Correction: Thomas “Dusty” Welch died after the writer interviewed him for this story. Due to an editing error, Mr. Welch’s subsequent death was omitted. We regret the error.
Hailey Hilton, 2, clung to the tire swinging from an old shade tree while her mother, Megan, pushed her back and forth as the sun set behind their home in the Benedict community of Charles County.
It was a scene that could have taken place in another era, when the Patuxent River hamlet was a thriving port and families made their living on the water, raising children in the close-knit town.
These days, Benedict, population 261, is a quieter place. The steamboats that once plied the river are long gone, the oyster houses have closed, and the slot machines that attracted weekenders and day-trippers have disappeared. But generations of families that have called Benedict home have remained. They are members of the fire department or St. Francis de Sales church, which has served the community for more than 100 years.
For those residents, Benedict represents a lifestyle worth passing along to their children and grandchildren. “Everybody here is family,” said David Hutchins, 42, a fire department member who lives with his wife, Kimberly, and their two sons in a house originally constructed by a neighbor. “And I don’t mean as an extended family. Everybody here is family. “
Those local families like the Welches, Chappelears and others have been joined by newcomers like Megan and Chris Hilton, both 26, two-year residents who decided Benedict was an ideal midpoint between Chris’s job at the Census Bureau in Suitland, Megan’s workplace in Prince Frederick, and their parents, who live in Waldorf and in St. Mary’s County. And while subdivisions with larger homes have sprouted nearby, Benedict in many ways has remained much as it has for decades. “Benedict has been able to preserve itself,” said Franklin Robinson Jr., 52, whose family owns and operates Serenity Farm along the Patuxent. “Development has passed it by one way or another.”
Not many houses come up for sale in Benedict, said Linda Wise, an agent with Century 21 Comstock Earnest. The town features diverse properties, “where higher-caliber homes are next to smaller, less-expensive homes,” she said. Often, people who grew up there will try to move back or locate nearby, Wise said. Benedict is 40 minutes from the Beltway and an hour from Washington.
Benedict’s waterfront has always been its selling point, and its watermen harvested oysters in the Patuxent for years. Nestled on a peninsula where Calvert, Charles and Prince George’s counties meet, the town enjoyed a boom when slot machines were legal for about 20 years.
Thomas “Dusty” Welch, 92, a lifelong Benedict resident, is one of 14 children whose family made a living on the river. As a youngster, Welch worked at his family’s business, Welch’s Place, which served sandwiches, rented boats and sponsored fishing trips. “Friday and Saturday night, we’d fish all night long,” Welch said. His wife, Margaret, remembered how parked cars lined the narrow streets on weekends, as visitors came to enjoy the water and the gambling. Later, Welch worked at the ferry on the river, the only crossing before a bridge was built in the 1950s.
But when slots were phased out in the 1960s, Benedict went into a slow slumber. After storms and a fire damaged some properties, the town is down to just two restaurants, and the only convenience store closed years ago. Now Benedict bustles only on summer weekends, as pickups towing pleasure boats creep down the narrow streets to launch watercraft into the Patuxent and Mill Creek.
The fire department serves as a social center, sponsoring bingo, crab feasts and card parties, said Calvin and Donna DeMarr, department members whose home is next to the station. Many of the 70 or so members live in town or nearby, and the building is slated for an expansion.
Crime is rare, residents say. Donna DeMarr, 57, recalled when someone deposited plastic yard animals on the roof of the post office. “That doesn’t sound like much, but I bet you everybody in town got a little chuckle out of it,” David Hutchins said. “And nobody got into any trouble and [the animals] all got returned.”
Tim Brock, 57, sat on his lawn tractor in his yard on a recent Saturday as boaters backed their trailers into the river at a landing just a few yards from his doorstep. Brock, who was raised in Benedict, lives in a home that used to be Messick’s Hotel, with a grand view of the Patuxent. “I like to sit out on the porch, talk to these guys, keep my ears open” about what’s being brought in by the area fishermen, said Brock, who does not want to see the town commercialized.
Development has been held back in part, residents say, because of balky septic systems due to the high water table. David Hutchins pointed out that some lots subdivided years ago don’t contain enough land to add a “mound” septic field, an alternative to traditional systems.
The final design for a public sewer system has been completed, said Cathy Thompson, a community-planning programming manager for the Charles County Department of Planning and Growth Management. But funding for the estimated $7 million project has not yet been approved. The county commissioners have approved a revitalization plan to preserve Benedict’s character while providing public waterfront access. At several well-attended public hearings, residents told officials they wanted to retain Benedict’s sense of place. “We heard that loud and clear,” Thompson said.
Some residents said they fear that sewer could bring high-density development, especially at the site of a former restaurant in Benedict’s southern end. But Thompson said that under current zoning, condominiums are not permitted, and residents have asked the county to acquire that land for a park.
In the meantime, officials are hoping to use grants to promote Benedict’s history. The area was home to Camp Stanton, which housed black Union troops during the Civil War, but Benedict is probably best known for its role in the War of 1812, when more than 4,000 British troops sailed up the Patuxent in 1814 and camped on land that is now part of Serenity Farm. The soldiers were on their way to a raid of Washington and returned to their boats en route to an attack on Baltimore’s Fort McHenry, an incident that inspired the writing of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
Robinson, an archivist for the Smithsonian Institution, sees his family’s farm, which is in an agricultural preservation district, as an important link to the past. “The farm is very historic and we see it as a continuum . . . we want to hold it for the next generation.”
Benedict residents are willing to promote their community but are protective of it. “We would want people to know that this is a family-oriented, safe community for your children to grow up in . . . where you would want to stay here and not move to the big city,” said Donna DeMarr.
But as David Hutchins noted, “coming home, you make that turn off 231 into Benedict and you go ‘whew.’ You want to pull 231 up so that no one else can come here.”
Jim Brocker is a freelance writer.
ZIP CODE: 20612
BOUNDARIES: Route 231 to the north, the Patuxent River to the east and south, Mill Creek to the west.
SCHOOLS: T.C. Martin Elementary School, John Hanson Middle School and Thomas Stone High School.
HOME SALES: In the past 12 months, two homes have sold in Benedict, for $174,000 and $645,000, according to Linda Wise of Century 21 Comstock Earnest. Three properties are on the market, at $249,900, $375,000 and $425,000, and one just outside Benedict for $259,000. Wise noted that Benedict’s unique Zip code may not turn up in property searches for homes in nearby Hughesville or Charlotte Hall. Some neighborhoods just outside the Zip code, Maxwell Hall and Benedict Plantation, feature bigger homes on larger lots. There is one home for sale in Maxwell Hall at $425,000 and one under contract at $245,900, and two have sold in the past 12 months, for $330,000 and $310,000. Two homes in Benedict Plantation are on the market, for $378,999 and $325,000, and two have sold in the last 12 months, for $290,000 and $280,000, Wise said.
WITHIN WALKING DISTANCE: Two restaurants, the local post office and the Patuxent River.
WITHIN 15 MINUTES BY CAR: Shopping areas in Hughesville, Charlotte Hall and Prince Frederick are about 15 minutes away. Calvert Memorial Hospital in Prince Frederick is a 15-minute trip; Civista Medical Center in La Plata, is 25 minutes. The College of Southern Maryland has campuses in Prince Frederick and La Plata. St. Charles Towne Center mall is a half-hour drive away.
TRANSIT: Commuter buses run from Charlotte Hall, Waldorf, La Plata and Prince Frederick into Washington.