No Revolutionary War battles were ever fought in Shady Side. And if anyone truly famous hails from the quiet thumb of land protruding into the Chesapeake Bay, the locals don't seem to be aware of it.
To chronicle Shady Side's history is to tell the stories of men and women who earned their living from the once-bountiful oyster beds, built boats and homes, raised families and died. And it is just this simple history that a group of dedicated volunteers--mostly retired women--have worked nearly two decades to preserve.
What began as a hodgepodge of documents stored in car trunks and neighbors' sheds has evolved into a substantial collection of furniture, maps, photos and oral histories maintained in the century-old Captain Salem Avery House Museum. The museum has become a social hub for the area's approximately 3,000 residents, offering a monthly lecture series, children's programs and special holiday events. Most recently, it produced a road map to historic sites in Anne Arundel County in honor of the region's 350th anniversary.
The museum, managed by the Shady Side Rural Heritage Society, also is one of 19 historic sites listed on the county-organized "Passport to History" program, also in honor of the anniversary. Every student in the county--about 150,000 altogether--was given one of the small green booklets, which can be stamped when they visit places such as the Maryland State House or the U.S. Naval Academy.
Leaving the big history to the Smithsonians of the world, members of Shady Side's heritage society said they have been more intent on preserving the personal tales peculiar to their peninsula.
"Maybe it's not historical, but in a way it is," former society president Barbara Owings, 60, said of the museum's growing collection of maps and family scrapbooks. The gems, she said, are the recorded interviews with Shady Side's elderly residents.
"They talked about the games they played, the songs they sang. If you put it all together, you think you don't have anything important. But you have a real nice idea of what went on in a village," she said. "They talk about the businesses. People didn't even know that there was a movie theater and a pool hall. I mean, there's no reason why they should know, but they don't know."
Owings was among the original group of women who spearheaded the heritage society in 1985. They were galvanized by a book, "Spirit of Shady Side," published the year before by a local resident, Virginia White Fitz. Using interviews, memoirs and obscure documents such as estate inventories, Fitz captured a detailed history of the swamp turned watermen's village turned D.C. bedroom community.
The women held meetings, performed skits and directed school plays in the name of raising community awareness about the peninsula's history. And residents began donating family relics.
The only problem, museum founder Terese Magnotti recalled, was that the society didn't have any place to store its newfound treasures.
"For the first four or five years, we all ran around with museums in our cars," said Magnotti, a retired legal assistant.
Added Owings: "We kind of laughed that we were little old ladies running around with a scrapbook, and no one was ever going to give us any money if we didn't get a building."
In 1989, the group acquired a cottage that had originally belonged to a Long Island native, Capt. Salem Avery, and since his death in 1890 had been used as a Masonic country club.
The museum features furnishings from the Avery period, exhibits on local history and culture and a restored work boat. Although the museum itself is largely a tribute to Avery, a small office upstairs harbors a growing research library.
Glorious Shenton, the librarian, said she hopes residents will someday be able to do genealogy studies there. Shenton, 79, is the granddaughter of Shady Side's first postmaster and the daughter of the peninsula's best-known figure, schoolteacher Flora Ethel Andrews. Andrews, who died recently at the age of 108, taught, it seems, nearly everyone in town.
Yet, Shenton and other museum workers said, few of Shady Side's new residents know about "Miss Ethel," as she was called. For that matter, others said, the newcomers don't know a lot of things--such as the fact that there once was an island in the West River that has since eroded, or that quirky storytellers like Erwood Elzie Avery once captivated history buffs and local authors with stories about the region.
"The people coming in don't know anything about the roots of Shady Side," Shenton said. "We didn't want our history to die out."
Although the community has changed, museum volunteers like Magnotti said the spirit of the area has remained as laid-back and close-knit as it ever was. That, they said, is what has made it relatively easy for them to tap nearly everyone in town for either donations or volunteer work.
Said Magnotti: "Not everybody knows everybody, but it hasn't been long since everybody did know everybody. And a lot of that still prevails."
Captain Salem Avery House Museum, 1418 East-West Shady Side Rd., Shady Side. 410-867-4486. Open weekends from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. Admission is free.
CAPTION: Leanna Brown, 7, and her 4-year-old brother, Lee, look at an oyster boat on display at the Captain Salem Avery House Museum in Shady Side.
CAPTION: Shane gets his "passport" stamped at the Captain Salem Avery House Museum of the Shady Side Rural Heritage Society.
CAPTION: Shane Young, 4, and Leanna Brown, 7, look at a model boat. The museum helps tell the stories of people who earned a living from once-bountiful oyster beds.