Life in West Denton in the 1920s, on Choptank River, Caroline County, Maryland

Below is text from “Chapter 2 – Across the River” of Bridges To My Maturity,  Delightful Memories of What It was Like to be a Young Lad in the 1920s Along the Choptank River on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, by George W. Swartz.

Digitized, edited, and prepared for re-publication by CCHS volunteers Dave Ellis and Don Barker.

See all of our republished stories by George Schwartz about West Denton here.

You can download the full text here:   PDF   DOCX    RTF

 

The events described in Chapter One are centered around the drawbridge at Denton, Maryland, that spanned the Choptank River from 1913 to 1980.

I remember I had the feeling that I was not quite as “good” as some of people in Denton proper because I was born and lived in a section of the town “across the river” unofficially called West Denton. Denton, located on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, is in the center of the County and is situated on a major river of the Eastern Shore, the Choptank. It is about ten miles south of the head of the Choptank. Only one other small town, Greensboro, about eight miles north of Denton, is touched by river, but the river is too shallow between Denton and Greensboro for use by commercial vessels. George Washington would have had no trouble throwing a silver dollar across the Choptank at Denton. In fact, a favorite pastime of mine as a lad was attempting to skip a flat oyster shell across the river surface to the opposite side. About forty miles south of Denton, where the Choptank merges with the Chesapeake Bay, the river is approximately a mile wide.

Caroline County was the last of the Maryland counties created under the provincial government, and it was named for Caroline Eden, the daughter of the Second Lord of Baltimore and the wife of Sir Robert Eden, the last Royal Governor of Maryland, 1769-1774. The county was created in 1774 and a controversy lasted for nearly twenty years over the location of the county seat. It wasn’t until 1791 that Pig Point was chosen by public vote to be the county seat. The two locations in dispute were Choptank Bridge (now Greensboro) and Pig Point (now Denton).

Denton evolved from a thin, narrow tract of land containing three hundred acres extending along the eastern shore of the Choptank for about a mile north to two miles south of the center of the present town site. Originally it was a mere landing called Pig Point. Upon being selected as the county seat, it was renamed Eden-Town, and later Edenton. The E was soon dropped in favor of the name Denton. One who is fond of colonial history would find it interesting to follow the events related to this process of establishing Denton as a town and later as the county seat, but that is a story in itself.

It may be appropriate to note, however, that this section of the Eastern Shore originally was inhabited by two Indian tribes, the Nanticokes and the Choptanks. Both tribes were tidewater people and they lived along the rivers that now bear their names. Their habits, customs, and ways of life were very similar to those of other Indian tribes about which much has been written in the past. As the white man began to encroach upon their territory, the Nanticoke migrated north, stopping in Pennsylvania and New York where they joined the Iroquois (except for a few who went on to Canada). The fate of the Choptank Indians was similar to that of the Nanticoke’s, and by the end of the eighteenth century there were only four Choptank Indian families left on the Choptank River. They left their mark on the Eastern Shore, however, in the form of customs and ways of life adopted by the white man, and more specifically in the Indian names attached to the rivers, tributaries, river landings, and villages

Crossing the Choptank River, whose channel depth is about 25 feet, was not an easy task in the early days of Denton. The most practical way was by small boat or ferry. The winters must have been much colder in the early days of the town because I can remember many tales of how the Choptank would remain frozen over all through the winter with a thick coat of ice strong enough to support mule teams with wagonloads of wood, grain, and other kinds of cargo. This was seldom true in my time.

In November 1792, the General Assembly of Maryland authorized the building of a causeway through the marsh on the east side of the Choptank and the erection of a wharf at the end of the causeway. This probably shortened the distance of the ferry crossing.

A History of Caroline County, published in 1920, states that “in 1811 a number of citizens on seeing how much more convenient it would be to have a bridge here, decided to form a company to erect one, so they were incorporated by the General Assembly under the name of ‘The President and Directors of the Denton Bridge’.

