Saving the past, a step at a time

The Baltimore Sun

It began slowly 15 years ago. Distressed by increasing development, Steuart Chaney started rescuing 19th-century buildings and trucking them back to his marina at Tracys Landing. First, it was a meetinghouse and then a school. A home and then a dairy shed, corn house and smokehouse soon followed.

His family had lived in Anne Arundel County since the 1600s. Chaney felt connected to its landscape, and he said he couldn't bear to see more buildings crushed by bulldozers.

"They were being lost so quickly," Chaney said. "No one was saving them."

For years, the village that Chaney created has been a quiet treasure on the edge of the Chesapeake Bay, drawing handfuls of visitors who spotted it on a historic trail map or heard about it through friends. That is slowly changing since the three-year-old Deale Area Historical Society opened its headquarters in June inside the 19th-century schoolhouse that the society helped restore. Every Sunday afternoon, society members man an exhibit at the Nutwell schoolhouse, which includes period school desks, books and other items.

Labor Day weekend drew a crowd, but only a few people came last weekend, said Lois Nutwell, president of the historical society. She believes that the village will continue to attract a steady stream of visitors as more buildings are restored.

"It provides people the opportunity to see what it was like to live in the area in the 1800s," said Nutwell, whose family has been in the county since the 1700s. The schoolhouse was on property that was owned by her family.

The Chaney family describes the village as a passion that has cost them more than $100,000. Chaney believes the acquisitions will slow down because so much already has been lost to development. Some of the buildings they might have rescued 10 years ago are past repair.

Members of the Chaney family landed in the Annapolis area in the 1640s, said Hamilton Chaney, the son of Steuart Chaney and a co-owner of the Herrington Harbour Marina in Tracys Landing. He said his parents instilled the importance of historic preservation in him at a young age. As a boy, he went along with his father to photograph old barns.

In 1993, Hamilton Chaney was looking to buy a property along Franklin Gibson Road in Tracys Landing. He changed his mind, but he was impressed by the African-American meetinghouse he saw there. As the new owners prepared to develop the land, Chaney obtained permission to move the 1895 building.

The meetinghouse had fallen into disrepair when the United Sons and Daughters of Holland folded in 1981. The organization for African-Americans was one of many societies that had pooled their resources to help their communities. Members paid dues that were used to help people who were too sick to work, lost their jobs or had other financial problems. The organization held dinners and picnics as fundraisers and was an important part of the African-American community from the 19th through mid-20th centuries, Steuart Chaney said.

Several months later, the elder Chaney bought the nearby schoolhouse because his great aunt had taught there. The school served local white children from 1885 to 1920 and then became a segregated school for African-Americans until 1945.

In the succeeding years, local historians and developers called the family to tell them about other properties. Hamilton Chaney stumbled on one as he spotted construction crews clearing land on a Lothian farm. He stopped his car and hopped out.

"The bulldozer was heading right toward the corn house," Chaney said, referring to a structure from 1910. "I stopped him."

A developer called to tell the family about a smokehouse built about 1820 at Roseville Manor near Crofton. The family had to disassemble it - log by log - to move it. Other people called the Chaneys to offer them structures: a house in Prince Frederick from the 1880s; two outhouses from Shadyside that were built in the 1890s; and a dairy storage shed in Lothian from about 1830.

In the past few years, the Chaneys set aside more land across from the marina, where they moved an 18th-century tobacco barn from Prince George's County. The barn was remarkably well preserved by a 19th-century barn that had been built over it.

"I've never seen one like it," Steuart Chaney said.

Two buildings that served as slave quarters in the 1800s are being stored in a barn until they can be restored, he said.

The Chaneys largely do their own restoration work, but that changed when the historical society approached the family in 2006 about using the schoolhouse as its headquarters. The family agreed as long as society members helped fix it up. Members scrubbed off layers of bird droppings that had accumulated on the hardwood floor and painted the newly plastered walls and ceiling.

The Chaneys and the historical society helped Irving Harris of Tracys Landing relive some of his past. Harris, 90, had attended the schoolhouse in the 1920s and is one of the last surviving members of the Holland organization that used the meetinghouse. The original dark wooden benches lined up in rows in front of a small wooden podium give the meetinghouse the look of an empty church. The building is just as Harris remembers it.

"It makes me feel at home," said Harris, who recorded an oral history of the Holland organization for the historical society. The society hopes to replay his story as part of its exhibit, Nutwell said.

The Chaneys are trying to restore the other buildings as time and money allow. Steuart Chaney said there are no plans to charge a visitors' fee.

"We never started this for the profits," Chaney said. "We started to do this to preserve a piece of history that's part of our local heritage."

Copyright © 2021, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
70°