Category Archives: Laurel

Old Forge A.M.E. Church and Camp

This article appeared in the Winter 2020 issue of the Laurel Historical Society’s newsletter.

Old Forge A. M. E. Church was located beside James’ Branch a short distance s. w. of the old Broad Creek Bridge. Near this point, a forge, a saw-mill and a grist-mill were erected in the late 1700’s. The forge was the first to be abandoned, the saw-mill was closed about 1880 and the grist-mill was closed some time later.

On Sept. 16, 1848, James Horsey donated a half-acre church site to a group of free Africans headed by Samson Mathews. Old Forge Church was built and a graveyard was laid out. An active camp-meeting was conducted each year in the woods beside the church. The church was closed about 1909 and the land reverted to Wm. De Shields who had purchased the Horsey farm. There were no tombstones in the graveyard and there is nothing to mark the old site.

– Frank R. Zebley, The Churches of Delaware, 1947

It is unclear when, exactly, Frank R. Zebley wrote the above entry in his wonderful book, since he spent years researching, visiting, and photo- graphing hundreds of Delaware churches before its publication, but some of his photos of Laurel-area churches date to the mid-1930s, a mere twenty years after the annual camp meeting at Old Forge was said to be one of the most popular black camp meetings on the entire peninsula. It seems unthinkable that all visible evidence of a church, campground, and cemetery—the center of a community for countless people over several generations—could vanish so quickly, and that so little of its history would be remembered.

Yet even today, with easy access to newspapers and other records via searchable online databases, we have only been able to learn a little more of that history. Most of the story of Old Forge A.M.E. remains unknown.

It begins, as Zebley stated, in 1848. For the sum of ten dollars (the site wasn’t truly donated), James and Bridget Horsey sold one-half acre of land to trustees “Samson Matthews, Isaac Rodney, Isaac Morris, George Polk, William Sipple, John Saunders, Peter Truitt and Robert Sipple free Africans” under the condition that they would build “a house or place of worship for the use of the African people. . .”

The rectangular lot was described as beginning at “a post on east side of a road leading from Polk Mills (originally) down the western side of said Mill Branch out into the state road leading from Georgetown to Salisbury Maryland and intersecting said road near Broad Creek Bridge so called and then running from said post along or nearly along the East side of said road. . .” Like the church, these roads no longer exist, and the entire site is shrouded in forest.

Little is known of most of the trustees. There were two “free colored” men named Samson Matthews living in Sussex County at the time. John Saunders was involved in the Union Temperance Benevolent Society. The most prominent trustee, by far, seems to be William Sipple, a successful Laurel blacksmith and landowner who provided land to Mt. Pisgah A.M.E., served as a trustee of the local African-American school, and is even believed to have been involved in the Underground Railroad.

Although it is assumed that the new church was named Old Forge A.M.E. upon its construction, the name does not appear on the deed. Evidently the church began holding annual camp meetings in 1855, but we only know this because the camp celebrated its 60th anniversary in 1915; the known records are silent about both church and camp meeting during the early decades. Hopefully, more information will be discovered.

As if to make up for years of inattention, somebody began submitting brief notes about the camp to the newspapers in the early 20th century. On July 23, 1902, Wilmington’s Every Evening reported that Old Forge camp meeting was in progress and drawing a large attendance. The same article implies that some of the attendees were robbing nearby watermelon fields under the cover of darkness, while farmers guarded their fields with shotguns. Three weeks later, on August 15, Every Evening reported that Old Forge was still drawing a crowd from Laurel. That’s some camp meeting!

Alleged watermelon heists paled in comparison to the news that came from the camp two years later. After a violent brawl erupted in or near the campground, during which knives, blackjacks, razors, and pistols were brandished if not actually used, participant Lee Ackwood—a rough character who makes several appearances in Maryland and Delaware newspapers for various crimes—returned to the camp later that evening and shot John White, a popular and respected black merchant, badly injuring him. Both the Morning News and the Philadelphia Inquirer reported that a posse searched for Ackwood on the night of the crime, but the latter clarified that the posse consisted of black men: “…if caught he will be lynched by his own race, as White was extremely popular, and his friends are determined to wreak vengeance upon his assailant.” The shooter was arrested and jailed the next morning.

The camp continued to have a tainted reputation; the ten-day meeting in 1909 was said to be the first without shootings or fights. It seems that the church was closed at about this time—probably due, in part, to the condition of the aging structure—for in 1910 the annual camp meeting was continued by Mt. Pisgah A.M.E. Church. In 1914, the Morning News contradicted the various reports of violent incidents, stating that the camp had “always been free from shooting scrapes.” The 60th annual camp meeting, in 1915, was described as one of the most successful in the camp’s history—yet it also seems to have marked the end of the camp’s history. Old Forge is conspicuously absent from state newspapers after 1915. The seemingly abrupt demise of the camp corresponds with a peninsula-wide crackdown on black camp meetings due to a perception that they frequently turned disorderly or violent. Prejudice was certainly a factor, but, surprisingly, some black ministers were in agreement, citing alcohol use, gambling, and arrests at so-called “bush meetings.”

