Peaceful Peninsula (story about Browns Woods)
Change, growth came slowly to isolated community
By: Keith Stephens,
Considering what has happened around it during the last 120 years, Browns Woods hasn’t changed very much.
Most mailboxes in the area, tucked comfortably between St. Margarets Road, Mill Creek and Martin’s Cove, have worn the same names since shortly after the Civil war, when most of the residents here were slaves.
Those families, and most of the ones that have migrated here, are black. The area remains heavily wooded and a haven for few watermen.
The population of the area has grown slowly to about 600; houses total about 135. A number of whites have come, too, taking the choicest real estate available.
But the major changes - electricity, street lights, the telephone, paved roads and piped in water - have come slowly onto this off-overlooked, 600 acre peninsula north of the Naval Station.
And the spirit that has saturated the lives - some would say it has joined the lives- of those who live in Browns Woods has remained since the days of slavery, when the peninsula was a plantation.
The spirit is one of community and of “peaceful coexistence,” according to resident Linda Fuller.
Some residents say it is brought on by the isolation and smallness of Browns Woods. Others say it is a product of tenure earned by the families that have spent generations in the community.
All agree it is enhanced by the perpetual and nearly undisturbed quiet hat has settled in with Browns Woods residents.
There are seven families that can rightfully be called the heart of the community: the Andersons, the Brashears, the Hensons, the Hunts, the Johnsons, the Tuckers and Thompsons.
Land records show they have been here since before the abolition of slavery. Before emancipation their ancestors and their land were owned by Howard County physician Joshua Brown and his wife, Melissa after whom Browns Woods was named.
Land records also show that several of the families native to Browns Woods descended from Brown.
Sometimes in the 1840s or 1850s (records of the time are inconsistent), Brown bought about 185 acres bordering Mill Creek. He built a thriving plantation that profited mainly from its apple and pear orchards.
Brown died in january, 1877 - the cause of his death is unclear - and willed the Browns Woods property to his wife and slaves. Much of the land willed to slaves was then undesirable waterfront.
Financial troubles soon beset the plantation and Farmers National Bank foreclosed in the early 1880s retaking the portion of the farm held by Mrs. brown.
About 15 years later James, Matilda Brashears, who had worked as slaves for Brown amassed the then phenomenal sum of $450 and purchased a portion of the foreclosed upon land.
Margaret Hunt, believed to be another of Brown’s slaves and an ancestor of many current Browns Woods residents, also bought a portion of the land.
It is not known what happened to Mrs Brown or any children she may have had by her husband.
The slave families’ bloodlines extend into Mulberry Hill, a similar, predominantly black area across Martin’s Cove.
After slavery was abolished, many Browns Woods residents made a living working for farmers in the area, crossing a how-defunct wooden footbridge to the other side of Mill Creek (then Orchard Creek) to pick and plant fruits and vegetables on the Pleasant Plains, Petterbone and St. Margarets farms. Others staffed a dairy farm in the same area, became watermen or farmed the land given to them by the brown.
Over the years, as the area around them grew up, many Browns Woods residents took jobs with the Naval Academy or the North Severn Naval Station. Today, the children of many residents are reaching college and beyond. Several longtime residents boast about children who practice law.
How It Is Today
If someone told you that with one word you had to describe Browns Woods, you would be hard-pressed.
The community, predominately black and middle class has enough variety among its residents - rich and poor, educated and uneducated - to defy such a simple characterization.
Those of different classes and races live on different parts of the peninsula ; well-to white are clustered at the end of Orchard Drive, near Willard’s Boat Yard; the families with heritage in the area live in the heart of Browns Woods, the first part of the community a visitor sees’ and the Cantler family, which operates the Riverside Inn, Browns Woods’ best-known landmark, lives at the end of Forest Beach Road.
Frank Fuller, a realtor who moved to Browns Woods in October, said the community is characterized by an attitude that one might find on Tangier Island, a remote island of waterman in the southern Chesapeake bay.
