Editor Note: This originally appeared in “Here on the Chester” edited by John Lang in 1992.
Renowned editor and essayist Bernard DeVoto once said that the ideal retirement town must have a good hospital and a college. To these prerequisites for the ideal place to live or retire, one may add other requirements: a lively local paper; a newsstand where you can buy The New York Times and the best weekly, monthly and quarterly magazines; cable TV; a major body of water nearby; and finally—most important—a population of interesting people, which, more often than not, is provided by a college, one way or another.
Put them all together and you have what some think is the best little town on the eastern seaboard—Chestertown.
For years, the residents of this often-called “jewel-like town” would urge reporters from nearby metropolitan areas to keep it “our little secret.” But no more. Alas, Chestertown and its surrounding farmlands have been discovered by retirees, weekenders and tourists from Washington, Baltimore, Wilmington, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Florida. Waterfront property in or near town has been virtually impossible to find at reasonable prices for three or four years and in-town houses come on the market very rarely. What happened to Easton, Cambridge and Oxford a few years ago is happening here.
The only question is: What took it so long? A couple of years ago, The Atlantic Monthly reported that more and more designers have discovered the essence of the perfect community. “The newest idea in planning,” said Andres Duany, co-planner of the highly acclaimed Seaside, Florida, “is the 19th-century town. That’s what’s really selling.”
If 19th-century towns are the model now, Chestertown, as an 18th- century town—and a major one at that—should have been discovered long ago. But the reason for its prolonged obscurity is that from the late 18th century, when the post roads began following the Western Shore, to the early 19th-century emergence of Baltimore as the most important port in Maryland, Chestertown just sort of got lost. For 200 years, as Robert Brugger put it in his history, Maryland, A Middle Temperament: 1634-1980, the Eastern Shore towns of Easton, Cambridge and Chestertown “nestled themselves in the ways of the past.”
Often a town’s true character is established by its past and Chestertown’s historical credentials are impressive. It was laid out in 1706 as the Kent County seat and known as “New Town,” but gradually its proximity to the Chester River established its name.
By the Revolution, Chestertown at the height of its colonial prosperity was, next to Annapolis, the most important port in the State. It was also along the route from Philadelphia to Richmond, and travelers, including George Washington who made the trip many times, would cross on the ferry from nearby Rock Hall to Annapolis.
Chestertown also had its own anti-British Tea Party—when citizens threw bales of tea off the Geddes. In 1781, when Washington’s aide, Tench Tilghman, made his famous ride from Yorktown to Philadelphia to inform the Continental Congress that Cornwallis had surrendered, he passed through Chestertown. The following year, Rev. William Smith, who many believe to be the founding father of education in the new world, founded Washington College with the encouragement and financial support of its namesake.
But then, the focus began to shift to the Western Shore. The cost of shipping freight was much cheaper by sea than by land, and Baltimore, which was closer than Philadelphia, Boston and New York to the emerging markets in the Midwest, became the preferable port. Moreover, it became even more attractive in the 19th century with the building of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. It was then that Chestertown began its 200-year slumber.
“We have pursued a bucolic, mellow kind of existence since the Revolution,” said Hurtt Deringer, [deceased] editor of The Kent County News (itself an integral part of the town’s past, having been launched in 1793 as The Chestertown Spy). “We have gone our way—hardheaded, stubborn and insulated from the rest of the world.”
This insulation was perhaps a good thing. With nothing much happening for most of two centuries, there were not many changes made, which means that when the town planners started discovering the virtues of 19th-century towns and building new ones to look like them, lo and behold, here was the real article virtually intact with its custom house, historic little college, and many 18th-century houses nestled quietly on the banks of the Chester River.
“The 19th-century towns are completely viable prototypes,” says town planner Duany. “But it’s not enough to look like a town—it has to function like a town,” which means that it must be able to govern itself flexibly and in the democratic tradition. Chestertown is governed by a “strong mayor,” meaning he [now she] has a vote in the Town Council, and four ward council members elected on staggered four-year terms, as is the mayor. . . .But it is actually run by a permanent town manager, Bill Ingersoll. “I’m like an executive officer,” he says. “I carry out orders from the mayor and follow policies set by the town council.”
However, it is not enough to look like a town, function like one, or even be nestled in one of the most ideal locations on the eastern seaboard. There has to be something else, and there is, because Chestertown today is booming. “When the weather is good,” says Margo Bailey, proprietor of the Chestertown Newsstand [and now the mayor], “we get as many as four or five tourist families a day in here inquiring about real estate offices and housing in the area.” Hurst Purnell, a local real estate broker, concurs. “There is virtually no property left on the water, and a townhouse just up from the Custom House sold not long ago for $210,000.”
