The History of Caroline County, Maryland, From Its Beginning, 1920, pp. 267-280

Hickory Hill, Nichols, Houston's Branch

FEDERALSBURG (North West Fork Bridge)

Origin and Unification of the Town

        The first inhabitants of the county around Federalsburg were the tribes of the Nanticoke Indians.  Although they were not so fierce as the Susquehannoughs of northern Maryland, neither were they so friendly as the Piscataway tribes of the western shore.  Whether this attitude toward white people delayed the settlement of the county we cannot say; but as early as 1682 James and William Wright, who came from England (probably Bristol) with one of William Penn’s colonies, settled on Marshyhope Creek, the headwaters of the Northwest Fork of the Nanticoke River.  When Caroline County was formed in 1774, this land fell within its boundaries.  By an act of the General Assembly of 1792 the southern boundary was extended to Noris Ford (a corruption of Northwest Fork Ford), because the newly erected bridge at that spot had taken the place of the one which had marked the Caroline-Dorchester division line before it had been washed away.
        Already the possibilities of this point where cross-country traffic forded the river had been foreseen by a Mr. Cloudsberry Jones, who built a store, and began to sell groceries and liquor there about the year 1789.  The was the nucleus of a small village which so patently owed its growth to the bridge that it was called “Northwest Fork Bridge,” or “The Bridge” until early in 1812 when politics too the naming of the little town in hand.  By this time the Federalist Party had reached that stage of decline which is characterized by a fever-heat of loyalty and enthusiasm.  The party was strong on the Delaware-Maryland peninsula, and a rousing mass-meeting was held at “The Bridge.”  People came from far and near; the militia drilled and paraded with all the pomp and ceremony of military glory; drums beat and fifes shrieked; the Stars and Stripes, together with the party flag, were cheered to the top of  an immense flag pole; prominent speakers of the day used all their gifts of oratory to foster the pride, and kindle the enthusiasm for party and party principles.  Something must be done, such emotion demanded an outlet; of the patriotism, enthusiasm, and party loyalty of that day was born a name for the town—Federalsburg.  The few Republicans of the locality voiced their protest by still referring to “The Bridge”; however, though Republican principles finally triumphed, the Federalist name was held and Federalsburg it has ever remained.
        The road following the river had been made the boundary between Caroline and Dorchester counties through that section which is now the site of Federalsburg; but as the line of houses which grew up along it developed into proportions of a village, this dividing line threatened the peaceful existence and growth of the town.  People living on the west, or Dorchester, side of Main Street, sent their children to the village school.  Those living on the East, or Caroline, side sent them to the district school at Tanyard Branch, a mile and a half distant.  The residents of the same town paid their taxes into separate county treasuries, and were more or less attached to separate interests.  Offenders against the law could baffle and embarrass its officers merely by dodging from one side of the street to the other.  Moreover, voters in Caroline County had to go to Linchester to cast their ballots, while the Dorchester population went either to East New Market or to Crotcher’s Ferry according to the section of the village in which they lived.
        So great and so general had the dissatisfaction over these inconveniences become by 1880 that a petition signed by every voter in the Dorchester part of town, seventy in all, was sent to the Legislature asking for such a change in the boundary between the two counties that the town and its suburbs might be wholly within Caroline County.  This request was granted, and upon the payment of $614 into the Dorchester treasury by the transferred taxpayers, the change was duly authorized and made.  Thus, with the wiping out of the dividing line, Federalsburg became a unified whole.


