May 7, 2018
Rod Cofield and Museum Education on the Ground
Talking about museums is one thing, but what about the folks on the ground who really make the history happen? Rod Cofield is our guest this week, and while currently the Director of Historic London Town and Gardens, he has been on the frontlines of history education his whole career. Rod and Nick spoke about his time as a costumed interpreter in Historic St. Mary’s City, and the many current projects at London Town including their plans to crowdfund reconstruction of the 18th century bar that once stood in the tavern building on site. This is no re-enactment, Rod was right here in studio with us on PreserveCast.
[Nick Redding] Talking about museums is one thing, but what about the folks on the ground who really make the history happen? Rod Cofield is my guest this week and while currently, the executive director of Historic London Town and Gardens, he’s been on the frontlines of history education his entire career. Rod and I spoke about his time as a costume interpreter in historic Saint Mary’s City and the many current projects in London Town, including their plans to crowdfund reconstruction of an eighteenth-century bar that once stood in the tavern building on that site. This is no reenactment, Rod was right here in the studio with us on this week’s PreserveCast.
From the Preservation Maryland Studios in the historic podcast district of Baltimore, this is PreserveCast!
[Nick Redding] This is Nick Redding, you’re listening to PreserveCast. Today we are joined in-studio by Rod Cofield. Rod is a Maryland native who grew up on the Eastern Shore before starting his museum work in Southern Maryland at historic Saint Mary’s City. During his time in Saint Mary’s, he worked as a costume interpreter and as the education program administrator. Rod then joined Historic London Town and Gardens in 2006 as the director of interpretation and museum programs. In 2013 he became London Town’s executive director. Rod has a B.A. in History and Political Science from Saint Mary’s College of Maryland and a Master of Arts from Saint John’s College. He has served as a conference chair and president of the Small Museum Association and he is also currently president of the Maryland Museum Association. Rod, it is a pleasure to have you here today with us on PreserveCast.
[Rod Cofield] It is a pleasure to be here, I enjoyed the drive up here.
[NR] Good. Well, for people who are listening from around the country, where did you drive from and where are you right now?
[RC] Well, I drove up from my home in North Beach right past my work in Edgewater and we are in your fine offices in Baltimore in a reclaimed mill it looks like.
[NR] Yeah. Absolutely. So obviously, the bio is dripping with history. You’ve been in all these different places, you’ve studied it. What got you interested in history? You grew up on the shore here in Maryland. Where did this all start and what made you want to get into the museum world?
[RC] Oh, my goodness. So there’s a lot there, I would say that probably as a boy, you like knights and castles. So I started reading all about the medieval period and it just kind of went from there. I found out I was good at history in classes, so that was my interests. On the Eastern Shore, we had a number of field trips to some local historic sites and one was Furnace Town, which is in Worcester County.
It’s a very interesting story about the bog iron industry in Maryland. It was a company town and then it just kind of went away when the company went bankrupt. And so today, visitors can go there and just enjoy some hands-on history and that’s, I think, something I remember when I was growing up. And then I went to school at Saint Mary’s College of Maryland, which is, of course, in Southern Maryland right next to historic Saint Mary’s City. I found out I needed a job at some point because once you’re out of your parent’s house, you need to pay some bills. Fortunately, Saint Mary’s City was hiring and so I started as a costume interpreter there in 1999. Dropped down half-time status to go to school at Saint Mary’s, and worked at Saint Mary’s for a number of years. So that’s how that happened.
[NR] And so for people who don’t know, who maybe are from around the country, what is Saint Mary’s City?
[RC] So Saint Mary’s City is Maryland’s first capital from 1634 to 1695 and today it is a living history museum that people can visit. It has four main sites, it has a plantation that shows life in colonial Maryland in the 1660s. It has an American Indian or Native American village that’s interpreted. It has what’s called the Town Center, which is the re-creation of buildings at the actual town locations, and it has the Maryland Dove, which is a tall ship that travels throughout the Chesapeake region visiting ports or staying at St. Mary’s City proper and hosting many, many people throughout the year.
[NR] Yeah, it’s a pretty fantastic place. And it’s a trip to get there, normally.
[RC] Yes, it is.
[NR] It’s sort of – you have to want to get to St. Mary’s City.
[NR] You don’t stumble across it, but, for people listening, it really is worthwhile to go and see. And you kind of get a sense that you’re going back in time when you go to St. Mary’s, because it is sort of remote.
