- The Washington Times - Monday, May 4, 2009

ST. MICHAELS, Md. — It’s always been a volunteer thing, the little museum in St. Michaels.

Sometimes overshadowed by the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum a few blocks west on state Route 33, the St. Michaels Museum at St. Mary’s Square doesn’t try to tell the history of the Bay.

The volunteers who run the museum - from its board of directors to a corps of docents - find plenty of history in St. Michaels, the little town that is the epicenter of the Eastern Shore’s boating and yachting community during the summer.

“History is so immediate here,” said Marie Martin, incoming president of the museum’s board of directors. “Let’s face it - St. Michaels is a museum. Everybody here is a volunteer.”

“If we could open Mondays, that would be the next thing,” said Chip Britt, incoming vice president.

The museum comprises three buildings, each of which has its own history.

The Teetotum is a small building that began as a commercial structure about the time of the Civil War, and served at one time or another as a magistrate’s office, a town jail, a saddle shop, a mortuary, a bank and a barber shop.

It is filled with bits of St. Michaels’ commercial history, ranging from carpentry tools to an intricately decorated shoeshine stand and a body board for carrying corpses.

“At one time, there were five funeral homes in St. Michaels,” curator Kate Fones pointed out.

Teetotum is connected to the Sewell House, the first building of the museum, which was moved to the site in 1964. It focuses on home life during the 19th century, including period furniture and house artifacts of a local nature, ranging from a multigeared apple peeler and heavy clothes irons that had to be heated over a fire to a chamber pot.

The Sewell House has its own history, being half of a building that was cut to provide two homes. The Sewell family added a kitchen and a loft to the two-story structure.

“The whole thrust of the museum is to protect and preserve the history, understand what was here,” Miss Martin said.

The museum also aims to tell the 19th-century history of blacks in the town. The most recently added of the three buildings making up the museum is the Chaney house, a two-story, two-room house that was owned by three free blacks after it was built about 1850.

The Chaney brothers were successful enough as free citizens to purchase their father’s freedom, and he moved into the house with them. Plans are for the house - which looks fine from the outside because it has been covered with modern siding to protect its interior from the weather - to be rebuilt to hold exhibits about the lives of local blacks.

Finishing the Chaney house is a major project in which the bottom floor could serve as an exhibit space for black history in St. Michaels and the second floor could become curator space.

Two walking tours of the town, guided by a docent, provide a view of the town’s history. The shorter one travels along the town’s waterfront, so the tourists can “appreciate and keep the rhythm of the town,” Miss Martin said. “The idea is to make the past more concrete,” Ms. Fones added. The longer of the tours focuses on the St. Michaels life of Frederick Douglass.

Douglass was born a slave in Talbot County and spent most of his early life on the Mid-Shore before he was sent to work in the Baltimore shipyards. While in Baltimore, Douglass escaped to freedom in the north, where he became a national figure in the abolitionist movement.

Douglass was in and near St. Michaels for only three years, museum spokesman George Ludington noted. “But those were critical years,” he added. “In some sense, he was molded here.”

The museum staff tries to appeal to year-round residents as well as summer people and other tourists. Having a steady supply of new exhibits, two per year, is a way to do that.

“We’re trying for a wider community reach,” Miss Martin said. “We try to bring the community to the museum and also bring the museum to the community.”

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