Almost anyone you talk to will tell you that the reason Chestertown is booming—and, more important, attracting interesting people—is the presence of Washington College. “What the college brings to the town is a sense of culture—foreign flicks, Edward Albee giving a lecture, the Julliard String Quartet,” says Bob Day, who teaches creative writing at the college. The college also has a way of bringing out the best in people, like the late Bob Forney who ran a jewelry store but was also the force behind the college community concert series.
The college makes available to the local citizens its swimming pool, gymnasium, tennis courts, and library in addition to presenting a wide variety of lectures, concerts, musicals, special films, plays and poetry readings. Moreover, it offers an extensive program of adult education courses to people who come from all around Chestertown to take classes.
“I can’t imagine living in Chestertown without the college,” says Marsha Fritz, an architect who chose Chestertown as the place to hang out her shingle. “There is something to do every night at the college, if you want to go.” And a young man who was installing a new propane heater in the Water Street home of one of the college deans told the dean, “I can’t tell you how much the college being in this town means to me. I go to all the lectures and exhibits and basketball games.”
Is it also any wonder that Chestertown has become especially attractive to seniors looking for a place to retire? Today, an estimated 29 percent of its residents are over 60 (compared to 20 percent in 1970) and, of course, they are especially appreciative of Bernard DeVoto’s other prerequisite—a good hospital. The Kent and Queen Anne’s Hospital is highly valued and avidly supported by all its citizens, old and young alike. A recent walkathon raised more than $1,300 for a new room in the intensive care unit.
So today the bucolic little 18th-century town nestled on the Chester River, just over ten miles from the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay, has become a stimulating intellectual and cultural center, primarily as a result of two very dissimilar catalysts—the bridge, and more recently, Douglass Cater.
When the Chesapeake Bay Bridge came in 1952, it had no immediate impact on Chestertown, which was mostly ignored by the stream of automobiles heading for the ocean. Having waited 100 years or so for quick transportation to the Atlantic, who cared about the Chester River? A few seekers of the good life took the opportunity afforded by the new bridge to establish beachheads in Cambridge, Easton and Oxford. But very few took the time or effort to explore shunpike 213 north beyond Centreville into the rurals or on to Kent County unless they were headed for Washington College.
The bridge, however, did have an impact on the college. As the late Elizabeth Sutton Duvall, a 1930 graduate of what is certifiably the tenth and arguably the fifth oldest college in the country, recalls, before the bridge, most of the speakers and performers at the school were from the Eastern Shore. But after the bridge, special events planners were able to bring nationally known personalities to the college. By the 1960s, the William James Forum (founded by philosophy professor Peter Tapke) and the Sophie Kerr Lectures . . . were bringing a continuing parade of distinguished philosophers, scientists, historians, dramatists, poets and novelists to lecture at the college.
The forum brings one speaker a month during the school year to campus, men and women of broad experience, achievers in their field who are often controversial. They have included Mortimer Adler, Betty Friedan, and Senators Paul Sarbanes, Joseph Biden and Charles Mathias. “The forum is a feast of enlightenment that people pay nothing for,” says Tapke. And the charm of Chestertown plays no small part in attracting distinguished speakers to the campus. “People love to come here,” adds Tapke. “Washington College is only 90 minutes from the Beltway and Bill Colby (former CIA Director] liked to sail his boat to Chestertown.”
Music is another cultural ingredient the college brings to the town in large doses. The Music Department, under professor Garry Clarke, stages a succession of concerts, solo performances, musicals and an annual Renaissance Dinner complete with music.
The college is aware that the townspeople attend these concerts and considers them an important part of the audience. “The concert series committee is made up of faculty, students and townspeople,” says Clarke, “and although we put the emphasis on educational choices for our music, we think the townspeople are a wonderful and important part of our audience. When we put on the Renaissance dinners, people come not only from Chestertown, but Washington, Wilmington and Dover.”
