Building a memorial to Maryland's past

THE BALTIMORE SUN

E. Steuart Chaney, upset as he watched the Southern Maryland of his ancestors disappear under subdivision after subdivision, started scraping together pieces of history.

His collectible of choice: 19th-century buildings.

That was 15 years ago, and since then, the Anne Arundel County businessman has amassed nearly a dozen of the structures - from the one-room schoolhouse where his great-aunt taught to a two-seater outhouse with its original window - and reassembled them on the property of his Tracys Landing marina. He has created - without a nickel of public money - his own personal museum.

"Some people golf. Some people boat," said Chaney's 30-year-old son, Hamilton. "We fix up historic buildings."

Annapolis has its stately mansions, perfectly restored to show how the rich folks lived during the past few centuries. But reminders of how the other half lived were not being preserved in a substantial way, said the elder Chaney. He calls his collection Historic Village, and it is included on Sunday tours of local historic spots sponsored by the Annapolis, London Town, South County Heritage Area.

"The public and the historians in the past have seen the importance of those buildings but not the importance of this type of architecture, the vernacular," he said. "Had we not saved these buildings, virtually every one would now be burned or in a landfill. You can never restore what you don't have."

The first structure brought to the property was the one-room schoolhouse that dates from the late 19th century. It stood not far from the Herrington Harbour North marina when plans were made to knock it down for a housing development.

Chaney had a personal connection to the Nutwell School, which was used first by white students, then by African-Americans before being turned into a cramped private home until the 1980s. His great-aunt taught there for years, riding by horseback from Lothian on Sunday afternoons to teach for the week. The trip, 10 minutes by car today, took half a day, he said. He remembers his aunt telling him stories about the place.

He picked up a roomful of school desks last year at an antique show in Massachusetts. The seller had a single desk on display, and Chaney asked if he knew where to find more. The man said he had been holding on to dozens of them since the 1950s, and he was ready and willing to sell. "The long and short is I bought them all," Chaney said.

Strolling lesson

A walk through the small village quickly becomes a history lesson. The log smokehouse - where meat was hung from the ceiling to be preserved in the times before refrigeration - is believed to date from the early 19th century. Its roof was missing when the Chaneys got it from a Davidsonville farm, but they found a craftsman in West Virginia to put on an authentic one.

There's the dairy, where the milk was separated from the cream, with its windows slatted apparently to keep the flies out. The dairy is from the middle of the 19th century and came from a family member's farm in Lothian.

Then there's the corn house, which let air in and kept rats out of the winter's store of corn. Hamilton Chaney literally saved it from a bulldozer that was headed its way. He was driving on Route 2 and saw the demolition about to begin, jumped out of his car and told the operator to stop. Within a few days, the house was delivered by trailer to the family marina.

The Chaney family now has a reputation among friends, relatives and preservationists. When they hear of an old building that is threatened, they call the Chaneys to see if it's something they think is worth saving. They can't take everything, particularly because of the expense to move and maintain the properties. But there are particular types of pieces they are on the lookout for.

"If you see a chicken house, let us know," Hamilton Chaney said.

Kirsti Uunila, historic preservation specialist with the Calvert County Department of Planning and Zoning, has helped Steuart Chaney acquire two old homes, one of which sits in the village. One of its four walls was completely knocked out, and it was being used as a garage when she came upon it. Underneath the grease, it turned out to be quite a find - more than 100 years old with its hand-hewn beams that still have their ax marks.

She says she can't help but have mixed feelings about the endeavor. She wishes that the structures didn't need to find new homes, that the rural landscape wasn't being overrun by new development or that the buildings could be restored in place, she says.

But she realizes things can't stay the way they are.

"He's at least saving the structures and giving them a new life," Uunila said. "Thank God there are Steuart Chaneys out there - and I shouldn't say plural because he's the only one doing this that I know of."

Growing all too fast

The village has outgrown its original plot. An old two-story log house has just been moved to a farm the family owns across the street from the marina - chain saws cut it into three pieces so it could make the trip from Crownsville. And the family's most exciting new find: a log slave quarters that dates from the 1820s or 1830s.

The slave house came from St. Mary's County. It was missing its roof and was not going to last much longer had the Chaneys not come along.

"We probably caught it in the nick of time," said Hamilton Chaney. "In another year, it would have probably been a pile of rubble, nothing more than rotted wood."

The village remains a work in progress, with structures in various stages of completion. The Chaneys aren't sure when, if ever, they will be finished.

It has grown so quickly, they say, because the pace of development has given everything they do an added urgency. "When it's 200 years old, it'll cast a totally different shadow," Steuart Chaney said of the village. "You have to keep that in mind. It's not just here for today. It's here for a long time. Although it's important today, it's going to become increasingly more important as years go by."

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