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The Slave Dwelling Project: Several Firsts in Maryland

Several Firsts in Maryland

 

Slave Dwelling at Sotterly Plantation, Hollywood, Maryland
Slave Dwelling at Sotterley Plantation, Hollywood, Maryland

Saturday, July 9, 2011 found me at Sotterley Plantation in Hollywood, Maryland.  Southwest Airlines deserves credit for allowing this stay and lecture to fit perfectly into a weekend.  Prior to my arrival at Sotterly, I knew that I would be dealing with several firsts; the first stay in Maryland and the first stay at a former tobacco plantation.  Sotterley was one of the stays that came about as a result of the popularity of the Slave Dwelling Project.  I can recall getting a call from Eileen Miller, Marketing Manager for Sotterley, and scheduling the stay.

Sotterley Plantation is located on the banks of the Patuxent River and is the only remaining Tidewater Plantation in Maryland open to the public. It is designated a National Historic Landmark and the site includes the early 18th century mansion, a rare slave cabin, and a full array of outbuildings on nearly 100 acres of rolling fields, gardens, and riverfront. The authentic 18th and 19th century architecture reveals Chesapeake Bay plantation life in the form of a customs warehouse, smokehouse, corn crib, brick privy, and plantation schoolhouse. Visitors can also walk along Sotterley's shoreline, woodland trails, meadows, an antebellum orchard, and colonial revival gardens.

When I arrived at the entrance to Sotterley, I had to stop and marvel at the trees that lined both sides of the road because this was reminiscent of several plantations I had encountered in the past.  Even more impressive were all the historic buildings still on the site. 

Tree-Lined Drive Leading to Sotterly Plantation
Tree-Lined Drive Leading to Sotterley Plantation

The first face to face meeting with Executive Director Nancy Easterling was intense.  Her passion for the site was obvious and her questions came in rapid succession.  Our tour of the site verified that all of the buildings were indeed authentic.  The highlight for me of course was the tour of the slave dwelling.  It was then, I discovered another first; the first dwelling with a dirt floor.  That revelation factored into my decision to sleep in the loft of the dwelling, another first.  While in the cabin, I was interviewed by two people who represented two different local newspapers.

At dinner that evening, I was informed by Meredith Taylor, a Trustee of Sotterley and a professor at St. Mary’s College, that a student would like to come and film the experience.  I informed her that filming would be fine but also issued an invitation for the student to spend the night in the dwelling with me.  The student Ryan Gugerty accepted the invitation.  When I got back to the dwelling and inspected the loft more thoroughly with a flash light, I discovered an active wasp nest.  I knew then where not to go. 

Tree-Lined Drive Leading to Sotterly Plantation
Stairway to Loft in Slave Dwelling at Sotterley

When Ryan made it to the site around 10:00 pm he gave me a call on my cell phone and I went out to meet him in the parking lot.  The questions by both of us indicated that I was as curious about him as he was about me.  I do recall warning him that I snored like a champ, a tidbit that if revealed prior to his arrival may have yielded a different outcome.  I do not know if it was my snoring or the call of nature that caused Ryan to get up and leave the cabin at least twice during the night.  I also recall it being very hot before the temperature moderated to a level comfortable enough to sleep. 

The next morning the questions from Ryan continued only this time everything was being recorded and filmed.  We could not resist the temptation to walk to the river.  Along the way, we came up on a demonstration garden.  Planted there was tobacco.  Not only did I think about the slave labor necessary to harvest the crop but I thought about my own personal experience growing up in Kingstree, SC and working in tobacco fields during the summer. When we reached the river it was not hard to imagine the historic landscape without trees and how the plantation house sat prominently on a hill that could be seen from the river. 

After one more news paper interview in the cabin, Nancy delivered me to the home of Jan Briscoe and Sam Baldwin.  Jan is the current President of the Board of Trustees for Sotterley.  Sam had a beautiful breakfast prepared.  Jan is a descendant of the last owner of Sotterley to own slaves.  Initially, it was hard to keep my attention because I was admiring ospreys that were nesting right near their dock.  Jan and Sam had instructions to deliver me to Sotterley in time for the scheduled Slave Dwelling Project lecture that I was scheduled to give.  They carried out their assignment well but not before we bonded with great conversation about Sotterley Plantation and about the Slave Dwelling Project.

Slave Dwelling at Sotterly Plantation, Hollywood, Maryland
Joseph McGill at Entrance to Sotterley Slave Dwelling

I am always a little nervous when I start thinking about how many people might show up at these lectures.  I’ve given the lecture to as little as two and many as one hundred plus and all points in between.  I was impressed and encouraged by the number of people that showed.  A fellow Civil War reenactor, Lou Carter, from Company B, 54th Massachusetts Reenactment Regiment out of Washington, DC attended as he promised.  I was even more impressed that my friend Beth Lingg showed.  I met Beth in 2005 on a cruise down the Mississippi River on the riverboat Delta Queen from Memphis, Tennessee to New Orleans, Louisiana.  Beth is the only person from that cruise with whom I have kept in contact.  When I informed her that I was coming to Sotterley she immediately put it on her calendar.

The lecture was a success.   I put Ryan on notice that I would call on him to talk about his experience in sleeping in the cabin.  He verified that it was my snoring that kept him up during the night.  After the lecture, the question and answer period could have gone longer but I had to let the audience know that I had a plane to catch.  When the session concluded another first happened, Eileen Miller Marketing Manager and Artist, presented me with an oil painting of the cabin that I slept in.  This along with all of the other activities at Sotterley puts it on the short list of best places stayed to date.  More importantly, Sotterley must be commended for the work and resources that it has put forth to ensure the slave dwelling on its property was restored and is being properly interpreted.  

Related Video: Sotterley Plantation Stay

About the Slave Dwelling Project

For more information, please contact Joseph McGill:
 
Joseph McGill, Jr. | Program Officer, Southern Office
National Trust for Historic Preservation | William Aiken House, 456 King Street, 3rd Floor, Charleston, SC 29403 |
Phone: 843.722.8552 | Fax: 843.722.8652 | Email: joseph_mcgill@nthp.org | www.preservationnation.org

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