Fact, faith collide after archaeological dig

August 03, 2005|By Stephanie Desmon | Stephanie Desmon,SUN STAFF

In a Carroll County cornfield stands a shrine to one of the pioneers of Methodism in America. A larger-than-life granite statue of the preacher Robert Strawbridge was erected last year -- 8 feet tall atop an 8-foot pedestal -- not far from the true centerpiece of this hallowed ground: the house Strawbridge was thought to have lived in through the 1760s and part of the 1770s.

Convinced by a snippet of oral history that this was the place, Methodist patrons for decades tried to secure it as a memorial to the early circuit rider. More than 30 years ago, they bought the 32-acre property -- decades after being unable to come up with a $3,500 asking price during the Depression. It wasn't until the turn of this century that the house became theirs when its elderly occupant died.

Hoping to learn more about this historic home, members of the Strawbridge Shrine Association asked an archaeologist to do some digging. What she has learned isn't exactly making members happy.

"I can't argue it that Robert Strawbridge lived there in the 1760s, not responsibly. I haven't seen that evidence," said Kirsti Uunila, a historical preservation specialist with Calvert County who did the work in Carroll County on her summer vacations and who submitted a report last fall.

Even if the house never belonged to Strawbridge, it is certainly old -- a scientific team experienced in using tree rings to date pieces of timber determined the logs were felled in 1757. And at the very least, Strawbridge lived somewhere in the vicinity soon after arriving in the Colonies around 1760.

But there is a quiet debate brewing over whether the home was actually inhabited by the Irish-born preacher who changed the religious landscape here -- and whether it is being wrongly promoted to the 1,000 or so who make the pilgrimage each year.

These things aren't easy to prove. Oral histories can be based on fuzzy recollections that, once set to paper, take on lives of their own. Land records can be muddled, lost or even wrong. Journals are a great resource, but not many survive after 250 years. Even a bronze plaque on a building declaring its age isn't surefire affirmation.

One of the more well-known examples of mistaken identity is the story of the Constellation docked in Baltimore's Inner Harbor, the ship once declared to be one of the frigates ordered by George Washington in the early days of the republic. In the face of persuasive evidence that the boat was instead the last one still afloat from the Civil War, its keepers changed the tale and restored it to its 1854 appearance.

Sometimes, though, history remains a mystery.

"I've done a tremendous amount of research over the last 60 years," said the Rev. Edwin Schell, historian of the United Methodist Church's Baltimore-Washington Conference. "Instead of finding answers, you find new questions."

The Robert Strawbridge Shrine near New Windsor is one of the first four sites dedicated as national landmarks by the United Methodist Church in 1940. There are now 24 such sites in the nation, Schell said.

The shrine's protectors have spent years raising thousands of dollars to preserve what they consider his home and another on the property that is said to have belonged to John Evans, the first American convert to Methodism. They have even built a replica there of the first log meeting house, which was lost long ago.

The shrine association has received Uunila's report -- and members have heard the conjectures of others -- but they are not budging on the story. They continue to say the house belonged to Strawbridge. They're waiting for undeniable proof -- and the archaeologist's report is not that, several said.

"He was here," said Dan Hartzler, president of the shrine association and owner of a local funeral home. "We know he was here.

"Only one place in the country can there be a birthplace of something, and the birthplace is here," Hartzler said.

Nobody is sure just why Strawbridge came to Maryland. Little has been left behind. He left no writings, none of his inspiring sermons that are said to have grabbed many a convert. "We don't even have his signature," Schell said.

But his presence was felt. He traveled through Maryland and Delaware, historians say, and even New Jersey and Virginia, sharing what he learned from John Wesley himself.

Strawbridge is believed to have rented the land where the shrine sits today -- Schell says he later owned the property. George Horvath, who studied land and tax records, said Strawbridge owned adjacent land, and nothing was built on it.

Strawbridge's original house might have been destroyed, according to several sources. Tax records from 1798 include a notation that a log house burned. A sentence in a book co-written by Maryland's state archivist, Edward C. Papenfuse, says the home was razed in the 1760s. References to the home having been "wet" -- likely meaning near a spring -- have been found and the house currently sits on a rock.

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