Similarly, the English Department is aware of local interest in the writers it recruits. The framed posters on the walls of the college’s Rose O’Neill Literary House provide a sampling of the writing talent brought to Chestertown by a contribution from the well-known Eastern Shore writer, Sophie Kerr. Half of the interest from her significant donation pays for the lecture series, the other half for what is easily the most attractive undergraduate literary award in the world—up to $30,000 (depending on the interest rate that year) to the most promising senior writer. Sophie Kerr lecturers have included poet laureate Richard Wilbur, James Dickey, John Barth, Katherine Anne Porter, Steven Spender, Paul Horgan, Brendan Gill, Edward Albee, Toni Morrison, Robert L. Helibrone, Joseph Brodsky, Angus Wilson, William Styron, Mary Lee Settle, Susan Minot and Alan Ginsburg.
And then, in 1982, came Douglass Cater, as new president of Washington College. Cater was something of an Establishment dynamo with years of experience in the corridors of power as Washington Bureau Chief for the old Reporter magazine, special education assistant in Lyndon Johnson’s White House, a director of the Aspen Institute, publisher of The London Observer, author of several highly praised books on journalism and government, and even a novel (Dana).
He was also known to have a short fuse and more than a touch of Dean Acheson abrasiveness. As one journalist who knew Cater from his Reporter days said, “I always wondered how Doug would fare in the world of small college academics, rich Republicans, and teenagers”—three groups that any college president must deal with regularly.
But despite—or perhaps because of—his sometimes Olympian manner, most everyone inside and outside the college agrees that he fared brilliantly in his eight-year tenure. At dinner, faculty members sometimes toast Cater “as the man who brought urban tensions to the Eastern Shore.” However, one professor stated, “No matter how you feel about Cater personally, I think we all agree that he has had a tremendous impact on the college.”
“Cater had a higher profile than the college when he arrived,” says Dave Wheelan, the college’s development officer, “and his continual op ed articles in The New York Times, Washington Post and Baltimore Sun have helped keep the focus on the college—and the town.” In fact, it was Douglass Cater who took on then-Secretary of Education William Bennett in a memorable debate—conducted on the op ed pages of the major dailies—on the question of whether higher education was or was not too greedy in its quest for funds.
Cater’s own quest for funds was eminently successful. With the help of his two fund-raising chairmen—Alonzo Decker, Jr., and W. James Price IV—enough money has been raised to totally revamp the appearance, as well as the efficiency, of the campus. And Cater’s personal intellectual network helped bring, through his President’s Forum, convocation speakers and the Woodrow Wilson Fellows, still another regiment of distinguished speakers—again accessible to Chestertonians: David Brinkley, Roger Mudd, Bill Moyers, Lady Bird Johnson, the Honorable Sandra Day O’Connor, Senator Edmund Muskie, Robert MacNeil, Mark Russell, Art Buchwald, Walter Cronkite, Meg Greenfield and many, many more.
Inevitably this intellectual and cultural inclusion into a community that was virtually cut off from the mainstream for nearly 200 years had its impact. The result has been to bring to the shores of the Chester a variety of interesting people attracted to and eventually, in one way or another, associated with the college. Take George and Jane Dean, for example. Dean, a lawyer, had spent most of his life trying civil rights cases in Montgomery, Alabama, before suddenly coming into big money by representing one of the heirs of the legendary Howard Hughes. Even before the estate was settled, the Deans had enough money to enable them to live anywhere they wanted. They chose Chestertown for a number of reasons. One was its location: Dean was once an avid hunter and had shot some geese in the Chestertown area. But there was another factor: Dean had known Douglass Cater in Montgomery, where they both grew up. About the time Dean was considering a move to Chestertown, he heard that Cater was soon to be appointed president of Washington College. “We knew Cater had both feet planted in the 20th century,” says Dean, “and he might even bring a little Potomac fever to the Chester.”
So the Deans moved to Chestertown where they became active not only in historical preservation (restoring among other buildings what surely must be the finest little Victorian hotel in colonial America, the Imperial on High Street), but also in the college. There he helped establish a scholarship fund for African-American students, worked with The 1782 Society and other college fundraising activities, and made a substantial financial contribution to the college.
Then there was Constance Stuart Larrabee, a world-class photographer whose work was included in Edward Steichen’s “Family of Man” exhibit and book. For years she and her husband, Sterling Larrabee, lived on a 30-acre farm near Chestertown where they developed ties with the college. After her husband died, she moved into town and was soon very involved with the college—as founder of the Washington College Friends of the Arts and principal fundraiser for and contributor to the college’s Creative Arts Center, which was named for her.
