This is a digital re-publication of the interview found in Voices from the Land, A Caroline County Memoir, by Mary Anne Fleetwood.

The text was digitized, edited, and prepared for re-publication by CCHS volunteers Dave Ellis and Don Barker.  Copyright for the original text and photos, and this digital publication, is held by the Caroline County Historical Society.

See the title page , dedication and copyright pages, and back cover text and photos here.

You can download the full digital text here.

See all of our re-published interviews by Mary Anne Fleetwood here.

 

Williston, called Potter’s Landing during the Revolution, is a country hamlet on a bend in the Choptank River. On a hill above the river stands Potter Hall, a brick manse with a cupola overlooking the water. From this spot, children once watched steamboats advance up the narrow, winding Choptank.

By the early 1900’s, Williston was a port of entry for steamers. With the advent of the railroad, it declined as a port. Today the river meanders past stately homes with shaded lawns, proud vestiges of a bygone past.

In conversation with Marjorie Todd

“We’d play crack-the-ship on skates,” said Mrs. Marjorie Knotts, remembering winter fun at Williston millpond. As a young woman, Mrs. Knotts drove her father’s horses on the country roads and witnessed a dramatic rescue on ice. The wife of the late Dr. E. Paul Knotts, she grew up at Williston on land granted to the Todd family by Lord Baltimore.

What are your childhood memories of Williston?

As children, we likd to go up in the cupolas of two large residences and look up and down the river as far as we could see. The steamboats, Joppa and Avalon, plied the Choptank. They stopped at Williston on their trip from Baltimore to Denton. If the passengers were sleeping when the steamboat arrived in Baltimore, they did not sleep long because before light, the deckhands were rolling out crates of chickens, pigs, and produce picked up from the Eastern Shore. One time, the showboat called Adam’s Floating Opera had a performance for us while the boat was stuck on Pealiquor Flats near Williston. We had been taken to the showboat in Gilbert Hignutt’s

The front part of Potter Hall was not occupied by the people who rented it, and there was a blacksmith who lived in the lower part. I think Potter Hall was built at different times. The high part was built later, and you often find that in old houses. They’ll build a part to live in and then decide to build a new, higher part. I used to go up there to have shoes put on my horse because Mr. Henry, the blacksmith, lived there. There were large boxwood bushes in front of Potter Hall in a circle, and we little girls played in that circle.

Who were the Potters?

Zabdiel Potter was the first one. He was a seafaring person and made his money in shipping and sailboats that would go all over the world. He was lost at sea. His first descendant was Dr. R. Nathaniel Potter, the first docter to teach medicine at University of Maryland School of Medicine. Dr. Potter lived at Potter Hall until he died, but he died penniless about 1835. His friends had to donate the money to bury him.4

You mentioned that your family’s land at Williston came from a land grant?

The first Todd in Caroline County was Michael Todd. He got the land from Lord Baltimore when the land was still in Dorchester County. The son of Michael Todd I, who remained in Dorchester County and died in 1730, was Michael Todd II. Michael II came up the Choptank from Dorchester in a sailboat. He married Mary Johnson, and her father had received a land grant called “Johnson’s Venture.” After Michael and Mary were married, Michael received a second and larger land grant of about 371 acres from Lord Baltimore. This was called “Todd’s Venture” and it occurred about 1761.

Your father, Willard C. Todd, was a canner?

My father was self-sufficient you might say. He could grind grain in his own mill at Williston, can tomatoes in his own cannery, and cut timber for his own sawmill. He also purchased two thoroughbred Guernsey cows from Mayor Preston’s herd near Baltimore, and this was the beginning of the Guernsey on the Eastern Shore.

Mrs. Knotts, was there a very unusual day in your childhood?

