Simon Kelly Staff Writer
CENTREVILLE Surrounded by a stand of towering boxwoods that obscure it from the road, the house at Poplar Grove Farm would seem to be separated from the rest of Centreville not only by space, but time.
Dating back to the early 1700s, with outbuilding ruins that may be even older, this is the kind of place where you forget who you are and wonder who you might have been.
On June 9 and 10, researchers from Washington College and the Maryland State Archives drew a little closer to answering vital questions about the Eastern Shore's past and its people as they began to work their way through more than 100 crates and barrels containing papers up to 350 years old.
The documents, which include letters, political correspondences, property maps, anti-slavery petitions, and even an erotic love poem, recount specifically the history of the Emory family, who first received the land grant for Poplar Grove in the late 17th century from Lord Baltimore. The land's current owners, the Woods, are 10th and 11th generation descendants of the first Emory, Arthur, who immigrated to the Eastern Shore from England in the mid-1600s.
"What we have here are not only political records and documents, but hundreds of personal papers, which help you to see how people's lives wove together back then," said C.V. Starr Center director Adam Goodheart, whose American Studies students made the discovery this spring while on a field trip to the farm.
"We've had a number of moments of startling personal connection," he said.
Not the first time the college has been involved at the farm, Goodheart claims that the college knew of the historical documents back in 2003 when Anthropology professor John Seidel led his archaeological field school there for the excavation of an old slave cabin.
Rather than looking into the old documents molding in the attic, students found instead evidence of the farm's agricultural and economic history, as a wheat farm where race horses were bred. Five years later, researchers are finding the documentation that recorded this activity.
"It's rare that a family keeps everything like this, every record of every transaction, it's all here," said State Archivist Dr. Edward Papenfuse, "It's just an excellent time capsule, of not only Maryland, but American history."
Perhaps the most compelling discovery is what the documents reveal about slavery on the Eastern Shore. Like much of the population throughout the antebellum years, the Emory's had a troubled and divisive stance as a family on the matter, especially concerning whether freed blacks had the right to own enslaved ones. Documents have revealed that in the 1830s, many of the Emorys were involved in the signing of a county-wide petition calling for the gradual removal of slavery in Maryland. Thomas Emory, however, who was in the state senate, voted against the petition, which eventually was rejected.
"It wasn't just father vs. son, but brother vs. brother with this family on the issue of slavery," said Goodheart, "During the Civil War, one of the Emorys was a general on the Union side, and he had two sons. One fought for the Union, while the other joined the Confederate Navy."
Unfortunately, just as the history of Poplar Grove is finally coming into better focus, its future remains largely uncertain. While the papers will be safely tucked away in a climate-controlled facility at the Maryland Archives in Annapolis, an equivalent measure of preservation still awaits the house itself. So far, the only thing that can be said for certain is that the land will not be developed, as it is protected by the Eastern Shore Land Conservancy.
"Poplar Grove is a place in need of a plan, and that plan has not yet been developed," said current owner James Wood.
"Of course, I recognize the need to improve it, but that may be a ways off."
For now, however, all parties involved are grateful to have made the historical discoveries of the last two weeks, and expect more breakthroughs this summer as they continue studying the documents in greater detail at the Archives.
"The real work will start once we get into the warehouse and are able to really get into the content of the letters," said WAC alum Albin Kowalewski, who hopes to use these findings to write a graduate thesis.
"The significance of these documents is huge, and we hope that they will be studied by researchers for years to come," he said.