“Victorian” Era to the Great Depression

Introduction: Major changes in transportation and technology transformed the economy, society and landscape of Kent County. In 1833, Chesapeake became the first steamboat to cross from Baltimore to Rock Hall. By 1827, it was also offering service to Chestertown. The railroad arrived in Kent County soon after the Civil War. Enterprising farmers soon realized that their products could now be shipped overnight to Baltimore, Philadelphia and New York. America’s canning industry, centered in Baltimore by the mid 19th century, spread to and flourished on the Eastern Shore. Farmers expanded and diversified by growing fruits and vegetables for city markets. Watermen harvested enormous number of fish, oysters and crabs from the Bay and rivers, and the seafood business boomed. Drawn by the beauty and bounty of the Bay’s shores, city folk flocked to the new and more easily-accessible resorts at Betterton and Tolchester. Well into the 1900s, Kent County thrived thanks to these burgeoning industries.

Railroads: Although The Kent County Railroad Company was chartered in 1856, with George Vickers as president, the first train didn’t pull into Chestertown until February 20, 1872, delayed by the Civil War and a lack of investors. When completed, the railroad was leased to the Philadelphia, Wilmington & Baltimore Railroad. Coming off the mainline at Townsend, Delaware, it made stops at Massey, Kennedyville and Worton before reaching Chestertown. Efforts were made to continue the tracks to Chesapeake Bay but that project was eventually abandoned. In 1900 the line was purchased by the Pennsylvania Railroad.

Steamships: The Chester River Steamboat Company was formed in 1865 when Col. B.S. Ford purchased the line of Henry B.Slaughter of Crumpton. Slaughter had been offering daily service along the Chester since 1860, with the boats Arrow, Chester and George Law. The new company prospered, and B.S. Ford, Corsica, Emma Ford and Gratitude were added to the fleet. They stopped at Chestertown, Rolphs Wharf, Quaker Neck, Cliffs, Spaniards Point, Spry’s Landing, Buckingham, Round Top, and Deep Landing. This regular steamboat service between the Chester and Baltimore provided local farmers and watermen with a reliable form of transport for their perishable produce, rockfish, crabs and oysters. It also allowed local merchants to bring in all manner of goods and merchandise for the thriving town of Chestertown.

During the Civil War, both the Union and Confederate armies confiscated available steamboats when they needed them to transport troops, supplies and ordinance. The boats also transported numerous spies and smugglers, including women, who worked for one side or the other and sometimes both. Following the war, the steamboats continued to connect Eastern Shore farmers and residents with urban markets. They not only carried goods and produce, but now a new kind of cargo as well: tourists. In spite of the claim that economic collapse would follow abolition, Kent County continued to prosper.

"Chestertown is getting more like New York every day, is a common saying in our town. Houses are being built wherever a lot can be purchased - old ones being rebuilt and improved. Mechanics are so busy, that it is almost impossible to get a small job done. Certainly it does look like a city" read the Kent News on October 27, 1866.

Among the most beloved of the Bay steamers, the Emma Giles was built for the Tolchester Line in 1887 with money raised on condition that she be named for the backer’s daughter. For the next 50 years she carried freight and livestock, while offering elegant and luxurious accommodations for her passengers. Her arrival at the country wharves was always a big event. “She looked like the Titanic when she came into the …river, a resident was quoted in the New Bay Times. “It was the highlight of our lives.”

Victorian Resorts: The romance of the steamship era is exemplified by two Kent County resorts of the Victorian period. Betterton became a vacation spot in the 1850s when Richard Turner built a steamship wharf on land once known as Crew’s Landing. The community that grew as a result was named after Turner’s wife, Elizabeth Betterton. Betterton boasted hotels and guest cottages; verandas with rocking chairs; a pavilion where couples danced and flirted into the night, all with a breathtaking view of the Bay. No wonder city dwellers were attracted to this “Jewel of the Chesapeake,” well into the 20th century.

Tolchester, and the Tolchester Line Steamboat Company of Baltimore, were begun in 1877 by father and son Calvin and E.B. Taggart, and further improved by W.C. Eliason, who was hired as a company clerk but rose to be president. Tolchester had a roller coaster and miniature railroad, and was the most beloved of all of the Chesapeake resorts. Happy visitors were transported from the noise and crowds of the city into dreamland. When Tolchester and the Bay Belle, the last steamboat in the Bay with a regular schedule, were surrendered to mortgage holders in 1962, service to Betteron also stopped, and an era came to a close.

