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Hometown USA: A New Day Is Dawning for Rising Sun, Maryland

Can this quirky town at the top of the Chesapeake Bay put its past behind it?

Three centuries ago, my maternal ancestors – farmers from England, Scotland, and Ireland – sailed up the Chesapeake Bay and settled in Cecil County, Maryland. I am the 10th generation born and raised in that neck of the bay.

My forefathers – the Crothers, Ewings, Rutters, and Wingates – are all well documented in the historical records of Cecil County. Among those records are a few black eyes. Farmers south of the Mason-Dixon Line frequently had slaves. The 1820 U.S. Federal Census shows that my fourth great grandfather, Edward Wingate, owned four slaves on his farm: three males and one female, all under age 44, the youngest male under 14. By the 1860 Census, Edward’s son, Joseph, my third great grandfather, had one slave, a female age 39. Then came the Civil War.

Fieldwork on the strawberry farm where I grew up was done by me and my siblings. That farm, where my parents still live, has been selling pick-your-own fruit for 42 years.

Cecil County, MD
Cecil County, Maryland

My Hometown

mom-strawberries
Ruth Ann Ewing Johnson, Betsy's mom
The closest town in Maryland to our farm, and what I consider my hometown, is Rising Sun. (We actually lived closer to Oxford, Pennsylvania.) Rising Sun has a population of 2,800 and sits just south of the Mason-Dixon Line about half way between Baltimore and Philadelphia. My mother grew up there, and I graduated from Rising Sun High School in 1980.

According to George Johnston’s History of Cecil County, published in 1881, Rising Sun started as a stage coach stop and tavern around 1710. The tavern had a swinging sign depicting the sun at dawn and the words “The Rising Sun.” It was a convenient stop for drovers bringing livestock to city markets. At the rear of the tavern was extensive acreage for pasturing the animals while the personnel enjoyed the hospitality of the “The Rising Sun.”

Rising Sun had one stoplight when I was in high school. It now has two. The grocery store (used to be Acme, now Martins) moved to the outskirts of town. The historic Rising Sun National Bank that sat in the center of town for 134 years failed four years ago (more on that later). At Sue’s restaurant on Main Street, the biggest seller is hamburger steak. A popular new coffee shop across from Sue’s, Rise 'N Grind, opened this year. There are still mushroom houses at the edge of town with piles of steaming compost.

Boom Years

Perhaps the biggest boom for Rising Sun started during World War II, when nearby Bainbridge Naval Training Center brought servicemen into town. Ammunition plants started up in the area, and factories bused up families from the Appalachian areas of North Carolina and Virginia to work in the plants. Bainbridge was deactivated in 1976.

My mother, Ruth Ann Ewing Johnson, 80, grew up on Walnut Street in Rising Sun and remembers the freedom. “On summer evenings, I would leave after supper and go visit my friends around town and get home after dark,” says Mom. “My parents knew I was probably over at Sally’s or Marie’s, but they didn’t think anything about it. We felt secure.” Her father owned a car dealership in town (shown below), was a director of the Rising Sun National Bank, president of the Lion’s Club, and a Mason.

grandad-harvey-wilson-ewing
Harvey Wilson Ewing, Ruth Ann's father
In the early 1950s, during the Korean War, Mom and several of her friends spotted planes as part of the Civil Air Patrol. “There was a little hut at the north end of Walnut Street with windows and a phone,” she says. “When a plane flew over, you had to call a number in Baltimore and report the coordinates and type of plane. Our code name was ‘Papa Kee-low.’ I worked from 6 to 8 in the morning during school days and noon to 2 on Saturdays.”

Mom and Dad (Phil Johnson, 80) both graduated from Rising Sun High School in 1956. She first noticed Dad as he slept standing up, leaning against a post, during a school dance. He had been baling hay all day. They married in 1960 and moved to a farm 8 miles outside of town, but she, like her ancestors, has never left Cecil County.

grandad-ewing-car-dealership

shall-cross-ad
Scrapple Town

Bob Shallcross, 81, and his father, Herb, before him, was the butcher in town. H. E. Shallcross & Son started in 1943 as “Dealers in Quality Pork Products.”

