Editor’s Note: While the Coronavirus pandemic has cancelled Chicone Village Day at Handsell for 2020, it hasn’t stopped the passionate team of the Nanticoke Historic Preservation Alliance from continuing their restoration work, Summer Saturdays and the October 10 Nanticoke River Jamboree.
This story is part of Dorchester County Tourism’s ongoing series on Pioneering Women of Dorchester County. The series celebrates 2020 as The Year of the Woman, commemorating 100 years since U.S. women gained the right to vote. See all the Pioneering Women of Dorchester stories.
By Amanda Fenstermaker, Director, Dorchester County Tourism
Passion Project Forges Lasting Bond
Speaking with Midge Ingersoll and Shirley Jackson is like spending a sunny spring morning enjoying a fresh-from-the-oven croissant while catching up with old friends … which is where we found ourselves recently when we sat down with these women of influence in Dorchester’s preservation community.
Midge and Shirley share a warm friendship formed 13 years ago on the foundation of an historic home near Vienna. With a cap of white hair and lineless face, the only clues to Shirley’s age come from her recollection of events from 80 years ago. Her friend Midge – a relative ‘newcomer’ to Dorchester – has spent the past 30 years restoring “Addition to Rosses Chance.” In 2008, Midge and her husband Jon made their 1750’s home on the Little Choptank River their full-time residence.
As the two women share how their friendship was sparked by the discovery of what is today called “Handsell House,” we enjoy warm pastries topped with a delicious fig jam from Shirley’s kitchen, made with fruit from Ingersoll’s garden.
Growing Up in Indian Town
In 1936, Shirley lived with her parents and six siblings in what was then called “Indian Town.” The family lived on Frase Farm where her father was a sharecropper for the owner William Frase and her “mom worked for the missus.”
Life in Indian Town was hard – and it was hard work. There was no power, running water, or indoor plumbing. A wood stove where the family cooked their meals provided the home’s only heat. Shirley’s mother Elsie Mae enlisted her children to help grow, harvest and can the tomatoes, beans, cucumbers, and cantaloupes they raised. Their small but vibrant African American community carried names still prevalent in Dorchester today: Pinder, Jackson, Robinson, Jones and Davis.
Shirley is a direct descendant of Charles Jackson, born in the Vienna area in 1814 as an enslaved person. There are several records that document his activities in the Indian Town area near the Steele family (Handsell), although proof of who “owned” Charles is yet unknown. It appears he was freed by about 1840, when he married and started “his own” family with Rachel Hill.
Shirley later learned that her ancestors who were once enslaved eventually gained their freedom and remained in Indian Town. Around 1945, her family moved to the nearby community of Reid’s Grove.
By the 1980s, the 12 homes and dozens more outbuildings that marked Indian Town were gone. The only one that remained was a long-abandoned, ivy-covered brick structure known as the Webb House.
Abandoned but not Forgotten
While renovating her 18th Century farmhouse, Midge conducted extensive research on Dorchester County’s architecture, history and culture. Intrigued by the photograph of a 1½ -story Georgian-style manor labeled the “Webb House,” she spent nearly 10 years searching for its location.
One day, David Lewis – a mason helping to renovate Ingersoll’s house – showed Midge a photo of a home he was interested in purchasing. She recognized it instantly as the Webb House. Lewis and Ingersoll drove to Vienna and examined the “old brick house at Chicone” together.
After locating the current owner, Lewis received permission to remove the plywood. What they found when they entered was a house frozen in time. Rebuilt in 1837, the home was never electrified. Despite not having heat, plumbing or water, it was in a preserved condition.
It was a gold mine of history and we just wanted to save it.
In the process of researching land, census and probate records, Midge uncovered a treasure trove of information. She learned the home was the only remaining evidence of the three cultures whose histories converged on the banks of the Nanticoke River. Handsell had once been home to an enslaved community, a colonial trading post and a Native American village of the Chicone tribe.
“Being a South Jersey girl who was raised in a Quaker community, I’ve found fascinating similarities between southern New Jersey and Delmarva,” Midge says. “The Quakers assisted run-away slaves to escape to Philadelphia and South Jersey.”
The resemblances in topography and low marshy areas between the two regions always made Ingersoll feel at home.
Nanticoke Historic Preservation Alliance Takes Root
After two years of negotiation, Dave and his wife Carol purchased the “Webb House” along with two acres and a right-away to Chicone Creek. They cleaned out the interior, removed the ivy and joined with Midge to launch a non-profit to preserve the structure and tell the stories of the three cultures whose lives intersected on the banks of the Nanticoke.
They restored the original name of Handsell to the property, taken from the 1665 land grant issued to Thomas Taylor.
Starting with six board members who each contributed $100 to launch the Nanticoke Historic Preservation Alliance (NHPA) in 2006, the organization has raised $350,000 to date. The NHPA has invested $278,000 on the house restoration and spent $70,000 to install interpretive signs, build the Chicone Village longhouse, and fund insurance and property maintenance.
In 2008, the NHPA helped ensure Handsell’s future after securing the prestigious National Historic Preservation designation.
Planning the Three Culture Center
After almost 13 years, Shirley and Midge share a vision to make Handsell House and the Chicone Village one of Dorchester’s premier heritage tourism sites.
We want to tell the history of the native, colonial settlers and enslaved blacks who lived at Handsell and how their cultures blended to make a uniquely American experience. We also want to be honest about how the Native and enslaved people were treated – but also how they lived together, learned together and each shared their unique cultures’ skills and traditions.
Throughout history, all cultures sustained themselves by utilizing the natural environment for food, shelter and clothing. Today, we live in a culture heavily influenced by Native Americans, African slaves and European settlers.
The NHPA plans to build the “Three Culture Center at Handsell,” a public exhibit and event space that will explore and highlight how three cultures merged to create a uniquely American experience.
Recognizing Dorchester’s Women of Influence
Shirley and Midge share the sentiment that the “Year of the Woman” is an opportunity to recognize the role women play in historic preservation.
“So often, it is women who keep a family’s heritage alive: Preserving letters and photos, sharing stories, and handing down cultural traditions.”
And so it is that these two women – raised in different places, times and circumstances – are today resolutely linked by a friendship forged on documenting stories of repression, resilience, redemption and healing.
To volunteer, make a contribution or learn more about Handsell, the Chicone Village and the Nanticoke Preservation Alliance, visit restorehandsell.org.
Learn more about Life In Indiantown when Shirley was a child in this documentary preview here or purchase the DVD for only $20 on their website. All proceeds benefit the NHPA.