An Independent Spirit In Victorian Garb

POSTMARK: STILL POND

July 23, 1995|By NANCY TAYLOR ROBSON

Still Pond doesn't look like a hotbed of radicalism. Victorian storefronts seem to peer myopically into the narrow main street. The general store, both shop and social hub, shares its building with the town post office, which has a single window and a bank of antique post boxes.

Surrounded by farmland, nine miles from Chestertown off Route 292, Still Pond looks more like a place where time has stood still for centuries. But in 1908 -- 12 years before Congress ratified the 19th Amendment, which granted women suffrage -- three women went to the polls in this sleepy Kent County hamlet and voted in a municipal election. A first in Maryland history.

The men of Still Pond, in defiance of the U.S. Constitution's omission of "the ladies," gave the women suffrage upon the town's incorporation in 1908. Eligible voters were all those, "women included, who pay taxes and who have resided within the corporate limits six months and of age 21 and upward. . . ."

Although only three women made it to the polls that day, 14 were registered to vote, including two African-Americans. A descendant of Mary Jane Howard, one of those three women who voted, suspects that it was not pure generosity on the men's part.

"There was a forceful group of women in the town at the time," says the descendant. "They had a way of getting what they wanted."

Whichever it was -- forceful women, or fair-minded men -- there is still a strain of defiance in the town today. That defiance reared its head again last summer when the U.S. Postal Service threatened to shut down the Still Pond branch. Though it serves only 300 people -- 150 within the town limits -- the post office is a vital cog in the life of the town.

"Everyone came out and raised a ruckus," says Gretchen Sassi, a nurse who has lived in Still Pond since 1979.

"It's the center for intelligence," explains Jim Huggins, a retired businessman who has lived there for 40 years.

Faced with such vociferous opposition, the U.S. Postal Service backed off.

Still Pond's population is made up of both outlanders and natives whose families have been there for generations. It's a kind of haven for the artistic types who have moved in over the years.

Ms. Sassi's husband, Doug, is a potter with a studio in the barn across the road from their house. Master boat builder Graham Ero left Connecticut when development took over his riverside community. He was attracted to Still Pond's appreciation for tradition and history, he says.

Other residents include artist Peggy Blades, a member of the Baltimore Watercolorists Society; Ken Milton, who restores paintings for Georgetown University among other clients, and his wife, Normandy, a sculptor and writer.

The small-town closeness, the sense of interconnectedness is what has attracted others.

"We were looking for a nice place to live," explains Gerry Penn, who, with her husband, Larry, owns Still Pond Market, the town's general store. They lived in St. Michaels for 18 years and moved to Still Pond five years ago. "Still Pond is like St. Michaels used to be," Ms. Penn says.

In a move back to his roots, Jim Herron, a painting contractor, bought the Odd Fellows Lodge 18 months ago. His grandfather once owned a farm in Still Pond. Shortly after Mr. Herron and his wife moved in, people began to introduce themselves. "I had people telling me they knew my grandfather and I'd think, 'Who are you?' They knew me but I didn't know them -- yet," he says.

"The best thing about the town is the market," Mr. Herron says, when asked what he likes most.

It is at the Still Pond Market that many residents gather for coffee and gossip on Saturday and Sunday mornings.

"At first, all the men would sit on Eddie Trenks' front steps, over there at Ideal Optical," says Gerry Penn, pointing out the window at the blue storefront across the street. "But they moved in here after a while. We set up chairs for them. The outside seats are from Memorial Stadium. . . . Babe Ruth might have sat in those seats."

Although Babe Ruth couldn't have sat in those seats (he died in 1948 and the stadium opened in 1954), Still Pond has nonetheless had its brushes with greatness.

Katharine Hepburn's grandfather, Sewell Stavely Hepburn, owned nearby Shepherd's Delight, a farm where young Kate spent summers. She still has cousins there.

And, retail genius F. W. Woolworth once came to Still Pond to see Medders Store.

"It had everything," says Doug Sassi. "Stirrups, clothes, carrots, saddles, furniture, books -- it was the Macy's of Still Pond. It stayed in business until the 1960s."

Although the tone of Still Pond is Victorian, there has been a town of one name or another on the site since before the Revolution.

The current town is named for nearby Still Pond Creek. Yet on a 1673 map, the creek and town are named Steelpone. "Pone" is an Elizabethan English term meaning "favorite." The names may change, but the independent soul of the township does not.

This year, on the anniversary of the 1908 ladies' vote, Still Ponders celebrated the historic event with a community tree-planting ceremony, an expression of growth. The keynote speech, given by Kent County School Superintendent Lorraine Costello, noted that the townspeople have set goals, achieved them, and moved on to new ones. But Still Ponders stood still for a moment this year, and looked back in appreciation of the milestones that had brought them this far.

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