Fall and winter were the busiest for the business. “On Monday mornings, we would cut 35 to 50 hogs for our use to make branded products, and then we would start on the custom hogs,” says Shallcross. “I worked at the table next to Dad, shoulder to shoulder; I cut the butts and shoulders, and he cut the hams.” Once the pigs were done, they started on custom beef.

The premier Shallcross branded product was scrapple, a pork breakfast meat that is sold in the mid-Atlantic region, but not much beyond. Shallcross made scrapple for the Bob Evans brand for many years.

The hogs at Shallcross were never skinned. “You need the skins for gelatin to hold the scrapple together,” explains Shallcross. Scrapple is mainly made of fat back, skins, liver, and jowls. “We never used snouts, although some companies did.” There were two cast-iron scrapple kettles and a large rendering pot for the lard. A machine would press all the lard out of cracklings and make a wheel. “People would buy wheels of cracklings,” says Shallcross. “All the bakeries used lard. It tasted so much better.”

Shallcross was one of the largest private employers in Rising Sun in the 1940s and 1950s, with 10 to 25 employees, depending on the time of year. The biggest employer was a sewing factory that made Blue Top jeans. “I would buy a pair of those dungarees, roll them up, and walk down the street, my legs cracking together because they were so stiff,” says Shallcross. Another big employer was a sweet corn cannery. There were five automobile dealerships in town.

Shallcross’s strongest employee, Tack Boddy, one of the few blacks in Rising Sun, was a participant when the prize fighter circuit came through town (illegally, of course). People would dig a trench on the edge of town and bet on the fights. “At the end, Tack would always climb out of the trench and the prize fighter would be carried out,” says Shallcross. “His manager would drag him out to go to the next town.”

When Shallcross retired in 1997, the pork business closed and the building has been used since then as a tanning and nail salon and to sell local blue crabs, carpet, and various other things.  

Changing Community

Jim Crothers, one of my cousins, grew up in Rising Sun in the 1950s and says it was an idyllic small town. “There was a distinct town and then there was agriculture. We had a cornfield in our backyard. We pretty much wandered around town, and everybody knew everybody else.”

When Crothers was in elementary school, the class was split between kids whose parents worked at Bainbridge, those who came up from Appalachia (“hillbillies”) to work in factories, and long-standing families like the Crothers.

In the 1950s, Friday night was the biggest night in town because banks were not open on Saturday, says Crothers. People got paid, came in to go to the bank and get cash, go to the grocery store, and then go to the movies. The Lion’s Club set up a hotdog stand in town on Friday nights because the area was so busy.

Crothers served in Vietnam with the Army after college and then moved back to Rising Sun in 1970 to work with his father in the family insurance business. You can tell a lot about a community by the insurance sold there.

“When I bought Dad’s business in 1973, half of it was farm-related,” he says. “They were either farms or people who did business with farmers, mainly dairies. By the late 1970s, developers had bought many farms for housing development. Many farmers decided to cash in, and those left traveled into Pennsylvania to get cheaper farm parts and supplies. The transition from a real ag base in Rising Sun started in the 1970s.”

Now, many businesses on Main Street have closed. There are some “cute little towns” in Cecil County that have gentrified themselves and attracted tourists, like North East with its bay waterfront and antique stores, “but that’s not going to happen in Rising Sun,” says Crothers. “Between 1970 and 1999, when I retired, it changed from a business center into a bedroom community for Newark, Delaware, Harford County to the south, and even Baltimore.”

charles-crothers

Realizations

Judith Donnelley’s father was the postmaster in Rising Sun during the 1970s. Her mother, 97, still lives in the family’s home on Wilson Avenue. “I don’t feel like the town has the same atmosphere or feel today,” says Donnelley, who graduated from high school in 1979 and taught elementary school in the county. “Things aren’t kept up as well, and some people don’t have the respect for the town that was there in the 1960s and ‘70s.”

