Laurel Historical Society dinner to feature historic photo sleuth

The Laurel Historical Society is pleased to welcome historic photograph expert John Fillmore—as well as all of our members, and the general public—to a dinner and presentation on Saturday, October 19th, at St. Philip’s Episcopal Church. Arrive at 5:30 pm for a reception with beer and wine available for purchase, to be followed by a buffet-style dinner provided by Southern Grill at 6:00. A fascinating presentation about photograph restoration and forensic photography, featuring examples from Laurel’s own Waller collection, will follow. The cost is $40 per person. Attendees are asked to register by October 11th; you can register online or print a registration form at the society’s events page.

John Fillmore has always been fascinated with old photographs. As a retired history teacher with a master’s degree in applied technology, he has taken his interest in historic images and developed it into a service in which he digitizes and restores old photos. Fillmore is a native Delawarean who has made multiple contributions to the image collection of the Delaware State Archives and provided digitizing services for several local historical societies.

Millions of photographs have been produced in the U.S. since the mid-19th century. Unfortunately, many of these images—including those of possible historical significance—remain unidentified. If we take the time to re-examine some of these images using the technologies of today, we are often able to identify the subject, time, and place. Fillmore’s presentation is about using a variety of resources to accomplish this task.

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A New Hobby

A few weeks ago, I decided to try my hand at sketching old buildings. I’m learning as I go, but find the activity to be fun and relaxing. Here are a few examples:

This sketch of Bethesda Methodist Episcopal Church is not entirely historically accurate, but captures the look of the church during its early years. I got married in the church earlier this month.

This imaginary scene includes a typical, simple Eastern Shore house from the colonial era. Perhaps in a couple of decades, its owner will be able to build a bigger one. Though I think of the house as a cabin, during this period, that term was used for Indian dwellings. This is my favorite drawing so far.

A scene in Colonial Williamsburg, inspired by real structures, but with a number of modifications and additions. I began this sketch in the waiting room of an auto repair shop just outside the historic district due to an unexpected flat tire.


Another imaginary scene; this decrepit old house is sheathed in cypress shingles from roof to foundation. The nearby marsh could be in lower Delaware, or along the Chesapeake. A road of oyster shells leads to an old wooden bridge.

The old Delmar High School during its early years. I found the long rows of windows to be much more difficult than rows of wooden shingles in previous drawings, which don’t have to be all that straight or consistent.

– Chris Slavens

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Hoedown at Hitchens Homestead, June 8th

The Laurel Historical Society is staging a Hoedown at Hitchens Homestead on Saturday, June 8th, featuring live music, food trucks, beer and wine, and artisan exhibits. Located at 205 Willow Street, overlooking Records’ Pond, and commonly known as “the house on the hill,” the Hitchens Homestead is in the beginning stages of an extensive restoration project. The main house was built in 1878 by Emmanuel Twilley, one of the owners of the nearby mill. The event is a fundraiser for the restoration project; tickets are $10 per adult, or $5 per child under 16. Advance tickets will be mailed to society members, but they are also available at Laurel Pizzeria and Maxine’s Hair Happenings, as well as online.

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A Visit to Katling’s Plain

Yesterday my fiancé, Crystal, and I visited the historic home in Trappe, Maryland, in which my grandfather, Charles Diefenderfer, was born in 1924. The circa 1790s house, known as Katling’s Plain according to the Maryland Inventory of Historic Properties, appears to have been owned by Edward Stevens in 1858 (the house is labeled “E. Stevens” on a map from that year) and by an “M. Merrick” in 1877 according to the Lake, Griffing, and Stephenson Atlas. Subsequently the house was owned by generations of the Diefenderfer family. Though I haven’t taken the time to research the history of the property beyond looking at the aforementioned maps, I’ll probably do so in the future.

The following photo of the structure is dated 1977 and credited to Merry Stinson in documentation prepared by the Maryland Historical Trust at that time. All other photos were taken by Crystal Stanley on April 27, 2019.

