St. Mary's County's rural past intruded on its development-fraught present when construction workers unearthed partially mummified remains of more than 100 pigs, preserved in a clay grave dug a half-century ago.
County officials recently confirmed the discovery of the pig pit last fall on the site of a hotel being built in Lexington Park, in part to dispel rumors that construction has been halted because workers became seriously ill.
The sows and piglets were killed in the 1940s by state health officials who feared a cholera outbreak at a hog farm on the site. Because the bodies were buried in clay, "they were effectively sealed off," preventing normal decomposition and partially preserving them, said Thomas Russell, the former environmental health director for the county, who now works for the Metropolitan Commission, the county's sewer and water commission.
Any cholera that might have infected the pigs is long gone, too, said Mary Novotny, a spokeswoman for the county's health department.
"There was no danger to anyone," Novotny said.
Local residents first heard of the discovery last fall when workers found the pit. But recent suspension of work at the site prompted some speculation about the safety and the smell of the pig remains. "Everything stinks about the whole thing," joked one resident.
In fact, county officials said, the cause of inactivity on the site is bureaucratic, not olfactory. Wildewood One, the local developer of the 25-acre site next to the Patuxent River Naval Air Station, has been waiting to obtain various local and state permits and expects to begin construction of a 98-room extended-stay hotel in two weeks.
"It's nice to know there wasn't a negative issue," said Cindy Greb, corporate secretary for Wildewood One. She said her office good-naturedly endured various ribbings about the odd discovery--pig jokes, old ham jokes, stuffed pig gifts. She even gave co-workers pig slippers for Christmas, producing squeals of laughter, Greb said.
Last November, using earth-moving equipment, construction workers unearthed the eight-foot-deep pit at the site on Route 235, just north of the main gate of the Navy base.
The smell from the exposed pit apparently nauseated some workers, according to reports former county environmental health director Russell received from Edmund Wettengel, owner of the property. Wettengel was on vacation and could not be reached for comment.
Both Greb, with developer Wildewood One, and Novotny, with the county health department, said no one became seriously ill from exposure to the remains.
And Russell said preparation work on the site continued after he notified Dr. Ebenezer Israel, St. Mary's County health officer.
After consulting with state health officials, Israel allowed the pigs to be disposed of at a county landfill in Calvert County.
In his 25 years with the county health department, Russell said this was the first time he encountered the unearthing of a pig graveyard, or mummified pigs.
Neither has Ogden Thomas, the retired farmer who raised hogs on the farm where the hotel is going to be built. He sold the site last year, just before the pit was discovered.
"I was surprised . . . it must have been the type of soil" that preserved the remains, said Thomas, 84.
When one cholera case among his herd was discovered, "that was enough to contaminate the whole," Thomas said. State health officials paid him for each pig, then killed the herd, burying them in the pit.
The yellow clay, predominant in St. Mary's, created a kind of airless vault, sealing the pigs and preventing their total decay. Thomas said he didn't raise hogs for about a year on the advice of state health officials.
"Strange, that's the way it seems to me," said Thomas, remarking on the preserved condition of the pigs in the pit. "I worked over that same field for years and years."
Greb said the site of the pig pit eventually will be the parking lot for the new hotel.