Shore golf course bulldozes Colonial remains

October 04, 1990|By James Bock

The remains of the 17th-century home of one of Lord Baltimore's wealthy confidants, found this summer and hastily excavated in a 10-week archaeological dig, were bulldozed this week to make way for a golf course near Queenstown.

Officials from the Maryland Historical Trust, which tried but failed to save the site in Queen Anne's County, called its destruction a great loss, although the University of Delaware archaeologist who excavated the site said the dig provided a wealth of information about Colonial Maryland.

"Very interesting things have been found. But the site has also been basically lost," said Orlando Ridout V, chief of research for the historical trust.

Jay Custer, the Delaware archaeologist, said, "It would have been great to preserve" the site. But he said the golf course developers went out of their way to make sure the land's past was recorded before it was bulldozed.

thankful we had a chance to dig this," Dr. Custer said. "I had to make the best of the situation that was there, and I'm very pleased. We dug up everything we could find."

What he found -- the stone foundation of the large, key-shaped plantation home of Henry Coursey, perhaps in his day the fTC wealthiest and most politically influential resident of the Eastern Shore -- is a rich vein of Colonial Maryland history, everyone involved agrees.

"This excavation, even though a rush, will expand our knowledge about that part of Maryland -- everything from the furnishings to the foods they ate to maybe how servant life differed from the master's life," said Henry Miller, an expert on 17th-century Maryland at Historic St. Mary's City.

Dr. Custer said he recovered 250 boxes of artifacts -- including English pipe stems, fragments of fine Dutch ceramics and German mugs, fish bones, 9-inch-long oyster shells and Italian glass beads probably used in fur trading with the Susquehannock Indians -- that will shed light on 17th-century life and the state of the bay at the time.

Cecilius Calvert, the second Lord Baltimore, gave Coursey the land in a 1658 "thumb grant" -- so called because he put his thumb on a map and told Coursey that everything under it was his, Dr. Custer said. In gratitude, Coursey named his plantation My Lord's Gift.

The Washington Brick and Terra Cotta Co. began plans to make the 735-acre My Lord's Gift farm a golf course more than six years ago. In June, over the objections of two state agencies, the family-owned real estate holding company won approval to build the $7.5 million course from the Chesapeake Bay Critical Area Commission and Queen Anne's County.

After the historical trust pointed out the site's significance late i the approval process, Washington Brick contracted with Dr. Custer, at the trust's suggestion, to do an archaeological survey of the farm. In a field of head-high corn, Dr. Custer made a major find -- the remains of the Coursey house, which apparently dates to the 1670s or 1680s.

The developers gave him until Sept. 1 to excavate the site and helped finance the work with a $5,000 grant. They later extended the deadline to Oct. 1.

"It was a unique situation," Dr. Custer said. "The normal course for a developer would be to grab me by the seat of the pants, throw me off the site and run a bulldozer over that land first to make sure nothing happened to block their project."

But Richard Hughes, chief archaeologist for the historical trust, said the site "deserved to be preserved or have the most meticulous and careful excavation possible. . . . A vast amount of information was lost because people couldn't take the time to do the way it deserved to be done."

Mr. Hughes said the trust could not impose its will on the developers because no federal or state funds were involved in the project.

Washington Brick has applied to the state Department of Natural Resources for a permit to dig wells on the property, but "our legal handle was pretty tenuous," the state official said.

Arthur A. "Lex" Birney Jr., a partner in Washington Brick, said there was no way to redesign the 27-hole course to avoid the Coursey site and still meet construction schedules.

He said that by the time the trust expressed its concerns -- "sort of at the last minute would be putting it nicely" -- it was too late.

Queenstown Harbor Golf Links, a public course, expects to have 18 holes open next July 1. A plaque on the course will explain My Lord's Gift's historic past, and artifacts recovered in the dig will be displayed in the golf course's store, Mr. Birney said.

Mr. Ridout acknowledged that the trust did not learn of the threat to My Lord's Gift in time.

"In retrospect, if we had approached the Birneys three years ago, it would have been relatively easy to reach an accommodation on the site. But we only know what the public tells us. Their basic point is: 'Why didn't you talk to us?' My response is: 'Why didn't you call us?' "

"The Birneys had a ton of money riding on a project already at full bore, and they probably were scared to death somebody would foul up the works," he said. "I wish we had a way to look carefully at the site five years ago, but we have a ton of sites I'd like to look at and no money to do it. In the end, the site was not adequately protected."

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