 

Front view of the structure in 1977.

 

The grand old home is in poor condition, but is strikingly beautiful nonetheless.

 

The roof line of a long-vanished front porch is still faintly visible on the bricks.

 

With two stories, an attic, and tall chimneys, the house looms above the visitor.

 

The front door. Note the “D” for Diefenderfer.

 

The kitchen door.

 

The back yard.

 

The back door.

– Chris Slavens

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Journal of the Rev. John Milton Purner, January – May 1860

Some time ago I came across this video about the history and restoration of Bethesda Methodist Episcopal Church, located on Wootten Road between Laurel and Gumboro, and was intrigued by the reference to the journal of a minister who preached there. Bethesda is special to me for a number of reasons: It is the closest church to my home, though it has never been open during my lifetime; as kids, my brother and I often rode our bikes to the church and poked around in the cemetery and fellowship hall; and later this year, I’ll be getting married in the church.

Hoping to learn more about Bethesda and its congregation, I searched and found that the journal in question is that of Rev. John M. Purner, and that it is in the possession of Barratt’s Chapel & Museum of Methodism in Frederica. I was delighted to learn that the museum has transcribed copies of the journal for sale for a mere $5, and stopped by during regular hours yesterday afternoon.

The journal was transcribed and edited by Barbara Duffin and Philip Lawton for The Commission on Archives and History of the Peninsula-Delaware Conference of the United Methodist Church in 2004, and opens with a two-page biography of Purner. Born in Cecil County in 1833, he was assigned to the Laurel circuit in 1859 as a Junior Preacher, and subsequently served several circuits on the peninsula before suffering a tragically early death in 1867. His journal covers the period between January and May of 1860, and consists of short, fragmented, poorly spelled entries, mostly covering the churches he preached at, his text, and the local families who welcomed him into their homes for meals and lodging. Without a home of his own, he stayed with a different family every single night.

The entry for Sunday, January 22, 1860, is typical:

St. Thomas, preach Eph. 3 ch 18 – 19 v  plenty of words but no liberty ~  small congregation ~ burbing [?] Ish 40 ch 8 v ~ midling time large congration   supper at Sister Danson ~ with Mr. Rusell the Bible Agent go Concord hear Chaplin tex “The Son of man goeth” very good sermon take sacrated good time, it had been 18 months since I had taken it before. return home with Sister Danson Mr. Rusel stay all Night

Purner preached at many local churches, including Jones, Bethesda, Hepburn (now King’s), St. Thomas, Old Zion (colored), and Sailor’s Bethel.

Several familiar names from the Bethesda neighborhood appear. For example, he spent the nights of January 29th and 30th with Hezekiah Matthews, then spent the following day with Matthews “wrighting out a sermon for Conf” (Conference).

Reading between the lines, one wonders at the amount of attention Purner seems to have received from young women, and how it might have affected him, a young man in his late twenties. Consider the entry from January 18th:

Leave for Br E. Hitches take dinner Miss Collins their visiting spend it after noon in righting ~ spend in eving ‘th the girles vey plesently ~ a day of dark temptation from the Devil.. Spend the even studing Watson~

A number of other entries mention visits from single women, often in groups of two or three — or more, as was the case on February 14th:

Studing Watson ~&c interrupted with visiters Miss E. Cannon, Miss E. Gordy Miss Mary Mathews, Mar Cannon Magge Collens, Kati Collens poor chance to study without a home ~ go to class good tim Reeceve a letter from Sister Marria heare of Rebecca illness ~~ all Night at Cap Lewes the girlle stay all Night to dark to go home.

Though Purner’s brief notes probably contain little of interest to those who aren’t familiar with the churches he preached at or the families he stayed with, they nonetheless offer a rare glimpse into the daily life of a young Methodist circuit rider in the Laurel area and the people who inhabited that life. The fact that he was only here for about a year, and died only seven years later at age 34, makes his journal all the more precious.

