All In a Row

We—my neighbors and my wife and I—live comfortably cheek by jowl in Chestertown’s Historic District. (To my way of thinking, all of Chestertown is an historic district, but that’s a thought for another Musing.) Our little row of four complementary-colored houses is parenthetically inserted between one of the town’s loveliest and oldest homes (circa 1800) and the Blue Heron Cafe, one of our finest restaurants. It’s a great place to live!

There are several theories about the origins of our little row but one of the houses provides a clue: carved on one of the porch pillars is the date 1889 which leads me to believe that the houses were originally built for some of the workers who tended the rail line that connected Chestertown to the world across the Bay. The railroad arrived in Kent County on the heels of the Civil War and in its heyday, our spur was one of the major arteries for the Delmarva peaches and pears that were widely regarded as the finest on the eastern seaboard. In 1875, for example, more than 6 million baskets of fruit found their way to markets in Philadelphia, Wilmington, Baltimore, and New York; at 500 baskets to a freight car, that’s at least 12,000 railcars full of peaches and pears heading off to market.  Sadly, the industry came to a crashing halt in the waning years of the 19th Century when a blight known as the Yellows killed off the fruit trees and bankrupted local farmers. The rail line withered with the crop and the men and women who lived in our little row of houses moved on.

In the first half of the 20th Century, our little row on lower Cannon Street was in the center of Chestertown’s lively African American community. Down along the waterfront, there were canning factories, a fertilizer plant, shops, restaurants and taverns, even an ice-cream parlor on Water Street all owned and operated by African Americans who lived in the neighborhood. Our little row changed with the times, but one thing stayed the same: porch life. Then, as now, folks lived out front, chatting and laughing late into the night. Sometimes I think I catch a ghostly echo of their midnight conversations.

In 1972, a group of concerned local citizens formed Preservation, Inc. to save Chestertown’s architectural history and preserve the charm of downtown life. Our little row was squarely in their sights and by the mid-1980s, broken architectural bones had been reset, necessary repairs made, and fresh coats of paint applied. New owners moved in. In exchange for helping to finance the restoration project, the Maryland Historic Trust required both interior and exterior easements on the houses to preserve their facades and footprints. As a result, those of us who live there now are not just homeowners and taxpayers but also stewards of Chestertown’s history. 

My wife and I are the newcomers on the row: we arrived a little more than five years ago. Our house—I like to think it had been waiting for us—had been recently renovated (within the terms of the easements, of course!) and for readily apparent reasons, we named it Standing Room Only.  We loved it and our neighbors from the get-go. We added some sweat equity to the backyard and made the front porch into a verb, as in “Are we porching tonight?” Friends and strangers alike now stop to chat or to admire our little row; artists like to paint it; it feels good to share it with passersby. We’d freeze time if we could, but change is inevitable: recently one of the houses went on the market; it was snapped up in a few days and we’re excited to meet our newest neighbor. Rumor has it that once upon a time, she lived in one of the houses; I hope she has some good memories to share.

History rarely comes in big slabs. It comes in bits and pieces, fits and starts, and in the lives of the people who help to shape it. Like the first snowflake of a blizzard, we don’t recognize what is happening until we wake up the next morning and see the world anew. Our little row is like that: multiple architectural iterations, cultural changes, and lots of human history have stamped its character. Now we’re doing our part. We wouldn’t have it any other way. 

Jamie Kirkpatrick

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