Saving Wicomico history can come with a high price tag

Nancy Robertson, President of the Whitehaven Heritage Association, holds a model of the former United Methodist Church, shown in background, which is owned and maintained by the association. The model shows the church that has changed little since it was built in 1892.

The estimate for roof repairs was shocking. By anyone’s standards, $71,000 is a lot of money. Yet the steeple and roof on the former Whitehaven United Methodist Church is leaking and must be repaired.

Members of the Whitehaven Heritage Association, which owns the building, are struggling to raise funds to cover project costs.

The need couldn’t have come at a worse time. The group just paid almost $30,000 to have new wooden shingles put on the former Whitehaven School, their headquarters, which is just a few yards away.

The school and church are architectural bookends that hold the spiritual and social heart and soul of the village. Between them there’s more than a century of memories, personalities and community history.

The two are landmarks in the village along the Wicomico River, along with the iconic Whitehaven Hotel, built in the early 1800s. Also, along the waterfront is Bolton, the village’s oldest house, was here soon after Col. George Gale made the village an economic gem in the early 1700s.

Historic gems

The Whitehaven Ferry, which ties Wicomico and Somerset counties, has been carrying folks, horses, mules, wagons, livestock, motorized vehicles over the river since the 1690s.

All timeless, one-of-a-kind, historic gems in Wicomico County.

The little organization, like so many history-mined groups across the nation, is hard-pressed to cover simple maintenance and operational costs of their two landmarks.

There have been tough times in the past, but the onset of the Covid-19 virus almost a year ago, has severely crippled their ability to attract tourists and local visitors to events that help fund the association.

The bills continue to come and the members continue to be as frugal with each dollar as they can.

Cindy Bush, Association Secretary, said the group has been plugging along after facing some hard times.

“When I moved here a few years ago, our 501-C3 nonprofit status had expired, so we got that reinstated.  Then we got a boost from the Lower Eastern Shore Heritage Association in the form of a $1,000 grant which we  used to build a website and print new brochures,” she said.

“Then came a Facebook page, useful to increase membership and to launch a fund-raising campaign to underwrite the $30,000 cost of the schoolhouse roof,” she said.

In 2006, the Whitehaven Heritage Association had to replace the steeple and reshingle the roof of the former Whitehaven United Methodist Church. Today the group is trying to raise almost $70,000 to repair roof leaks and to reshingle and repair the steeple.

 Their “new and improved” mailing listing tops 250 names, which also helps garner new members and financial support.

The passion is here, yet the group needs folks and organizations to provide critical financial help.

“Getting a new roof on the school house was a big deal for us,” said Association Vice President Paula Erdie, who is also Director of Wicomico County Department of Social Services.

She and her husband, Greg, own Bolton, a short walk from the school and church. “Now we need a septic tank at the school.”

The group is also facing thousands of dollars in tank and installation costs. When it rains financial woes in Whitehaven, it pours.

“The Community Foundation of the Eastern Shore provided a $5,000 grant toward the cost of the school house roof, which the association matched.

Visitor center

The remaining funds came from “‘in memory of’ gifts, donations,  and generous people,” Bush said.

In addition to giving area students a look into educational history, with wooden desks, a hand pump and blackboards, it has become Whitehaven’s unofficial visitor center.

Sitting along the road, just on the outskirts of the community, the wooden building with its soft and warm yellow color is an endearing, much-photographed icon of Whitehaven.

Whitehaven Heritage Association members are shown in front of the former Whitehaven School that’s now the groups headquarters and unofficial tourism center for the village. From left to right, Melba Kenney, Cindy Bush, Paula Erdie and Nancy Robertson. The association celebrated the completion, in late August, of the much-needed new wooden shingled roof that came with a $30,000 price tag.

Built in 1886,  the school closed in 1935. The still viable church acquired the building and used it for church related functions. Despite it being officially labelled at the “Community and Church Hall,”  in 1991, its still known to much of the public as “the old school house.”

In the abundance of quiet hours now available at the museum, member Sharon Roeble, association archivist, has finished the first extensive files organizing and cross referencing data about Wicomico County and Whitehaven — its people, industries and history.

The group would like folks to benefit from the research, but have to wait until it’s safe to come to the old school.

The school house needs ceiling plaster repairs, cracks in the chimney fixed and work on the sagging wooden floor that’s a smorgasbord for termites.

