Chautauqua and the historical society

Harriet Tubman

Thanks to the Maryland Humanities Council, Chautauqua is once again being held this summer. I was asked to introduce Harriet Tubman by speaking about another historical topic, and my comments follow. 

I thought I might get us in a historical frame of mind by talking a bit about the Historical Society of Cecil County. Who we are, what we do, what we offer.

It’s interesting that we’re in this beautiful, historical church today, and it reminds me that Abraham Lincoln once said, “When I hear a man preach, I like to see him act as if he were fighting bees.”

The Historical Society of Cecil County is an organization that is, of course, extremely interested in preserving the past. At the same time, the Historical Society is very much interested in the present — and the future — and these can be challenging times in that regard for any local non-profit organization.

I personally don’t see history as something that’s in the past, over and done with. Our local history lives on in who we are, what we think, and how we act. Some of us are more interested in history because we’ve come out today to learn more about Harriet Tubman. But even those who never heard of Harriet Tubman are affected by what she accomplished and the times in which she lived. You can ignore history, but it won’t ignore you.

Some of you may be familiar with the Historical Society, and if so, please stay with me a moment. We’ll get to the good stuff.

The Society is located at 135 E. Main Street in Elkton, in a building we share with the Cecil County Arts Council. The building is historical in its own right, but it’s really the contents of the building– the society’s collections and resources– that have the real value. Some claim that the building is haunted, but you’ll have to come back in a few months at Halloween if you want to hear spooky stories. 🙂

We have about 1,000 members — mostly from the area but also from around the country. These membership dues are really important to us in paying our bills, providing research resources and outreach.

If you haven’t been to visit us, please do. We have a nicely organized library of maryland books. We also have the DeWitt Military museum, a collection from the late Sheriff Jack DeWitt.

We have local newspapers on microfilm–we’re moving them to a digital archive–including the Cecil Democrat and some you might not have heard of such as the Midlands Journal and Elkton Appeal.

We have a wonderful collection of photographs, many donated by individuals. Very useful if researching your old house or your genealogy.

We’re very lucky to have the Cheeseman collection, which creates a photographic record of Cecil County news and events over a 30-year period, thanks to donation of hundreds of photographs by the late newspaper photographer Jim Cheeseman.

Recently had a very nice donation of tintypes and early photographs from the Ragan family of Conowingo. They are facinating to look at and provide not just a record of a family but also of the development of photography.

Other important collections are the Gilpin collection featuring important colonial-era records and journals, and our collection of tax records and other documents dating from before the Revolutionary War. We recently had a donor who wished to remain anonymous donate a very valuable collection of Cecil County tax documents from the early 1700s that turned up in New York City, which yet again adds to the local resources available.

We also have online that you can come in and use without paying the monthly fee because the society is a subscriber.

So we have a lot of wonderful resources … but the times they are a changin’ . Here’s why.

Our funding from county government has dried up and blown away. That’s happened to all non-profits in the county.

We don’t get nearly the walk-in traffic or visitors that we used to. Traffic is down at nearly all local museums because that’s not really what people want anymore.

Membership has dropped. One theory for the decline in memberships is that the younger demographic (people in the forties and fifties and younger) aren’t “joiners” the way people used to be 20 years ago. And the economy isn’t what it was, either, so if you’re going to cut back, memberships and donations are usually the first thing to go.

So our challenge is to preserve and promote local history by staying relevant in the years ahead.


We are expanding our board of trustees to include some “new blood” and bring in new ideas.

We are offering new programming. We recently had a wonderful exhibit about baseball in Cecil County. The opening was very well-attended and we served hotdogs and peanuts.

We’re planning something similar with Cecil County’s love affair with the automobile.

These have huge popular appeal.

We are partnering with other organizations to promote local history. For example, we are joining forces with the Cecil County Public Library, Cecil County Arts Council to bring in a traveling exhibit from the Smithsonian two years from now called “Peoples and Where they Come from” that will touch on the migration here during the World War 2 years. Partnerships enable everyone to use their strengths to do things that any one group couldn’t just do on its own.

At the same time, we are maintaining our commitment to scholarship by launching a huge undertaking to digitize many of our records and photographs to make them more readily available for historical research.

That’s what we’re up to.

How could you get involved and help preserve and promote local history?

Join. Become a member.

Visit us! Come see what we have. You are welcome to poke around.

Volunteer. We need help digitizing, writing article for The Inkwell, and just keeping up with our collections in general. You can spend two hours a month if you want.

Finally, you can visit our website

Thank you for listening and becoming more informed about the Historical Society, one of our great Cecil County resources.

You know, David McCullough once said that, “No harm’s done to history by making it something someone would want to read.”

At the Historical Society, we would say no harm is done my making our local history something that’s accessible to everyone in Cecil County … and beyond!


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