– Chris Slavens

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Filed under Books, Delaware, Delaware history, Laurel, Sussex County

Historic Movie Theaters of Delaware

Grab some popcorn, silence your cell phone, and enjoy the show.

In Historic Movie Theaters of Delaware, published by the History Press, film buff and writer Michael J. Nazarewycz invites readers to take a deep dive into the history of 150 movie theaters in the First State, from the Middletown Opera House—where attendees enjoyed viewing still photographs projected via Sciopticon in the early 1870s—to the multiplex cinemas of today. This is a cleverly cinema-themed book, with punny section titles including Opening Credits, Closing Credits, Fade In, Fade Out, and Moving Pictures, all referring to the life and times of various theaters. Rather than trace the history of individual theaters from beginning to end, Nazarewycz tackles the statewide scene in chronological order, one era at a time. Thus we learn in “Take” or chapter four that T. J. Waller built the first Waller Theatre in Laurel in 1913, but its disastrous burning in 1940 and subsequent replacement are mentioned three chapters later. The Waller (or New Waller) closed permanently after its ceiling collapsed in 1967.

Of the 150 theaters covered, only 22 are open today, a mere “14 of which are full-time movie theaters,” making Historic Movie Theaters of Delaware a valuable and important history of a vanishing part of Delaware’s past.

The Laurel Historical Society welcomes Michael J. Nazarewycz to St. Philip’s Episcopal Church on Saturday, March 16th, for a film-themed dinner, presentation, and book signing.

– Chris Slavens

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Filed under Books, Delaware, Delaware history, Events, Laurel, Laurel Historical Society, Sussex County

Editing the Laurel Historical Society’s newsletter

I joined the Laurel Historical Society about three years ago, primarily because I appreciated the society’s newsletters and wanted to support it. Ned and Norma Jean Fowler promptly tracked me down and encouraged me to get involved. Since then, I’ve contributed a few short articles to the newsletter, most of which are also available on this site. Recently I’ve gotten more involved in LHS, and am now its newsletter editor, as well as a board member.

The Winter 2019 issue of the newsletter was printed in early January and mailed to members, and it will be available online in the near future, along with previous newsletters. I’ll also post my article, “Parramore’s Plantation at Whaley’s Crossroads,” on this blog. Editing this issue was a learning experience, and although I’m pleased with the final product, I have a few ideas for improvements which I’ll try with the Spring 2019 issue.

One of the things I’m hoping to accomplish with the newsletter is to preserve older locals’ memories in writing. There are many people in our community who know things that everybody else has forgotten, and their knowledge will die with them if we don’t talk to them and document what they have to say. I find that the handful of local residents in their 90’s, in particular, remember a Sussex County that the rest of us have never known. For example, I’ve asked many people if they’ve ever heard of the local roofed grave custom, and I even ran an ad in the Guide last year in the hopes of turning up new leads, but so far only two local men in their 90’s have recalled hearing about roofed graves — and even then, neither had actually seen them. Yet these mysterious grave shelters were supposedly quite common in the area between Laurel, Gumboro, and Salisbury in the mid- to late 1800s. What else has been forgotten by the Baby Boomers, Gen Xers, and millennials of Laurel? I think there are a lot of interesting stories out there, and I’d like to publish them.

So I’d like to sincerely invite anyone to contact me with any leads of interest. Photos, memories, suggestions, questions, etc. Possible future topics include the history of Scouting in Laurel (which dates back to 1912, just two years after the Boy Scouts were founded), the lost community near Sandy Fork known as Old Forge or Broad Creek Bridge, and wooden grave markers around Laurel. I’d also like to invite anyone who enjoys this blog to consider joining the society. Membership is only $30 for an individual, $50 for a family, or $100 for a business, and includes a print copy of each newsletter.

The Spring 2019 issue comes out in May; at the moment, it’s a dozen blank pages.

– Chris Slavens

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