Sotterley Plantation offers glimpse into past

Visitors to riverside site in St. Mary's County can tour historic 'gem'

Short Hop

April 20, 2003|By Karen Nitkin | Karen Nitkin,Special to the Sun

It was a warm, drizzly day as we stood in the garden of Sotterley Plantation, a former tobacco farm in St. Mary's County. At our feet, plants and flowers were pushing through the moist rows of dirt. In the distance, past green rolling fields, the Patuxent River meandered toward the Chesapeake Bay.

But my 5-year-old daughter and I were not focused on the garden or the magnificent view. We were looking at a small brick building in front of us. Catherine Elder, executive director of the Sotterley Foundation, said it had once been used as a "necessary."

Could my daughter figure out its purpose?

She peered through the wrought iron gate and examined the wooden benches inside, with their squares of wood tastefully positioned over the holes. She saw the basket filled with dried corn husks.

I gave her a hint: "What do you do after you brush your teeth each night?"

"Oh, I know," she said. "It's where they read stories."

Elder tried: "After you drink a lot of water, where do you need to go?"

Then my little girl understood. "That was their potty!"

One of the joys of visiting Sotterley is seeing that light of recognition on young faces as they begin to imagine what life was like in rural Maryland centuries ago.

A gem from 1710

Sotterley has been a National Historic Landmark since 2000. The 800-acre property's centerpiece is a manor house that dates to 1710. There are also 28 outbuildings, including slave quarters.

The plantation attracts between 10,000 to 15,000 visitors a year, Elder said, but it is still something of an undiscovered gem -- less well known, for example, than Virginia's plantations along the James River between Williamsburg and Richmond.

During Sotterley's heyday in the 18th century, it was one of many tobacco farms along the Patuxent. Now, it is Maryland's only Colonial tidewater plantation open to the public. A visit there provides an opportunity to see history up close, even to touch it. Children, especially, are encouraged to grind corn, write with a quill pen, feed the sheep and try to tell time using a sun-dial. Costumed interpreters conduct ghost tours in the fall and candlelight tours in the winter.

And beginning May 1, the manor house will reopen for seasonal tours with all its furniture in place. The 10-room, 2,400-square-foot house had most of its furniture removed during renovations that began two years ago.

One of the renovation's most impressive changes so far is the home's new roof, created from 55,000 red cedar shingles. The exterior of the house has been painted a crisp white -- with black shutters -- and exterior woodwork has been repaired.

The grounds are stunning, with rolling fields and magnificent views of the river. The three bald eagles that have set up residence in Sotterley's sycamore trees are a bonus.

Every year, volunteers plant the garden with historically appropriate culinary, aromatic and medicinal herbs. On our visit, Carolyn Hoey, the head interpreter, urged my two children to touch a plant called lamb's ears because it is so soft. As they fondled the furry leaves, she explained that the plant was used as a bandage during Colonial times.

Visitors can walk the grounds year-round, and even picnic there if they want.

'It's a living history'

Construction of the manor house began in 1710, after the property was acquired by James Bowles, son of a wealthy London merchant. By 1717, he had built a two-room house and was living there with his bride, Rebecca, and their two daughters. They grew tobacco, wheat and corn, and owned 120 cattle, 114 sheep and 40 slaves.

Bowles died in 1727, and two years later his widow married George Plater II. For the next century or so, the property was occupied by the Platers, including George Plater III, who was elected Maryland's sixth governor in 1791.

In 1822, the property was purchased by the Briscoe family, and in 1910 was sold to Herbert and Louisa Satterlee. Although the names are similar, Sotterley was named much earlier for an ancestral home in England and is not related to the name Satterlee.

Louisa, the daughter of in-dustrialist J. Pierpont Morgan, spent many years researching the history of the property and carefully restoring it. The wealth and energy of the Satterlees are the main reason Sotterley exists today, Elder said. "It was a labor of love by a family that could afford it."

Their daughter, Mabel Satterlee Ingalls, created the nonprofit Sotterley Foundation, which has been operating Sotterley since 1961.

Elder and Hoey note that the goal is not to create a historic artifact of an 18th-century plantation. Rather, it is to show the entire history of the house, including additions and remodeling that took place in later centuries. Accordingly, palm-tree wallpaper that was added to the dining room in the 1950s will be allowed to stay.

"It's a living history," Elder explained.

Freed by talent

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