A walk in the past

December 05, 2004|by Dorry Norris

On this late November day, we stroll toward the Godiah Spray plantation near the mouth of the St. Mary's River in tidewater Maryland. And step back into colonial Maryland, around 1661.

Near a field where there are several large and unfamiliar-looking cows (to 21st-century eyes) we are greeted by Master Spray himself. He boasts about the 200-acre farm he has wrested, with the help of his wife, seven children and five indentured servants, from this forested landscape.

Master Spray leads us through his tobacco barn, pointing out one of the hogsheads that will soon be packed full of tobacco for shipment to England. Tobacco is the plantation's cash crop. Master Spray is quick to point out how valuable tobacco is in promoting the good health of European citizens. Smoking, he declares proudly, clears the lungs, relieves the symptoms of sciatica and gout, is good for toothache and, when mixed with larkspur seeds, kills head lice.


We leave Master Spray outside his barn and make our way toward his home. The orchard is in the distance, near the river. There apple, pear, cherry and quince trees struggle in the weedy field. The fruit of these trees will be dried, pickled or pressed into apple cider, peach "mobby" or pear "perry."

Remnants of this year's corn still stand in the fields. The family eats corn in some form or another three times a day. It is planted, in the local Yaocomaco Indian manner, with pumpkins and beans. The corn stalks provide something for the beans to climb, the beans replenish the nitrogen in the soil and the squash or pumpkin leaves shade the garden and keep the weeds down.

Sided with hand-cut boards, the two-story house is quite small by today's standards, but it is graced with two imported glass windows, a luxury in this wilderness.

A paling fence surrounds an extensive garden that adjoins the house. A huge, old medlar tree, heavy with fruit, stands by the gate. Sixteen or more raised beds, edged with logs, contain vegetables and herbs. There are turnips, onions and carrots yet to be dug and fresh lettuce ready for picking.

I come upon a young woman who is picking chives and greet her as "Mistress." She is quick to explain that she is not the mistress of the plantation, but Ivy Isabel, an indentured servant. She has only one year left of her four-year indenture and then she will be free to marry and settle (she hopes) on a place of her own.

England's Nicholas Culpepper, known as "the people's herbalist," would be delighted with this garden. It is he that Ivy Isabel cites as she leads me about the beds. She is quick to point out that all the medicines that she knows are the commonly accepted 17th-century remedies from the writings of Culpepper.

Wormwood lives up to its name and does indeed rout worms in the intestinal tract. Orris or flower-de-luce is said to take away shortness of breath, resist poison and provoke the menses. Here, as in every garden, lemon balm abounds. When made into syrup with sugar it is deemed helpful to relieve "sick stomachs."

Also, there are yarrow for toothache and peppermint to make into tea that is "calming to the stomach." Nearby, rue and hyssop are available to treat colds.

Ivy says the leaves of southernwood are used in bed ticking to keep down the insect population that can be so troublesome for folks who believe that bathing is injurious to the health.

Gillyflowers spill over the edge of one bed. The blossoms are made into a conserve or cordial to "strengthen the brain and heart."

The vigorous tansy will be harvested in the spring and used, with spinach, to make that favorite spring tonic, tansy pudding.

Heading toward the house my head is swimming with all the herbal information that Ivy has shared with me. Inside there is still more evidence of housewifely work - slices of dried pumpkin and squash hang above the fireplace and the upstairs is fragrant with drying herbs. They will be used to keep the family healthy through the coming winter.

In the back of the house, Mary, the hired girl, is busy at the mortar. She explains to us that it takes almost six hours of labor to grind enough corn to feed the family for one day.

After several hours on the Godiah Spray Plantation one leaves with a new appreciation of how difficult it must have been to keep a family warm, fed and healthy in this strange new land. Those early Marylanders were made of sturdy stuff.

Note: Historic St. Mary's City is a living history museum. It is an easy four-hour drive from Hagerstown. Now closed for the season, it will reopen in mid-March.

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