May 20, 2018

SlackWater: World War II Transforms So. Md.

SlackWater

The SlackWater Center at St. Mary’s College of Maryland is a consortium of students, faculty, and community members documenting and interpreting the region’s changing landscapes. Oral histories are at the core of the center, which encourages students to explore the region through historical documents, images, literature, and scientific and environmental evidence. Some of this work has been published in the print journal SlackWater, some of which is online and some published here. The work below was first published in spring 1999 in SlackWater Volume II: Cedar Point 1942.

slackwater logo

“This Happened Here”

World War II ended meager times for many Americans hit hard by the Depression of the 1930s, and during the war the federal government became increasingly instrumental in shaping national identity. In this way, as cultural historian Pete Daniel puts it, World War II became “a great divide.” Daniel argues that “the war challenged … provincialism, offered new employment, and reshaped … society,” and he added that most could not fit their experiences or expectations back into what they once knew, and had to adapt to a new at of life [“Going Among Strangers: Southern Reactions to World War II”]. 

SlackWater attempts to suggest how Southern Maryland, in particular St. Mary’s County, was transformed from an isolated agricultural community to a newly shaped culture, one that reflected the social and economic changes of a larger nation.

The area currently known as Patuxent River Naval Air Station is a makeover, a military landscape overlying the remains of a buried community. Those who lived there called it Cedar Point, one of the most fertile farming regions in Southern Maryland. The soils and geography of the area lent the land to agriculture and fishing; intertwining creeks and ponds lace the landscape. Today, many of the waterways have been filled in with gravel; many of the fields are home to runways and hangars.

Now enclosing 6,400 acres, the Patuxent River Naval Air Station occupies a water-locked peninsula where the Patuxent River flows into the Chesapeake Bay. Before the Thomas Johnson Bridge linked St. Mary’s County to Calvert County in 1977, the only way for a land-bound traveler to enter the county from Washington, D.C., and other parts north was by following the length of the narrow peninsula through woods and farmland. As recently as the 1930s, travel was often by one of three steam-powered ships that plied the Patuxent and docked regularly at Millstone Landing, which now occupies the northwesternmost boundary of the military facility. In 1937, seven men formed the Southern Maryland Tri-County Cooperative Association to bring electricity to the region. George R. Quirk, a Cedar Point farmer was one of these seven. Based at Pope’s Creek in Charles County, the cooperative had brought power to only 225 St. Mary’s County members by 1939, out of a population of about 15,000. …

An aerial view of Great Mills Road. (NAS Pax River Photo)

In 1942 Cedar Point’s acreage was divided between farmlands and wetlands. Fields of fertile sassafras loam maintained several large estates. Mattapany, owned by George and Theresa Weschler, contained 1,014 acres and 37.5 more in tidewater. Susquehanna Farms, owned by Samuel Young, comprised 971 acres and an additional 57.5 in tidewater. Cedar Point Farm, owned by Alexander and Lillian Hodgdon, held 379 acres and 28.5 in tidewater. Matthew Trimble, Jr. owned 310 acres and 37 in tidewater. George Quirk owned 245 acres, with an additional 17 in tidewater. Well over seventy documented landholders were associated with the area, as well as numerous undocumented tenant farmers and sharecroppers.

Harper’s, Parson’s, and Goose creeks flow through the portion of the peninsula that borders the river and bay, and provide a marshland refuge to the conjoining, brackish waters. These are not small, trickling creeks. They are often a quarter-mile across and feel the tidal pull of the Chesapeake. In the pre-base years these waters were fished regularly with hand-lines and gillnets for fish, tongs and trotlines for oysters and crabs. But the peninsula’s isolation and its agricultural economy would undergo radical changes with World War II.

The Japanese strike against Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, launched the United States into World War II. Germany’s blitzkrieg attacks on Norway, Belgium and the Netherlands in the “nightmare spring of 1940” had done much to draw U.S. attention to the mounting conflict: the President recommended to Congress that vast sums of money be appropriated for military spending, and in 1941 the draft was reinstated. Although December 7 is the date we point to as marking U.S. involvement, the Army and Navy still needed time to prepare for battle, and President Roosevelt was still trying to gain it for them.

However, even before the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the government had singled out Cedar Point for military development. In 1937 the Bureau of Aeronautics began the push to consolidate flight testing operations that had been scattered across the country, and in September of 1941 explored the coastline from New York City to Charleston, South Carolina, for possible sites. On November 6, 1941, the Bureau recommended Cedar Point for its accessibility to the Naval Air Center at Anacostia in Washington, for its closeness to the ocean, for its relative remoteness, and for a geography that could accommodate the perils of flight and weapons testing. The 6,412 acres were purchased for $712,287.

Next: For years rumors had circulated that the military was interested in the Cedar Point peninsula. But days after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, government officials and surveyors began the process of condemning the land. The patchwork of farms and settlements would soon be smoothed over to make way for the Navy.

The Slackwater Center

Subscribe to posts from the SlackWater center


Leave A Comment