Memories by Virginia Johnson Casselman
Printed privately in June 1927
To My Children and Their Children
This Record of My Early Childhood Days is Affectionately Dedicated
A few years ago, while sight seeing in The Brooklyn Museum of Fine Arts, I noticed a door, labeled, "Southern Colonial
Home." "My Lady Sewell Manor." Secretary Creek, Dorchester County, Md.
I was certainly most astonished,
for that was the name of my childhood home and from where my earliest recollections start. By special favor of the Director
of the Museum, I was allowed the privilege of going into each one of the rooms which were roped off from the public.
These rooms which represented part of the ground floor of the colonial manor, including a magnificent stairway of mahogany,
had been installed in the museum.
I learned that this historic home, nearly three hundred years old, had been
found. The panels of the interior had been built in London, and each one was numbered and put together by rivets. The beautiful
old stairway was also built in the same manner. These rooms at the time I mention, were all on exhibition in the Museum and
shown as one of the oldest colonial homes now in existence.
During the life of my father, the late Alward Johnson,
who owned the manor at the time of my early recollections, and called it "Secretary," no one knew the historic association
of this very old estate.
In the records of Maryland, it is stated that in the year 1662, Lord Baltimore gave
a warrant for two thousand acres of land to Lord Henry Sewell, calling him his "Beloved secretary." Lord Sewell
brought over from England his wife Jane Sewell, the daughter of Vincent Lowe and Ann Cavendish, also his children, Nicholas,
Elizabeth and Ann. The home was built on Secretary Creek. The creek still bears that name, and was so called because Lord
Sewell was Secretary of the Colony of Maryland.
The entire interior was built in London as I have said, but the
exterior was built of brick and the architecture was of the prevailing style of the very early Colonial homes of 1660. The
house was then known as "My Lady Sewell Manor." The records also state Lord Sewell died in 1665, and in the year
1666, Governor Charles Calvert, third Baron of Baltimore and Lord Proprietor of the Province of Maryland came over on the
same ship on which Lady Sewell was returning and later on, they were married.
Among my valued papers is a well
preserved parchment dated 1680, which is a grant or patent to my mother's ancestor, with the autograph signature of Charles
Calvert, 3rd Lord Baron of Baltimore, and Lord Proprietor of the province of Maryland and Avalon. This is the same Lord Baltimore
who married Lady Jane Sewell.
It was in this house, that I have cherished memories of home, and family, and the
closing scenes of my father's life. Mine was the childhood of another age and in touch with by-gone social conditions after
the Civil War, and during the days of reconstruction, from the heart-breaking past and heavy war losses.
was active in Maryland politics, having served two terms in the Legislature, and was a member of the Constitutional Convention,
for Revising the Laws of Maryland. He was, before the Civil War, as was the custom, a large slave owner, a gentleman farmer,
and from the timer of his forests, he had built for his use and at his shipyard, vessels. According to the Cambridge Records
this shipyard once belonged to Sir Thomas Johnson of Liverpool, England, our ancestor. This was a valuable income in those
days as there were few steamboats at that time and they carried only small quantities of freight, and their landings were
few and far apart. There were no railroads or steam cars near our section until much later.
Before the Civil
War, there were not so many men becoming millionaires, from the marvelous corporations, now in existence such as the Steel
and Iron industry, the General Electric corporations, the huge Railways, General Motors, American Telegraph and Telephone
Companies, and Standard Oil.
This old Manor place of which I am writing, still showed its early Colonial features.
The front entrance in early times must have faced the Choptank River, overlooking Secretary Creek. There were doors that led
on to the garden terrace, and an old-fashioned box wood walk took one into the summer house, near the water's edge. This attractive
little place like the trellised rose arbor, nearer the house, was covered in honeysuckle clinging vines and roses. There were
comfortable seats, and day and night there were canoeing, rowing and happy voices on the water, for there were other neighbors
too, who lived on Secretary Creek. Nearby were the old-fashioned thousand leaf roses, of such wonderful perfume, large yellow
roses, lilac bushes, snowball, lavender, and jessamin bushes, and nearer the house the beds of lilies of the valley. There
was also a large hollyhock tree standing like a sentinal at the corner of the house.
In the days of gallant romance,
on that terrace, with tremulous stars and dewy moonlight, many a lover, no doubt, had pledged his vows, amid the beauty of
this picturesque landscape, and the exotic perfumes blowing so gently around them.
Perhaps the front of the house
might have been toward the little town of East New Market, which was just a mile away, for the design was just the same as
the back, and the phrase the "land front," and the "river front" were often heard.
lawn on this front, closed by a gate, as most houses of that type had, opened onto a driveway and lane, bordered by cedars
and sassafras trees.