Donnelley remembers freely running up and down the sidewalks of Wilson Avenue, which lead to the elementary school, something she would never let her children do today. “We would meet in someone’s backyard and take off to the creek or walk uptown and go into Ashby’s to the soda fountain.”

She also remembers a sad chapter in Rising Sun’s history. In the 1960s and ‘70s, the town was known as the KKK headquarters of Maryland. A prominent farm family northeast of town held frequent cross burnings and rallies, and the KKK paraded through town several times. “They came down Wilson Avenue on horses, and I remember a little dog trotting in the road behind the horses,” says Donnelley. “It is disturbing to remember even now. It hurts me to think back on it.”

As a child, I remember seeing a spray-painted sign on a bridge on Route 273 east of town promoting a KKK rally featuring Robert Shelton, who was the imperial wizard at the time. Once, when we were driving home from my grandparent’s house in Rising Sun, we saw a rally with crosses burning in a field. Dad told us to get down in the back of the station wagon. Very few blacks lived in town and attended school there.

Bank failure

One of the town’s most recent scandals was financial. The National Bank of Rising Sun, chartered in 1880, failed in 2014. The Federal Reserve said the CEO, Jacob Goldstein, improperly used his position to approve loan decisions from which he ultimately benefited.

“The closing of the bank was actually caused by the recession in 2008, which combined the housing collapse and the closure/bankruptcy of both the nearby GM and Chrysler plants,” explains Jim Crothers. “The bank was in a growth mode, but it got hammered when the bottom fell out.” 

Bank assets were acquired by Howard Bank. Anyone with bank stock, including my mother, now have worthless pieces of papers.

Farm Transitions

amish-buggy-rising-sun
The farms around Rising Sun are currently undergoing a transformation. Amish families, who have outgrown their traditional farming area of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, are moving rapidly into Cecil County, buying older farms. I was stuck behind an Amish buggy when I drove into town on my last visit. The newest school in the area is Amish.

The Rising Sun Herald in February 2018 reported that 20 of Cecil County’s 29 dairy farms are now Amish-owned.

miller-boys
Wes, Matt, and Ben Miller
One of the remaining “English” dairy farmers near Rising Sun is Chesapeake Gold Farms, owned by Bob and Diane Miller and their three sons, Wes, Matt, and Ben. Bob graduated from Rising Sun High School with me in 1980 and is the fifth generation on the farm. The family lives on Dr. Miller Road, which is named for his great grandfather, Charles Francis Miller, who had a medical practice on the farm.

Bob has made the farm a success, but it wasn’t easy. “When I was in high school, we probably had the lowest herd average in the county,” he says. “At the county fair, they were having a cow milking contest, and another farmer said, ‘The Millers ought to bring one of their cows because they don’t give any milk.’ I made my mind up that I may not be the best, but I will NOT be the worst. That inspired me to do a better job.”

When he came back to the farm after graduating from the University of Delaware, he had to convince his father and uncle to make changes. “The back of the barn was always sealed up tight and we would lose calves in the wintertime, so I opened it a little bit. Uncle Grove came down and said, ‘You better put those windows back in and seal things up or you’re going to kill these calves.’ I said, ‘Let’s see how it goes.’ He reluctantly agreed. We stopped losing calves.”

At the time, the family farmed about 175 acres and milked 50 cows. The income had to fund several families. “It wasn’t working,” says Bob, simply. Over the years, he and Diane bought the farm from the rest of the family and expanded it. Today, they are milking around 300 cows at two locations, and have a thriving custom hay operation targeting local horse owners. Their three boys joined the farm after graduating from Penn State University.

