Wednesday, June 10, 2009

5 degrees off plumb

Water Street in Chestertown has the most surviving beautiful 18th century homes that I’ve ever seen. Only Annapolis has more. But I’ll probably just remember one, and it’s not on the usual home tour list.

Hilda Hopkins, 83, has lived in her tiny crooked house for 35 years. When she bought it in 1974, she was told that it was built in 1935. “But that wasn’t when it was built,” she told me with a chuckle, ”That was when it was cut in half. Two sisters lived in this house and the one beside it. But they had a big fight, and had it cut in two.” Both halves now list severely to the side, but they’re in Chestertown’s Historic District. She wasn’t sure if the homes could ever be torn down. But they’d need more than jacking them up to end up anywhere near straight. The other half is on the market for $115,000 if anyone’s interested in being Hilda’s neighbor. It’s vacant since the owner died.

I enjoyed a short chat with Hilda as I walked past her house on Water Street and stopped at her gate to return her friendly greeting. “Nice day for a walk” turned into a memorable conversation.

Hilda was enjoying the cool river breeze around 4 p.m. and the awesome front yard (of the other neighbor) where perennials and annuals had replaced any grass that would want to grow in its deep shade. She didn’t seem the least embarrassed that the only thing standing perpendicular around her was her 4-pronged cane. Even she listed to the side in her plastic chair.

She shared stories of the Klan visiting her in her early married days in “another house not as nice as this” and telling her that she needed to move out of town. Her friends in the NAACP helped her out then.

Hilda also told me that the big plantation house farther down the street has bars on the windows (which I had noticed earlier) that were there to keep the slaves from escaping. I told her of the day in the 1990s when I was shocked to see a KKK parade (complete with hoods and masks) in Delaware, believe it or not. “They’re still alive,” she assured me. I hate to agree that’s she’s correct.

“One night, my husband put me into confusion, and I left this house and slept in the cemetery,” Hilda shared. “I’m sorry,” I said, “but I don’t know what that expression means.”

“He was a good man except when he drank, and one night he hit me with a frying pan,” Hilda explained. “So my nerves were bad and I was confused.” Before the term domestic violence was coined, Hilda didn’t stay confused. She just buried her second husband a few years ago.

“Come on in and visit a while,” she then asked, “I can tell you all the history of Chestertown.” I’m sure she could, but I had to cut this conversation short. Captain Pete was waiting for me back on MicMac and already wondering where I was.

I hope that Hilda continued her story to an unsuspecting walker today.

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