Visiting the Brome Quarter: A Trip Back in Time

Posted by on Nov 30, 2010 in Dirt, Research and Engagement | No Comments

This afternoon, I had the chance to head over to the location of the duplex quarter that I am studying for my dissertation. Located behind the Brome-Howard Inn in St. Mary’s City, Maryland, the duplex is approaching a state of neglect. Since it was moved from its original location in 1994, it has been used for storage by the inn. This is not to say that it is not on the minds of the good folks at Historic St. Mary’s City, who still have the rights to the structure. On the contrary. We are in the process of deciding what corse of action to take in fixing it up, and possibly doing some interpretation.

With this in mind, I headed over to the quarter to give it a more thorough inspection with Peter Rivers, HSMC’s Curator of Architecture. Despite analyzing this quarter archaeologically, I have yet to really examine the interior of the building. Like with any old structure, the walls and doors had stories to tell about the people who lived who lived there. And, considering this was a building that was home to enslaved African Americans and, later, poor tenant farmers, the emotions conjured up through these visits were mixed.

There were four features in this building that were particularly striking. The first is a worn spot on the sill below the doorstep, where your foot lands as you enter the building. A spot touched by every person who lived in this structure, moving out of the small building before dawn to go work in the fields, and coming home late at night after a long day tending the small family garden.

The building is 1 and half stories tall, with a dual-hearth chimney set in the middle of the building, with wood dividing walls to make it a duplex. However, some of the wood dividing wall was removed, likely after emancipation when the duplex became a single family home. Interestingly, the wood was not simply removed: you can see where the boards were cut along the top edge, and a hole left behind where a stud had once been placed. One can imagine, as Peter recreated, a man standing on a ladder, sawing away this division. You can imagine, after years living in a cramped one room home, the exuberance accompanied by this simple bit of home improvement: by cutting down that wall he doubled the size of his home.

The second floor was equally impressive. Just tall enough in the center to stand, the loft was dark and cold, although the chimney stack rising through the center would have helped to keep it warm. Nails holding on the wooden shingles stuck through the ceiling, making Peter and I walk around with our heads held low. This would have been the sleeping quarters for the children. Some census records suggest that there may have been upwards of 10-15 children living in the duplexes, while the family that lived here in the 20th century had seven. It would have been a cramped place to sleep.

The final element was the most powerful for me for a number of reasons. Although the original chimney could not be saved because of the movement of the building, the recreation still has the original lintels. Looking closely at one of them, three letters could be made out: “CIM” (see the photo above). As far as I know, this is the only source of writing we have by anyone who lived in these quarters from 1840 to the 1950s. it is a powerful message: someone had the urge to inscribe their initials on the lintel, to somehow make their mark on a building that so many people lived in. It is likely that it was a member of the most recent occupants, who were the Milburns. Regardless, it is a testament to the need for humans to leave some sort of mark on history, and even bigger reason for archaeologists to make sure they do what they can to learn more.