The James Adams Floating Theatre brought entertainment, romance, drama, comedy and intrigue to small towns from the Mid-Atlantic to Florida from 1914 to 1941, stopping at many Eastern Shore towns, including Chestertown, Crumpton and Betterton. Author Edna Ferber, intrigued by the idea of a theatre on a steamboat, visited the floating theatre at her homeport in North Carolina, and was inspired to write the novel that became one of the most influential musicals in history: “Showboat.”

Women’s Roles in the 1800s: Women have always been active participants in the economic and cultural history of Kent County. The wives of plantation owners and farmers oversaw all household expenditures, managed the household and farm workers, and ran commercial enterprises such as dairies and weaving. Female indentured servants, slaves and hired women labored in fields, houses and businesses. Some women, such as Anna Martha Young Willson, the mistress of Trumpington in the late 1800s, kept poultry for eggs to trade and meat to sell, in addition to managing a household, making cloth and clothing, and providing food for her family and workers. Women had to run the farms while their husbands were away either at war, or working in Baltimore or Wilmington. A few, like Evelyn Harris of Howell’s Point, author of The Barter Lady, became the sole proprietors of their farms. Women, both black and white, also owned businesses in Chestertown and throughout the County.

Harvesting the Land and Water: Kent County farmers were continually seeking new ways to earn a living from their land. Many wheat fields gave way to orchards and, after a peach blight, to vegetables and berries. Truck farming was a term that began on the Eastern Shore. It referred to “trucking” one’s produce to market, even though the truck was often a wagon, and the market a wharf.

Watermen of the Chesapeake were also versatile. They didn’t just fish, but harvested a variety of produce from the Bay and its tributaries: oysters, crabs, rockfish, shad, herring, and striped bass. They moved about the bay, often staying for weeks in fishing shanties, or “arks,” when necessary, so they could work all year round. The 20th century brought continued expansion of the market for seafood. Rock Hall, once the first stop on the Eastern Shore for colonial travelers, wasn't incorporated as a town until 1906. It became one of the major centers of the Chesapeake fish and seafood industry. "The Rockfish Capital of the World" once boasted several large retail establishments, including Hubbard's Pier, as well as numerous related industries. An estimated 80% of the residents worked in the maritime trades.

Canneries began opening in the 1830s along the Eastern Seaboard, creating the food preservation industry, of which Baltimore soon became the national center. Along with the steamboat and the railroad, this new technology completely changed the market for both the farmers’ crops, and the watermen’s catch. Canneries didn’t to open in Kent County until late in the century, the first in Still Pond in 1889, although the industry would never dominate the economy here as it did on the lower shore.

First Women Voters in Maryland: Still Pond was incorporated as a town in 1908. Its Act of Incorporation provided that "the legal voters of Still Pond, female included, who pay taxes and who have resided within its corporate limits six months, of the age of 21 years and upward, shall elect by ballot on the first Saturday in May, 1908, three commissioners." Still Pond had a population of 231 people in 1908 and 14 women registered to vote for the May 2nd election that year, 12 were white and 2 were black, although only three women actually cast their ballot. They were Mary Jane Howard, a 69-year old widow; Annasandra “Annie” Maxwell, wife of Dr. William Maxwell; and Eliza Kelley, Dr. John Horton Kelly’s wife. This historic vote was held 38 years after women were allowed to vote in Wyoming in 1870, but 12 years before the ratification of the 19th Amendment, which enabled women to vote nationwide.

Women of Washington College: Charles Willson Peale’s sister-in-law, Elizabeth Emerson Callister “Betsy” Peale, was employed to teach drawing and painting at the Kent County Free School and later at Washington College. A noted miniature painter, she is thought to have been the first female member of a college faculty in America. Betsy Peale designed the Great Seal of Washington College, still in use today.

Women were first accepted at Washington College in 1891 under the so-called “Normal” program, which taught them to become teachers. Because early female graduates were not permitted to join organizations such as the Mount Vernon Literary Society or the Philomathean Society, they established their own club in 1894, the Pieria Literary Society.

Pollie Westcott Branham, who grew up in the Geddes-Piper house, graduated from Washington College in 1917 and became a teacher in Kentucky and Virginia. When she eventually returned to Chestertown, she wrote recollections of her Chestertown childhood in “Pollie’s Column,” published in the Chester River Press in the 1960s. Her mother, Polly Wickes Westcott, was the last Westcott to live in the house.

Mary Adele France, class of 1900, went on to become the president of St. Mary’s Seminary where her exemplary leadership allowed St. Mary’s to eventually become one of Maryland’s Honors Colleges. France, along with Eleanor Roosevelt and writer Sophie Kerr Underwood were the first women to be awarded honorary degrees by Washington College at its Commencement ceremony on May 25, 1942. Today, the writing award that was established at Washington College by Sophie Kerr is the largest undergraduate literary prize in the country.

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