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Cecil County Life

Cecil County's history detective

Jan 07, 2015 06:17PM ● By Kerigan Butt

Dixon stands in front of the Reverend Duke's Loghouse, one of Elkton's oldest remaining structures. It was saved from demolition and moved to this site with the help of a grant from a duPont family member.

By Carla Lucas


What does a public historian do? Asks questions then finds the answers, just like any good detective.  

Mike Dixon is Cecil County's history detective. He first started asking questions about local history as a teenager, when he volunteered at Cecil County Historical Society many decades ago. Since then, he's dedicated his life to uncovering the past in the Delmarva Peninsula and sharing his finds with others.

"There's so much material out there," Dixon said. "So much untapped history. I enjoy the scholarly investigation, the paper chase, the oral history, and exploring each bend that a story takes. Even after 50-plus years, there's new material to be discovered. New questions every week."

Social science studies, civil rights, African-American studies and criminal justice are among his specialties. Dixon is an adjunct professor at regional universities and colleges, including Cecil College, Harford Community College, Wilmington University and the University of Delaware.

As a public history consultant, he's done research for national institutions such as the Smithsonian Institution and the National Park Service. He's worked on a wide range of projects for organizations across the Mid-Atlantic region. One of his most recent projects was researching Havre de Grace's role in the War of 1812 for the 200th anniversary celebration in 2014. He has appeared on "The Today Show" and Maryland Public Television broadcasts. He's been published in National Geographic, Southern Living, and Chesapeake Life.

"There is an enormous amount of history in Cecil County," he said.

From Colonial times, the county formed two distinct areas. North of Elkton, in the Piedmont hills, small family subsistence farms developed. South of Elkton, in the flat lands and tidal basin, large plantations developed. The culture of these two distinct areas can be found in many facets of life, one being slave ownership. In the 1860s census in the northern town of Calvert there was one slave, and in the southern town of Cecilton, 15 percent of the population were slaves.

For much of the early part of the 1900s, people came from all over New England to be married in Elkton, as Maryland was the first state (and Elkton the first town in the state) where one could be married instantly. By the late 1930s 12,000 marriages a year were conducted in Elkton.

Through his investigation, Dixon linked Elkton's marriage industry to local cab drivers, who, after World War I, found their own ministers and built their own wedding chapels. The cab drivers would meet the couples at the train station and take them to their own chapel to be married. It was a one-stop package deal that was very popular. On average, 33 weddings were performed each day in Elkton. Celebrities such as Martha Ray and radio announcers from the 1920s were among the couples married there.

Dixon learned that, in the 1930s, Elkton was at the center of an international diplomatic event when Elkton's police chief locked up the Ambassador of Iran for speeding. President Franklin Roosevelt was drawn into the negotiations for the ambassador's release. Iran broke off diplomatic relations with the United States for about eight years over the incident.

At the Cecil County Historical Society, Dixon helps with their Community Discussion Series. This annual event brings a group of people together to record oral histories from a past local event. In December 2013, for the 50th anniversary of the December 8, 1963 crash of Flight 214 in Cecil County, more than 120 people gathered to discuss the crash, which occurred when the plane was struck by lightining. Among those who came to record their memories was one of the pilot's sons, who was 8 at the time, as well as many of the passengers' family members.

When you start a project like this, you never know who will respond,  Dixon said. 哲ow our grandchildren will have these stories.

For 2014, the Community Discussion Series will highlight those who served in the Vietnam War, where nine Cecil County men were killed in the line of duty, and many more served. Next year, the subject will be the end of segregated schools.

Oral histories are one way of preserving the more recent past. Dixon encourages families to sit down with their older relatives and record their memories of growing up. Showing old photographs is a great way to start the storytelling process. These stories can be archived at historical societies to share with researchers in the future.

He also recommends identifying the people in all old family photographs by writing lightly in pencil on the back of each photo who is in it and where it was taken, if known. "These people will be lost with the passage of time and the value of the photo will be lost if the subjects are not identified," he said.

Internet search engines have revolutionized how people study the past and are changing what institutions are doing with their vast collections. For example, in the 1900s, Elkton had four newspapers: the Whig, the Democrat, the News and the Appeal. Smaller Cecil County towns also had their own papers, bringing the total to nine in the county. There is a wealth of information that can be learned from these old newspapers about lifestyles, the community, families and organizations. Until now, searching them meant coming to the Historical Society and searching on the microfiche machine. Through a grant, much of the information is being digitized and placed on a database where anyone can search.

Currently, Dixon is investigating a Chinese family that immigrated to Elkton and opened a laundry in the 1890s. To date, he's found the obit of Lee Wing from an old Cecil Whig on the microfiche. Now he's searching for details about Elkton's first laundry service and this family that settled in Elkton.

Social media also created new platforms for sharing knowledge. Dixon uses Facebook to disseminate the stories he's uncovered to all who are interested. Social media also affords the ability for questions and comments, further enriching the story.

Dixon runs two Facebook pages. Currently on "Delmarva History" is a posting about the Cecil County Jail, which is being converted to senior citizen apartments. He uses his Facebook page, "Mike Dixon, Historian," to share information about research.

Blogging opens many new opportunities to share and document newly found knowledge with the world. "Window on Cecil County's Past" is Dixon's blog, in which he explores life in Cecil County. "Reflections on Delmarva's Past" expands to incorporate his investigations throughout the Delmarva Peninsula. The "Singerly Fire Company Museum" blog details the stories of the Elkton company which he is helping to document.

"For nearly a half-century now, all of my adult life, I've had a wonderful time discovering historical traces in photographs, oral histories, documents, and the material culture," Dixon wrote in one of his blogs. "In addition to rummaging through old books, documents, and crumbling newspapers as a way of investigating our past, I had the privilege of learning so much from many knowledgeable people during those rapidly passing decades."

There's always more to learn, and Dixon will continue to search for the answers.

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