Whether the camp was affected by new legal restrictions or it simply couldn’t survive without an active church at the site, its closing marked the end of an era in the community. With its lost cemetery and incomplete history, the wooded site of Old Forge A.M.E. Church in today’s state-owned James Branch Nature Preserve continues to be one of the most intriguing locations in Laurel.

– Chris Slavens

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Broad Creek Bridge and the Old Forge

This article appeared in the Fall 2019 issue of the Laurel Historical Society’s newsletter.

One of the lesser-known chapters in the history of the Laurel area concerns a vanished community which was located in the wooded area south of Sandy Fork and the American Legion home, commonly called Old Forge. The mysterious site was an important one in the 18th and 19th centuries, featuring a bridge over Broad Creek for travelers using the original stage road. The Pomeroy & Beers Atlas of 1868 depicts a sawmill, gristmill, store, and several houses clustered around the bridge. There was also an A.M.E. church on the south side of the creek at that time, but it does not appear on the map. In the early years of the 20th century, “Old Forge Camp” was described as the largest “colored” campmeeting in Sussex County. Today, the forge, mills, houses, church, campground, bridge, and even the road are long gone.

Old Forge has received little attention from historians, probably because the name doesn’t appear in early records. Local journalist Orlando V. Wootten wrote two fascinating articles about Old Forge for the Daily Times and The Archeolog in 1968 and 1975, respectively, based on his own visits to the site as well as information from Carmel Moore. Both were accompanied by striking photos of abandoned millstones and other features. The second article was reprinted in The History of Nineteenth Century Laurel in 1983. Wootten lamented the absence of “documentary evidence or primary sources of historical information on Old Forge,” despite the fact that Scharf’s History of Delaware mentioned that the forge and mills had been built “many years before” 1807, when they were owned by Josiah Polk.

But the reason for Old Forge’s apparent absence from early records is simple: The community wasn’t called Old Forge back then. It was called Broad Creek Bridge.

Possibly the earliest references to Broad Creek Bridge were made in 1723, when the area was part of Nanticoke Hundred in Somerset County, Maryland:

“Thomas Gordan appointed Overseer of the roads in Nanticoak hundred from Broad Creek bridge to the Cows bridge at the head of the Indian river…”

“Henry Friggs appointed Overseer of the roads in the afsd hundred from Broad Creek to Gravelly Branch…”

A similar reference appears the following year:

“Ordered that James Bowcher be overseer of the road from Broad Creek bridge halfe way to the Cow bridge it being the halfe of Wm. Burtons Limmitts from the Cow Bridge…”

Friggs is probably the same man called Henry Freaks in 1711, who was awarded 3,000 pounds of tobacco in damages due to the creation of the Nanticoke reservation known as Broad Creek Town. James Bouger was another early landowner.

The bridge was also used as a landmark in surveys of nearby tracts of land. In 1726, “Cypress Swamp” was surveyed for Robert Givans, and described as beginning at a red oak on the northeast side of the creek, “about a mile & halfe above ye Bridge…” Three years later, the first bounder of “Givans Lot” was a cypress tree a mere two poles (approximately 33 feet) below the bridge. Another survey for Givans mentions a cart road leading eastward from the bridge to a swamp; this road might have been the basis of part of today’s Route 24. Givans owned several hundred acres of land around Broad Creek Bridge, as well as lands along Deep Creek to the north.

A noteworthy reference appears in 1736, when Paris Chipman petitioned for permission to clear a new road, at his own expense, between Broad Creek Bridge and Chipman’s mill dam. Evidently Chipman had built a sawmill downstream of a wading place where the old road crossed a branch, causing the wading place to become impassable. It is likely that this record describes the creation of Chipman’s Pond, and that the new pond flooded the old road and wading place.

Another interesting reference appears in 1747, when Presbyterian minister Rev. Charles Tenant mentioned Broad Creek Bridge in a list of places for “public service and preaching…” This is significant, because the early religious history of Broad Creek is a bit mysterious. In the 1880s, Scharf’s contributor Rev. Benjamin Douglass suggested that Christ Church, built in 1771, replaced an earlier structure, vaguely citing local tradition.

 

 

Sandy Fork and vicinity, c. 1723-1868. Composite map of early roads, plus structures known to have existed in 1868, hint at what the Broad Creek Bridge community may have looked like during its early years. Today’s Routes 13 and 24 included for context.

Additionally, it is known that a Presbyterian church was built along the same branch sometime prior to the Revolution, during which it was burned. Tenant’s mention of Broad Creek Bridge is also significant because he seems to be using the name to refer to the community located around the bridge, as opposed to earlier records which seem to use the name to refer to the literal bridge. However, although his list specifically mentions meeting houses at other locations, it does not actually say that there was one at Broad Creek Bridge. The history of the Broad Creek Presbyterians between the 1740s and 1780s deserves further research.

