Harold Hurst - February 2009
Landlocked: The Story of Caroline County
Harold W. Hurst
Caroline County is the only landlocked county on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, or on the whole Delmarva Peninsula, in that it is the only county that does not directly border either the Chesapeake Bay or the Atlantic Ocean. Bordered on the east by Delaware, on the north by Queen Anne’s County, on the west by Talbot County and on the south by Dorchester County, its major link to the Chesapeake Bay is the Choptank River.
Largely rural and agrarian in character, Caroline County’s towns and hamlets have remained small in size, even when compared to other places in the predominantly agricultural Delmarva Peninsula. As late as 1960 only Federalsburg had more than 2,000 inhabitants, while the county seat, Denton, contained 1,900 people.
As in other parts of southern and eastern Maryland, tobacco was king in eighteenth-century Caroline. The chief crop and the major source of wealth, the sotweed was used to pay taxes, buy lumber, compensate the clergy and doctors and purchase slaves.
The dominant social class in early Caroline was the large landowners whose acres were largely planted in tobacco. The 1783 tax returns indicate that the largest plantations were owned by Thomas Hardcastle, Benjamin Silvester, William Whitely, Henry Dickinson, William Ennals, William Frazier, James Murray, Zabdiel Potter and William Richardson. Most of these gentlemen owned between 1,000 and 2,800 acres of land. This planter elite lived in three-story brick houses with gabled roofs and wooden annexes containing the kitchen and servant quarters. Meanwhile, the ordinary class of farmers occupied small frame houses filled with meager and primitive furnishings.
Probably the most famous resident of Caroline County in the Revolutionary era was Colonel William Richardson (1735-1825). His plantation at Gilpin Point on the Choptank River included the mansion, store house, granary, blacksmith and carpenter shops. He also owned a sloop, the Omega, which carried on a prosperous trade with the West Indies.
A delegate to the Maryland convention of 1776, Richardson later served in a regiment that saw action at Harlem Heights. Known as the Fifth Regiment of the Maryland Line, Richardson’s outfit was also used to suppress Tory activities in nearby Somerset and Worcester counties. Active in Federal-era politics, he served several times as a Presidential elector.
Caroline County underwent pronounced social and economic changes in the early decades of the nineteenth century. Tobacco declined as a major crop as agricultural diversification resulted in the planting of grains and fruit. The decline of slavery also resulted in demographic changes. By 1840 there were only 768 slaves in the county, while there were 1,727 free blacks and 5,373 whites.
During the Civil War, Caroline’s people manifested pro-Unionist tendencies. The 231 men who enlisted in the Union Army before August 4, 1862, when Lincoln’s draft established a quota of 304, left only 73 men to meet the county’s quota.
The most excitement in the county during the war occurred when Union soldiers celebrated the Fourth of July in 1863. Fireworks set off by the troops set Denton’s business district aflame, burning several stores, a hotel and a rum shop.
Denton recovered after the war. A grist mill was established in 1868 and several new churches were built in the 1870s. Federalsburg, the other chief town in the county, prospered as a shipbuilding center, using lumber from the white oak forests in the neighborhood.
A remarkable expansion of the canning industry transformed the economy of the county in the latter years of the nineteenth century. By 1900 there were more canneries and processing plants in Caroline than in any other Eastern Shore county except Dorchester, where Cambridge became the canning citadel of the Peninsula.
The Saulsbury family played a notable role in the growth of canning operations in the county. J. K. Saulsbury, a native of Ridgely who made a fortune in the California gold rush of 1849 by selling goods to miners, established a local cannery in 1894. His three sons, Irwin T., Albert G. and Nehemiah, continued the enterprise, producing large numbers of canned tomatoes, corn and strawberries. The family firm made $400,000 in 1912, a large sum of money for this period.
Albert G.’s son, Albert Orrell, a graduate of Lehigh University, was a pilot who used airplanes in the 1930s for sales promotion purposes. Company planes dropped leaflets over Wilmington advertising the firm’s canned lima beans.
After World War II the Saulsburys established freezing units with technical help from the Campbell Soup company. In 2000, the fourth generation of Saulsburys sold out to Hanover Foods after 106 years in the canning and food processing business.
Numerous other enterprises operated canning plants in the period between 1870 and 1960. During this period there were 233 canneries at one time or another in Caroline county, outnumbering the 187 plants in the same era in nearby Dorchester County. For nearly a century canning was big business in landlocked and rural Caroline County.
A unique aspect of Caroline’s socioeconomic history involves the arrival of a group of German immigrants near the end of the nineteenth century. These farmers had originally settled in the Midwest but were unsuccessful in their endeavors and decided to move to the Eastern Shore, having been attracted to the area by advertisements in German-American newspapers.
One group settled in the small town of Preston, where they established a Lutheran church and a parochial school that featured instruction in both German and English. The latter institution closed in 1917, but the church has survived to this day in an area where most people are Methodists.
One of the most prominent politicians to hail from twentieth-century Caroline County was Thomas Alan Goldsborough (1877-1951). The scion of one of the most illustrious families on the Eastern Shore, he was born in Greensboro on September 16, 1877. After graduating from Washington College in Chestertown in 1899 he attended Maryland Law School. In 1913 he was elected state’s attorney for Caroline County.
Goldsborough ran for Congress on the Democratic ticket in 1920, defeating Republican incumbent William N. Andrews. He served on the Banking and Currency Committee and was influential in the passage of legislation establishing the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, which protects commercial bank deposits.
Appointed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to the Federal District Court of the District of Columbia in 1939, he later gained notoriety by his actions to prohibit the United Miner Workers from striking against the government-operated coal mines. Facing down the rebellious president of the miners’ union, John L. Lewis, he sued that organization for $3,500,000. Goldsborough, however, later approved Lewis’ plan to pay $100 a month as a pension for the retired miners.
Judge Goldsborough remained on the bench until his death in 1951 at the age of 73. Thus passed one of the Eastern Shore’s greatest trial lawyers and political statesmen.
Caroline County has produced at least one writer of national fame. Sophie Kerr was born in Denton on August 23, 1880, the daughter of a horticulturist who owned a 90-acre farm on the edge of town. After graduating from Hood College in Frederick, Maryland, and receiving an M.A. degree in 1901 from the University of Vermont, she moved to Pittsburgh and she became involved in newspaper activities. At about this time she started writing short stories and also served as the woman’s editor of the Sunday supplement of the Pittsburgh Gazette.
On September 6, 1904, Sophie Kerr married John D. Underwood of Boston, where the couple lived until they divorced in 1908. Meanwhile, Ms. Kerr became a managing editor of the Woman’s Home Companion and wrote several novels.
A writer of middle-brow quality, she nevertheless painted pleasing portraits of the slow-moving pastoral life of her native Eastern Shore. Three of her novels dealt specifically with Shore life: Painted Meadows (1920), One Thing is Certain (1922) and Mareea-Maria (1929). These works contain endearing observations on the social life, tournaments, local cooking and Methodist camp meeting of the area in the early decades of the twentieth century, and even later.
Sophie Kerr died on February 5, 1965. She left a bequest of $537,000 to Washington College in Chestertown, a portion of which has since funded the Sophie Kerr Prize, awarded annually to a student who has attained excellence in literary endeavors.
Caroline County has enjoyed modest growth in recent years. The population grew from 27,000 in 1990 to 32,000 in 2006. It remains, however, a primarily rural and agrarian area and is one of several counties on the Eastern Shore containing no town with a population over 5,000. Its prosperous farms, peaceful villages and picturesque main streets are still the chief features of this unique Eastern Shore county.