This first bridge was a narrow, one-way drawbridge with a draw twenty-six long. It was a toll bridge to all persons not residents of Caroline County. The Levy Court paid a small sum ($280) each year to allow Caroline County residents to go over the bridge free. Those who came from other counties had to pay twenty-five cents for a four-wheeled vehicle, twelve and a half cents for a two-wheeled vehicle, six and a fourth cents for a horse and rider, three cents for each mule or horse, and two cents for each foot passenger. In 1818, this toll was doubled. About 1875, this bridge was replaced by an iron bridge and the toll was lifted. The iron bridge was replaced in 1913 (the year before my birth) by a concrete bridge which was closed in 1980 upon opening of a high arch bridge constructed a little to the south of the 1913 structure. Boats now using the river can go under the arch, making a drawbridge unnecessary.

At the immediate northwest corner of this concrete bridge crossing the Choptank, my father operated his general merchandise store. In fact, the back end of the store rested on piers built along the river bank and it extended a little past the west end of the bridge. Almost immediately to the west of the bridge the Hillsboro-Denton road and the Easton-Denton road crossed. There were stores on three of the corners formed by this crossroads: my dad’s, Knotts’ store, and Pastorfield’s store.

The other corner along the river bank was vacant and was used for access to barges, small oyster boats, and other vessels. Beyond this corner lot, along the river to the south, and also beyond my dad’s store along the river to the north, there were fertilizer warehouses, oil storage yards, several wharves and appropriate places to tie up small boats and to fish. The two roads mentioned formed the major streets in West Denton, although there were several smaller streets and alleys leading off from these two major ones. There were a number of houses, perhaps fifty or sixty, along these streets and alleys and several other commercial establishments such as canneries, a garage, and a shirt factory. During the ’20s, the population of West Denton was approximately 200 and of Denton proper about 1,400. It was in this setting that I spent the first 17 years of my life, from 1914 to 1931.

At the beginning of this chapter I referred to being born “across the river”. Some of the youngsters, and perhaps some of the adults in Denton proper, considered this the same as being born “across the tracks.” Maybe this was due to the fact that in West Denton all of the people, black or white, lived near each other and not in any particular section as they did in Denton itself. It was an early example of “there goes the neighborhood.” Also, the causeway, referred to earlier, was low and sometimes covered with the Choptank waters. The town of Denton rested upon an incline, which in addition to the eliteness of its environment caused us to refer to it as “uptown.” I know that sometimes I wished that I lived “uptown.”

It is difficult to say exactly why I felt this way, but I suppose it centered around the social aspects of the community. The fact that Denton was the county seat meant that the courthouse was there, providing the place of business for many lawyers who lived “uptown.” Other professional people, such as judges, congressmen, school officials, ministers, teachers, and doctors lived in Denton. Even the owners of the two stores across from my dad’s and the canneries in West Denton all lived “uptown.” Thus, most of those who lived in West Denton could be classified as day laborers with a very few in the blue collar group. Inasmuch as my father was an independent businessman, I’m sure that the feeling in our family was that he could hold his own with the professional people. He was active in his political party, being one of the chief judges at all elections, and he was urged several times by lawyer and political friends to run for public office, an honor that he rejected. I guess I wondered many times why we didn’t live “uptown” with the other professional people. It wasn’t that I considered myself above the other kids in West Denton — I fished and played with the darkest and the poorest of them. All of the adults were my friends, no matter what their race or social status. Although I can’t remember any specific incidents, I know that there were times when the “uptown” kids had some unkind remarks about those who lived “across the river.”

Since most of my immediate neighbors lived on a day-to-day or season-to-season basis, I am quite certain that living in this environment inspired me to want to become prepared to live a better or more meaningful life. To work day to day when there were unskilled jobs to do and then live at other times on credit or a few dollars saved from earnings when work was available did not seem to be the way I wanted to live. I resolved that someday I would live “uptown” and not “across the river.”

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