Wicomico's past found in attic


MARDELA SPRINGS -- It all started with a small stack of 140-year-old ledgers in the attic.

Thomas B. Taylor recorded the sales at his village store from 1847 to 1877 -- recording in his flowing copperplate who bought cheese at 14 cents a pound, coffee at 12.5 cents a pound and cotton handkerchiefs at 12.5 cents each. The ledgers lay untouched for more than a century, until Salisbury residents Howard and Louise Adkins bought the old store building.

"When we bought this place in 1979, all this stuff was up in the attic and it had been up there since he put it there," Mr. Adkins said. "We just thought, 'It's too much to throw away.' "

That reluctance to discard a dusty piece of local history has grown into a passion for preservation. The ledgers were the seeds of what is now the Adkins Historical and Museum Complex in Mardela Springs, seven restored buildings and 5,500 historical items ranging from furniture to a pair of old spectacles. The eclectic collection links past and present, with some items dating to Mr. Taylor's time and others of more recent vintage.

The complex includes a one-room schoolhouse, a livery stable, an Odd Fellows Hall, a farmhouse, a doctor's office, a village store, an old cannery building and "a graveyard with no people in it," joked Mr. Adkins. The "graveyard," behind the complex, has a few headstones moved from other sites.

Taken as a whole, it provides a picture of how Mardela Springs -- a rural crossroads on U.S. 50 between Cambridge and Salisbury -- has evolved.

"We both like history and we had so much stuff, we didn't want to see it disappear," Mr. Adkins said. Some of the furniture and artifacts are things handed down through his family, and the farmhouse that is part of the complex was built by his great-grandfather in 1881.

A tour of the museum complex brings the past to life in a personal way for Mr. Adkins. Now 76, he remembers some of the items in everyday use.

"We used it when my mother made ice cream," he said of a old long-handled spoon on display in the farmhouse. "This is from about 1840, made locally in this county."

Upstairs is another family connection.

"This was my great-grandmother's spinning wheel," he said. "She died in 1900." Laid carefully beside the wooden spinning wheel is a piece of flax to show what was used on the wheel.

As the museum complex has grown since the Adkinses founded it in 1980, so has local participation in it. Many items in the collection have come from area residents who have found little pieces of the past in attics and trunks, Mr. Adkins said.

"We got a lot of it from my parents, her parents," Mr. Adkins said. The rest? "Yard sales, auctions, lots of people give us things."

The first of this year, he said, he and Mrs. Adkins incorporated the museum complex, creating a board of seven directors.

"We had no children," he explained. "We didn't want to see it dispersed."

Six of the seven buildings have been restored to show how they would have been originally used. In the doctor's office, for instance, the ledgers and letters of Dr. Lemuel R. Brattan are on display, as well as a bottling and capping machine used to produced the "Barren Creek Spring" waters sold for medicinal purposes nearly a century ago. Local lore has it that the town name was changed from Barren Creek to Mardela Springs as part of an effort to boost sales of the water, which was sold in orange, cherry, root beer and grape flavors.

"They went into the spring water business right heavily," Mr. Adkins said.

The seventh building, the cannery, houses some furniture and books from the past. It also is home to the clock-making business of Leland and Michelle Smith, whose Barren Creek Clocks makes the type of wooden timepieces used after the American Revolution.

The museum is free to groups of schoolchildren, Mr. Adkins said, and a donation is requested from other visitors. Part of the mission of the museum is to educate children, and about a dozen or so groups a year come through the museum.

"You get school kids coming to that red house [the farmhouse] and half of them ask you, 'Where's the TV?' " Mr. Adkins said with obvious amazement.

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