The road leading to historic Handsell, tucked away amid farmland in the rural outskirts of Vienna, Maryland, is long, winding, and well worth taking.
Located 15 minutes from Cambridge, one mile off of Rt. 50, the original Chicone Village (also referred to as Indiantown), can be previewed on Google Maps, TripAdvisor, Zoominfo, and TikTok.
Since 2005, Trustee and Founder Midge Ingersoll, along with a devoted cadre of true believers making up the Nanticoke Historic Preservation Alliance, has been on a tireless mission to put the property squarely on the area’s historical roadmap.
Anchored by a partially restored ivy covered brick Georgian mansion remnant, whose ongoing restoration is a work in progress, the site offers in some ways less, yet so much more, than a traditional museum, a historical landmark vividly brought to life.
A Native American longhouse, work shelter, and garden, allows visitors to glimpse its original inhabitants, who were mentioned in the journals of Captain John Smith, before the Colonial era traders, settlers and prominent landowners moved in.
At the land’s edge, a magnificent stone stands, engraved with a dedication memorializing all the Enslaved, an idea developed by Trustee and President Shirley Jackson, whose family lived and worked as sharecroppers in the area. (Recently, the group also created an Enslaved Community Database, listing some 200 individuals owned by members of the landowners, though not all lived on site.)
Ingersoll’s connection to the property, which began as a happy accident, set her on a course of nonstop discovery. The ensuing journey, requiring copious blocks of time devoted to painstaking research, patience, and perseverance, became a path of choice, one she’s been delighted to dedicate herself to.
“If you have more passion than anyone in the room, you’re in the right place,” Ingersoll noted.
She spent her formative years in the ‘old Quaker town’ of Moorestown, NJ, surrounded by historic structures, each of which could have whispered a multitude of stories.
Earning an art degree, Ingersoll successfully channeled her talents into a successful 30-year architectural rendering career. Amassing a portfolio of thousands of homes, she became well versed in building design plan schematics.
Putting her skills to work on behalf of numerous friends who had old homes, Ingersoll also was actively involved in Moorestown historic preservation efforts. All the while, she was laying a foundation for a flourishing future involvement along these same lines, upon putting down part-time and eventually full time Dorchester County roots.
In 1990 she and husband Jon purchased a Neck District farmhouse dating back to the mid-1700s, and slowly began researching and working to restore it.
Brickmason David Lewis, who had been assisting their efforts, one day approached Ingersoll with news that he’d seen an intriguing house for sale on Indiantown Road, asking if she’d like to take a look, and that was all it took to get her hooked.
As related on Handsell’s website, “After just a little bit of research, we knew we were onto something BIG. As the layers of the story unfolded, through research in archives, deeds, Wills, and historic family letters, a better, yet not fully complete story emerged of Native people, licensed Indian traders, English settlers, British attacks, merchant activity, and structural devastation.”
Meeting around her kitchen table, Ingersoll and five others agreed to each put in $100 to begin the process of forming the Nanticoke Historic Preservation Alliance, which would purchase the house and property from Lewis and his wife, with a Preservation Easement from the Maryland Historical Trust. It became listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2008.
Though the brick house is open only at specially scheduled times, tours can always be requested and arranged. The grounds are open daily, and with Guide by Cell Audio Tours accessible by phone. (Records indicate that over 1,000 people made use of the audio tours last year.)
Handsell has also opened its grounds to special overnight camping groups, including the Naval Midshipmen Native American Club, and inner city youngsters from Baltimore.
On Saturday, October 8th, Handsell will host one of its two annual open house events, the Nanticoke River Jamboree.(Each April a Chicone Village Day is also held.) Both events regularly draw hundreds of visitors from throughout the Eastern U.S., and feature living history interpreters from North Carolina, Virginia, and D.C.
For the first time this summer, Handsell also offered a well received series of Saturday programs, and Ingersoll can envision additional opportunities to showcase the grounds, such as a Handsell haunted house.
Debra Messick is a retired Dorchester County Public Library associate and lifelong freelance writer. A transplanted native Philadelphian, she has enjoyed residing in Cambridge MD since 1995.