Chestertown, MD — Everybody likes the idea of finding treasures in the attic—but when the attic is in an old plantation that has been in the family since 1669, such treasures can amount to a historian's dream come true.
Such is the case at Poplar Grove, the historic home of the Emory family in Queen Anne's County near Washington College. James Schelberg '11, a, first-year student at the College, was searching for research material for a term paper last at Poplar Grove last semester when he happened upon what has turned out to be a historical bonanza: thousands of pages of family papers, political correspondence, military records and much more—a tidal wave of valuable documents spanning 350 years. Schelberg, a U.S. Marine who served in Iraq and is now attending Washington College on a Hodson Star Scholarship, was interested in the military history of the Emorys, who served in every major conflict from the Revolution through World War II.
Schelberg's professor, Adam Goodheart, quickly realized that his student was onto something big. Goodheart had known of the collection's existence for several years, but was unaware of its full extent and wealth of material. “As we dug through 19th-century crates and barrels, we were amazed by what we were finding,” he said.
Goodheart, the Hodson Trust-Griswold Director of the C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience, contacted Edward Papenfuse, Director of the Maryland State Archives, who made haste for Poplar Grove and was glad he did. “I came over for a survey,” said Papenfuse, “and it was clear how valuable these papers were. This find is rich in many aspects of the area's history and national history as well.”
In addition to many thousands of pages of family letters, the discovery has yielded political correspondence, newspapers and broadsides, military records, a letter describing ex-President Monroe's visit to West Point in 1828 (the old man jumped in alarm every time the cannons saluted him), letters about politics in the Jackson administration (one written from the floor of the Senate describing near-brawl between Thomas Hart Benton and another senator, as described by John C. Calhoun), an antislavery petition signed by dozens of Queen Anne's County citizens in the 1830s; original manuscript poems (including a very x-rated one about a young man sneaking into a girl's bed on a winter night in about 1810), a detailed description by Tench Coxe of buying a slave in Philadelphia in 1779, important Civil War documents, and many more incredible things.
The documents were stored in attics and outbuildings on the farm, stuffed into steamer trunks, crates, and peach baskets. Now, thanks to a cooperative venture between Washington College and the Maryland State Archives, this valuable and voluminous find is being lovingly and meticulously preserved, inventoried, catalogued and researched. The Poplar Grove Project is being manned by Washington College students, including Schelberg, Jeremy Rothwell '09 and recent alumnus Albin Kowalewski '07, back for the summer from graduate school and serving as project supervisor under Papenfuse's guidance. Also participating is Olivia Wood, a student at Rhodes College and descendant of the Emorys.
The Poplar Grove team has created a blog to share some of its discoveries with the public. It can be found at http://poplargroveproject.blogspot.com.
The Poplar Grove story attracted the interest of the Associated Press, and has since appeared in newspapers across the nation and around the globe.
Associated Press Coverage
- ABC News
- The Washington Post
- The Baltimore Sun
- The Bangkok (Thailand) Post
- The Seattle Post-Intelligencer
- The Kansas City Star
- The Dayton Daily News
- The Southern Ledger
- The Washington Times
- The Fort Wayne (Indiana) Journal Gazette
- The Columbus Dispatch
- The Boston Globe
- Federal News Radio
- WTOP News
- The Sacramento Bee
- The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
- The Buffalo News
- Louisville Courier-Journal
- Arizona Central
- The Tallahassee Democrat
- The Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star
- The Charlotte Observer
- The South Florida Sun-Sentinel
- The Clark County (Washington State) Columbian
- Newstin (U.K.)
- The Northern Light (University of Alaska Anchorage)
- CBS News.com
- Lexington (Kentucky) Herald-Leader
- The San Francisco Chronicle
- Rome (Georgia) News-Tribune
- The Columbia (South Carolina) State
- The Beaufort (South Carolina) Gazette
- The Birmingham News
- The Greeley (Colorado) Tribune
June 23, 2008