In the large saloon parlor of white enamel panels, there was a beautiful fluted column,
reaching to the ceiling. I can remember I often ran my fingers up and down this column to see if they had grown any larger
since the last time.
The fire place was set in a large mantel painted black. This fire place was often filled
with ogs four feet long, blazing away cheerily. On either side of the fire place were large doors opened into deep closets,
shelved, and with large windows in each one. They seemed to me at that time to hold many wonderful treasures.
there were at either end of this room large windows. The seats in them were so deep, that one could hide or take a nap, and
by unfastening the heavy brocaded curtains, no one could see who was there. These deep windows were the same in all the rooms.
For those who built homes in those days had to consider protection from the Indians, and the walls were so thick they were
almost like a fort.
The furniture of our saloon parlor was mostly rose wood. There was a velvet carpet of deep
rose color, with black designs on it. The window draperies were of deep rose brocade, hung from gilt cornices. The rosewood
chairs were upholstered in black horse-hair. A large carved rosewood sofa, on which six could sit, I have that sofa now. Two
little rosewood tables, each between a door and a window, with large mahogany framed mirrors above them. A round center table,
holding a bronze figure with lamp. I also have that table now. On the white paneled walls, over the large square piano, with
its cover of rose and black, hung sconces. Many an evening they cast their soft light upon a happy group listening to old
songs, "My Maryland," Dixie," Listen to the Mocking Bird," or "Camping to-night on the Old Camp Grounds,"
and "Massas' in the Cold Cold Ground," as they were sung by my southern sister-in-law, who had come as a bride from
There was an opening from the saloon parlor, into a very comfortable hall, with its lovely mahogany
stairway. This stairway, which is exactly as it was then, is fully installed in the Brooklyn Museum. It shows the ravages
of time, with ridges and holes in it. A heavy red rope prevents the sightseer from getting to close to it. There is a large
window on each platform of the stairway, and many a doll house did I arrange on those platforms. The banisters were very broad
and none of us children, missed an opportunity to slide down on them. We had an old-fashioned mahogany table with a mirror
over it, between the stairway, and the parlor door. I still have that table, and my Grand Mother said it came from England
before 1700. There was an unusual pier book case, about a yard wide, extending to the ceiling, built in these paneled walls.
It had doors that closed at the bottom.
A door from this hall also opened into my mother's bedroom. The men put
their coats, hats, and gloves on the hall table, but the ladies went into my mother's bedroom to "lay off their things."
I remember some of the men wore tall gray hats, "furred," somewhat like the silk beavers of today.
mother's bedroom was paneled in blue, with same style of window and fireplace as the drawing room. A great high mahogany tester
bed, with pink canopy resting on the four tall posts. There were white curtains, with deep fringe draped around the four posts,
and a white valance on the lower part, hid my trundle bed. This little bed was pulled out at night for me to sleep in and
pushed under the high bed in the daytime. I think I saw in the museum a quaint tasselled bell cord like the one that hung
near my mother's bed. The other mahogany pieces in the bed room were large and heavy like the ones we often see now.
Another hall and stairway separated my mother's bed room from the beautiful old dining room. This was paneled in green,
as I remember, and had deep windows like the other rooms.
Our dining room window draperies were of green and
yellow damask. There was also a front door and a rear door opening on small porches. It too, had a black mantel and a large
fireplace. Our negroes use to say the backlog "crackled better" when it was brought in from the ice or snow. There
was a china closet with the same cloverleaf shaped door, and a nice window in it. We had two large mahogany tables with leaves
that opened in a mysterious way and put end to end would seat many people. There were sconces on the wall with candles moulded
in our own kitchen, and also lamps with mirrors or reflectors behind them. I can remember a dinner party my father gave for
some of his political friends, but not at night though, for I should have been in bed then. When I was older I learned that
Judge Spence, Senators Wallace and Fields, the Hon. Frank Henry, Thos. I. Dail, Charles Goldsborough and Charles Lake were
present. The dinner was carefully planned, and there were many good things to eat. The "Eastern Shore," at that
time was famous for its table, and the boast of my family was, that our cook, Aunt Polly, and her boy, Sam, (whom she often
cuffed and who was her scullion), could not be surpassed for her southern cooking. Through a side door, where I was peeping
in, I saw my mother meet my father's guests and bid them welcome. I saw our negro serving man, Dave, enter the drawing room
and announce dinner. This was after he had told me "to run along," and I could not come to the table while Master
had guests. In the mean while, I stole through the side door and hid under the dining table. The damask cloth so white and
glossy, hid me from view. After they were all seated, I looked at their feet, and legs. There was no mother there whose lap,
I had hoped to pull up by. Instead all men, and talking so constantly too. I kept quiet as long as I could, and then in a
panic, I brought forth a loud scream. And then there was such a scuffle, to see from whence such a distressing sound came.
