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Saluting a rich history

May 23, 2018 09:43AM ● Published by J. Chambless

Ming Vincenti, the community outreach coordinator for the VA Medical Center, also oversees the museum at the site.

Gallery: The VA Maryland Health Care System museum [16 Images] Click any image to expand.

By John Chambless
Staff Writer

At Perry Point, the distant past meets a bright future, and the broad sweep of history is everywhere.

The VA Maryland Health Care System is busily adding new homes on the property, which has been a hospital and home for veterans since just after World War I. The complex covers some 397 acres, with modern medical facilities, its own bank and a post office, but the long history of the property is reflected in a stone grist mill that overlooks the open water, and a magnificent manor house, both of which were built in the 1700s.

During a recent tour, Ming Vincenti, the community outreach coordinator for the VA Maryland Health Care System, showed off the museum inside the restored mill. “I've been here two and a half years, but we used to have a museum in one of the village houses that's being redone now,” she said. “It was maybe a third of the size of this mill. In the 1970s, the mill and the mansion were put on the National Register of Historic Places, so that means the government must maintain the property's historic integrity and provide upkeep. The plan to renovate the building was in the works for years, and finally came to fruition, which thankfully prevented the mill from tumbling into the water.

“On my first trip here in February 2016, work was still being done, and the stairwell and elevator were not in. Once renovations were complete, we opened on Veterans Day 2017.”

The restoration of the building included replacing some perilously deteriorated beams – some of which are on display – and installing modern systems in the stone shell of the building. Visitors start on the lower level, which documents fascinating tidbits of the site's earliest history.

The first known inhabitants of the Perry Point peninsula were the Susquehannock Indians, who left stone arrow and spear points on the land as they hunted and fished there for untold centuries. In a display case are a few arrowheads, two of which were singled out by a recent visitor as possibly being about 2,000 years old, Vincenti said, so the occupation of Perry Point apparently goes back into prehistory.

In about 1680, Lord Baltimore granted some 32,000 acres of land, including what was then called Susquehanna Point, to his cousin, George Talbot. Talbot discovered that John Bateman was already living on the Point, having acquired the land in 1658 by a patent from Lord Baltimore. In 1710, Captain Richard Perry acquired the land, but the Perry Point name predated him, and is mentioned in the land grant to John Bateman, earlier than 1658.

A succession of families owned the land through the 1700s. The Thomas family built the mansion house, and also the mill, around 1750, using bricks that had been brought from England as ship ballast. The fact that a mill was constructed indicates that other families lived on the Point, but no trace of their homes has been found. Wheat and corn were grown on the sprawling property, and a stream – now gone – powered the mill wheel. During this era, Gen. George Washington was a frequent visitor, staying in the mansion house or at the nearby Rodgers Tavern, which still stands outside the VA Medical Center gate in Perryville. Legend has it that Washington was partial to the inn, which was the birthplace of John Rodgers, the founder of the American Navy.

In 1800, John Stump purchased Perry Point, which at that time covered about 1,800 acres. During Stump's ownership, British troops came up the Chesapeake Bay in the War of 1812, burning Havre de Grace, the Principio Iron Works, and a grist mill owned by Stump's cousin, but for some reason they spared the mill and mansion at Perry Point. By that time, the grist mill had been overtaken by progress, and was probably used more for storage than milling grain.

In the museum display case is a carved block with the Stump name, as well as hand-forged iron nails, a gnarled shoe and other objects recovered during an archeological dig.

During the Civil War, the U.S. Government took over Perry Point and used it as a training station for military mules. The officers who lived in the mansion shared space for a time with the Stump family, a situation that became impossible. The family moved to Harford County until the end of the war, returning to find the mansion ransacked, the ornate railing ripped out for firewood, and the farm neglected. Many of the family's slaves, however, stayed on the property and became hired workers on the restored farm.

A rail line was put through the property in around 1854, and the line is still vital, carrying commuters across the Susquehanna and through Perryville.

In 1918, the U.S. Government purchased the estate – now 516 acres – from the Stump heirs for $150,000 and set up a manufacturing plant for ammonium nitrate, used as an explosive in World War I. The Atlas Powder Company built a huge facility and 300 homes to house its employees. Soon after the plant began operating, however, the war ended and explosives were no longer needed. Perry Point was repurposed by the U.S. Public Health Service as a hospital for veterans and others. In the 1920s, the U.S. Veterans Bureau took over Perry Point, and the complex has expanded ever since as a VA Medical Center.

But the history of the property is a fascinating lure for visitors, and the new museum is open to the public. Visitors can see some of the original mill beams, which have faint writing on them, including a legible name, J. Wills, and other markings that may be colonial graffiti. Young visitors can touch some of the objects, including a partial wooden gear from the mill.

On the first floor of the museum, the focus shifts to the years when the Atlas Powder Company was in business, with photos and text panels about the site. There's a claw-foot bathtub from one of the 1900s homes on display, and a large iron light that Vincenti initially thought was some sort of cooking pot. “This was on its side in the old museum,” she said. “Finally someone picked it up and saw the glass underneath and realized it was some sort of spotlight. I did some research, and found out it's the No. 90, 'The Mogul' model, a lamp that was used to allow workers to keep working at night.”

On the second floor, the focus is on 1919 to the present, as Perry Point provided health and rehabilitation services to generations of veterans. There's a large typesetter's desk that's still filled with metal type used to print the in-house newspaper, The Bulletin. A display of uniforms, helmets and medals shows the long history of service represented at Perry Point, but a record player/radio unit and games show that daily life was filled with activities as well. There's a bowling pin from the now-demolished bowling alley, as well as wood crafts that were made by veterans as work therapy. Standing in a place of honor is a surveyor's compass and tripod, as well as its wooden storage case. It may have been used to lay out the streets at Perry Point.

The free museum is staffed by volunteers who can tailor their information to children, veterans groups or the general public, Vincenti said. It is currently open Thursdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., and the first and third Saturdays of the month from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Visitors are encouraged to call before their visit, and group tours can be arranged by calling in advance.

While the mansion house is not currently open to the public, it is a spectacular reminder of the past. Fully restored, it is used as office and meeting space, but retains its period details, including the original wooden plank floors, stairs carefully inlaid with diamond shapes of a lighter wood, fireplaces in every room, and a sprawling porch (now enclosed), where past generations could sit and catch the breeze from the Susquehanna and admire the gardens that filled the terraces below.

Vincenti said the building has been opened for infrequent events, and it has been open at least once in years past as a Halloween attraction due to the rumored spirits that may wander its halls. In a building with this much history, imaginations will wander, and there have been reports of children's laughter being heard in the empty building. In the upper floor of the mill, Vincenti said, there's a wide window where some people have said they've seen the ghost of a young boy, gazing out at the river.

While she's not going to voice an opinion about the hauntings, Vincenti is proud of the way Perry Point's history has been spotlighted, and she is looking forward to sharing the story with others.

“We would love for more people to see what we have here,” she said. “It's really a remarkable place.”

For more information, visit www.maryland.va.gov/veteransmuseum.asp or call 410-642-2411, ext. 6071.

To contact Staff Writer John Chambless, email jchambless@chestercounty.com.

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