Finding a Niche

cheese-hometown
One third of the herd is Holsteins, with the rest crossbreds or purebred Guernsey. That golden-colored breed is “the solution” for the farm, says Diane. She chose the name Chesapeake Gold for the farm way back in 2000, thinking it would look good on a cheese label. “We feel we are pretty good at marketing,” she says. “We are successful with our hay operation because we give our customers good service.”

Bob agrees. “I don’t think the East Coast is going to be able to survive selling commodity milk. We don’t have the land base to build those big dairies. It gets extremely expensive to haul manure. Everybody is looking for that niche.”

In 2018, the Millers were at a crossroads on the farm. They needed to build the farm business to a size that could accommodate three boys. They decided to plunge into the retail cheese business. Chesapeake Gold Cheese hit the artisanal cheese market in fall 2018. Milk from the farm’s herd is sent to an Amish business in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, to be made into 12 varieties of cheese, including Crabby Cheddar (with Old Bay seasoning), Horseradish Cheddar, and Garlic & Dill. The family sells the cheese on the farm and in several local stores. (For more information, see the farm’s Facebook page.)

Setting up a niche farm business was a better option than expanding the farm, says Diane. In fact, there is little chance of buying more land in Cecil County, she explains, because of competition from the Amish. “The Amish are moving in and buying farms. We can’t afford to pay $10,000 an acre for a farm. There are more Amish dairy farms in Cecil County than English dairy farms. That said, it’s great to see the farms stay as farms, and the Amish are good neighbors.”

They could never get the farm’s cost of operation low enough to compete on the world dairy market, explains Bob. “We had to hit that niche market.”

Conservation

Their higher cost of production is partly due to the Chesapeake Bay they all love, says Diane. “Farmers have a saying around here: ‘If you can think about it, Maryland can regulate it.’ The farmers have done a tremendous job in this county voluntarily, willingly, and effectively, but ag is still being blamed for the woes of the Chesapeake Bay.”

Maryland has always been on the forefront of conservation, says Bob. Nobody wants to pollute the Bay. “Every year, we do a better job and look for ways to improve, to get higher yields with less fertility. The farmers in this area have been extremely proactive.”

He and Diane visited dairy farms in New York a few years ago and were amazed at the manure running into streams. “We told them, ‘It’s coming for you,’” says Bob. “We can’t spread manure in the wintertime. When farmers in other states can spread it, it gives them a competitive edge. We have to have more labor and bigger equipment, because we have to spread our manure in a narrower window.”

The Millers inject all their manure, partly because there are so many houses close by. “We don’t want to lose the nitrogen, and it is about being good neighbors. They outvote us and we want them to think we are decent people and support us.”

Bob has planted cover crops for years. “I just never like to see bare ground.”

The guidelines set out by the University of Maryland make it hard to put enough nitrogen on the crops, says Bob. “We are short-changing both the small grain crop and the corn crop that follows it because we are just not able to put enough nitrogen on. We need to put a little fertilizer on to get that cover crop started. If we can get a better root system and thicker mat, it would be better for the environment.”

Diane sums it up. “They are so convinced it’s going to end up in the water that they won’t let us put it in the crop.”

Reality

As for the racism reputation in the Rising Sun area, the Millers know it’s hard to shake off the unfortunate stigma.

“You still see ignorance and intolerance,” says Diane. She taught high school in Cecil County for 10 years and is now the FFA teacher at Oxford (Pennsylvania) High School. “In Rising Sun, the youth need something positive to do. You see kids congregating in the parking lots because they want to be social with each other, but that can turn into something uncomfortable.”

Illegal drugs are always a problem, she says. “There were quite a few students in Rising Sun that had serious drug issues, but I think that has gotten better lately.”

She uses agriculture to reach out to kids. “They may have an interest in conservation and decide ag is really cool. I’ve turned kids onto soil. They are now interested in doing something in an ag-related field. There are still a lot of young people out there who are ripe to be involved in agriculture, we just have to make an effort. We have to keep ag in schools. Agriculture is the original STEM. We call it STEAM: science technology engineering agriculture math.”

