Rebuilding past, nail by nail Preservation: For 14 years a Worcester County carpenter has been salvaging bits and pieces of dying buildings, using them to create a park in tribute to his heritage.

March 22, 1997|By Dail Willis | Dail Willis,SUN STAFF

BERLIN -- Reggie Mariner remembers the Worcester County of his childhood, when the years slipped past in the seasonal cadence of the land -- spring planting, summer harvest, fall tilling.

That rural rhythm is all but gone now, overlaid by a tangle of agribusiness, housing developments and beach-bound traffic that others call progress. Mariner doesn't -- and he's holding on to pieces of Worcester County's past wherever he can find them.

Bricks, boards, shingles, old wood stoves and years of painstaking labor have combined to create the small theme park near Berlin that he and his wife, Ann, have christened Mariners' Country Down. Since opening in 1984, it has grown slowly and surely, evolving into 16 buildings and a cluster of artisans who work while you watch -- in a setting that re-creates and preserves a local heritage that is rapidly disappearing.

"In Worcester County, our landscape is changing," Mariner says. Some people, he says, want to see the old buildings torn down, the past bulldozed over and forgotten. They say the county doesn't look "prosperous" with all the old buildings still standing.

"What is prosperous?" he asks. "We can be prosperous in Wal-Marts. We can be prosperous in Burger Kings. But I just want to hold on to the past a little bit longer."

Mariners' Country Down began in 1983 when he built the small, gray two-story house that he and his wife share. They began to acquire the surrounding property for the park, and in 1984 it opened for one day with free admission.

Thirteen years later, it is open nine days a year, on weekends between Thanksgiving and Christmas, with an admission fee of $3.50. The park, a hobby for Mariner and his wife -- he runs a construction company, she works at a family-owned hotel in Ocean City -- has grown to 150 acres, mostly woodland, and a variety of artisans and buildings.

Visitors can eat food cooked on a wood stove at Mary Pryor's Pantry, so named because bricks from the dilapidated Pryor homestead in Pocomoke Forest were used to construct it. A weaver makes fabric in the Weaving House, and sometimes there's a potter throwing pots. There's a bookbinder in another building, and a blacksmith busy at his forge. A furniture maker wields a lathe by hand, carefully shaping a cabinet.

Mariner's obsession with his theme park, and the obvious pride he takes in it reflect a deeper commitment to the past than is evident in mere structures. The idea for the park originated with a school trip to Virginia when he was in the sixth grade, he says.

"I always wanted to build a village after seeing Yorktown and Williamsburg," he says. "I thought, 'Gosh, if John Rockefeller can do this. '"

He also had plenty of training in doing things by hand. His father, a third-generation corn farmer in Worcester County, believed boys kept busy were boys kept out of trouble. Moreover, there was no end to the work the senior Mr. Mariner distributed, since he farmed most of his life without succumbing to mechanization.

Consequently, Reggie Mariner spent a lot of time walking behind a horse-drawn plow. He picked corn from the stalks by hand, row by row, filling one split-oak basket after another. Corn cribs, where the harvest was stored, were built with reclaimed wood and plenty of labor. Nothing was wasted.

The lesson was lasting -- today Mariner will invest hours of labor to reshape "found" materials into a building. But there was more: He decided he didn't want to farm.

"Corn more or less took the taste out of my mouth for farming," he says now. So he went to work for a boat builder when he graduated from high school. When they wanted him to work the night shift, he quit and turned his hand to other carpentry.

A tour of the park indicates that the materials did come first, not the need for a new structure.

"This whole building originated because of these beams," he says in the park's carpentry shop. Overhead are long wooden beams darkened with age that he took from the Marlin Club in Ocean City when it was torn down. The rest of the building evolved around them.

"We're saving a piece of our heritage by using reclaimed wood," he says. Behind him, furniture maker Chip Nock is shaping cabinets out of old doors salvaged from an Ocean City cottage near 38th Street torn down to build a parking lot.

So it goes, building by building. Bricks from a fallen house, shingles from an old barn, coal stoves adapted for wood, even a small wooden organ he bought at an auction because nobody else would bid on it. (He got it for $60, and an organ repairman agreed to fix it while the park was open, allowing visitors to see a virtuoso restorer at work.)

Sixteen buildings in 14 years is a long way from modern construction practices, and the park, which draws about 3,000 visitors a year, doesn't make money like Disney World. But Mariner shrugs off the modern view that time is too valuable to be used in the generous amounts required to build by hand.

"People say, 'You know how long it would take?'" Mariner says. "For gosh sakes -- you know how long people sit looking at TV?"

Pub Date: 3/22/97

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