Glenn Uminowicz - June 2007
The Vanishing Landscape
Executive Director, Historical Society of Talbot County
THEY STAND ABANDONED AND DERELICT. The jagged panes of the windows are open to wind and weather. Vines creep up broken chimneys and invade gaps in walls to encircle exposed rafters with a deadly grip. The roofs sag or are completely gone. Inside, graceful banisters lie broken on the floor and once lovely paneling is invaded by dry rot or is missing altogether.
From Jane Scott, “A Rural Legacy” in The Vanishing Landscape (2006)
At the dawn of the 21st century, photographer Shirley Hampton Hunt set out to document elements of what Harvard historian John R. Stilgoe labeled our “common landscape.” Her images of houses, outbuildings and wooden boats are published in The Vanishing Landscape (2006). In an introductory essay for the book, Jane Scott correctly observed that these “ghostly reminders of a forgotten past” frequently fall victim to the evolving agricultural economy of the Eastern Shore.
Hunt maintains a long tradition of photographers documenting derelict landscapes on the Shore. In 1933, for example, the National Park Service established the Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS) that employed hundreds of out-of-work draftsmen and photographers during the Great Depression. The first HABS recorders were tasked with documenting a representative sampling of America’s architectural heritage.
Among the first places to which the recorders were dispatched was Maryland’s Eastern Shore. They documented the great plantation houses, such as Fairview in Talbot County. The original portion of the house was constructed in about 1729. In the 1850s, Fairview witnessed a massive Greek revival reconstruction. With its columns and pediment, the resulting façade epitomized the big house that remains the dominant emblem of the antebellum South today. Such homes certainly needed to be included in any representative sampling of American architecture.
In the early 1700s, the homes of small and large landowners differed little on the Eastern Shore. The transformation of Fairview demonstrated that any similarities would eventually vanish. Stilgoe observed, “A big house acquired its magnificence by comparison with the dogtrot dwellings of householders and by the proximity of cramped slave cabins. A big house objectified the hierarchical order of southern colonial society.”
A plantation was an enormous, self-sufficient agricultural operation. In addition to the cabins in the slave quarters, buildings required for the processing of farm goods clustered in close proximity to the big house. On the Eastern Shore, HABS recorders documented these as well. Near Wye House in Talbot County, they discovered a corn crib undergoing demolition by neglect. After the harvest, corn, still on the cob, was placed in the crib whose slated sides allowed for air circulation. The building both dried the corn and kept it dry.
The big house epitomized the hierarchical nature of Southern society. The nearby corn crib objectified major changes in Eastern Shore agriculture. The Lloyd family, who lived in Wye House for generations, were among the first to shift plantation production from tobacco to grains. As that transition accelerated across the Delmarva Peninsula, the once ubiquitous tobacco houses became part of the vanishing landscape to be replaced by grain storage buildings like the corn crib. Such buildings processed the output from hundreds and sometimes thousands of acres on a plantation. They once stood as testament to a large landowner’s commitment to market agriculture. By the 1930s, however, with farmers experiencing the baleful effects of the Depression, these buildings themselves became part of the vanishing landscape.
Unlike the plantations, family farms were not self-sufficient. For householders, Stilgoe notes that the crossroads store met a variety of needs. The storekeeper carried a number of necessities such as rifles, traps and tools. There were also small luxuries like hair ribbons. The store often housed a post office and its front porch offered a place to socialize.
On the Eastern Shore, the tradition of the crossroads store extended well into the 20th century. In 1988, HABS recorders documented what had been “Lucy’s Country Store” on Central Avenue near Ridgely. Inside, they discovered a page from the souvenir program for the Ridgely Centennial of 1967. The store was pictured as it then appeared. Lucy Rampmeyer had operated it for twenty-one years to “serve the public early and late, seven days a week.” The HABS recorder noted that the building now stood vacant and was scheduled to be demolished. Fortunately, the recorders recognized its significance in terms of our common landscape and documented the crossroads store before its demise.
Like the HABS recorders, Shirley Hampton Hunt captures images of a representative sampling of Eastern Shore architecture in Talbot, Kent and Queen Anne’s Counties. This is especially true for the area’s family farms. In the 1930s, bankers and speculators loaned money to desperate farmers and then foreclosed and consolidated the parcels. Hunt’s images of the Ivingo Farmhouse (1868) in Kent County and the Yellow House Barn in Talbot County testify to the fate of many family farms.
Hunt’s photograph of the solid brick Wye Mill House (c1750) illustrates the prominence of the miller in a farming economy increasingly dependent on grain production. Local farmers likely viewed the occupant of the house with both respect and suspicion. Peasants in early modern Europe voiced the expression, “No miller goes to heaven.” Farmers routinely suspected that millers diverted some of their grain down a “thief’s hole” or adulterated it with sand.
In addition to the homes of the prosperous, Hunt captured images of a Queen Anne’s County slave cabin (c1850) and a diminutive Port Street House in Talbot County. Finally, like HABS recorders, she focuses on the historic wooden boats that ply the area’s waterways, especially the skipjacks and log canoes.
In capturing the evocative images found in The Vanishing Landscape, Hunt had a simple objective, “It is my hope that this pictorial document will draw attention to the slowly vanishing treasures of the Eastern Shore and, particularly in the case of the houses, and encourage the owners to consider creative options.” Hunt’s photographs are currently on view through June at the Historical Society of Talbot County at 25 South Washington Street in Easton. Hours are Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. For more information, call (410) 822-0773 or visit www.hstc.org. Copies of The Vanishing Landscape can be purchased at the Museum Store.