Land Preservation

The sprawl around Rising Sun continues, says Diane. “It’s like breaking the yolk of an egg – it spreads. The small town core is gone. The feed mill and hardware store are gone. The core went and everybody trickled out. How do you get that hometown back?”

Rising Sun, MD
Rising Sun, Maryland
Luckily, farmland in Maryland and in Cecil County has benefited from a healthy land preservation program. More than 800,000 acres of farmland are protected by easements in Maryland. This is the greatest ratio of farmland preserved to total landmass of any state. In Cecil County, about 27,000 acres have been placed into protective agricultural easement, and 50,000 total acres are protected from development.

There is much agriculture to protect. According to the Cecil County Chamber of Commerce, about 35% of the 222,824 acres in the county are in farmland. Besides cash grain crops, there are orchards, nurseries, dairies, and vegetable farms. Warwick Mushroom Farm in southern Cecil County has almost half a million square feet under roof, using the most modern mushroom-growing technology in the industry. Horses are big business in Maryland. Cecil County is home to the world-famous Fair Hill Training Center for thoroughbreds, the largest standardbred operation in North America – Winbak Farm – and the international headquarters of Select Breeders.

In September 2018, the Cecil Land Trust acquired a 535-acre easement on Long Green Farm to protect productive farmland as part of the Fair Hill Rural Legacy Area. Long Green Farm is owned by Caleb Crothers, another of my distant cousins. “The conservation easement acquisition will enable a next-generation farmer to take over a working farm that’s been in the same family for over 250 years,” says Cecil Land Trust president Bill Kilby.

Rural America Is at a Crossroads

The trends portend a shrinking population base and a changing demographic. Successful Farming magazine is covering this topic in print and on our website. Read compelling stories from our editors revisiting their hometowns in:

History of Cecil County, Maryland

In 1608, Captain John Smith was the first white man to set foot on what is today Cecil County. He came up the Chesapeake Bay from the Virginia Colony with 12 men in a small boat and explored the Sassafras, Elk, North East, and Susquehanna rivers. His journal reports the great number of elk roaming the woods and many Indians watching them from the shores.

The county was officially founded in 1674 and named for Cecilius Calvert, the 2nd Lord Baltimore. It is bordered by Pennsylvania to the north, Delaware to the east, and the Susquehanna river to the west. A century after the county was created, the American Revolution swept the land, and its citizens found themselves in the thick of it, being alternatively occupied by British and American soldiers.

The town of Rising Sun was originally part of the Nottingham Lots of Pennsylvania, and included in a land dispute between William Penn, the founder of Pennsylvania, and Charles Calvert, the 5th Baron of Baltimore. The border conflict continued until the Mason-Dixon Line was established in 1767. At that point, Rising Sun officially became part of Cecil County, Maryland. The town was not formally incorporated until 1860.

[Note: I just got word that The Rising Sun Herald has suspended publication. December 18, 2018, was the last issue.]

rising-sun-town-hall
Rising Sun Town Hall

Rising Sun: Very Top of Cecil

A poem by Folgar McKinsey, born in 1866, and a writer for the Cecil Whig and later Baltimore Morning Star:

Little town of Rising Sun,
Here you are – Good day!
Here the lines of Mason run,
There’s Dixon’s line away.

Brick Meeting House a stretch along,
West Nottingham so near,
Very Top of Cecil, this,
And, too, the top of cheer!

Sweet wholesomeness of daily life,
Kind neighbors, thoughtful friends;
A village through whose thoroughfares
The kindly spirit wends.

Old houses, gentle wayside spots,
Clean inns, and all the while,
Very top of Cecil, where
The fertile meadows smile!

Pastures of undying grass,
Young wheat so freshly green;
Far back from busy highways set
Old houses so serene.

Little town of Rising Sun,
Here you are – good day!
Very top of Cecil, sweet
With promises of May!
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