Washington College will soon begin work on the old Dixon Valve property, located at 800 High Street in Chestertown. In December, the Chestertown Town Council approved and issued a permit for the demolition of four buildings on the 10-acre site.
A Space for Innovation and Community
Almost four years ago, KRM Development Corp., the real estate division of The Dixon Group, donated the property to Washington College as the company prepared to move to its new, purpose-built campus just north of town. Since then, the College has embarked on a process to engage members of the greater community in envisioning a collaborative Maker Space and Innovation Hub to be housed in a 200 x 80 foot section of warehouse at the back of the property that would serve students and members of the public alike as they develop new ideas, build prototypes, and possibly launch small businesses. Public meetings and a working group involving Washington College faculty, staff, and several community members have worked to inform the plans for that space since last October. This feasibility study and stakeholder engagement process, funded by a grant from the Maryland Technology Development Corporation (TEDCO), will help frame the eventual use of the section of warehouse. A final report is expected in June.
In October of last year Chestertown Mayor David Foster noted that the proposed maker space and work being done with community members to shape its future was a wonderful opportunity for students, faculty, and community members to collaborate, innovate, and create. “I believe this project will foster a culture of entrepreneurship, creativity, and social impact in our region,” said Foster.
Honoring the Past
The history and meaning of the site at 800 High Street are significant, especially for the nearby Upper Calvert neighborhood, a historically African American community. For generations, the buildings along the rail-trail provided good jobs for Chestertown residents, first as Vita Foods and later as the Dixon Valve headquarters and manufacturing plant. Utilizing its considerable resources and the expertise of faculty, staff and students, Washington College continues to conduct significant heritage, oral history, and archival work, including capturing 360-degree photography, conducting 3D laser scanning, and digitizing past photographs, to better tell the site’s history as well as preserve some artifacts for potential future installation.
Several recorded interviews and over 300 photographs have been digitized so far. Nearly 100 of those past images are currently housed and accessible to the public in the Chesapeake Heartland Digital Archive, which aims to preserve, digitize, interpret, and make accessible materials related to African American history and culture in Kent County, Maryland and beyond. In collaboration with the National Museum of African American History and Culture and a diverse array of local organizations, The Washington College Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience’s Chesapeake Heartland Project seeks to build a model of grassroots preservation, curation, and interpretation for communities across the region.
The public is invited to peruse the Vita Foods collection here.
“The former Vita Foods site was a place where community was forged,” said Pat Nugent, the Thomas V. Mike Miller director for civic engagement at Washington College. “Here, pickles were fermented, and fish was processed. It was a place where white and black worked side by side—a meeting ground for young and old alike. This place has long been a diverse space for making, innovating, connecting, and building careers. We want to honor and do right by that history moving forward.”
For the immediate future, in addition to the cell tower and the warehouse being considered for a maker space, the building which housed the old YMCA will remain and is under consideration as a student wellness center. The four buildings set for removal will make way for open space while the College explores a new campus master plan and charts the future use of the property.
Largely funded by grants from several state programs and offices, the project to remove structures from the property will get underway later this spring. More information about the site, future uses, and accessibility will be shared with the public as plans take shape.