It was cause for celebration, or so it seemed. A neighborhood of nine houses had received "historic" status from Calvert County in April, entitling the owners to display plaques and express pride over their vintage homes.
Indeed, said resident Ziba Kelley, "It was a milestone."
But not everyone in this tiny town of about 40 houses and 200 people is celebrating. Some of the natives think it's downright silly. For this is not your usual historic district.
"Williamsburg it's not," said Dr. Merle Gibson, a critic of the historic district idea, whose family has lived here for generations. "They keep mentioning Williamsburg, but that's a museum, not a living community."
There are, in fact, two Lower Marlboros. There's the village of about 30 houses along one main street and a second street leading out of town. Then there's the cluster of nine officially "historic" houses, half a mile up the Patuxent River. But all, save one, were carted here in the early 1970s from elsewhere and plopped down on what old deeds call the "Over the Creek on the Patuxent" farm.
The Georgian-style houses, formerly in disrepair, were uprooted and moved by Montgomery County home builder Perry Van Vleck, who found them in Upper Marlboro, Accokeek, St. Mary's County and the Virginia Eastern Shore. He brought seven by truck and one by barge up the Patuxent, to a site he thought would do them justice.
In bestowing the historic status on the houses, the county agreed with the owners that the structures "could have been" here during the 18th century. Only they weren't.
They are transplanted homes occupied by transplanted people.
The occupants are people like Peggy Johnson, a supervisor in the gifted and talented program of Prince George's County schools, and her husband, Edward, an environmental scientist at the Washington Navy Yard. They moved here two summers ago from Silver Spring, where they lived for 27 years.
"It was an adjustment for me," she said, "from my food shopping to department stores I'd been used to, at White Flint and Montgomery Mall. Here, Annapolis is close enough -- 40 minutes -- for gourmet shopping."
Most of the newcomers commute elsewhere to work.
"It's to a great extent a bedroom community," said V. Phillips Weaver, an education professor who drives to the University of Maryland in College Park. "People go into town, to HUD the Department of Housing and Urban Development or whatever. "They're not rooted in the community. We've been rather disappointed that some here don't care more about the old houses. Sometimes, I wonder what the attraction was."
Phil Weaver's wife, Barbara, was the moving force behind the historic districting. She initially wanted to have the entire area designated a historic district, but encountered opposition from longtime residents.
"Land is very precious to them," Weaver remarked. "They don't want people telling them what to do with it. I just dropped it because I'm not interested in antagonizing anyone. We have to learn to live together."
But at the other end of town, in the truly historic village of Lower Marlboro, there is lingering resentment. "We're farmers. We're not city folk," said a woman who wasn't born here but talks as if she were. "I've had enough fights with these people and their glorified 'history' and 'historians.' I didn't come here to put new houses up, 'No Trespassing' signs and all this stuff."
Her friend, Fannie Gibson, came here 53 years ago when she married Frank Gibson, a native who farmed with oxen. "It's a beautiful town and we want to keep it that way," Gibson said. "It really hadn't changed until recently."
The change is evident in the village as well as in the cluster of nine imported homes. Hardly any natives are left, and many of village houses have been restored by newcomers.
"These people down there have done so many nice things to promote -- I guess you'd call it -- the ambiance of the area," said real estate agent Carol Wilson, who is handling the only house currently for sale in the entire area, priced at $149,500.
"It's absolutely a charming little step back. Everything slows down and you assume the emotional state of at least 50 years ago," said Wilson, who used to live here in the so-called Harbour Master's House, which natives remember as the old post office and general store.
Theresa Saylor lives around the corner in a restored 18th century house called "King Fields." It received historic status from the state in 1983. "It was renovated by the previous owners and we restored it," Saylor said proudly. The Saylors, who are retired, moved here in 1979 from Camp Springs.
Gibson lives next door, in a house that he insists is not historic, just old. Gibson casts a slightly cynical eye at the new old-is-good crowd.
While Saylor waxes ecstatic about Mayfest, a Calvert County-wide celebration that in past years has included Lower Marlboro, Gibson scoffs at it.
"When we have Mayfest, this place is just adorable," said Saylor. "It's like a little Williamsburg. We had people here from Pennsylvania, from Bethesda, from Howard County, Montgomery County, Frederick and Canada."
Which went to make Gibson's point.
"See what I mean," said the Harvard-educated doctor, who recently retired from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. "All those foreigners, on our quiet little street. There must have been 500 cars in the field next to me."
The organizers, he said, guided people around in "their so-called colonial costumes." In protest, Gibson did not shave or comb his hair, "but it backfired when an old girlfriend who came here from Virginia knocked on my door."
Gibson owns 250 acres that were part of Weaver's earlier historic district proposal. "I'm not angry, but I did get upset in that period," Gibson said. "I was angry to have to attend a meeting to protect my interest."
Gibson doesn't think much of signs that say, "Welcome to Historic Southern Maryland" or "Turn Right for Historic Lower Marlboro." Such markers, he says, cheapen history rather than celebrate it. There is, nonetheless, an "historic" town sign directly across the street from where he lives.
There is no historic marker at the small fishing wharf, all that's left of the once-bustling steamboat pier, but there is a sign that says, "Do Not Throw Litter." Upriver, near the nine recently recognized homes, a single bench faces the water. A sign says it is owned by the "Lower Marlboro Towne Association" and commands "No Trespassing."
Nearby is the only one of the nine houses to have been built here. It is an 1842 farmhouse redecorated by Bill and Helen Law. "We're sort of situated here in the middle between the oldcomers and the newcomers," said Helen Law, a Prince George's County special education teacher.
"I can sort of see both sides," she said. "You just have to get along. That's all. I know people drive through here and think, 'This is lovely. I'll bet everybody's happy.' But it's just like any other community."