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 Dorchester Historical Society, perhaps best known for its campus located on the former LaGrange Plantation in Cambridge. There you can visit the 18th Century Meredith House and the Heritage Museums and Gardens of Dorchester. But the Historical Society’s mission goes much deeper as they preserve, research, educate and celebrate the history and traditions of Dorchester County.
Preserving history for future generations
Founded in 1953 by a small group of folks interested in preserving the rich history of the region, the Dorchester Historical Society has evolved into a significant repository and research center. Today, its undertakings go far beyond acquiring and maintaining collections to preserve the past. They host heritage craft workshops, genealogy seminars, festivals and guest speakers on wide range of topics.
In the midst of the worldwide Covid-19 pandemic, staff and volunteers are proactively implementing a new initiative called History in the Making to collect and record stories that are taking place every day during the era of coronavirus. They are asking people to document and capture unique moments in their lives right now so that future generations will have something to look back on in the years to come, said Mitch Anderson, the newly appointed Historical Society Administrator.
“We are living the history,” Mitch said. “We want to hear from first responders, from children, from business owners. Future generations will be able to come back here and say, ‘I remember hearing that my mom went through this.’”
70 years of expansion
The group that came together in the 1950s with bold plans to preserve Dorchester’s history made their first significant acquisition in 1959 when they purchased a historic house, ca. 1760, thanks to the generosity of benefactor Thomas Steele Nichols. Given naming rights, Nichols chose Meredith House due to familial connections. (Scroll down to tour Meredith House virtually with 360 video.)
In 1981, the Neild Museum was dedicated in honor of J. Stapleforte Neild and now houses a broad collection of artifacts that illustrate farm life in Dorchester, from colonial times to the present. In the mid-1980s, the Goldsborough Stable was moved from Shoal Creek Manor to its present location on the LaGrange Avenue side of the campus. This space educates about the many roles that early farmers had to perform in order to maintain their properties and equipment.
By 2007, the Robbins Heritage Center was added, providing more than 1,600 square feet of exhibit space. This museum holds exhibits highlighting the historic timeline of the county with interpretations about Native American History, the Earliest Settlers, Indentured and Enslaved, Following the Water, Hunting and Trapping, and more.
Inside the museum is an exact replica of the workshop where Master Carver Ronald Rue created his decoys.
Research and gardens
The Todd Research Center is located in the Robbins Center and is very helpful to those searching family history or items of regional interest. Recently, this library was accredited as a Network to Freedom facility, attesting to the hundreds of original pre-Civil War documents pertaining to enslaved and free people of color.
A Waterfront Walkway was completed in 2009 and gives a marsh and water vista to visitors, along with a Baywise Certified Garden. The gardens on the campus include plots for a Colonial-style herb garden, a Native American Garden and an African American Garden that reflect the kinds of plants that would have been grown in those communities. In the African-American Garden, they plan to grow onions, tomatoes, peppers, cowpeas, okra, squash, root vegetables, leafy greens and cotton. The Native American garden will include the “three sisters” – corn, beans and squash – and berries and tobacco.
Special activities and projects
A decoy in progress in the replica workshop at the museum.
The Dorchester Historical Society has organized a variety of unique programs and events throughout the years, including:
Vietnam Veterans Oral Histories. They collected nearly 100 oral histories from Dorchester County residents. The project culminated with a celebration honoring the veterans and their families.
Holland Island Genealogy. They continue to host gatherings for residents and descendants who trace their family roots to Holland Island. The participants share history, photos and stories that have been handed down through the generations.
Tomato Festival. This former event, which was held in Vienna, celebrated the tomato farming and canning history of Dorchester County and featured venders, crafts, food and music.
Florence Wingate Mystery. This presentation brought together relatives and researchers dedicated to uncovering what happened to Florence Wingate, who disappeared without a trace in 1953.
This gown was worn by Jane Hicks at the inauguration of her husband, Gov. Thomas Holliday Hicks, on Jan. 1, 1957, and is on display in the Meredith House.
MHAA grants have been instrumental in assisting with renovations to the historic Meredith House. The MHAA awarded the Dorchester Historical Society $6,500 in 2018 for frame addition repairs. Damaged brick molding and trim that was beyond repair was replaced with matching materials. A portion of the house is wood and requires periodic repairs and repainting. This project included replacing or repairing several rotted window sills with materials similar to the original materials and retaining the original frames and sashes as much as possible. All window sash exteriors were re-glazed and painted.
Past local mini-grants have provided funding to support rack cards and other promotional materials, as well as the Tomato Festival, which engaged hundreds with the rich history of Dorchester County.