Unusual history is everywhere you look

There are a lot of places we write about in The Aegis for obvious reasons — Bel Air, Abingdon, Aberdeen, Fallston.

Being a little more low-key or less traveled, other neighborhoods might get less news coverage.

Then there are those areas, as I was reminded at Tuesday's county council meeting, that barely exist at all.

One of the only pieces left of Dembytown, a historic African-American community in Joppatowne, is the John Wesley United Methodist Church on Trimble Road.

The small, white church has been there since 1919, the product of serious geographic displacement that began in 1917 when the federal government decided to put military testing facilities along the county's east side.

The government paid major landowners in the areas of Gunpowder Neck, Michaelsville and Boothby Hill to essentially move along, and they ultimately took their farms elsewhere in the county, according to a report by the county's Historic Preservation Commission.

But the workers on those farms, who were mostly black tenant farmers or sharecroppers, lost their source of employment and were forced to move.

Two of those sharecropper families, the Dembys and the Gilberts, settled in an area near Magnolia to set up homes, a school — the Magnolia Colored School, which functioned until 1951 — and a church.

"Dembytown is one of several similar communities to spring up as a result of this World War I confusion," the commission report explains. "The Dembytown Church is a visual reminder of the resettlement of the many displaced families during the first quarter of the 20th century in Harford County."

With the exception of the church building, which congregants have worked to renovate and preserve, Dembytown barely exists anymore.

Many of its buildings were constructed in a hurry and have not stood the test of time.

Also, as its descendants pointed out during the meeting, the area has since become more integrated and most people would not even know it was the site of a historic African-American community.

Now, 92 years later, the church's congregants decided they could no longer support it financially and have given it to the Historic Preservation Commission.

As several of them told me after the meeting, they did not want to hand it over to the Baltimore-Washington Conference of the United Methodist Church to be sold or potentially destroyed.

There are other communities I learned of recently that have been wiped off the map even more than Dembytown.

Near the site of the Conowingo Dam was an actual town called Conowingo, although I am not sure how much is even known about it.

It was "drowned" when the dam was built in 1928, as were other tiny towns at dam construction sites around the country.

Councilwoman Mary Ann Lisanti said she hoped to see some type of display that would give residents a better understanding of the whole history behind Dembytown, and I agree.

I was intrigued by Dembytown, and by the destroyed town of Conowingo, whose story sounded kind of mythical and romantic, like the lost city of Atlantis.

It would be nice to see more information about places that have basically disappeared and communities that no longer exist.

I'm not sure how many people would actually stop to read a historic marker about them, and I realize a lot of people don't care about local history at all.

But I feel like if it was done in a creative or engaging way, it really could generate more interest in different facets of Harford County.

Certainly there is more to an old church by the side of a road than meets the eye.

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