One day we were driving to school in Denton. There were two other girls with me. The big snow storm came around the first of March, and we asked my father if we could go to Denton in the cutter sleigh. He didn’t think well of it, but he finally consented. When we came home, the weather had gotten warmer, and the poor horse, a great big Percheron, pulled. the sleigh about two and a half miles when the runners cut through the snow. The load was so heavy we had to stop and change to a carriage.5

NOTES

  1. Ruth Maloney Yeoman, Denton, also grew up in Williston. She said that her mother and her cousin Effie had operated the milliner’s shop there in the early 1900s. The milliners travelled by steamboat, hauling calves and grain to Baltimore, to purchase materials for the shop. The Hignutt dance pavilion was built over the water, said Mrs. Yeoman. “People from all around, Easton especially, would come down. Benny’s Band from Talbot County came to play. Catherine Thawley and I were allowed to go down until nine in the evening for the dance.”

 

  1. The Two Johns were vaudeville actors who passed as twins. Their combined weight was near seven hundred pounds. Famous as a performing duo, they selected Caroline County as a site for their home and in the 1880s bought a farm on the Choptank. After constructing a pavilion by the river for dancing and dramatic performances, they leased a steamboat to bring in celebrities from the entertainment centers of the east. During summers, Ada Kline and Paul Dresser took part in the revelry. Once, the two actors rented a boat and entertained the entire town of Denton. Soon, however, the eccentric gentlemen went broke. Their residence burned to the ground in the 1940s. (Hulbert Footner. Rivers of the Eastern Shore. New York: Farrar and Rinehart, Inc., 1944, pp. 195-197.)

 

  1. Potter Hall was built by Zabdiel Potter, a sea captain from Rhode Island, in the early 1700s. The house was a stopping place along the Choptank in earlier days. An original, small brick house had been the kitchen of the present mansion, built in 1808 by General William Potter, a grandson of Zabdiel Potter. Col. John Arthur Willis purchased the estate in 1847, and the name of Potter Town became “Williston.” (William N. Rairigh. “A Narrative History of Caroline County” in The Eastern Shore of Maryland and Virginia (V. 11). New York: Lewes Historical Publishing Co., 1950, p. 1120.)

 

  1. Dr. Nathaniel Potter was a favorite pupil of the celebrated physician, Dr. Benjamine Rush, in the late 1700s. Dr. Potter’s most distinguished work was on the epidemiology of yellow fever. To establish the disease was not contagious, he lent himself to experimentation by tying around his head a piece of muslin dipped in the perspiration of a patient dying with yellow fever. Dr. Nathaniel Potter is credited with helping organize the University of Maryland, and his portrait by St. Memin has been displayed in the Library of the University of Maryland Medical School. The doctor’s final days were marred by poverty however. After his death, the charity of friends was invoked to secure him a final resting place in Baltimore. (Source: A biography of Dr. R. Nathaniel Potter in notes from Mrs. Marjorie Todd Knotts.)

  2. Mrs. Knotts also remembered that her parents rented rooms at their Williston home to teachers, such as Elsie Roe Nuttle and Edna Hobbs. Originally located where Warren Howell now lives, the Williston school had been called “Kildee College” by the students. The name may have been a variation on “killdeer,” a bird with a haunting song often called “killdee” in Caroline County.

     

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    Voices from the Land:  A Caroline County Memoir 

    Text by Mary Anne Fleetwood 

    Photographs by Hal Rummel 

    Edited by Betty Carroll Callahan 

    Sponsored by Caroline County Historical Society 

    Published by The Queen Anne Press, Queenstown, Maryland 

    Since Voices from the Land as an oral history is a book about what people believed happened and is accordingly in large part quoting the words of the interviewees, the Caroline County Historical Society, Inc., the Caroline County Commissioners, The Queen Anne Press of Wye Institute, Inc. and Mary Anne Fleetwood are not responsible for any statements of the interviewees which may be inaccurate or false. 

    Historical photographs courtesy of the Caroline County Visual History project. 

    ISBN 0-937692-02-6 (cloth) 

    0-937692-03-4 (paper) 

    Library of Congress Card Catalog No. 83-062826 

     

    Copyright © 1983 Mary Anne Fleetwood and the Caroline County Historical Society, Inc.