EASTON — A remarkable exhibit about one of the county’s most remarkable features is about to open at the Academy Art Museum.
Wye House is a famous plantation in Talbot County, but for those who have read books by Frederick Douglass, the place has an atmosphere and reverence that almost borders on the spiritual.
Talbot Countians sometimes forget what a unique situation we have here.
A large plantation that began in the 1650s, at one time one of the largest in Maryland, is still intact and in fact owned by descendants of the original owners, the Lloyd family. Although there have been buildings that have been constructed and disassembled, little has changed for more than 360 years.
Over those centuries, the family’s business was farming and they experimented with crops and plants with an intensity unusual in early Maryland. They had greenhouses. One greenhouse, “The Orangery” survives as possibly the oldest greenhouse in the United States, built 1785.
They kept copious records on their experiments with plants, crops, and also the workings of the many landholdings. Wye House and the surrounding farms were a large conglomerate and completely self-sufficient, for the most part. At one time the property totaled 42,000 acres and housed over 1,000 slaves according to some accounts.
The family never threw any of those records away. Four hundred boxes full of papers describing centuries of carefully recorded plantation life were archived by the Maryland Historical Society with the permission of Wye House owner, the late Mrs. Mary Donnell Tilghman. That collection has become one of the most valuable in Maryland.
To top all of that, Wye House is the place where abolitionist Frederick Douglass spent a few years as a young slave, observing slavery and eventually writing about brutal conditions. If you read Frederick Douglass’ autobiographies, you are reading about Wye House.
From 1660 until the Emancipation Proclamation, the farm conglomerate’s operation depended upon the labor of African-American slaves. After the Emancipation Proclamation, Wye House’s large slave population settled nearby in Copperville, Unionville and others, creating another unique dynamic: former masters and former slaves living as neighbors. Generations have passed, and now the descendants of masters and slaves are still living as neighbors.
In 2004 Mrs. Tilghman commissioned Archaeology in Annapolis, later the archaeological field school at the University of Maryland, to study slavery at Wye House through an archaeological dig.
Eight years of digging combined with extensive perusal of the Lloyd family papers have culminated in a remarkable exhibit that will open at the Academy Art Museum this Saturday.
The people of Wye House, white landowners and African-American slaves, have come to light in an incredibly intimate way through the recovery of their day-to-day objects and the features of their long-gone living quarters.
Descendants of the Lloyds, and especially descendants of their slaves, will have access to a unique database of names that have been digitalized, so family trees can be traced.
“We’ve scanned hundreds and hundreds of names,” said Beth Pruitt, associate director at Archaeology in Annapolis.
She said that unique in the database is the inclusion of first and last names for slaves, which is rarely done in older records. Some also have occupations listed.
“People can research and make connections that they never could have done before,” she said.
“For people it’s a rare opportunity to see when family members were enslaved — or not enslaved,” Amy Steward said, who writes public relations material for the Academy Art Museum.
Names like Lloyd, Carmichael, Tilghman, and Goldsborough, among others, mark an 1850-circa map that shows the extensive holdings of the family covering large portions of Talbot County in what appears to be like a small fiefdom.
Doctoral candidate Amanda Tang is working on a dissertation that showcases the lives of ancestral Wye House plantation residents through the types of food they ate.
She is examining the animal remains in quarters of enslaved people and comparing it with food that the Lloyds would have had on the table.
When Mrs. Tilghman learned Tang was interested in food, she dug out a large collection of recipes, the earliest dating 1844.
Like family recipes everywhere, there are splatters of grease, words crossed out and children’s scrawl as little ones hung around in the kitchen, helping the cook.
There are also farm production recipes, such as a sausage recipe calling for thousands of pounds of pork. Many recipes were credited to enslaved cooks with no last names such as “Rebecca”, “Harriet (cook)”, “Harris” or “Dar Ellie.”
Tang has assembled a cookbook as part of the exhibit.
One of the most interesting discoveries of the dig came in an excavation of The Orangery, where “charm”-type objects had been strategically placed under doorjambs and hidden among brickwork for protection from malevolent spirits.
Archaeologists believe the objects were placed by slaves who may have built The Orangery, and had placed them in accordance with West African religious traditions.
Some objects were placed below the door that faced the Lloyd family cemetery.
“The enslaved apparently felt the Lloyd family cemetery was spiritually charged,” said Benjamin Skolnik, associate director of Archaeology in Annapolis.
Two spearheads pointing outward and a button were placed to keep those spirits at bay.
A prehistoric pestle, probably used to grind grains, was also placed in the fireplace of The Orangery. Skolnik explained that according to some African traditions, a lightning strike could produce a pestle-like rock formation and such an object could aid with the production of fires and help control them if properly placed.
Another fascinating aspect of the Wye House digs are pollen studies, a project of Beth Pruitt.
Pruitt collected soil samples at each level, then sent them to a lab in Boston for pollen analysis. She said the pollen is actually petrified after hundreds of years, but still very much able to be identified.
Pruitt was able to trace production trends in crops and even ornamental flowers from her pollen data. She said the care and feeding of exotic plants in The Orangery was a skilled, highly technical job that was performed by enslaved workers.
“They had to know what they were doing with these very delicate plants,” she said.
The exhibit is designed by Easton resident Patrick Rogan, whose company “Assemble” creates interactive exhibitions and educational media for non-profit organizations. Their website is assemblenet.org. He said he believed Wye House was like a microcosm when viewed at any given time in its 360-plus year history.
“From this place you can tell the whole story of the nation,” he said.
The exhibit at the Academy Art Museum, “Joint Heritage at Wye House” will open this Saturday and continue through Sunday, October 13.
Thursday, September 26 a lecture, “The Archaeology of Time Telling at Wye House for Black and White Production: Floral Clocks, Time and the Greenhouse” will be presented by University of Maryland Professor of Anthropology Dr. Mark Leone at 6 p.m.
In addition, there will be curator-led tours at noon Friday, Sept. 6, and Wednesday, Sept. 25.
The exhibition was organized by Academy Art Museum Curator Anke Van Wagenberg and Dr. Mark Leone with contributions by Benjamin Skolnik, Amanda Tang and Beth Pruitt.
Generous support was given by Wye House owners Richard and Beverly Tilghman, the University of Maryland at College Park and the Frederick Douglass Honor Society.
Materials for the exhibit were loaned by the Historical Society of Talbot County and the Maryland Historical Society.
Funding was provided by the Maryland State Arts Council, the Maryland Humanities Council, and the Talbot County Arts Council.