“It’s obvious, maintaining these buildings is expensive,” said Nancy Robertson, president and Friends of Poplar Hill Mansion board member.  “But we must save them if we want to make both these buildings more available to village residents and the visiting public.”

As the weeks pass, folks are laying the groundwork for better days ahead.

Members are trying to figure out how to safely host the traditional annual Christmas bazaar fund-raiser at the country school.

Fortunately, over the years, people have been kind and generous to care for the church.

The sanctuary, warm with the deep brown color of aged wood and varnish, imparts a feeling of living history.  What can be felt is emotion, laughter and tears, sadness, elation, spiritual peace and contentment of so many now forgotten souls that are forever locked deep into the dark pine walls and ceiling.

The simple stained glass windows, dedicated to those who loved these forgotten faces and personalities come alive with daylight as they have, daily, for almost a century.

 The windows remain as silent witnesses of those that came here — the babies to be baptized, the young to be married, the old to be buried.

The building still serves the community in a special way. “We’ve had several weddings and most recently a memorial service for our late neighbors, Wendy Thompson, Isabelle Fair and Bob Culver,” Bush said.

In keeping with tradition, the vintage church bell is rung by a hand-pulled rope during memorial services in honor of the deceased.

“We would be able to rent this building out for social events if the roof wasn’t leaking and major repairs had to be made,” Bush said.

“Our goal is to repair the church roof first, (at $29,000), then tackle the steeple ($41,000),” she said.

The group has relied in part on their annual village fish-fries, Christmas bazaar,  and plant sales for income during the  in pre-Covid-19 times, but all that is gone now. The donation box in the church remains empty.

The church provided some revenue with wedding facility rental fees, but folks are understandably reluctant to engage in social interactions.

True to history

From the church door can be seen views of the village that have charmed so many visitors over the years. With its natural beauty and picturesque houses, Whitehaven retains a genuine old-fashion, comfortable country feeling, where lapping waves bubble and curl, splash and roll to the marsh and over the ferry slip.

A truck, with its sputtering, coughing muffler chugs by Victorian-era houses. It’s the only sound above the harmony of chirping crickets and an occasional hum of a passing vehicle heading to the ferry.

How many places today offer the experience to feel the peaceful, soft, presence of yesterday?

Village folk of a century ago knew, If ever there was a God, he lived in this gentle, sweet heaven known as Whitehaven.

Now, angels are needed to help the community.

Robertson jumped in to help, she said, because she was impressed by the concern and enthusiasm village folk have to save their history.

“The people who live here are absolutely wonderful,” Robertson said. “And they are so into the history of the area.

“Several people living here, including myself, have family that go back generations who called Whitehaven home,” she said.

“I retired in 2018 as a stringed orchestra teacher, in Ohio, and I thought Whitehaven was a good place to start my retirement,”  Bush said.

She’s excited about the prospect of the former church being used for musical programs as another source of raising funds.

These are not good times and no one wants to lose control of the church or school during their watch.

WHA member, Melba Kenney, a retired Wicomico County educator of 37 years, was married in the church and welcomes the opportunity to help the community.

“I’m working with the association because I’m honoring a wish by my late husband, Louis, who loved this village, that we be involved in the community,” she said. “I’m keeping my promise.

“With so many organizations facing the same situation as we are, it’s so hard to ask them for help,” Kenney said. “We will lose our historic buildings if we don’t take care of them, but when it’s just a small group of people —  and thank goodness for ‘angels’  — trying to keep it all together in these times and still meet the requirements of keeping repairs (accurately) ’historic,’ is challenging and expensive. I hope people can be made aware of the things we are doing down here and help us if they can.”

Robertson is hoping that the medical concerns limiting public interaction will be resolved soon and visitors can again come back to discover all of Whitehaven.

“Whitehaven is one great big beautiful village,” Robertson said of the community that’s the perfect size for walking tours where folks can take in tranquility, riverside beauty and architectural delights.

The residents come and go over the years, yet Whitehaven somehow maintains it’s legendary “country character.”

“We have a lot going for us,” Erdie said. “We are still an ‘intact’ village of the past. We are not commercialized and in some respects still where we were a hundred years ago.”

Tax-exempt donations can be made through the association’s website at whitehavenheritageassociation.com or mailed to the Whitehaven Heritage Association, 2740 Church St., Whitehaven, MD, 21856.

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