[RC] Yeah, absolutely. St. Mary’s County is… Once you get down there, it’s so rural. I believe the county was losing population from the end of the American Civil War all the way up to the 1950s or even 1960s. But since then, I think the ’80s or ’90s, it’s seen a huge population boom with the Patuxent River Naval Air Station down there. But at least the portion that St. Mary’s College and historic St. Mary’s City is in, it’s in a very rural area. So you definitely kind of get a sense of what the landscape would have been like during St. Mary’s City’s heyday.
[NR] So before we start talking about London Town, which is where you are now, and doing really cool things there, you mentioned in your bio as well that you did costume interpretation. So you were a seventeenth century interpreter at St. Mary’s City. Any fun stories from costume interpretation that you’d want to share?
[RC] Oh, I have a few. Yeah, costume interpretation is really fun. When I started, we did first-person interpretation, which was you assumed a character. After a couple of years, we transitioned to third-person interpretation for the most part, which is where you are still in clothes, but you don’t pretend it’s the year 1670 or 1680 or so on.
[RC] It’s easier to interact with the visitors that way. But, I mean, when you’re in costume, it’s just very interesting because visitors tend to sometimes treat you as props that they can handle, or treat you with different levels of respect. And what I mean by this, is visitors would just come up to you sometimes, and touch your clothes, or touch you, and you’d be like, “What’s going on here?” And they just wanted to feel what you were wearing, because it’s a lot of natural clothes. It’s not anything that people are familiar with today. But still, visitors got a little handsy
[RC] And I’m assuming – so this next story is a little bit more for mature audiences, but I used to work at the ship. And just down at the ship a lot. I was running around barefoot a lot at that time and so my feet got a little calloused. And I was just sitting on the railing of the ship, and a visitor comes up, a guy, and he just lifts up my leg and he runs his hand down the bottom of my foot. And he’s like, “You don’t get many women in bed with those types of feet, do you?” And I’m like, “Wow!” But those are just the examples, again, of people just treating you like props. And you would talk to some of the women, and again, some people would just get handsy with them, and it was just something that we had to be kind of aware of.
[NR] And do think that’s common? Not just a St. Mary’s thing?
[RC] Yeah. Other living history people that I’ve talked to, you just put them in those clothes, and I guess some visitors just start to think that you’re part of the props that can be manhandled [laughter] however they want.
[NR] So we’re going to talk a little about London Town, but before we do that, do you still get dressed up every once in a while? Just in case you want to [have] that experience again?
[RC] Not as often. Not as often as I used to. There are definitely pictures of me in costume. For me, it was highly enjoyable to talk to visitors in that regard, because you could do hands-on activities, you’re educating them, but you’re letting them take the lead. So it’s not like you’re stuck in a classroom teaching to a curriculum. So it was very rewarding, but I have fantastic staff and volunteers that do that now and my job is different. So not as much.
[NR] Well, why don’t we talk a little bit about your job? But before we do that, why don’t we talk a little bit about what London Town is. So this is not jolly old London Town across the pond. What is London Town? Where is it located? What’s the story behind it?
[RC] So we are Historic London Town and Gardens. We operate a site that sits where there used to be a colonial town. And the town was created in 1683 and it became Anne Arundel County’s seat of government for about ten years. And then when Annapolis became the state capitol, it also became Anne Arundel County’s county seat as well. London Town was comprised of 100 acres. It’s right on the South River, about five miles south of Annapolis proper. And so, because it was on the South River, there was a lot of advantages that the location gave it. The river goes to the bay, the bay goes to the ocean, so of course, when you’re talking about the colonial period, all the trade is done by ship. So London Town became a real port. It was also on the main north-south route. We joke we’re on the colonial I-95, but that is absolutely true. If you were traveling north to south during the colonial period, you would travel through London Town.
We do have a number of travelers’ accounts that reference going through London Town, some a little more glowing than others. But because of that, the town kind of boomed for a number of years, at least from a colonial Chesapeake perspective. So the high point’s probably from around 1700 to 1750 or 1760. And then as travel patterns shift, as population centers move farther inland, as Annapolis and then Baltimore become more commercially viable ports or commercially-heavy ports, London Town’s reason for being just slowly kind of disappears. So by the time you get to 1800s, the War of 1812, there really isn’t much left of the town. The ferry is still there through the 1860s because there’s no bridge built to cross the South River until the 1870s. But the thing that kept the ten acres of the site around, plus the main brick building, the William Brown House around, was that it became the county almshouse in the 1820s and stayed that all the way up to 1965.
