On November 2, the Heart of the Chesapeake Country Heritage Area annual awards ceremony was held at the Dorchester Center for the Arts in Cambridge. Two individuals and three organizations or projects were recognized for their outstanding contributions over the past year in promoting the culture and traditions of this part of the Eastern Shore. It marked another successful year for the HCCHA, which continues to play a major role in celebrating and developing what’s great about the extended community.
In concert with public and private partners, the Heart of the Chesapeake Country Heritage Area helps people, groups, and government entities preserve and promote the unique historic, cultural, and natural resources of Dorchester County. It’s core mission is to make the positive effect of heritage tourism on the local economy broader and deeper. The HCCHA is managed by the Dorchester County Tourism Department, which relies on the county government for staff, offices, and funding.
When Natalie Chabot left the tourism director position in Allegheny County to take over the one in Dorchester in 2001, a plan had already been made for creating a heritage area here, but it was still in draft form and not in great shape. Fortunately, Natalie had a solid advisory committee to work with, and they commenced the project in earnest.
The community was required to designate boundaries for the heritage area; they at first wanted to make it the whole county, but Maryland preferred to keep the areas smaller. It does encompass the majority of Dorchester, with Cambridge, Church Creek, Vienna, Hurlock, East New Market, and Secretary within the borders, as well as portions of the waterways that surround the county on three sides.
Creating the heritage area was a big process. Natalie and her staff had to attend council and planning commission meetings in every incorporated town and make them part of the project. The management board ended up with a member from each of those towns. According to Chabot, an important aspect of the heritage area is that all the communities within it share a history, heritage, and environment.
“Dorchester County has a very rich history,” she said.
Each of Maryland’s certified heritage areas is defined by the distinctive characteristics that make it unique within the state. Chabot’s team originally decided to concentrate on seven themes for the Heart of the Chesapeake, and one of them involved Harriet Tubman because hers was “such a compelling story.” Evelyn Townsend was the only African American at every meeting, and she just kept saying “Harriet Tubman.”
From the time Chabot took over the tourism director position, the process for the heritage area took about a year. It was formed in September 2002 and celebrated with fireworks at the Visitor Center in Cambridge. It was a big deal, according to Chabot, because “there’s only 13 heritage areas now in the state of Maryland.”
The themes that presently define the Heart of the Chesapeake Country Heritage Area are
- Agricultural Life
- Arts, Artists, and Entertainment
- Chesapeake Landscapes and Outdoor Adventures
- Dorchester Families and Traditions
- Dorchester History, Architecture, and Artifacts
- The Environment
- Harriet Tubman and the Eastern Shore African-American History
- Maritime Villages, Trades, and Life
- Native American Heritage
Throughout the years, the HCCHA has played a significant part in developing the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Byway, Visitor Center, and National Park. It installed large murals, interpreting the area’s themes, on buildings along the Chesapeake Country Scenic Byway. In 2019, it celebrated Dorchester County’s 350th anniversary by creating cell-phone walking and driving guides that showcased Cambridge and the Chesapeake Mural Trail.
Beyond those achievements, the heritage area also awards mini-grants to nonprofit organizations and local municipalities to help with projects that enrich heritage resources and improve the area’s economic health. These grants are made possible by the Maryland Heritage Areas Authority. The awardees for FY2024 included the Taste of Cambridge event, the Dorchester County Historical Society, Groove City Culture Fest, Spocott Windmill (for displays and newsletters), and the Pride of Baltimore II’s visit to Cambridge next year. The Heritage Board also supported the funding applications of area organizations for such endeavors as Cambridge Main Street’s Wayfinding Project, Dorchester County’s FY24 Heritage Management Grant, and the Mid-Shore Community Radio Dorchester History Project.
At the November 2 awards ceremony, the Heritage Area Management Board honored the late Shirley Jackson, Melvin “Zeke” Willey, the “Beacon of Hope” Harriet Tubman Sculpture, the Dorchester Skipjack Committee, and Choptank Communications.
“This year’s group of honorees is exceptional,” said Board Chairman Tom Bradshaw. “Their extraordinary efforts are evidenced in the programs, projects, and ideas that have served to aid, enrich, and inspire the Dorchester Community. These unsung heroes have made a significant impact on enriching people’s awareness, understanding, and appreciation of our rich and diverse heritage assets in Dorchester. They clearly exemplify all that is best in Dorchester County.”
In his speech, Bradshaw also mentioned a 2021 economic impact study conducted by the Maryland Heritage Areas Authority estimating that the Heart of the Chesapeake Country Heritage Area had contributed $40.2 million to the statewide economy and supported 570 jobs. Additionally, the study concluded that the HCCHA generated around $5.3 million in tax revenues for the state and local governments.
“In the Heart of the Chesapeake Country Heritage Area, our top priority is to protect, preserve, and promote Dorchester County’s unique historic, cultural, and natural resources,” said Heritage Area consultant Julie Gilberto-Brady. “But it is important to note that our heritage area also plays a vital role in both the state and the regional economies.”
According to Bradshaw, the Management Board is preparing for the 250th anniversary celebration of the United States, leading up to area events in 2026.