The Story of North and Main
Jun 02, 2015 09:52AM
By Richard Gaw
Some nights, when the rest of Cecil County is asleep, Angela Hodgetts drives from the home she shares with her husband Mark to the corner of North and Main Streets in Elkton.
She opens the door to what is now Minihane's Irish Pub and Restaurant, the successful Irish establishment that has served as the unofficial home base of the Elkton social scene since it opened in late 2013. The main floor rings with the memory of the evening's frivolity -- the laughing of the customers, the conversations at the bar between the bartenders, waiters and the regulars, and the jangly sounds of a local band that has long packed up and gone home.
It's not the main floor, however, that Hodgetts comes to see, but the second floor, and the third, and the fourth. She never brings a flashlight. She touches the walls. The old locks. The claw-footed tubs. She listens to the creaks in the old wooden floors. She inhales its history, one that dates back to 1853, when the building that now stands was constructed. Yes, she has heard that the old bones of the building's top floors are rumored to be haunted -- and Mark will be the first to say that he hates going up there alone -- but to Hodgetts, there is nothing for her to fear. If there are ghosts, they know why she is there at this hour of the night.
"The building seems to tell me, 'You belong here. You have nothing to worry about,'" she said. "I feel like I'm part of the building itself. And every time I'm there, I realize that the thought that everything in this building has already been discovered is not true. There's always something new to find."
Call it research. Call it a passion. Call it the attempt to solve a mystery, but whatever reasons Angela Hodgett finds for visiting this venerable old structure in Elkton, they are finding their way into a book she is writing that could very well become the building's definitive history.
"North and Main," scheduled to be published at year's end, will be the culmination of more than a year's worth of writing and intensive research Hodgetts has undertaken, work that has brought her in contact with hundreds of people and small mountains of documentation that have helped her piece together what had been -- and still remains -- a cornerstone of Elkton and Cecil County.
"A few years ago, when I was finishing my college degree, I was taking a class that assigned us to write a paper on something historical in the area," said Hodgetts, who was born and raised in Elkton. " I chose the Howard House, and began to look at the history of the building. Soon after I began digging, I realized that this could be much more than just a paper or a college assignment."
Soon after Ingrid and Dennis Minihane opened Minihane's in late 2013, Hodgetts and Mark -- who is a bartender at the restaurant -- began to explore the top floors of the building, which had one time served as an inn. What they came across was fascinating: trinkets from what had been part of the former Howard House, which closed earlier in 2013 -- as well as dusty, bric-a-brac reminders that residents once lived in the 32 rooms upstairs.
"One night when the four of us were upstairs rummaging around, I told them about the paper I was writing," Hodgetts said. "They then asked me to write the captions to historical photographs they were finding, that they wanted to share with the community. Another night, we saw some old bathtubs and old things, when one of us made the comment that there is just too much history here for just a college paper. That's when Dennis turned to me and said, 'You need to write a book.'"
"I told her that there are not too many people are interested in history, that they walk around without a real sense of what came before them," Ingrid said. "There are so many stories about the Howard House. So many people came here. So many people stayed here. Thirty years ago, Elkton was the heart of Cecil County. It was the medium point between New York and Washington, D.C., and this building was the heart of Elkton.
"That's what I think Angie will bring this attention to history to people, to understand what happened here. She's saving a part of our history."
In the research and writing that is going into "North and Main," Hodgetts looks at her role as less of a writer and historian and more of a sleuth, connecting the dots from century to century and decade to decade. She's pored through back issues of the Cecil County Whig, and worked with Beth Bolden-Moore and Darlene McCall of the Historical Society of Cecil County, who helped Hodgetts find information about the building in books and old deeds. She's also scanned through the Maryland records database, which gave her facts about the building that date its original origins back to the 1700s. The Town of Elkton also advertised that Hodgetts was writing a book about the building, "and word just spread like wildfire," she said.
During her research, Hodgetts originally came up with the names of 20 different owners of the building, a figure that has now risen to 36. This building was originally owned by a townsperson, who left it to his son, who then proclaimed his loyalty to England. Because he did so, all of his property was confiscated. But here's the ironic part: before doing so, he had met with General George Washington. In the 1800s, the new owners of the building began to serve lunches to the attorneys and judges and the sheriff who worked on Gay Street.
"It's not written like a history book, and it's not written from a perspective of just one person," Hodgetts said. "It's a kind of interpretive history. There are definitely characters in this book, some of which I found so interesting that I went back and found out what they were doing before they came to the Howard House. You can pick any one of a dozen characters who have owned this building, and be able to write an entire book on them."
Her most important collaborator, Hodgetts said, is Mark, who she said continues to connect her to people he meets at Minihane's who are eager to share what they know about the Howard House and the history of the building. It is not uncommon for Hodgetts to leave her work as an analyst for a Baltimore-based defense systems group and work with Mark during the evenings after dinner.
"Angela gets up in the morning, drives 50 miles to Baltimore, works at a stressful job, drives back through Baltimore traffic for another 50 miles, comes home, has dinner, and sits down at the PC for three hours," Mark said. "Then she does it the next day and the next day and the next day. Not many people have the passion that she does."
Ingrid Minihane recalled the first days and weeks after she and Dennis purchased the Howard House, when they both took sledgehammers to walls in an effort to find the history of the building.
"The history and the age of this building is why Dennis and I are here," Ingrid said. "Once we got here, we got a designer to work with us. The Howard House was very dark, so the first thing we needed to do was to bring light to the building. The more we dug and the more we discovered, slowly we began to find sets of windows, a fireplace. It was like the building began speaking to us, literally telling us where to go, showing us where the light was.
"We believe that the same thing is happening with Angela as she writes this book."
As the writing of what will become the definitive history of the building on North and Main Streets in Elkton comes down to its final drafts, Hodgetts knows that she is merely a conduit in her role as the writer of this book -- a connector of the past to the present.
"I feel that I was challenged to write this," she said. "I've always wanted to write a book preferably a mystery, and it's turned out that this may be the greatest mystery of our area. There's been a great deal written about the history of this building, but I have been able to fill in the history of what has not published."
Maybe it's the creaking walls of the building's upper floors when the rest of Elkton sleeps...showing her the light.
To contact Staff Writer Richard L. Gaw, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.