        Probably Federalsburg’s earliest industry, and certainly its most picturesque one, was its shipbuilding.  The surrounding white oak forests furnished the material, but as this industry ante-dated the saw-mill, the old-time whip-saw had to be employed to convert it into lumber.  To operate this saw a trestle was erected; one man sawed from the elevated position while his co-laborer at the other end of the saw worked on the ground.  As the water was too shallow for these ships to be launched at Federalsburg anyway, it was not important that they be built at any definite place; hence keels were laid at many different points in the southern part of the town.
        Upon the completion of a ship, it was conveyed on a scow, or lighter, to Brown’s Wharf, a landing four miles farther down the river.  From thence it was launched, laden, and sent upon its career as a bay and river trading vessel.  The same landing  was naturally the shipping point for Federalsburg merchants, although boats of lighter draft ascended as far as Chimney Landing, a distance of less than two miles from the town.  Twice yearly, in spring and in fall, the local store-keepers loaded a boat with tan-bark and cord-wood, and returned from the Chesapeake cities with a miscellaneous supply of city needfuls for their country trade.
        The first ship built at Federalsburg was “The Clipper.”  This was followed by the “Richard Tull,” the “Eggleston Brown,” the “Mary Havelow,” the “Jacob Charles,” the “Pearl,” and the “Annabelle.”  Of these the “Pearl” was the largest and best equipped, and the “Annabelle,” built by Mr. Jacob Covey, and named for his two daughters, was the last.  The industry ceased at Federalsburg some time before the Civil War.
        Exclusive of shipbuilding, the work of the town centered around the mill-dam at its northern extremity. Mr. John Elliott owned and operated the mills there.  At these mills, later known as “Idlewild Mills,” logs which had been floated up from considerable distance downstream while the tide was coming in, were converted into lumber, in which form they made the return trip down the river and on to Baltimore.  To the Idlewild mills also came the fleeces from the countryside, there to be carded and combed, and made into “rolls” for the spinning wheels of thrifty housewives.  Thence, too, came the wheat, destined eventually to be molded into the smooth, round “Maryland Biscuit,” and the corn for the quick batter bread.  Smelting iron-ore obtained from the valley of the town was tried for a time, but it proved unprofitable.  As a means of furnishing power for grinding wheat and corn, and for generating electricity the dam was used continuously until the last mill was burned in 1916.
        Fifty years ago, and more, all the merchants bought tanbark just as they buy butter, eggs, and other farm products today.  The bark was cut into slabs and sold by the cord.  Spanish oak bark commanded the higher price.  It was shipped in the slab form in which it was bought at the country stores.  Black oak bark, however, was shredded after the coarse, sapless part of the bark had been removed.  Mr. Henry Mowbray, who kept a store at “The Point,” was the only person who shredded the bark.   Prior to the year 1840 there had been a tanyard of some importance on the farm of a Mr. Wright, one and one-half miles east of town.  By that time, however, the tan-pits had fallen into disuse, and the building in which hides had been stored was being used as a schoolhouse.  The industry, thus abandoned, has never been revived in the vicinity, but the name, “Tanyard Branch,” still marks the site of the activity.


        In the days before the Civil War there was located in Federalsburg an old-fashioned tavern, originally owned by a man named Perry.  It stood on the east side of the bridge crossing the North West Fork, about ten or fifteen feet back from the road on the meadow land adjoining the late
T. O. Jefferson property.  The structure was mounted on the slope of the hillside, so that while the rear of the building rested on the ground the main entrance was reached by a steep flight of steps.  Rectangular in shape, having two stories topped off with an ample garret under the roof, this old tavern was similar to the colonials inns of the time of George III.
        Like them, its first proprietors were dispensers of liquor.  Later in its history it became a stopping place for Negro traders on their way to Patty Cannon’s at the Johnson’s Cross Roads.
In later years this old inn was used as a private dwelling by various Federalsburg families. It was while being occupied by Mr. Hill Smith that the building was finally destroyed by fire.


        The rivers and bays of a new country are its first routes of trade and transportation.  Hence river traffic with Baltimore, as well as with some smaller towns of the Chesapeake, began at an early date.  Cordwood, lumber, tanbark, and wheat, as well as less bulky products were loaded on to heavy scows and pushed down the river by four or five muscular men using long poles.  At Brown’s Wharf, four or five miles below Federalsburg, these commodities were reloaded upon schooners or other sailing vessels and sent up the bay.
        Before the Civil War there was little cross-country transportation for anything except mail and passengers. For these there was the picturesque old stagecoaches.  Even after the war, they made daily trips from Bridgeville to Federalsburg, and thence to Cambridge and Easton.  These lines were operated by Mr. Wesley Moore and Mr. James Finsthwaith.
        The Seaford and Cambridge division of the Pennsylvania Railroad was opened for traffic on Oct. 12, 1868, although at that time it extended only from Seaford to East New Market.  This date marked a new era in the history of Federalsburg, for it is that railroad, with its refrigerator car accommodation, which made New York, Philadelphia and other northern cities the markets for the perishable products of our gardens and orchards.