The nurse maid soon had me, and I was taken in the colonade room, where the ladies were eating. This seemed strange to me,
that my mother was separated from guests and not a the same table with my father.
Dave, the negro man I spoke
of moved to Washington, with our family, and died with loving care around him.
All of these rooms mentioned above,
were in place in the Museum as I have described them.
Another interesting place was the very large kitchen. The
entire half of the floor, nearest the fireplace was laid in red bricks. There were large windows, and shelves on both sides
of the room alike. Bright tins and copper ware glistened on these shelves. There was a large fireplace with built in ovens
of brick, which could get so hot, that they would bake bread or anything else. One or two cranes hung in the fireplace, and
suspended from them were iron and copper kettles.
Sometimes we children were allowed, or most often stole, out
into the kitchen in the early evenings of cold wintry nights. The negroes would roast sweet potatoes in the ashes and bake
us little ash cakes. Then they would tell to us the most blood-curdling ghost stories. Such as only the old time negroes could
invent. They could vividly describe the "Blood Sucking Bat" from the burying ground and nameless ghosts and "hants,"
also the "bogey man" from the grave yard. Whilst our hair would be "standing on end" and our teeth chattering,
we would most likely be called to go to bed. But each one was afraid to look backwards or forwards by that time. My sister
and the boys had to go up to the second floor bed rooms, and awful was the case if the candle or lamp went out. It was supposed
that a ghost had blown his breath on the light and put it out. That was what the negroes believed. Our children were so frightened
that they covered up head and ears in the bed clothes so as not to see the ghosts, but every opportunity would find us all
again begging for the same stories. I was taken to my mother's bed room to sleep in my trundle bed that was pulled out from
under the high tester bed where my parents slept, and although most scared to death, the sight of my mother, so calm and gentle
and the still glowing coals on the hearth, gave me a feeling of blessed comfort, and chased away all fears of ghosts.
I can remember also one of the large dances my parents gave. It was in very cold weather. The snow was deep and the creek
was frozen over. There were many house guests. Among them my young widower brother, Albanus Johnson from Washington, and his
friend, Samuel H. Wimsatt, two young lady cousins from Baltimore, and some young people from Cambridge, Md. The dining room
table was enlarged to its capacity. It was well laden in the old fashioned way with a huge turkey, two immense hams baked
in sherry wine, cold goose, wild ducks, brandied and spiced peaches, jelly cheese, hot biscuits, pound and fruit cake, oranges,
nuts, raisins and candy. And on a side table, hot apple toddy, and cold egg nog. My grand mother presided in this room.
Among the first to arrive were the fiddlers and the pianist. They were well taken care of, in the dining room,
before they began scraping and tuning up. The guests arrived by many different ways. Some being pushed in chairs across the
frozen creek, by skaters. A row of lanterns led the way to the house, from the river landing. Others came in sleighs. Some
horse back, and others in the old-fashioned family carriage, but all for a good time.
The ladies were beautiful,
wearing large hoop skirts, and dresses ruffled and trimmed up to the waist line. They wore their hair in the then prevailing
fashion, "a chignon or water fall," as it was sometimes called. They had two or three curls hanging around their
ears in a coquetish manner, and wreaths of flowers adorned their heads at the most becoming angles. The dresses were cut low
on each shoulder, and I do not remember if they used their lace capes or elegant crepe shawls, unless they were sitting away
in some nook or stepping out on the porch to see if the moon was shining. My sister, Nette, who was too young to dance with
the grownups, wore a white dress with roman sash around her waist. Her long black curls shook constantly, and her eyes sparkled
as she looked longingly at the dances. My mother, whose sweet face beamed in love and hospitality, wore her black curls arranged
to suit her face. Her sild dress was more sober than the others, and I still have some of the rare point lace she wore that
night. One of the fiddlers called off all of the many figures in the square dances in a loud and commanding voice. They danced
such funny figures. Then they had the mazurka, the Schottish, the polka, the hop waltz, the minuet and the Virginia reel.