“Everybody knows everybody.” said Fuller. “ and there’s a peacefulness that affects everybody. Even the dogs don’t chase cats here.”
The community’s physical features are varied, too.
It is still mostly wooded and is served by two narrow, twisting roads.
Near one home, rusty cars sit, slowly turning to dust. Near other homes, dozens of $100,000 sailboats bob in the water, a symbol of leisure and wealth that many here will never know.
There are few, large waterfront homes. There are, as well, about a half a dozen aging mobile homes perched precariously on hill mounted cinder blocks.
But the bulk of the community’s buildings are modest, one-family homes that reflect the 1950s. A number of them have American flags in front yards.
About two dozen of these homes have been renovated with grants from the federal Office of Housing and Urban Development and stand out handsomely.
Despite the clear boundary separating the whites and blacks, there appears to be no racial tension.
“There is a line between the communities, definitely,” said Robin Fuller, daughter of Frank. “But it doesn’t cause a problem.”
“Most of the black kids and white kids here when I was young played together and grew up together. There’s no reason for any racism,” said Arthur Thomas whose family live on Forest Beach Road.
“People here would never dream about fussing with their neighbor’s dog. In town people might call the police,” said Fuller. “Here, you just go talk to your neighbor… whether he’s white or black
“The community really holds together,” added Loretta Turner, 59, a Forest Beach resident who, 20 years ago, created the Browns Woods Improvement Association. “There’s been no squabbling between neighbors. Everybody’s supportive of each other.”
Fuller, who knew people within the community before he moved in, said that had he not known anybody, the process of making friends would have been in an arduous one.
“People here would be unfriendly to you unless you knew them ahead of time. You’d be an outlander,” he said.
Those who have lived in the community a whole confirm Fuller’s assessment but say that once you are accepted, you are accepted.
“New people do come into the community and along with them comes changes. Most people don’t like the change, but in time, the new people get known in the community,” said Mrs. Turner.
Crime in this community is a problem. Although the county police department says it rarely gets as much as onc call a month from the area, residents say crime occurs more frequently. They are careful to lock their doors.
“It used to be that you didn’t have to worry about locking your doors when you went to bed or went out. Now, you’d be crazy to leave them unlocked.” said Maude Brashears, a life-long resident of Orchard Road whose ancestors bought a portion of Joshua Brown’s plantation.
“You’re always hearing about this neighbor or that who got his boat motor stolen or his house broken into,” said John Willard Sr., owner of Willard’s Boat Yard and a resident since 1951. “But I think it’s pretty safe. Nobody’s going around here killing anybody…. It’s not a bad idea to lock your doors and nail down whatever you can, though.”
Willard raised his son, John Willard Jr., who in turn, is raising his own 2 year old son here.
“I like the idea of raising my family here. I’m settled and I feel safe.” said the younger Willard.
“It is nice,” agreed his wife, Kim, who has lived in Browns Woods for two years. “Being close to the water and having so much space gives you a real cushion from the rest of the world.”
Today, Browns Woods has most of the modern conveniences : public water, electricity, roads and telephones.
However, the area does not have sewer service, is hit occasionally by extended power blackouts one, several recalled, lasted 14 days and saw residents congregating around neighbors wells which had hand pumps) and residents can’t get some of the more sophisticated functions with their phones, such as call waiting and direct dial on overseas calls.
“Life is a lot easier than it used to be,” said Forest Beach Drive resident Lucille Adams. “We used to have to carry water up a hill from a spring. Now we can just turn on the faucet.”
Her brother, Arthur Thomas, remembers having to walk the 5 miles to and from Bates Junior High School everyday.
Now, children in the community have bus service to either Broadneck Senior High School, Magothy or Severn River middle schools and Arnold Elementary School.
Making life even easier, noted Mrs. Turner is the practice of making their presence known to the people in the right places.
“We’re a small black community and people usually like to overlook small, black communities,” she said. “I’ve always told people here that the best way to get respect is to be a registered voter…. That advice has paid off. Every time it snows, you just watch. We are one of the first communities getting plowed – even before a lot of the white communities.”
