Sarah Varley on Local History

In some ways it’s been the perfect job for me; in some ways it’s been a long, strange trip. I started out at the University of Delaware, and had a terrible time there, didn’t fit in at all, just couldn’t find my feet. So I ctowntransferred to bucolic Washington College in ole-timey Chestertown. It had a well-respected journalism program, from which I was graduated. Washington College journalism graduates tend to aim a bit higher than the Kent County News (despite the fact that it is the direct descendant of the Chestertown Spy, est. 1792). They wanted someone to write features on local history, and a friend of a friend put me in contact. I was their man! I’ve always been partial to pokin’ around in boxes of old papers, exploring attics, listening to stories, preferably on porches, in rocking chairs. Most days, I feel like I am somewhere between the ages of eighteen and eighty-five. It was a hobby that turned into a job. The readers seem to like it, and I really cannot complain.

bettertonWithout a doubt, though, it’s disorienting to be a liberal-minded lesbian and be paid to write about local history in Kent County, Maryland. I have to tell you, this is an old-south kind of place. Where shall I start? Both Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass came from the Eastern Shore. The region they escaped from was well-established in the slave-breeding business, after the tobacco economy petered out. Even today, the races don’t mix that much. I’m fascinated by the little black sister-towns. Old-timers call them “settlements,” as if they’re somehow temporary, like black people haven’t graduated to the level of having “towns” of their own. They are pantries in which the local gentry store their yard boys and maids. Every little town in Kent County has one: Galena has Daves Hill; Millington has Golts; Rock Hall has Piney Neck and Worton has Butlertown, whose name is almost too on the nose.

kvilleThe only one that doesn’t, as far as I’ve been able, as a gay carpetbagger, to tell, is Kennedyville, a town in basically the geographic center of Kent County, and one that gives me the heebie-jeebies. People seem to live there — there are houses, and cars and things — but nothing ever seems to actually go on there. There’s a cute little general store with a front porch and old gas pumps, right in the middle of town, and I have yet to see anyone coming in or out of it. Outside of town there’s an imposing, white building, with columns, labeled “Red Smith” in big red letters; I’ve been told that it is a private social club. What sort of club? “You don’t want to know what goes on in there,” said one oldtimer in, of course, Kennedyville. Well, I sorta do, because what I imagine isn’t reassuring… is it the HQ of the KKK? The local chapter of the Dyke-Burning League? Or maybe they just bet on horse races. I dunno, but when I drive by the place, I obey the speed limit. But try not to look like I am, you know?

Saint Dennis Catholic church, Galena

I don’t want to give the impression that I’m afraid to be here or that I haven’t met bunches of great people in Chestertown and environs. Do I feel out of place? Of course; I’d feel out of place anywhere, I suppose, and that isn’t such a bad thing. I think of something Molly Bolt said in Rubyfruit Jungle, about how weird it feels to see that all those things being sold with sex aren’t being sold to her. I don’t mind — I can’t afford that stuff anyway. I’m still waiting to meet the Love of My Life, but I’ve got some good friends, a fascinating job and a great collection of house plants.

Local history is like looking at history through a high-powered microscope. It’s not that the big picture goes away — it’s that you see neighborhoods, and the people in them, bouncing around inside the big picture. It takes a certain amount of abstraction to accomplish that. It might even be true that a local historian shouldn’t even be from the place she’s studying. In my case it helps to hail from New Jersey, which I consider to be the most generically escapable place in the entire world, though your mileage may vary. I think I’m pretty good at getting people to spill the beans.

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