Preserving an historic treasureJun 01, 2016 09:31AM ● By Richard Gaw
When the Historic Elk Landing Foundation took over after Elkton purchased the site in 1999, immediate work was needed on the Stone House to keep it from falling into ruin.
Historical events with local, regional, and national significance have taken place at Elk Landing, a tract of land along the shores of the Little Elk and Big Elk creeks in Cecil County. Elk Landing was situated along one of the earliest major shipping routes in the region during the time before the colonies united, making it a bustling center of colonial activity where goods were shipped and people were transported to points north and south. Because of Cecil County’s centralized location, it has often found itself right in the middle of history.
The historical significance of Elk Landing prompted local officials and a group of citizens from the Elkton area to attempt to preserve it. The town of Elkton purchased the Elk Landing property, including the Hollingsworth House and the Stone House, in 1999. The Historic Elk Landing Foundation was then formed to oversee the preservation and operations of the site as the town leased the property to the foundation for 99 years.
Zebulon Hollingsworth acquired the parcels of land and created Elk Landing in the 18th Century. “The town of Elkton saw the property as a diamond in the rough,” explained Josh Brown, the president of the Historic Elk Landing Foundation. Mike Dixon, a local historian, Rob Alt, the mayor of Elkton, and Jeanne Minner of the Elkton Department of Planning were all early supporters of the effort to restore and preserve Elk Landing, and an examination of the history that has taken place in and around the site explains why.
In August of 1777, 15,000 British troops landed on the shores of the Elk River and marched across the Hollingsworth property to make a camp nearby. There were more British troops than there were citizens in the county at the time, and local residents were forced to hide their horses, cattle, and valuables from the soldiers. In September, these British forces would clash with American troops under the direction of Gen. George Washington at the Battle of the Brandywine. But before that happened, Gen. Washington visited Delaware and then Cecil County to observe the movements of the British troops. He is said to have stayed in a hotel owned by Jacob Hollingsworth.
A few years later, in 1781, Gen. Washington led American and French troops on transport ships at the Head of Elk and Elk Landing as they travelled to Yorktown, Virginia, where they would gain the final victory in the Revolutionary War. While no battles took place in Cecil County, the area certainly played a role in the American Revolution.
In 1813, the British returned to the area as the War of 1812 raged on. The British Navy forces wreaked havoc on Principio Furnace, a major manufacturer of cannons for the United States. The British burned the plant and destroyed the finished weapons so that they could not be used. When the British troops arrived at Elk Landing, local citizens had established a small defense, and the British Troops were prevented from burning down Elkton.
Brown was enlisted to join the Historic Elk Landing Foundation’s board of directors about six months after the organization began its work in 1999 because of his knowledge about building repairs—his family is the longtime owner of American Home & Hardware on Main Street in Elkton. His knowledge was immediately put to good use. According to Brown, the Hollingsworth House and the Stone House were in a state of disrepair after many decades of neglect—a sad fate for two buildings with long and storied histories. The Hollingsworth House can trace its origins to at least 1790, and was home to one of Elkton’s most prominent families. The Stone House was a dwelling, a tavern, and a storage house at various times in its history. Brown recalled that the Stone House needed critical repairs just to stabilize it and save it from ruin. The Hollingsworth House needed a new roof and a new porch to protect it from the elements. Within a year, the foundation had managed to pull together the necessary funding from both public and private donations for the critical repairs to be made.
That allowed the foundation to turn its focus to more long-term restoration efforts. They undertook archeological studies, provided electrical service to the site, made improvements to the HVAC and plumbing systems of the Hollingsworth House, and began making interior repairs.
Brown explained that the state, county, and town have all worked collaboratively to support the preservation of the historic site, including the woodlands, fields, and wetlands that are a part of the 50-acre property.
“We’ve done a lot with the buildings, and everything we’ve done has been done painstakingly because we want it to be accurate,” Brown said. He estimates that they’ve spent a total of about $2 million—$1.5 million in restoration work on the two buildings and the remaining $500,000 on other maintenance and restoration efforts on the properties. The costs of doing historically accurate restorations is high, but it’s also important.
Decades of historical materials were inside the Hollingsworth House. It was a huge undertaking to catalog the contents of the house.
“We have lots and lots of artifacts,” Brown explained. “There is a treasure trove of paperwork.”
Included in that treasure trove were four letters by John Quincy Adams one letter handwritten by Thomas Jefferson.
“It is one of the most pristine letters written by Thomas Jefferson that has ever been found,” Brown explained.
The foundation ultimately decided to sell the historic documents to fund some of the restoration work on the site.
A dedicated team of supporters has been invaluable to the efforts to preserve and restore Historic Elk Landing. Brown said that there about 15 people who serve on the board of directors, and each person contributes something important to the cause.
“We really have a wealth of knowledge on the board,” Brown said. One example is Bob Piazza, who is a talented furniture restorer who has been working on making numerous improvements to the interior of the Hollingsworth House. Piazza’s efforts have saved the foundation thousands of dollars.
Brown said that they will continue to work on fully restoring the Hollingsworth House and the Stone House. With all the work that has already been completed on the Hollingsworth House, only about another $20,000 in major upgrades are still needed.
“We’re in much more manageable restoration efforts now,” Brown said, explaining that this will allow the foundation’s board members to turn their attention toward other efforts. For example, they are currently putting the finishing touches on a timeline inside the Hollingsworth House that will illustrate the history of the property for visitors.
They are now turning their efforts to community outreach, planning special events to attract new groups to the site, like a tea party that was planned in May. Some of these events help raise money for the preservation efforts.
The foundation wants to develop an interactive self-guided tour on the property. Brown explained that the site is a town park, so people can come in to the property during the day, although the two main buildings are closed to the public except during the planned events.
They have periodically brought in military re-enactors to recreate the history on the site.
“We really want to turn it into a living history museum,” said Pat Opel, the vice president of the Historic Elk Landing Foundation.
Brown explained that they want to share the history of the site with as many people as possible. On one recent day, 200 eighth-graders visited Elk Landing to learn about the history of the site and to have a day of service by making improvements to the grounds by doing small chores. This kind of outreach fits with the foundation’s vision for the future of Historic Elk Landing.
“I really enjoy history,” Brown explained. “When you can put a local touch on it, I really think that helps. We’re going to try to do more teaching, to offer more education programs. We will have a couple of open houses planned for this summer. We’ve got a lot of things in progress.”
To contact Staff Writer Steven Hoffman, email [email protected].