When the music was particularly boisterous, the negro men would drop off their brogan shoes or boots and dance out side on
the porches with great enjoyment. I think all our young negroes must have been great for dancing. If they had no other music
they would "pat the juba" and dance by it. My tired eyes were closed in slumber shortly after the dance was under
way. A hot supper was served at midnight, which included a barrel of salt water oysters roasted, hot Maryland biscuits and
coffee. Many went home then, while others remained very late singing "we will dance all night till the broad day light
and go home with the girls in the morning." But they really reached home as early as our young people do now. The negroes
were well provided for in the kitchen where they roasted sweet potatoes in the ashes, and a large fat opossum, sizzling in
its receptacle, was the "piece de resistance."
As I look back on those early days of my childhood,
I think the first thing that stamped itself on my memory was Christmas and the tree. Other events may be a little shadowy
and disconnected, but that Christmas and its tree still stand out plainly. High above the tree hung a huge white horn; possibly
it was sprinkled in flour, or some glistening stuff. It may have grown on the head of some large beef that had once enjoyed
its life in the fields not far away. There were hung on the branches of the tree such beautiful rosy cheeked candy apples,
pears and highly tinted candy fruit of all kinds, French candy and many things not used now-a-days. There was a lovely doll
sitting bolt up-right, under the tree. She had a china head, rosy cheeks, and black hair. Her head, china feet and hands were
sewed on a body filled with sawdust. She had on pretty clothes that could be taken on and off. If a pin made too big a hole
in her body, the saw dust would begin to ooze out.
Our stockings were hung up as they are now, and they were
well filled when we saw them in the morning.
We were awakened very early on Christmas morning, by the negroes
who were shooting off guns, fire crackers, and beating tin pans, scraping fiddles, and making any other boisterous noise they
By daylight it was the cry of, "Chrismus Gif," "Chrismus Gif," but none was given
until after breakfast. The usual Christmas breakfast was as a rule, fried chicken, fried oysters, stuffed green sausage, fried
hominy, waffles, hot biscuits, corn bread and honey.
And then all filed into the Christmas room, with its lighted
tree, and crackling logs in the fire place. Each gift was "what we all wanted, and least expected."
negro woman had a calico dress, and a bright handkerchief for her head. The negro men had gifts they liked also. From a wooden
box was handed to each one a great slab of tobacco, and also boots or shoes. >From a barrel containing horse shaped ginger
and molasses cakes, and sticks of peppermint candy, the little colored children were well satisfied.
And as each
negro passed out, he was given his toddy to drink, from a huge steaming vessel of hot baked apples, and genuine brandy. I
don't know what else was in the toddy. Some smacked their lips in great satisfaction and others brought forth cups to carry
theirs back to their own quarters. Christmas day gaieties lasted full of fun till New Years day.
I had an exquisite French wax doll. This was sent from Washington, and the joy of possessing such a lovely creature, I shall
never forget. Her face was so beautifully tinted, with blue eyes, and yellow curly hair. But-sorrow came in time with her.
One hot day, I forgot, and left her in the sun, and when I next saw her, the face had melted all out of shape, and so distorted,
that she was a pitiful sight to look at.
I don't see such deep snows, as we used to have in those old days. There
was the frequent rining of sleigh bells, with guests, coming, and going. Sometimes double sleighs with a pair of spirited
horses. White fur skins, lined with red, and the young girls in their most becoming head dresses.
creek was frequently used for gay skating parties. A large fire would be burning on the shore, and benches filled with wraps
and skates nearby.
There was coffee and cake for all to eat. These same young ladies so gay in skating costumes,
often wore in the summer time slat bonnets, of fine white material ruffled around, and lined with pink. They looked very pretty
when you could get glimpses of the face within.
The Pets I Had.
As my youngest brother was
four years older than I, his pleasures were very different from mine, and his playmates were with the older children, and
so I had to have pets.
The first one I can remember was a green parrot, whose name was Laura. My father had brought
her himself all the way from Porto Rico. At first she could only speak in Spanish, but she soon learned to talk in English,
though she did not always say the right word at the proper place. For instance, if you asked her where she came from she would
say "Porto Rico came from Laura." If she were really two warm she would say, "Laura is freezing," and
when it was really cold she would say, "I am so warm."
She called my name distinctly, loved me dearly,
and expected me to always give her food. When we would be eating, she would hold her head on first one side, then the other,
and say, "Poor starved Laura. Aren't you going to feed Laura? - Laura is starved to death." I have never heard any
parrot talk so plainly and be so companionable.
As I mentioned before, my father had many vessels for carrying
cargoes to various ports but the last one he had built he named for me, "The Virginia Dare."
trial trip to the West Indies, he had engaged one, Captain Sefton, supposed to be a good navigator, but my father decided
he would go also, and be the Master of the ship, as he also understood navigation.
