Historic Designation Sought For Deer Creek

Landowners Would Not Be Restricted In Development

December 08, 1991|By Alan J. Craver | Alan J. Craver,Staff writer

Atop a hill just off Trappe Church Road, Angus Greme is buried -- not far from the site where he fell in love with Harford County.

Greme, who lived from 1750 to 1800, first saw the rolling landscape of the county as a French soldier marching south to Virginia during the American Revolution. The captain vowed he'd return to live after the war.

He did, buying 800 acres of farmland where he built a two-story stone house. Today the homestead and gravesite are in the center of the Deer Creek valley, a bucolic area of the county that still looks much the way it did when Greme settled there.

A group of valley residents and county planners would like to preserve the charm that attracted early settlers. They have been working on getting about 15,000 acres of the valley, from the Susquehanna River to Route 543, north ofHickory, onto the National Register of Historic Places.

"In essence, (Deer Creek) is a history of rural America," said Christopher Weeks, the historic preservation planner for the county. "One can see, based on the buildings that are still standing, 250 years of agricultural development."

The proposed historic district, to be called theLower Deer Creek Valley Historic District, would protect the region from developments that receive federal funding, such as a highway or dam, unless it was proved of critical need, Weeks said.

The historic designation would not require individual property owners to seek special approvals if they want to build on or alter their properties, said Weeks, who has worked on documenting many buildings in the valley for the project.

The Deer Creek district would be similar to theMy Lady's Manor Historic District, a sprawling agricultural area in Baltimore and Harford counties. About 1,000 acres of My Lady's Manor are in Harford.

The proposed district, 10 years in the planning, would span both sides of Deer Creek, between Trappe Church and Trappe roads on the north and the villages of Kalmia, Glenville and Garland on the south.

The county's application for the historic designation -- nearly 300 pages long -- is expected to be submitted next month.It must be approved by the Maryland Historical Trust, Gov. William Donald Schaefer and the federal Department of the Interior. Weeks hopes the review process will be complete by next fall.

The story about Greme is one of the many history lessons found touring the narrow, tree-lined roads of the Deer Creek valley.

Among them is Harmony Church Road, just past Priestford Road and the U.S. Army's tank-testing facility. Along Deer Creek about a mile is Cookville, one of the county's first industrial areas -- not found on most road maps today.

Cookville was established in the 1840s by Elijah Cook, a Pennsylvania Quaker who opened a woolen mill. The mill was unprofitable, so Cook converted the facility into a leather tannery, Weeks said.

The tannery is now home to Jay and Sally Van Deusen, who bought the 147-year-old structure two years ago. Across the street is a bark mill, built in 1857, where black oak logs were rolled across a floor and theirbark was scooped up and hauled across the road to the tannery.

Van Deusen, who learned of his home's history through old books and longtime area residents, said the bark was mixed with water to make a "tanning liquor." The hides of cattle were then steeped in the liquor to make leather.

Van Deusen is part of the Lower Deer Creek Valley Historical District Committee, a group of five citizens leading efforts to have the valley listed on the National Historic Register.

"(The area) is one of the original industrial developments in the county," said Van Deusen, a 28-year-old renovation contractor. "Our concern is to preserve some of that."

Another important structure is Wilson's Mill, a grist mill built before the Revolutionary War along Darlington Road at Deer Creek. Now a private estate, the mill got its name from Rachel Wilson, whose grandfather ferried troops across the Susquehanna at Lapidum, north of Havre de Grace, during the revolution,Weeks said.

Wilson's family owned the mill into the 1920s, when it was bought by Francis Stokes, a Philadelphian who was part of an influx of wealthy city people who moved to Harford before the Great Depression, Weeks said.

In those years, it was the style to constructbuildings the way they looked in Colonial days, so Stokes built a barn and several other structures at the mill site using local materials, Weeks said. "The idea was to create instant history," Weeks said. "But the point was not to impress. . . . (The mill) sums up the Colonial revival period."

East, to the banks of the Susquehanna, is what's left of the Worthington homestead. The site is notable because the Quaker family operated a stop on the underground railroad for slaves fleeing north before the Civil War, Weeks said.

A foundation of the Worthington homestead is all that remains at the site, now owned by Philadelphia Electric Co., Weeks said. Few records of the family'swork with the underground railroad exist, but longtime residents have passed on stories about the Worthington's efforts to help the slaves.

"It's existence depended on secrecy because they were breaking the law," Weeks said. "No one at the time really knew it was there."

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