[NR] Wow. And so then in the twentieth century, this becomes a living history site?
[RC] Yeah. From 1965 to 1972, there’s a lot of preservation work, a lot of restoration work. The gardens are started at that point. And so, I think because it’s so close to the bicentennial of 1976, there was this big push to turn this site that had some colonial history to it into your traditional historic house museum and gardens. And then, archaeology started really in depth in the 1990s, and so that led us to be able to create some nice reconstructions on original locations in the 2000s. And that kind of leads us to today, with everything we have going on.
[NR] Well, why don’t we take a quick break here? And then, when we come back, we’ll talk about everything that’s going on, and all the good work that’s happening there, and some of the fun things that people who are listening can come and experience at London Town. And we’ll do that when we return here on PreserveCast.
And now it’s time for a Preservation Explanation
[Stephen Israel] Earlier, Nick and Rod were talking about St. Mary’s City. Known today for its wonderful access to the waterfront for sailing, there’s a lot more to Southern Maryland’s nautical history than just St. Mary’s City.
The Ark of Hungerford Creek is a one-of-a-kind historic resource, and was recently moved to safety by the Calvert Marine Museum. Originally built in 1906, with a 20-foot by 10-foot cabin that takes up nearly all of the hull added later, you might understand where the ark’s name came from if you saw it. But how did this little boat come to be?
Well, the waters around the story are a little murky, but we can wade through them together. The Ark began its life in 1906 the lifeboat for the German passenger liner Kronprinzesin Cecilie. The German ship made cross Atlantic trips in its day, shipping passenger and goods until it was interred in Boston in 1914 during the chaos of the First World War. In 1917, after the U.S. declared war on Germany, the ship was seized and renamed the USS Mount Vernon to be used as a troop transport. Despite suffering a torpedo hit off the coast of France, the [USS] Mount Vernon survived the war. But like many World War I vessels, it didn’t last long after the war. The Mount Vernon was dry-docked and eventually laid up in the Patuxent River in 1927, until it was scrapped in 1940, joining many other old American ships in the ghost league in the Patuxent River.
That may have been it for the Mount Vernon but one of it’s lifeboats continued on. In the 1930s an Episcopalian minister, Benjamin Lovett, moved to Calvert County, Maryland, and decided to pursue a nautical theme for his new parish. Having recognized the visual similarity to the traditional Noah’s Ark image, Lovett purchased one of the lifeboats before the Mount Vernon was scrapped, reportedly for just $5. With the help of some of his neighbors, hauled it onto shore by the banks of Hungerford Creek. Not long after, it was retrofitted with the cabin. The ark was on Lovett’s private land where he used it as a chapel occasionally performing baptisms and weddings there. It stayed in private hands until it was donated to the Calvert Marine Museum in 2016. And in July of 2017, the Calvert Marine Museum took great effort to relocate the ark to their museum grounds for maintenance and future interpretation. And those efforts have paid off tremendously.
If you are looking for an example of the best of preservation in Maryland, this definitely would be one. Speaking of which, Preservation Maryland will host our annual Best of Maryland Preservation Awards event on Thursday, May 17th, 2018, at the Star Spangled Banner Flag House in Baltimore City. Come celebrate with us and explore the Flaghouse with people that love history as much as you do. You can go to www.PreservationMaryland.org/programs/awards for tickets and more detail. Anyway, you’ve got to get back to PreserveCast.
[NR] This is Nick Redding, you’re listening to PreserveCast. Today we are joined in the studio by Rod Cofield, who is the executive director of Historic London Town and Gardens. And before we took our break, we were talking all about Rod’s journey into historic preservation and the museum world, and we got a little bit of background history on London Town, the historic side of it. And right before we took the break, we kind of followed the story to it becoming a living history museum. And then sort of a more recent history, 2013, you become the executive director after having worked there for a while in a different position. So you’ve got a lot of projects going on. We talked a little bit about reconstructions there, you have a historic structure. Maybe talk a little bit about the campus of historic buildings that you have, and then tell us a little bit about what’s going on and some of the big projects that you have coming.
[RC] Yeah, all right. So London Town today, the Foundation operates 24 acres of what used to be the 100-acre town and it’s still owned by Anne Arundel County. So it’s a public-private partnership. On the historic side, we have this building, this great big brick building built around 1760, by a guy named William Brown that was a tavern. And he was also the ferry keeper. And then because of the archaeological and historical work that was done in the 1990s and early 2000s, we were able to reconstruct something we call the the Lord Mayor’s Tenement, which is a 20′ x 20′ wooden structure, posts in the ground construction. And it’s just your average person’s house. That’s what we really try to get across with that particular building. Most folks are familiar with the big brick houses that you can tour today but those were the outliers in the colonial period. And so, we really just, again, try to impress upon people that this wooden structure is what they probably would have been living in. So that’s the Lord Mayor’s Tenement.
