While tobacco cultivation shaped the entire Chesapeake region both culturally and materially, it remains most evident on the Western Shore, encompassing Anne Arundel, Calvert, Charles, and St. Mary’s counties. It was the first region in the state to embrace tobacco farming and the last to abandon it. From the founding of St. Mary’s City in 1634 as Maryland’s first permanent settlement until fairly recently, tobacco formed its economic basis. Taking advantage of loamy soil, low floodplain, and access to waterways for ease of shipment, tobacco plantations worked mostly by enslaved individuals developed along its rivers and creeks. Tobacco production was labor intensive, subject to soil depletion and fluctuating economies that conspired to keep the region decentralized and investment in its built environment cautiously restrained. The 1683 Act for the Advancement of Trade designated town sites, yet tobacco production was not conducive to town development. A few, such as London Town, Annapolis, and Port Tobacco, developed as centers of the trans-Atlantic tobacco trade and local commerce. By necessity, plantations were largely self-sufficient, resembling small villages; simple frame Chesapeake houses surrounded by similarly constructed dependencies and outbuildings, and the ever-present tobacco barns.
Delineated by the Chesapeake Bay to the east, the Potomac River to the west, and further apportioned by the Patuxent, Severn, and Wicomico rivers and their tributaries, the Western Shore was likewise shaped by maritime pursuits such as boatbuilding, fishing, crabbing, and oyster harvesting. Smaller wharf and watermen’s communities developed, particularly with the introduction of steamboats to the region in 1817. Villages such as Lower Marlboro and Galesville thrived from the mid-nineteenth into the early twentieth centuries as centers of local commerce and light industries such as seafood packing and oyster shucking. They likewise offered employment for African American workers post-emancipation, often providing the economic means for their families and communities to subsist.
Emancipation significantly changed the landscape of the Western Shore, triggering the breakup of plantations into smaller farms. Tobacco farming was supplemented by grain, fruit, and vegetable cultivation, as the cross-gable-front farmhouse became almost as ubiquitous as the tobacco barn. With the arrival of the railroad and a better network of roadways, most of the once-active early port towns and wharf communities died out, giving way to new or newly invigorated towns, such as Leonardtown, La Plata, Hughesville, and Prince Frederick, centered around tobacco warehouses and inspection stations, and small-scale industries such as milling and canning.
By the early twentieth century, recreational waterfront communities were established, reached via train from Washington, and steam packer from Baltimore and further encouraged by a rise in pleasure boating. Summer camps, cottages, and rustic retreats appeared, such as Highland Beach, Sherwood Forest, and Epping Forest in Anne Arundel County and Chesapeake Beach in Calvert County. The economic depression of the 1930s undermined much of this development and put a stop to steamboat traffic. Eventually, state and local leaders realizing the value of the area’s natural and historic resources worked to preserve them. Limited growth provided the opportunity for designating parks offering public access to the Chesapeake Bay wildlife sanctuaries and woodland preserves. The Maryland Archaeological Conservation Lab was built, a research and conservation facility collecting archaeological evidence of European explorers and settlers, as well as Native Americans including the Algonquin, Piscataway, Chopticoe, Secewacomoco, Yaocomico, and Patuxent tribes. Some of Maryland’s earliest buildings are found here, representing types that define the architecture of the Chesapeake, as well as much of the state’s preeminent Georgian architecture.
Western Shore tobacco farming all but ended beginning in 2000 with a state-sponsored Tobacco Buyout program. By then, recognition of the nation’s capital as a source of jobs had sparked the development of suburban bedroom communities, a shift that started during World War II with the construction of the Naval Air Station Patuxent River in St. Mary’s County. Low-density commercial sprawl has since joined the midcentury motels that line the U.S. 301 and 50 corridors. The Western Shore remains an area for retreat and leisure-time activities, yet many of its summer enclaves now appreciate a year-round population. While the vestiges of a once-thriving tobacco culture are still manifested by tobacco barns, they are now among the state’s most endangered historic resources.
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