New Book Release! In the Midst of These Plains: Charles County Buildings and Landscapes (Guest Blog)

by Cathy H. Thompson

A new publication on the architectural history of Charles County, Maryland is now available from the MHT Press. Consisting of almost 500 pages, In the Midst of These Plains documents nearly four centuries of settlement in Charles County, describing in detail its shift from a rural agricultural community to an exurb of Washington, DC.  The result of many years of historic research and survey funded by the Maryland Historical Trust, the book highlights the history of the county through its historic buildings and landscapes. From iconic tobacco barns and substantial dwellings to the buildings of everyday life, the authors paint a picture of Charles County’s built environment. Rich in detail and illustrations, the book includes a wealth of historic and modern photographs, maps, and floor plans.  

The tobacco barn at the Exchange (CH-357) is believed to have been built about 1780 and employs traditional building features of the era, including vertical riven roof sheathing and tilted false plates. The sheds are later additions. Image source: National Park Service, Historic American Buildings Survey. 

Nestled in the southwestern corner of Southern Maryland, Charles County remained rural and remote for much of its history. First inhabited by various indigenous groups, English settlers arrived in the early seventeenth century. Many were Catholics seeking religious freedom, while others were of various Protestant faiths. Jesuit priests established a commanding mission at St. Thomas Manor in 1741 and continued to be major landowners. 

Erected in 1741, St. Thomas Manor (CH-6) stands on a high bluff at the confluence of the Port Tobacco and Potomac Rivers. It remains one of the County’s most sophisticated examples of 18th century Georgian architecture. Drawn by J. Richard Rivoire. 

By the eighteenth century, the wealthiest settlers had established a level of stability that allowed for the construction of substantial brick and frame dwellings in a distinct regional vernacular style, while the majority of residents, both black and white, lived in rudimentary log and frame houses. In the early nineteenth century, a distinct planter class had evolved, fueled by tobacco profits and enslaved labor. The Civil War brought a period of economic and social instability, but the arrival of the Popes Creek Branch of the Baltimore and Potomac Railroad and establishment of the Naval Proving Ground in Indian Head at the end of the century brought a new wave of prosperity and led to the development of distinct town centers, including the future county seat of La Plata.  

Constructed in 1873, the LaPlata Train Station is the last remaining station in Charles County. Image source: Historic Site Files, Charles County Government. 

Many residents continued farming tobacco as well as crops such as wheat and corn, while others exploited the riches of the region’s abundant waterways through fishing, oystering, crabbing, and even trapping fur that was sent to Baltimore’s lucrative garment market. Construction of Crain Highway in the 1920s provided a convenient link to Baltimore and Washington, DC, but proved to be the downfall of the local steamship lines that had serviced the county rivers for nearly a century. The highway brought new residents and tourists to waterside communities such as Cobb Island and carried agricultural products to urban centers.  Passage of legalized gambling in 1949 brought a postwar wave of tourists who came to frequent the flashy casinos and hotels with neon signs that appeared along Crain Highway, earning the strip the moniker “Little Las Vegas.”  Gambling was outlawed less than twenty years later, but the county continued to grow as a bedroom community of Washington, DC, with new suburban communities constructed on former tobacco fields. By the end of the twentieth century, the previously rural county had become inextricably drawn into the Washington metropolitan area.

The Village of St. Charles was a suburban planned community outside of Waldorf. The 1969 Master Plan called for a series of five villages that provided housing and services for families of a variety of income levels. Image source: Historic Site Files, Charles County Government. 

Departing from the narrower focus of earlier survey work, In The Midst of These Plains includes chapters on Tobacco and Charles County’s Working Landscape (Chapter 4), Domestic and Agricultural Outbuildings (Chapter 5), and the Industrial Landscape (Chapter 9) as well as chapters on sacred, civic and commercial buildings. Together they broaden our understanding of the true breadth and diversity of the Charles County built environment and cultural landscapes.   

The Mulco spoon factory opened in Pomonkey in 1945. It produced coffee stirrers, Popsicle sticks, ice cream spoons, tongue depressors and plant markers. It employed 50 to 70 employees including many women. Image source: Historic Site Files, Charles County Government. 

The book, which was written by Cathy H. Thompson and Nicole A. Dielhmann, can be purchased from the Historical Society of Charles County or from MHT press at https://mht.maryland.gov/home_mhtpress.shtml.

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