        This church was organized in 1785, in a house owned and occupied by Jacob Charles.  This house stands near the bridge which spans the North West Fork of the Nanticoke river which flows through the town, and is at this date, 1919, occupied by Mr. and Mrs. John Smith.   The first church building was erected in 1815, and stood within the bounds of the present cemetery.  The ground was purchased from one Eccleston Brown and his wife, for the consideration of sixty cents.  Upon this ground a frame building was erected for the use of the Methodists as a place of worship.  The trustees were Paul Conaway, Constant Wright, Joshua Wright, Ferdinand Griffith and William Frampton.  This building was occupied as a place of worship for both colored and white people until 1850, when it was sold and moved to a point about one hundred yards south, and on the East side of Main street, where it was occupied as a carpenter shop for a number of years.  Later it was sold and a part of it moved to the rear of the residence now occupied by Charles M. Davis and wife, and still serves as a part of his outbuildings.  The present church building, that is the main part, was built in 1850, on ground bought from Jacob Charles and wife.  Again the consideration was the sum of sixty cents.  At this time the board of trustees consisted of Paul Conaway, Jacob Charles, Charles Willis of E., John Elliott, Joseph L. Kenney, Curtis Davis and William M. Wingate, M.D.  In the years 1901 and 1902 the building was repaired, and enlarged by the addition of an annex on the south side.  The cost of the improvements was $3375.00.  The building was reopened for worship on the 29th day of June, 1902.  At this time the Rev. Thomas S. Holt was the pastor.  In the year 1912 the building was again repaired and enlarged by the addition of a room in the rear for the accommodation of the Beginners and the Primary departments of the Sunday school.  The cost of these improvements was $1,400.00.
        In 1914 a pipe organ was installed at a cost of $1,700.00.  These last improvements were made during the pastorate of the Rev. T. E. Terry, from 1912 to 1914.
        For many years the church was a part of a large circuit, during which time preaching on the Sabbath was done by local preachers, the pastors only preaching during the week.  Later it was made the head of a smaller circuit, with preaching by the pastor on the Sabbath.  In 1902 the charge was made a station.     By Rev. F. C. MacSorley.


        The present structure, now known as Christ Methodist Protestant Church of Federalsburg, was originally Federalsburg Presbyterian Church, therefore, any sketch or history of Christ church in order to be in any way complete must include the history of the Presbyterian church which was the beginning of it.
        In the year 1871 under the leadership of a Rev. Mr. Boing a congregation was assembled and October 6th regularly organized as a Presbyterian church.  Mr. H. P. Chambers was elected Secretary and Messrs. Jas. A. Sanders, Edward R. Goslin, John Wilson, Jacob Rhoads and H. P. Chambers were the Finance Committee.  The original trustees were Edward R. Goslin, H. P. Chambers, W. C. Logan, R. Mithchell, J. Rhoads, J. A. Sanders, Dr. W. D. Noble and John Wilson.
        A hall was rented and properly seated and the services proceeded regularly until the present fine structure was erected.  The lot on which it stands was bought from Dr. Noble and the building erected during the years 1872 and 1873.
        Regular services were held after this until the year 1897.  At this time most of the congregation had moved away or died and it was decided to abandon the work and leave the property in the hands of the New Castle Prebytery.  The last meeting of the session was recorded on Sept. 30th, 1897, by S. A. Logan, Clerk.  Rev. Mr. Blackwell was Pastor at Bridgeville and served this church in connection with that charge.
        For about five years after that the church remained closed.  In 1902, a number of Methodist Protestant families having moved into the town and vicinity, it was decided to form a Methodist Protestant church.  Mr. James B. Wright, a loyal Methodist Protestant, seeing the need, bought the church building from the New Castle Presbytery and advanced the money until such time as the congregation should be able to repay him.  Rev. Herbert F. Wright, who was then Pastor at Reliance, opened services in the church building and June 12, 1902, Christ Methodist Protestant church was duly organized.
        Since that time services have continued to be held continuously and the church has gained until it has reached its present strength and usefulness and has become one of the strongest powers for good in the community.           By Rev. J. L. Nichols.


