From Dudley’s Chapel down to Broad Creek Cemetery, this Saturday is the last time this year that the important heritage locations under the Historic Sites Consortium of Queen Anne’s County (http://www.historicqac.org/CalOfEvents.htm) umbrella will be open to visitors. I recently had an opportunity to sit in on an interesting conversation at one of those sites, The James E. Kirwan Museum. The whole story was published in the last two issues of the Kent Island Heritage Society newsletter to which I contribute regularly. http://www.kentislandheritagesociety.org/
Among other callings, James E. Kirwan (1848-1938) was a Chesapeake Bay boat captain, a businessman, an officer of the Maryland Oyster Navy, and a state senator. Known as Kent Island’s Grand Old Man, Senator Kirwan’s homestead store and farm were intrinsic to the lives of Chester residents for decades.
Today, through a generous gift from the senator’s late granddaughter, Mary Catherine Kirwan, that Dominion Road landmark operates as the James E. Kirwan Museum and is the headquarters of the Kent Island Heritage Society. Linda Collier sits on the heritage society’s board of directors and is curator and docent at the Kirwan Museum.
As a youngster growing up on Kent Island, Curtie Chance “always liked to talk to the old people.” Curtie’s love of history and his steel trap memory are among the traits that make him a great resource. He’s also a pretty entertaining storyteller.
Linda and Curtie talked one afternoon in the Kirwan House parlor.
Linda: You were great friends with Miss Catherine Kirwan for many years, Curtie. One of the reasons I wanted to talk to you, is that you’re like your mother Eunice; you have a very good memory for names and places, events, and family connections.
Curtie: There have been a number of different people who have lived on the farm and told me about it. A lot of the families who lived nearby were connected to the farm in some way at some time or the other.
Linda: After Senator Kirwan died, his son Lemuel ran the property, but it was a much scaled down operation. At one time there’d been a lumber yard, a brick kiln, the blacksmith, up to twenty-some buildings out back. Were any of those buildings still standing when you started spending time here?
Curtie: Not too much. The store closed in the about 1946 or ‘48 and there wasn’t much left other than a few outbuildings when I started coming down here in the 1950s.
Linda: Lemuel, Catherine’s father, wasn’t the business person his father had been. He wasn’t that interested, but he kept this farm, the yard beautiful. Lemuel married Melinda Golt and when she passed away, he married her sister Maude. Maude was Catherine’s mother.
Curtie: That’s right. But here’s something else. There was another sister named Anne between Melinda and Maude, and after Melinda died Lemuel dated Anne, who died before they married. Now I don’t know that they would’ve gotten married, but he outlived his first wife Melinda, her sister Anne that he dated, and their sister Maude that he married. I remember the other sister, Miss Molly, saying that you could guarantee she’d never had married Lemuel Kirwan.
You know, a lot of people thought Catherine could have been a politician herself, a leader like her grandfather, but when Walt Coppage came here to live and they didn’t get married, people judged her too harshly.
Linda: I’d always heard that Catherine didn’t get married because she didn’t want to give up the Kirwan name. In those days it was unheard of for a married woman to keep her maiden name, nowadays it wouldn’t be an issue. If you think about it, Catherine was ahead of the times in lots of ways, including as a woman active in politics. She ran John F. Kennedy’s campaign in Queen Anne’s County
Curtie: She was very influential. She and (longtime Maryland comptroller) Louie Goldstein went to Washington College together. They were close. He’d come here on his way to catch the ferry home and Catherine’s grandfather helped him get his start in politics.
Linda: Another one of her other friends from Washington College was Marcy Raskob.
Curtie: Her father built the Empire State Building.
Many nights I’d sit on that back porch with her and she’d talk about the old summer kitchen that used to be out there and how nice everything was back when she was a young girl. It was beautiful to hear her talk about growing up, her family, and her grandfather.
Miss Catherine died in 1994. No matter what, she really believed in this island. Her heart was in this island.