Maryland's Southern Stars
By Karen-Lee Ryan
Friday, July 2, 2004; Page WE27
It's Fourth of July weekend, a time to reflect on the country's roots and independence -- and perhaps a chance to discover how much early history was created just a short drive from the nation's capital.
Everyone seems to know about the fledgling communities in Jamestown, Va., and Plymouth, Mass., but few realize that Southern Maryland quickly followed with its own European settlements. Calvert County celebrates its 350th birthday Saturday with an old-fashioned family picnic at Jefferson Patterson Park and Museum, plus live music, pony rides, jousting, birthday cake and plenty of dignitaries recognizing the longevity of the county. And it isn't even Maryland's oldest -- St. Mary's takes those honors.
Members of the Calvert family landed on the banks of what is now St. Mary's County 20 years earlier in 1634, which means Southern Maryland spans nearly 400 years of modern American history. Its three counties -- St. Mary's, Calvert and Charles -- trace the creation of the United States, from Colonial days and the American Revolution to the Civil War and the industrial boom. Bounded by the Potomac and Patuxent rivers and the Chesapeake Bay and filled with fertile farmland, the three counties demonstrate the dependence on waterways and agriculture in building a new nation. And the early colonists understood the importance of religious freedom and the separation of church and state, laying the foundation for many American liberties long before the Bill of Rights.
Following are eight great historical places in Southern Maryland. Each shares a story, and together they portray important and interesting elements of Maryland history. The first three destinations are in St. Mary's County and cover some of Maryland's early history. The Charles County locations highlight the Revolutionary and Civil War eras, and the Calvert County sites cover more modern innovations and experiences. The final historical "place" is not a single destination, but a series of cultural icons that unite all three counties: the tobacco barns of Southern Maryland, recently added to a list of America's most endangered historic places.
ST. MARY'S COUNTY
ST. CLEMENT'S ISLAND-POTOMAC RIVER MUSEUM
On March 25, 1634, less than 15 years after the pilgrims landed at Plymouth, 140 English colonists anchored their boats at a small island to take possession of the province of Maryland. The group had sailed the Ark and the Dove across the Atlantic seeking religious freedom and the chance for a better life. They erected a wooden cross and celebrated the first Roman Catholic Mass in the English-speaking colonies. Leonard Calvert, Maryland's first governor and one of the new arrivals, named the island St. Clement's in honor of the fourth pope and patron saint of sailors. While the colonists departed the island the same day, setting sail for St. Mary's City, they had established Maryland as a new colony.
Today, the Potomac River Museum sits on the banks of Colton's Point and details Maryland's earliest days. On weekends, visitors can take a 10-minute, half-mile water taxi ride to the 40-acre St. Clement's Island State Park for an afternoon exploring Maryland's birthplace. A massive stucco cross rises from the island's southern end, a magnet for visitors arriving at a nearby dock. Erected in 1934 on Maryland's 300th birthday, the cross offers a towering tribute to the colonists who ventured to the New World to escape religious persecution. Signs near the cross describe the colonists' short but critical visit to St. Clement's.
Over the years, the island had several owners, including the Blackistone family for 200 years. The Blackistone Lighthouse helped watermen navigate through the area starting in 1851, withstood a Confederate raid and stayed in operation until the 1930s. The story of the lighthouse, and its demise in the 1950s, is just one of the historical highlights chronicled along a grassy hiking trail that spans much of the island. Picnic tables also dot the land, which once sported a beer garden and later a tomato cannery.
The museum offers more in-depth history in a handful of rooms. One chronicles the generations of lighthouse keepers that lived on the island and a current effort to rebuild the lighthouse. Another focuses on the English history that led to Maryland's founding, as well as the colonists who developed St. Mary's City, more than 20 miles downstream.
ST. CLEMENT'S ISLAND-POTOMAC RIVER MUSEUM -- 38370 Point Breeze Rd., Colton's Point. 301-769-2222. www.stmarysmd.com/recreate/museums. Museum open through September weekdays 9 to 5 and weekends noon to 5; open Oct. 1 through mid-March Wednesday through Sunday noon to 4. $1 for adults; children 12 and under free. The water taxi to St. Clement's Island runs weekends only through October between 12:30 and 4; $5 for adults and $3 for children 12 and under. Island is accessible by boat during daylight hours.
• July 10: Potomac Jazz and Seafood Festival. Enjoy oysters, shrimp and crab cakes while listening to jazz musicians. Admission $30 in advance, $35 at gate; includes museum admission and water taxi.
• Aug. 7: Children's Day. The museum features a day of crafts, games, music and food.
• Sept. 16: Senior Citizens' Day. The museum offers a day of bingo, door prizes, music and companionship.
• Oct. 2-3: Blessing of the Fleet. Celebrate the tradition and culture of St. Mary's County with food, music, a parade, a boat blessing and fireworks.
HISTORIC ST. MARY'S CITY
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