Thursday, April 13, 2000

Archaeologists Dig Behind Chestertown's Colonial Custom House

Chestertown, April 12—Archaeologists from Washington College recently began a two-week archaeological investigation at Chestertown's Custom House, at the foot of High Street. The excavations were prompted by the College's plans for a substantial renovation of the old building, a restoration that might disturb centuries-old archaeological remains.
The original section of the Custom House was built around 1745 by local innkeeper and merchant Samuel Massey. The distinctive brickwork of the house's facade, a style that uses glazed brick in a decorative pattern, marks it as a prominent building for its time. It was acquired from Massey in 1749 and enlarged substantially by another of Kent County's most prominent citizens, Thomas Ringgold. Ringgold, an attorney and member of the House of Burgesses, had extensive mercantile connections, interests in shipbuilding yards, and large landholdings.
Ringgold supervised his holdings from the Custom House, located at the corner of High and Front Streets. The house overlooked Chestertown's main wharf at the foot of High Street. Vaults and cellars beneath the house were used for storage, and the grounds held a wide variety of buildings over the years. Historical documents refer to a dry goods store, a cooper's shop (barrel and cask maker), granaries, storehouses, and wharves.
The location of the house also made it ideal for watching the comings and goings of ships and cargos from Chestertown's busy colonial harbor. Prior to the American Revolution, the District Customs Collector used at least one room in the house as an office, giving the building the name it has retained ever since, the Custom House.
During the 1800s, the Custom House saw a variety of owners and changes in the uses of both the house and its grounds. Outbuildings for the residence included a carriage house, a meat house, and privies, and commercial structures included warehouses and canning factories. For many years, the house was divided into apartments. In 1909 the property was purchased by the Hubbard family, who remained the owners until the property recently was given to Washington College. Much of the historic fabric of the Custom House has deteriorated and the building requires substantial renovation before it can be used effectively. The College plans to rehabilitate the building, paying special attention to historical details and keeping intact as much as possible of the original building.
Part of the renovation work includes construction of new mechanical and storage rooms in the rear of the building. Because this will disturb the ground, archaeologists from Washington College are excavating these areas in advance of construction to ensure that no important evidence of the earlier history of the site is destroyed.
During the two-week excavation phase of the project, which began on April 10, archaeologists will excavate inside the planned construction area. Digging one layer at a time, the students and staff members hope to uncover artifacts and the remains of old foundations from outbuildings. John Seidel, assistant professor of archaeology, said, "The materials we recover during this dig may reveal important insights into the construction phases and history of the Custom House and the everyday life of its occupants."

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