In Davidsonville, Farmer Works The Land For Artifacts

22 Years Of Digging Detailed In New Book

May 03, 1991|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,Staff writer

William P. Doepkens' farmhouse cellar is damp and cool. History survives there in row after row of tomato boxes marked with such labels as "pipe bowl ends," "gray stoneware," "spoons" and "bones."

The boxes contain thousands of fragments of clay, ceramic, glass, metal, bone. Each piece has been cleaned, marked and carefully stored. Taken together, the shards form a chunk of the lives of two men: William P. Doepkens and Mareen Duvall, a native of France who in 1664 established a 600-acre plantation near the South River.

Doepkens -- farmer, student of his world -- made Duvall's acquaintance on the land that he worked for his daily bread. And once Doepkens sniffed what might lie buried beneath those rich soils, he could not stop until the work was done.

It took 22 years.

A book detailing the archaeological expedition that Doepkens and his family conducted on a farm in Davidsonville is fresh off the press: "Excavations at Mareen Duvall's Middle Plantation of South River Hundred." It is the product of years of sweat and Doepkens' unvanquished curiosity about the area where he has lived all his 75 years.

"I got let down when I couldn't find anything anymore," said Doepkens, sitting at the kitchen table in his overalls, blue chambray shirt and black-rimmed glasses. He speaks softly and driftseasily into anecdotes.

Doepkenshas moved through life with his eyes open and would like you to hearwhat he's seen. So when he began piecing together the picture of Mareen Duvall's homestead, he knew he would have to write it down. He wrote it longhand and his wife, Marjorie, to whom he dedicated the book, typed the first drafts and all the revisions.

The writing took about 10 years. The Doepkens spent several thousand dollars to have 1,000 copies of the 256-page book published by Gateway Press in Baltimore.

The book details the history of the plantation and of Duvall,who is believed to have immigrated to Maryland from Brittany about1650, probably to escape the French government's oppression of Protestants. In 1659, he completed his indentured servitude and acquired 50 acres of land.

That land formed the basis of an estate that grew to3,000 acres by the time of Duvall's death in 1694. Duvall's descendants had long speculated about the exact location of the plantation homestead. Thomas A. Mayr, a local historian and amateur archaeologist,suggested to Doepkens that the site might be off Rossback Road, on land now owned by Richard E. Dove, about a half-mile northeast of the Doepkens farmhouse on Davidsonville Road.

Mayr was right. The Doepkens family was working that land in the spring of 1968 when a sharecropper turned some earth in a tobacco field and launched Doepkens on his expedition into Colonial history. What the plow turned up was some ash and brick. Months later, Doepkens found some 17th- and early 18th-century pottery, flints and pipe stems.

The first big discoverycame in November 1969, when Doepkens unearthed a bricked-up spring that had been used once as a home water supply.

Doepkens knew plenty about soil, insects and crops, but here he was venturing into the unknown.

"I didn't know what a pipe stem looked like when I started," he said. "I thought it was a chicken bone."

As the work went on, Doepkens learned by reading and by consulting with archaeologists and historians. He learned not only how to distinguish a chicken bone from a clay pipe fragment, but how to date the pipes from the manufacturers' marks. He learned how to identify different styles of Englishand Dutch pottery. Through a woman at the Museum of London, he learned that a clay pipe figurine he found at Middle Plantation was identical to a 17th-century figurine unearthed in London.

For years, Doepkens lived the life of a farmer/archaeologist, pulled on one hand bythe family business, on the other by the desire to know more.

Marjorie Doepkens remembered that "one year he was down there" in an excavation site "when he should have been in the stripping room" peelingthe leaves off stalks of tobacco. "But he was finding a lot of things."

He found thousands of fragments, most of which were individually numbered to identify where they were found. Mrs.Doepkens did most of that tedious work, said Doepkens.

"She'd sit down for hours," he said. "You get so you do it in your sleep."

Mrs. Doepkens recalled how they "spent a whole winter in the basement trying to put it together. It was like a jigsaw puzzle."

By 1977, the layout of the two-acre Duvall homestead had emerged from the excavations clearly enough to be mapped by the Doepkens' son, William J., who studied drafting in college. The excavations had turned up remnants of the main house, the kitchen, storage pits, root cellars, bricked-up springs, tobacco barns and a graveyard.

Doepkens said they still find a fragment or two while walking the fields, but he figures the site has been pretty well picked over. The first copy of the book arrived by mail Friday.

Time for Doepkens to find some new project to sate his curiosity. "It's hard to believe it's done," Mrs. Doepkens said.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.