American Chestnut Land Trust
   Connecting people with the land

Tobacco Landscape

By Carl Fleischhauer and Art Cochran

Tobacco growing on an ACLT field on Scientists Cliffs Road, 1998.

Tobacco Country. Tobacco became the principal and characteristic crop of the Chesapeake region shortly after the establishment of the English colony of Maryland in 1634 and it was the dominant cash crop in Calvert County for more than 350 years. Tobacco defined agriculture in Southern Maryland throughout this time period and, in turn, defined the cultural landscape of Calvert County.

Demographics. Tobacco is a labor-intensive crop, a fact reflected in Calvert County's demographics. For more than a century, the African Americans who provided much of the tobacco workforce outnumbered the county's white population. In 1790, the county was home to 4,211 whites and 4,441 blacks (about 51 percent), 136 of whom were free. By 1850, there were 3,630 whites and 6,016 blacks (about 60 percent), 1,530 of whom were free. By 1890, the percentage of African Americans had again dropped to 51 percent, representing about 5,000 of the county's 9,860 residents. About one century later, the 2000 census reported a county population of about 74,000 persons, of whom about 63,000 were white and 9,800 were African American.

Settlements. Most 18th and 19th century communities were defined at their core by a church, school, business, or a few closely-spaced houses. They did not have formal boundaries and shaded off into adjacent rural or farm neighborhoods. The dispersal of residents in earlier days reflects Calvert's agricultural character and the historical importance of water transportation.

Steamboat wharves were available at Governors Run and "Dare's". A map depicting the region between the two steamboat landings drawn by Art Cochran shows a cultural landscape in 1910–1920 period that includes many sites on land owned and managed by ACLT.

Steamboat Landings. Travel and commerce by water shaped the Chesapeake's cultural landscape, nowhere more than in narrow, peninsular Calvert County, with its many easily accessible steamboat wharves. During the 19th century and the first quarter of the 20th, hogsheads (large, wooden casks) of tobacco were taken to market in Baltimore by steamboat. Most farms had a tobacco prize—a large press used to compress the tobacco for shipment—and the filled hogsheads were rolled or carried by wagon to the steamboat landing. The farmers south of Parkers Creek met the steamboat at Governors Run, and many traveled to the Bay and the wharf along the road that is now the lane into Eastview Farm, past its barns, and southeast down the slope, where the old road can still be clearly seen. (North of Parkers Creek, the nearby steamboat wharf was Dare's, in the community now known as Dare's Beach.)

Cleared land. During the period when tobacco farming prevailed, most of the land outside of deep ravines consisted of cleared fields. An 1847 map suggests that, by the middle of the 19th century, most level sections in the ACLT's south-of-the-creek holdings had been cleared for tobacco. Robert "Bobby" Weems of Port Republic has recalled Emory Howard's farm in 1936 as "the prettiest place on the Bay." From Howard's house, a few hundred yards east of today's ACLT parking lot on Scientists Cliffs Road, one could "look halfway to Parkers Creek, to Kenwood Beach," Weems said, "and [there] wasn't nary a wood, a tree" except in the ravines. Howard was a "very neat farmer, kept everything just as clean-cut all down," Weems said.

Spartina grass (cordgrass) in the Parkers Creek marsh, 1995.

Parkers Creek. The creek was too shallow to serve the needs of water transportation and its lands too moist or steep to serve agriculture, although the Spartina grasses (cordgrass) that flourish in the tidal flats near the Bay may have provided fodder for livestock. The area did support timbering and sawmills, however, and some African American residents recall hearing about relatives who cut railroad ties and floated them down the creek to waiting steamboats in the years around the turn of the century. In addition, wildlife, including muskrats and terrapins, were certainly harvested by families in the region.

Parkers Creek bridge photographed by Annie Karrer. The family album in which this picture was found was labeled 1937-1945. From the Scientists' Cliffs Association Archives.

Road crossing Parkers Creek abandoned. The creek was a place you had to cross as you traveled by road from Port Republic to Dare's Wharf or Prince Frederick. The public road and bridge lasted until the late 1930s, by which time the increased availability of automobiles and the existence of better albeit less direct roads meant that people could reach the county seat by going west and then north, via the county's main road, today's Maryland state highway 2-4. The need for a short cut across the creek was no longer strongly felt.

Making a living. Maryland's farmers suffered hard times after the Civil War. Calvert's plantation system was breaking up and farm tenancy replaced slavery as a source of farm labor. During World War I, the need to export farm products to Europe gave American farmers a lift. And wartime difficulties in obtaining Arabic and Turkish tobacco gave all American tobacco growers a boost. But Maryland agriculturalists suffered like farmers throughout the United States when prices dropped after the war. The farm economy stayed down during the 1920s, in the face of national boom times, and dropped even further in the Great Depression of the 1930s.

Port Republic, MD in the 1930s. What did the residents of Port Republic in 1930 do for a living? Farmer and farm laborer are the most common occupations. But there were also two storekeepers and an automobile dealer. The importance of timbering to the local economy is indicated by the presence of seven sawmill laborers, all African American. There was one waterman, who probably worked on one of the pound nets near the mouth of Parkers Creek, operations managed by men who brought workboats across the Bay from the Eastern Shore. In addition, there were two schoolteachers, one machinist, one postmistress, one state road worker, and one garage laborer.

Growth of Recreation and Non-Farm Jobs. The 1930s also saw an increase in the recreational use of Southern Maryland's land and water. Dares Beach and Kenwood Beach are shown on maps as early as 1932, and the cottage community of Scientists Cliffs, the eastern neighbor of the ACLT's south-of-the creek properties, was founded in 1937, two years after the developer George Flippo Gravatt, his wife Annie, and Gravatt's sister began purchasing bayside farms between Parkers Creek and Governors Run. The eastern strip of land was subdivided into lots for weekend and summer cabins overlooking the Bay, while the land west of the road continued to serve as a tobacco and tree farm. The purchase of this western land in 1987 marked the establishment of the American Chestnut Land Trust. During and after World War II, non-farm jobs began to increase, a trend that has intensified each decade since, and—along with suburban development—helps account for the diminished importance of farming in the county today.

Tobacco at the ACLT, 1987–2001. Woodrow Wallace and his family are ACLT neighbors on Scientists Cliffs Road. For many years, the family had grown tobacco on a portion of the land purchased by the trust in 1987, and the Wallaces continued to cultivate tobacco there until 2001.

Members of the Wallace family planting and harvesting tobacco and preparing the crop for market. Woodrow Wallace, driving the tractor at left, was the head of the household. These photographs were made in 1989 and 2000.

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