Browns Woods is also proud home to an often used baseball field that is the site of most of the area’s organized activity.
John E Hunt Sr. remembers when it was home to the Hardshells a community baseball team that was “the best in its league”
Hunt was the catcher for the Hardshells, which played - and beat - most of the neighborhood teams on the Broadneck Peninsula during the late 1930s and early 1940s.
Today, the field stands proudly, with its new, county-built backstop. It is Browns Woods only recreational facility, save for Mill Creek, which is used for boating by the leisure class.
Besides being used for pickup baseball games, the field is the site of the community association’s annual summer festival.
Every year for the last three, the association has sponsored the festival, which features a radio disc jockey spinning record, a community baseball game, a big picnic and a lot of fun.
“It’s really a big thing,” said the association's newly elected president, Alma Wallce. “Everybody, I mean everybody comes.”
For a community with so much history, the people of Browns Woods remember little before their grandparents' generation.
There is a shred of fact here and a wisp of rumor there as you question residents about their family trees, their national heritages and the origin of Browns Woods.
Most people can tell you that someone named Brown lived here years ago and gave the area its name. Many of the older people remember a school house near Sandy’s Country Store that has been converted into an apartment complex.
But beyond that, residents have little in depth knowledge of their history. Some residents, such as 94 year old Estelle Hunt, said to have lived in Browns Woods longer than anyone alive, are unable to recollect their history. She does remember her parents fighting the racism that was rampant shortly after the Civil War.
Mrs. Turner can tell you that Matthew Anderson, her grandfather, was a freed slave and had 10 children. She knows that her grandmother was a Cherokee Indian. And she knows that “Mr. Duvall,” a slave holder was her great grandfather.
Besides that, Mrs. Turnier knows what everybody else here does: Browns Woods is one heckuva nice place to live.
When you ask Browns Woods residents what they see in their community’s future most of them shrug their shoulders and hold up their hands.
Most complain about the development that has occurred during the last decade and fear it may continue. Others say they want sewer lines installed. But everyone is hopeful that the pleasant, quiet past of Browns Woods will also be its future.
“The improvement association has already brought water and street lights into Browns Woods: next on our list is sewer said Mrs. Wallace. “We’re also hoping to put storm drains in a few areas and to build up the association. It’s not as close as we would like.”
Also on the association’s calendar is the implementation of Operation Identification and Neighborhood Watch, two anti-crime programs. Under the programs, police mark valuables for identification if they are stolen and neighbors keep an eye out for each other’s homes.
Whatever happens, said Mrs Wallace I would love my kids to spend their lives here… Its a great place.
“Its really quiet out here now. It was lot quieter before they built up Browns Woods Villa,” added Mrs. Brashears. I’m hoping it will stay quiet around here. There’s a lot of land that could be developed and I hope it’s not because if it is, I won’t want to be around here. I’d rather go into a senior citizens apartment”
Fuller predicts that growth will come to Browns Woods, but slowly.
“To an established black community like this, development will take its time,” he said "If they put in sewer, it may happen faster.”
Some, such as Mrs. Turner also fear development, But whatever happens, she has resigned herself to staying in her ancestral home.
It is here that she raised 10 children. It is in her home that she successfully battled leukemia, and it is here where she spent her time studying for her associate degree in business, which she earned in 1968 at the age of 43.
“It doesn’t matter what happens. I’m not leaving here until Jesus calls me home…. I’ve invested too much here. It’s like I’m a part of this land.
Category Rating: Schools 8.2, Churches 8.7, Roads 6.1, Recreation 6.9, Gov. representation 5.9, Police protection 7.5, Fire ambulance 7.1, Shopping 4.4, Quality of Life 9.1, Civic group 7.1 TOTAL 7.1
The figures above represent an averaging of the opinions of 20 Browns Woods residents polled by the Capital. Residents rated each category on a 1 to 10 scale, with 10 the highest.
Transcribed by: Devon Edwards Sr.