After transacting all business
in the West Indies, he bought the parrot as a present for me. On the return voyage, Captain Sefton got the crew drunk on bay
rum, which was among other things in the cargo.
My father was locked in his cabin, and there he and the parrot
were confined for thirty days. The object of this villainous plan was to get rid of my father, and steal the boat. During
that time Captain Sefton had trouble with the crew. They might have been more honorable than he was, and more fearful or superstitious.
Finally a terrible storm came up, off Cape Hatteras, one of the most dangerous places on the Atlantic Coast. The
sails and masts were swept by the violence of the storm into the sea. And the crew, then expecting each moment would hurl
them into eternity, opened the cabin, and called loudly for my father to come up and die with them.
In time my
father got command of the vessel, and control of the crew. They were all brought ashore by boats from the Life Saving Station,
near Cape Hatteras. My father hurried home, the parrot cage and all in his hand. He had been cast away at sea so long, that
my mother feared he was dead. There were no telegrams or wireless to reach her in those days, and letters came by a stage
coach, twice a week or not much oftener.
The parrot was still living when my son Elbridge was born (1893), and
seemed to enjoy life, often singing in a cracked voice some Spanish words.
I also had a pet lamb. One cold night
in February, it was reported to my father that a certain old ewe sheep could not be found. The sheep always had to be driven
up and put in the sheep cote at night. My father started off early in the morning to look for the old ewe sheep. He found
her nearly frozen, with little twin lambs. One of the baby lambs was dead. The other he brought home in his arms. My mother
wrapped warm blankets around it, and put it before the fire. When it began to revive, and they poured warm milk down its throat,
and we raised it on a bottle. It was great fun to see it drawing milk from the bottle, and wiggling its little tail.
He became my pet, and knew and followed me constantly. He was named Fred, and being a male sheep, he soon grew horns
on his head. My mischievous brothers early taught him to butt. He would draw back, back, back, and plunge forward, knocking
down with force, anything he was aiming for. He never butted me. Not once. As time went he grew to be such a big sheep, and
knocked over so many people, that he was encouraged to stay with the rest of the flock. And after that he rarely came around
the house any more.
I also had a pet pig. He was made to wear a little calico apron tied around his neck, and
breast because he was always snooping in the garbage bucket, and I did that, to keep him clean. One day while we were playing
around in the kitchen, he ran into the fireplace and was burned badly. My brother dragged him out, and tossed him into a snow
bank out doors. It broke his leg, and so he had to be humanely put to death.
I had many pet kittens and cats,
and some pretty chickens. Out doors my pets and I played together. Very often some neighbors children, from across the creek,
would be my visitors. If we played "I Spy," and on reaching the base called out "I Spy," for any one,
the parrot would scream out "I spy" for Laura. We enjoyed among other things the large slanting cellar door. It
was such a good sliding place. Then there was the rope swing, suspended from a high branch in a shady tree. And in that long
sweep so high, and so low, none of us were ever hurt.
I go back again to the bedroom, occupied by my parents.
My mother on that morning had gone into the dining room and I was still in the trundle bed. I heard my father, who was leaning
on the mantel say, get your mother. I ran for her, and when we reached him, he had been paralyzed, and had fallen to the floor.
From that stroke he never fully recovered.
My father was much beloved among his associates in Maryland, and of
a deeply religious nature. He was a member of the vestry of Trinity Church, East New Market, and it was his custom on Sunday
mornings, that the negroes should all come in to family prayers. This service he would read from his book of "Common
Prayer," and when ever it was convenient. We always had this family Altar as long as he lived. After my brother's (father's)
death, it was thought best by my older brothers, who were in business in Washington, that my mother should mover there with
her younger children; this she did, and the old Manor house, and estate, was sold to a syndicate, and is now a canning town
of several thousand inhabitants. My father had intended to have the Legislature approve of the dredging out of the creek,
so that steamboats could land there. This has been done, and the old home is now beyond recognition, only that part in the
My earliest, and latest memories of my mother, were her kindness to all those in need. Where
ever there was sorrow, heart ache, distress, or need of any kind, there she might be found, with her word and deed of consolation,
and loving sympathy. There were twelve children of us, eleven living when she passed beyond, all grown and good citizens.
Eight sons carried her casket on their shoulders, into Mt. Vernon Church, at her funeral.
As the last one of
her children living, I wish to express my true thankfulness and gratitude for the high privilege that was mine in the possession
of a mother whose immeasurable love blessed and sanctified our home.