The 1750s saw several surveys for Joseph Marshall which mention Broad Creek Bridge, roads, and other features. Perhaps the most important is a 1755 resurvey of a tract including land formerly owned by Robert Givans, and excluding land which had been “taken away by water.” The new 114-acre tract was called Saw Mill Lot. Although the document does not say whether there was already a sawmill there, the reference to encroaching water suggests that the creek had already been dammed to create a mill pond. This could have occurred as early as the late 1720s or early 1730s, under Robert Givans. In any case, it is clear that Saw Mill Lot surrounded the section of Broad Creek which would later be known as Old Forge Pond.

In 1770, the Maryland legislature authorized the purchase of “a Lott of Ground at or near Broad Creek Bridge in [Stepney] Parish and Erecting and Building thereon a Chapel of Ease to the said Parish,” resulting in the construction of Broad Creek Chapel between 1771 and 1772. Tradition holds that the iron nails, hinges, etc., used in the structure were produced at the nearby forge. It’s not clear why the site at Chipman’s Pond, about a mile north of Broad Creek Bridge, was chosen, but the decision seems to support the theory that the name Broad Creek Bridge was used to refer to the entire community at that time.

By 1807, as mentioned previously, Josiah Polk owned the forge, gristmill, and sawmill at the site. When he died—probably in the late 1830s—ownership passed to his brother, John, although the old forge was abandoned. The mills were called the Polk Mills during this period, even after they were sold to the Chipman family. They were operated during most of the 19th century, changing hands several times.

Both the mills and the bridge were mentioned in 1848, when James Horsey donated a half-acre parcel on the south side of the creek to a group of free blacks led by Samson Matthews. The church they founded would be known as Old Forge A.M.E., though the name does not appear in the deed. The congregation hosted an annual campmeeting beginning in 1855. The church was closed in 1909, but sister church Mt. Pisgah continued to hold campmeetings for several years. In The Churches of Delaware, published in 1947, Zebley stated that nothing survived to mark the site. The history of this church and campmeeting will be explored in greater detail in a future article.

The community at Broad Creek Bridge can be considered a direct ancestor of the town of Laurel, and it is to be hoped that we will be able to learn more about its story, from its mysterious beginnings in the colonial era until its seemingly rapid abandonment in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Specifics about the Old Forge, in particular, are elusive. The search continues.

Notes:
1. The Archaeological Society of Delaware provides PDF copies of The Archeolog at delawarearchaeology.org.
2. Colonial court and land records are held by the Maryland State Archives; searchable at msa.maryland.gov and plats.net, respectively.
3. Tract maps created by John Lyon and Mike Hitch identified original landowners around Broad Creek Bridge.

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Jarrett Willey, Innholder at Broad Creek

In March of 1737, a man named Jarrett Willey petitioned the Somerset County Court for permission to keep “an Ordinary or house of Entertainment at his house at broad Creek in Somerset County for the Use and Conveniency of the Inhabitants Travellers and Strangers. . .”  The Court granted his request, under the condition that he would pay a yearly fee of fifty shillings, and keep an orderly establishment. Tippling, gaming, and “disorders or other Irregularities” were not to be tolerated.  Local planters Robert Givans and Allen Gray provided security; they would be fined if Willey failed to follow the rules.

Technically, an ordinary was a tavern or restaurant, but in this part of the colonies, the term was also used to refer to inns. In this case, the Court record specifically calls Willey an “Inholder” — that is, an innholder or innkeeper. His ordinary would have been one of the most important places at Broad Creek at the time; a place for travelers to stay overnight, and for locals to gather.

Willey’s name appears on the Somerset County tax lists for 1737-1740, but the spelling is inconsistent. For example, in 1740, it was Jerad Willy. Also in 1740, he petitioned the Court again; this record is nearly identical to the one from 1737, with Jonathan Shockley and Paris Chipman providing security.

The exact location of Willey’s establishment is unclear, but it seems to have been located at or near the community known as Broad Creek Bridge, near today’s Sandy Fork. In 1741, some of the residents of the easternmost reaches of Broad Creek petitioned for the creation of a new road leading from “Jarrad Wiley on broad Creek” into Wimbesocom Neck, a distance of several miles. This road may have been the basis of parts of today’s Route 24.

Willey makes another appearance, this time in the land records, in 1742. His first name is spelled Garrett. A triangular 50-acre tract was surveyed for him and described as being in the fork of two roads leading from Broad Creek Bridge to the Wicomico River and Wicomico forest, respectively. This certainly sounds like a good location for an ordinary, but it’s not clear how Willey used his new tract of land, which was patented to him in 1746.

The handful of references to Jarrett Willey, innholder at Broad Creek, offer us a better understanding of the early Broad Creek Bridge community, which we still know so little about.

– Chris Slavens

 

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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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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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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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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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