        The first school in Federalsburg was situated on the west side of Main Street midway between Academy Avenue and the M. P. Church.  One of the first teachers was Mr. Thomas Brown, who settled here in the latter part of the eighteenth century. This building was accidentally burned during the first term taught by Miss Lizzie Goslin.  It, as well as its successor, built near the point where Main Street became the Preston road, was under the management of Dorchester County.  The first Caroline County school within town limits stood adjoining the present site of the M.E. Church.
         Following these came the Academy, at first a one-room frame structure over which Miss Augusta Paine first presided as school-mistress.  With the growth of the town, however, other rooms were added until when last used, it comprised six rooms.  Even the conversion of an adjacent machine shop into a primary school failed to meet the growing demands of the town and community; a more commodious building was an imperative necessity.
        One of the last public acts of the Hon. E.E. Goslin, who had championed the Academy and donated the first five hundred dollars to it, was to obtain the passage of a bill appropriating money for the erection of the present High School building, first occupied in 1915.  This building is a large stucco structure of two stories and basement.  Its thirteen classrooms, auditorium, lunchroom, library, textbook room, office and restroom, are heated by steam.  Electric lights, bells, telephones, and running water are other modern conveniences which help to make it one of the finest and best equipped schools on the Eastern Shore.


        Standing where Main Street curves to form the “Point” is a little shop where Mr. Richard Tull (a white man) did carpenter work by day and taught the colored inhabitants by night.  Somewhat later a schoolhouse was built for them at Quaker Branch, where the Houston’s Branch road leaves town.  A part of the old colored church opposite Mt. Pleasant Cemetery also did service as an institution of learning until the erection of the attractive new building on the Nichols road met existing need.                                                           (From material collected by Federalsburg Pupils.)


        In the year 1872 a piece of land was bought from Mr. Alfred Davis and Mr. James Willis on which to build a school.
        The school was built in a hickory grove on a small hill, so they decided to call it Hickory Hill.  In 1916 the school was burned, then for two years the children of this section went in a hack to Federalsburg school.
        In the year 1918 the people in the vicinity of Hickory Hill School met and subscribed a certain amount of money to erect a new school.  At the end of the year the new school was completed.  Two miles away from Hickory Hill School is a church by the name of Liberty that was built in the year 1907.
        In the year 1863 the slaves of the United States were freed by our president, Abraham Lincoln.  Many of the slaves of the United States were badly treated.  There were many kidnappers in the east.  Kidnappers caught the Negroes wherever they went and then sent them south and sold them for a good price.  The greatest kidnapper near Hickory Hill neighborhood was Patty Cannon.  She was as strong as a man and lived where Reliance now stands.  She went around in a one-horse wagon trying to catch Negroes.  She would invite them to take a ride with her, and when they were in the wagon would throw them down and tie them hand and foot.  Then she would take them to her home and put them in her slave pen, until she had enough to send south and sell.
                                                                                                        Pupils of Hickory Hill.


        The old schoolhouse built of logs many years ago, stood near where Mr. Cohee’s house now is.  It was named Midway because it was about halfway between Friendship and Federalsburg.
The present school site was purchased from James A. Nichols in 1896, since which time it has been known officially as Nichols School.
        A sorgum mill was also built in this section long ago.  Mr. Corkran built it.


        Houston’s Branch is the name applied to a small stream emptying into the North West Fork a few miles above Federalsburg.  It was evidently named for James Houston who came to this section from Sussex County about 1800 and became one of the most representative citizens of this section and well known in county affairs.  Mr. Houston was probably the earliest miller in this neighborhood.
        As English and Scotch people settled this community largely, their descendants naturally clung to the Episcopal church—so much so in fact that a church of that denomination was established here years ago.  For lack of support, however, it ceased to thrive and finally was closed.
        After the Liberty school district was divided about 1871, the Houston’s Branch school district was laid off and a building erected.  With the exception of one or two years when the school was closed because of poor attendance, it has been in operation ever since.  To this school belongs the honor of having the first concrete steps in the county, built by the patrons during the incumbency of Mrs. S. E. Parsons, teacher.

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