The Packing House, along with partners in the City of Cambridge and Dorchester County. The goal is to convert the 60,000 square foot factory into a facility for a mix of uses related to farming, fishing, and food-based industries.
The Packing House’s iconic 90-foot smokestacks have been preserved and restored as symbols of Cambridge’s historic industrial contributions and its impact on the surrounding community.
In October 2019, ESLC hosted a community event commemorating the completion of the smokestack restoration and invited the public to tour the inside of the building before construction. For some, it was the first time they had stepped inside the building. For others who worked there in the past, they had the opportunity to reminisce on memories that were made decades ago.
Currently, there is ongoing construction to replace the roof and renovate the facade of the building.
Eastern Shore Land Conservancy
114 S. Washington Street Suite 101 Easton, MD 21601