Katherine Orme, a divorcée from Easton who came to Chestertown to go back to school, was struck by how quickly she got “to be known in the small shops, the genuinely friendly atmosphere and acceptance by some of the older townspeople, and the variety of life in a college town.” But she had some trepidation. “It was clear that another single woman was not what the town needed. It already had a shortage of men” (which she added to by marrying one of her college professors).
Or, take Davy McCall, a former World Bank and State Department economist, whose hobby is historic architecture. In 1984, he retired to his farm at Rock Hall and started teaching part-time at the college. Eventually he became chairman of the Economics Department and became so caught up in college that he felt compelled to move to Chestertown where he remodeled an old house.
Dr. Theodore Kurze [now deceased] was a college alumnus and retired neurosurgeon who, in 1957, pioneered brain surgery through a microscope. Cater lured him back to Chestertown to teach a course in medical ethics—and enjoy life in a college town. “My entire life has been spent in academic circles,” said Kurze. “But I’m a sufficiently Dionysian person, so unless I am stimulated by the world of ideas I tend to go into default drive.”
As the experiences of these people suggest, if Washington College is the engine that drives this little cultural enclave on the Chester River, the key to getting the most out of life in this town is involvement—in one way or another—with the college. One way, of course, is through the Development Office if one cares to make a contribution. But there are many other ways—as a friend of the arts, a volunteer worker in numerous campus and civic projects, a part-time teacher, a student in the adult education programs, etc.
[Then] Mayor Elmer Horsey agreed that the college plays a critical role in his town. “About twelve years ago (during the administration of Joseph McLain) our relations with the college began to improve,” says Horsey, “and today under President Cater, we have a wonderful relationship.” And Cater says, “In a town as small as this and a college as small as this, it is essential that you give some thought and attention to the town and gown relationship.”
There have been some problems with students living off campus during the recent college construction program, but “they’re learning now that they have to live by the town rules,” said Horsey. Students living in group housing have also made it difficult for local working people to find affordable rentals in town; one real estate broker spoke of at least twenty-five parents of children attending college buying houses, which their children live in (with other students paying rent) while they are in school.
Despite the impact of the 800 college students and nearly 200 faculty and staff on Chestertown’s approximately 4,000 citizens, “it is not a company town,” one professor stresses. It has, through the changes, retained its historic tradition, which adds to its charms. For instance, there are “the old Tories who say they wished England had never lost the war and mean it,” says the professor. The town has also remained insulated. As the story goes, there was a woman from Baltimore who came to Chestertown at the age of two, and when she died, the Kent County paper reported, “Baltimore Woman Dies at 92.” Editor Deringer says, “The woman really lived in Centreville a few miles away, but everyone thinks it could have happened here, although I would never have headlined it that way in my paper.”
But Chestertown is not a museum. The phrase you hear often to describe it is “a lived-in Williamsburg.” Robert Janson-LaPalme, professor of art at the college and eleven-year chairman of Chestertown’s Historic District Commission, says, “There are more 18th-century buildings and foundations in Chestertown than in any other Maryland town except Annapolis.” And LaPalme is determined to see that Chestertown remains as much as it can an 18th-century town. “We are trying to retain the integrity of the original structures,” he says, “but at the same time make them livable in the 20th century. And we are interested not just in the mansions—which are great—but also the modest dwellings.”
And don’t forget the Chestertown Newsstand with its nearly fifty-foot magazine rack full of every magazine you can imagine, from The Atlantic Monthly to Soldier of Fortune and Model Railroads. “People in a college town have eclectic tastes,” says Margo Bailey, whose husband and co-owner of the newsstand, Mike Bailey, teaches economics at the college. All of which helps make the newsstand the “gossip center” of town, as all good newsstands are—the place where you gather around the register for a cup of coffee in the morning, the place which helps outlanders know where they really live. “For people on the nearby farms,” says one Chestertonian, “your town is where you buy your Sunday paper.” One such Sunday customer is novelist John Barth, who has a place a few miles outside of town and occasionally gives readings at the college.
So, people come from miles around to Chestertown to buy Sunday papers, attend lectures, listen to music, look at paintings, photographs and films, and use the college athletic facilities. Many settle down to live here. Perhaps it is because they have become so fed up with urban life that they identify with the local story of Peter Parker, a British officer during the Revolutionary War, who reportedly said on the eve of a local battle: “I will have breakfast in Chestertown—or in Hell.”
Chestertown may not be heaven—but a lot of people living in the little college town think it may be the next best thing.
Roy Hoopes, a journalist and biographer of crime novelist James M. Cain was director of public relations for Washington College in 1985-86.