STEVENSVILLE — Friday, Jan. 25, marked a new date in Kent Island history — the completion of the first Kent Island/Chesapeake Bay history course taught to Kent Island High School students by members of the Kent Island Heritage Society. The effort started with the visit to historic James E. Kirwan House and Store Museum by KI High Principal John Schrecongost and Vice Principal Dan Harding in late August 2018. They were both so thoroughly impressed by the visit with Kirwan Museum docent Linda Collier, they wanted everyone at the high school to visit.
Heritage Society member Mark Lidinsky came up with the idea to have five 90-minute history sessions for students during the first semester of the 2018-2019 school year. Schrecongost approved the written plan to proceed with the elective course, and on Sept. 28, the first session was held in the high school media center. Fifty-four 11th-graders from Meaghan Kline’s and Lacey Phelps’ world history classes piloted the course. Lidinsky served as coordinator for the five sessions.
Each month, September through January, the students were presented information about various topics related to Kent Island and Chesapeake Bay history, including such topics as the War of 1812, steamships, the Civil War, farming, railroads, “Oyster Wars,” the close call of Kent Island becoming a munitions proving grounds during World War I (which eventually was located in Aberdeen, where it still exists today), life today around Kent Island, and challenges that still exist with pollution, the Bay Bridge and continuing transportation issues.
In early November, during one of the teacher inservice days, the entire 80-member teaching staff of Kent Island High School toured the Kirwan House and Store Museum, along with all the historic places in downtown Stevensville. The 54 students taking the course did also. Heritage Society President Jack Broderick said many remarked that they had lived here for many years and driven by these places everyday but had no idea what they were.
In the final session, attempting to make local history come alive, Broderick as the late Hunter Davidson, the first appointed commander of the Maryland Oyster Navy Police in 1868, and KI Heritage Society member John Conley as the late Maryland State Senator James E. Kirwan, spoke to the students, in character about issues of their day.
Broderick told students about “the gold” (reefs of plentiful oysters) that once covered the floor of the Chesapeake Bay, the “Oyster War” that followed, and how that great natural resource was ravaged especially during the later 1800s. Davidson even recommended to the state legislature a three-year moratorium from harvesting oysters in 1870, as he feared oyster extinction. His recommendation was ignored, and Davidson resigned in 1872. The height of the oyster harvesting in the Bay took place from 1884-1885. During that time 15 million bushels were taken from the Chesapeake. The Maryland DNR futilely attempted to regulate harvesting, even mounting small cannons on the front of DNR boats, as oyster harvesters would often shoot rifles at boats suspected of being Oyster Police, Broderick said.
Conley, as Kirwan, presented information about Kent Island being considered as a site for a federal munitions testing area in 1917. The people of Kent Island were painted in the national press as being unpatriotic for wanting to preserve the island. Hundreds of Kent Islanders, led by Kirwan, made a laborious trek to Washington, D.C., to protest turning the island into a munitions site. The people of KI won, and the proving ground went to Aberdeen instead.
“Imagine what Kent Island would be like today had the proving grounds been permitted to come here,” Kirwan said.
At the completion of the class, Harding and Broderick presented each student individually with a certificate of completion, a student membership card to the KI Heritage Society, and their congratulations.
Those who participated in the course learned the mission of the KI Heritage Society: 1. To Discover; 2. To Identify; 3. To Restore; and 4. To Preserve the Heritage of Kent Island. They are the first student members ever for the Heritage Society.
Broderick and Lidinsky both strongly credited Schrecongost with allowing the course to be offered to the students. The course will be repeated for new students this semester, and plans have been made to offer the course to freshman students at KIHS next year.
Schrecongost said, “This has been a great partnership between our high school and the Heritage Society.”