ELKTON - From the edge of the veranda at Hollingsworth House, a historic Cecil County home at the edge of a sleepy creek, Zebulon Hollingsworth Jr. best tells the story of his family's heritage at the headwaters of the Elk River.
With a tricorn hat and cheeks turning pink in the morning sun, Hollingsworth, played by local historical interpreter Gordon Johnson, recounts his father's arrival in the Colonies with William Penn, his brother's service in the Continental Army, the shipbuilders and sailors, merchants and British marines who found their way to the homestead known as Elk Landing.
"It was a busy, busy place," said Johnson, who is a North East real estate executive by day but has an adopted British lilt and sensibility that's infectious enough to get people dreaming about the Hollingsworth family.
That kind of spark could turn Elk Landing into big business for the town of Elkton (population almost 12,000), which sits astride a fertile crescent of Colonial tourism that stretches from Philadelphia to Williamsburg.
The Historic Elk Landing Foundation hopes to turn the area into a living history park for the period from 1770 to 1820, when Elkton was a busy crossroads for advancing armies and traveling statesmen.
But for the town known as the East Coast's quickie marriage capital, getting visitors to think more like Williamsburg and less like wedding chapels is key.
The town and the foundation have gotten an unexpected hand with that after a volunteer cleaning out an upstairs bedroom in the house found a letter penned by Thomas Jefferson.
"They're very lucky to have found the letter," said Randall Skeirik, a preservation officer with the Maryland Historical Trust, which gave the foundation $50,000 in 2002 for capital repairs to the homestead.
Skeirik said a project as ambitious as Elk Landing's proposed living history park could depend heavily on private contributions.
But after a year of anticipation, the letter, valued at $700,000, failed to sell last month at auction at Christie's in New York, leaving some hopes on hold - especially those for repairing an old stone building on the grounds that is believed to have been a tavern or other business.
Michael Dixon, head of the Historic Elk Landing Foundation, said the board of directors would be consulting with Christie's and deciding in the next few weeks whether to offer the letter again in December at the next manuscript auction.
"When a buyer's willing to pay the right price, it's available," Dixon said.
In the meantime, other funds raised have allowed work to continue at Elk Landing, where Dixon said he believes people will come to savor a little piece of the history of a merchant family who rubbed elbows with the likes of George Washington and expanded its milling, shipping and transportation businesses into some of the county's wealthiest.
One of the foundation's largest supporters has been a local group called Associated Cecil Endeavors, which has given more than $200,000 to Historic Elk Landing. The group's treasurer, Helen Warburton, said the money was originally raised to preserve another historic property, but efforts there flagged and the group decided to share its funds with Elk Landing.
"It's like one old house helping another house," said Warburton.
The foundation and town are working closely on what they hope is a seven-year plan to get the old buildings on the property ready for visitors. The next step will be to create interpretive programming that brings to life the stories of Elk Landing.
But lots of work lies between dream and destination on the 42-acre peninsula framed by the Big and Little Elk creeks: Cracked, peeling paint greets visitors on each of the Hollingsworth House's three levels; water-damaged floors and stairs sag, reinforced with plywood; wasps are sinister squatters in the low-ceilinged attic rooms.
The stone building sitting by Little Elk Creek is in even worse condition, its roof caved in and walls weakened.
James Wollon, a Havre de Grace architect specializing in historic preservation, said that when he got involved with the Elk Landing project about three years ago, he went to the site and saw "two very early buildings worth preserving. One was just shabby; the other was in a state of collapse."
Wollon is helping to direct work on the Hollingsworth and old stone houses. He said the site's existence in a time where development is pressing in on waterfront areas is "refreshing and exciting. It's remarkable it's still open."
Thanks to about $360,000 cobbled together from grants and contributions, the Hollingsworth House's first floor - painting, flooring restoration, heating and cooling - is scheduled for completion in six months or so, Dixon said.
The second floor's exhibit space will be a future project, he said, along with the planned third-floor, climate-controlled archives area.