Editorial: The Future of Chestertown and Its College Needs Your Attention


For a variety of very good reasons, Washington College has made it a point to ensure that all prospective students, and their parents, are keenly aware that George Washington very deliberately allowed the College of Chester to be named after him, and backed that up with the largest personal donation to get the school off the ground.

And at the same time, the College rightly hammers home the exceptional fact that the man who convinced Washington to do so, the Very Rev’d William Smith, perhaps the most distinguished academic leader in the New World at the time, was the gifted visionary who created the college after his remarkable collaboration with Benjamin Franklin in starting what is now known as the University of Pennsylvania.

It is hard to imagine a more impressive beginning for any school, and yet what gets lost in this very accurate narrative is the fact that the town of Chestertown was the entity that founded the 10th oldest college in America. While Washington and Smith were the unique ingredients that made Washington College what it is, it was its citizens of the Mid-Shore that asked for it to be created in the first place.

Unlike almost every other private liberal arts college in the country, WC was not the result of a wealthy patron, a religious order, or a state government but a town that wanted a college. And it was this community that made the unprecedented decision to start the first independent and secular college of a new nation. (1)

In fact, Kent County was already a leader in education at the time with the formation of the Kent County School, which was so well established that in 1742, the headmaster, Charles Peale, none other than the father of the renowned painter Charles Willson Peale, submitted the following advertisement seeking students:

Kent County School in Chestertown Maryland is where young gentleman are bordered and taught the Greek and Latin tongues, writing, arithmetic, merchants accounts, surveying, navigation, the use of the globes, by the largest and most accurate pair in America.

The genesis of a college started in 1780 when town leaders, with such local names like Barroll, Paca, Piper, Sewall, Wickes, and Wilmer, recruited Smith to develop the curriculum, hire professors, and fundraise for the project. Smith did this with exceptional skill. In total, almost three hundred residents on the Eastern Shore donated to start the school and build its first classroom building in what would be the third largest in the new world.

The take-home message from all this is that from its very beginning, Washington College has been intimately intertwined with the town that created it. And because of this extraordinary heritage, there has always been an acute and lasting interest in how the school operates and functions even as the governance and financial ties between the town and the college have long separated.

And over those 235 years, Washington College and Chestertown have collectively felt the good and bad times in unison. From the thrill of having scholars as neighbors and the sight of international luminaries walking on High Street to the devastation of campus fires and periodic downtown economic downturns, these two institutions have found creative ways to fortify each other during challenging times.

We are in one of those challenging times.

The town remains explicitly confronted with the harsh reality that large scale manufacturing and storefront retail, staples of Chestertown’s economy, will never return to the historically high levels of the past since both of these have radically been altered by offshore factories and the rise of web-based shopping.

And while the College remains strong in recruitment and academic achievement, virtually every rural liberal arts school in the country is now facing the painful reality of a dwindling pool of prospective students as a result of demographic shifts, a growing popularity of more urban campuses, and most disconcerting, the rising costs of education.

With sober forecasts predicting modest economic growth rates and a shrinking number of college-bound students for the foreseeable future, both the town and college will undoubtedly feel the stress of this precarious environment, particularly at a time when both institutions seek major infrastructure improvements to attract visitors, entrepreneurs, and a new freshman class.

It would seem reasonable, perhaps even obvious, that the best course of action is for these historically linked entities to work strategically together to advance each other’s mission. And for many years now, leaders of both have demonstrated at least an intellectual agreement with that concept, but it is the “how” part that continues to trip up plans for sophisticated collaborative strategies and mutually supported projects like the waterfront, downtown revitalization (hotel), and North Chestertown’s development.

That “how” part is not an easy one. For many years now, initiatives have begun and ended, strategic planning gets started but then proposed, and just a few years ago, a blue-ribbon town-gown task force had to be suddenly abandoned due to a stunning error in administrative oversight and the overzealous and premature use of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request of a local reporter.

And yet even with these extraordinary setbacks, it is the Spy’s contention that Chestertown and Washington College still has the motivation, the leadership, and the emotional bonds to find a constructive and meaningful way forward in the years and decades ahead.

That is why the Chestertown Spy will be moderating an unprecedented public forum on April 11 with Chestertown Mayor Chris Cerino and Washington College President Sheila Bair to share with the community their current strategic plans and discuss how those plans can be strengthened through collaboration. It also is a time for community residents to share with these two leaders their own ideas and dreams for a new vision of what this college town, or, if you prefer, a town with a college, can look like in the 21st Century.

It is unlikely that one meeting will have any direct impact on long-term solutions, but it is a start in getting these two important parts of our community starting to act as a family rather than respectful if slightly distant neighbors.

We welcome your participation that evening.



The Future of Chestertown and Washington College Forum will be held on April 11 at 5 pm at the Decker Theatre on the campus of Washington College.

(1) Although other institutions claim founding dates between 1770 and 1781, none possessed college charters or were empowered to grant degrees, and most were merely “log-cabin grammar schools” that evolved much later into full-fledged colleges, according to the authoritative book on the subject, Donald G. Tewksbury’s The Founding of American Colleges and Universities Before the Civil War (Columbia University Press, 1932). Tewksbury accorded Washington College standing as the nation’s tenth-oldest institution of higher learning, directly after the renowned “Colonial Nine.”

Letters to Editor

  1. mark dell acqua says

    “With sober forecasts predicting modest economic growth”- says who? With the new business friendly administration now in the White House objective forecasts are predicting substantial economic growth especially when compared to the major economic indicators of the last 8 years. Since the day after the Presidential election [ 3/9/16 ] the stock market
    has posted record numbers more than once and the overall average for this time period strongly indicates that the job market and the economy is headed to a place that it hasn’t
    been to in a long time and my 401-K can’t wait.

    Mark Dell Acqua

    • Jeremy Truax says

      Dear Mark,

      It’s not liberal in the Whitehouse so it wouldn’t matter if the economy is roaring so hard that c130’s are air dropping trillions on the American people libs will tell everyone the sky is falling!

    • Pete Buxtun says

      Yes, because liberals are the ones posting non-sequiturs on this page. You guys realize this article has nothing to do with what you are complaining about. You guys are making a mountain out of the molehill of one sentence when you should be commenting about what you think about the rest of the article.

    • Gerry Levin says

      Mark – I can only assume you live in an “alternative” universe.

  2. Carla Massoni says

    Great editorial. Thank you for reminding us of the deep bonds Washington College has with the Town of Chestertown. I am proud of this history. So many opportunities to collaborate are on the horizon for both WC and C’town. Let’s share the future!

    • Here, here Carla. Washington College and the town have much to accomplish together. The naysayers, will always find something to whine about. The forces outside of Kent County may have some bearing on what happens here but more importantly it is up to us, to ensure our county and city can support and bring beneficial ideas and innovation that will benefit the college and all of Kent county’s citizens. As the author said, the town wanted the college to exist, it is a our beacon and we must continue to help it shine.


    Will the College or The Spy be providing some system for listening-in for those not able to attend???
    Thank you

  4. Robbi Behr says

    As a life-time resident of Chestertown who is also woefully ignorant of all of the great history surrounding her, I was so pleased to learn of the long history of Chestertown’s support of education and the college. As the parent of students who currently attend our public schools (and yes, as a member of the Support Our Schools initiative) I got a little misty at the line, “In fact, Kent County was already a leader in education at the time”… I know we’re talking about private education here, but I’d like to imagine that future fruitful collaboration between town and gown will also take into consideration all of the kids who are pre-gown but still town (to carry out the metaphor to an annoying degree). The college is such a tremendous resource to our kids, and has been incredibly helpful in many ways – but could also be more fully tapped, in my opinion, to the advantage of students at all stages of their formal education. Here’s to a bright future in which excellent education returns as a capstone and priority in our community.


  1. […] meaningful way to remain relevant. The Spy most recently addressed this special relationship in an editorial a few months […]

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