And then the other reconstruction is a carpenter’s shop. And that is associated with William Brown who was also a carpenter. That was his main occupation. And so, the tenement opened to the public in 2005. The carpenter shop opened in 2014. And they’re both hands-on experiences. So because they’re reconstructions we can have fires in the fireplaces, we can do cooking in the tenement, we give sharp tools to kids in the carpenter shop. And we just let them go to town with appropriate supervision, of course [laughter].
[NR] Any more reconstructions in the future?
[RC] So we are aware of a few other footprints or archeological places on-site. But at this stage, we are probably putting a pause on the reconstructions. There’s one other tavern site, the Rumney West Tavern, where the mermaid plate was found. If anyone’s familiar with our site, that’s our logo. And we may do some type of partial reconstruction there in the near future but these reconstructions are expensive.
[RC] The carpenter shop is $300,000 to $400,000. I mean it’s 28′ x 28′, doesn’t have electricity, it doesn’t have plumbing. But it’s still that expensive because we built it in as a traditional manner as possible from an educational perspective.
[NR] And I guess the other reason that you’re probably a little bit more hesitant on the reconstruction side is you have to take care of the historic things that you have and the William Brown House. So what’s the big project coming there? What are you guys working on?
[RC] Well, with the William Brown House, it goes back to 1760. As I said, nice big brick building but it’s right on the river. So it’s a 250-year-old building, get’s a lot of weather, and it just needs some attention right now. So we’ve been very lucky that Anne Arundel County and the State of Maryland have been willing to partner with us to put some monies into this project. So we’re undertaking a $500,000 preservation project over the course of the next couple of years. And this year we’re going to have a blog and some other social media posts. We’re doing a lot of moisture mitigation and repair. So it’s just repointing the bricks, doing some repairs up in the attic of some joists that have rotten away. The wooden windows, we’re trying to bring those back up to good repair. And we’re going to do a lot of, as I said, social media posts and other things with that.
The next phase will be electrical upgrades, H/VAC upgrades, and accessibility needs. We serve many thousands of school children a year. And the electricity and H/VAC systems go back to the 1960s so they are definitely in need of upgrades. And then in tandem to that, we have a fun project that’s just going to start in a couple of weeks, that’s called the Build the Bar project. This was a tavern but since it was turned into the almshouse, the bar that used to be there was taken out. So we’re doing a social media campaign. It starts Saturday, May 12th. It is a crowd-funded campaign. We’re trying to raise at least $15,000.
[RC] More would be great. But with that money, we are going to rebuild the bar, put it in the William Brown House, and then have a grand ole time once everything is done.
[NR] And so, you’re talking about actual – there will be beer.
[RC] Not on a daily basis because there are some liquor licensing laws we have to deal with. But, yes, there will be beer, there will be rum, there will be brandy, there will be wine, and maybe some sodas and waters, as well, for the modern palette. But yeah, we’re going to have a great time with this.
[NR] So kind of related to that you recently had the Travel Channel out and you got Booze Traveler out to your site.
[NR] How did you do that? I think people listening from different historic sites would love to know and understand how you connected with a national channel, how that all came together.
[RC] I have to give a shoutout to the Maryland Tourism Office and Heather Ersts who works there. She was the one that connected us with Booze Traveler and the episode was all about drinks in the Chesapeake region. We got really lucky because we are a historical site so we were first up in the episode so that if someone was tuning into Booze Traveler and then only got bored after 20 or 30 minutes, they at least saw us. But it was the [Maryland] Tourism Office that got us connected with them and we’re definitely grateful for that.
[NR] And so it was fun to have them out and any traction, any more interest because of that? And people coming in because they saw you on Booze Traveler yet?
[RC] Hmmm. We haven’t heard of anyone specifically saying that they were coming because of Booze Traveler. We do know that our neighborhood community or our regional supporters definitely saw it. I got some e-mails from some people. And, yeah, it was fun! I mean it was ten, twelve hours of filming for maybe ten minutes of work, but I know that’s how filming goes when you’re doing a whole episode and it was a lot of fun, a lot of drink mixing. We fired the gun a few times. Yeah, just the cast and crew were great people to work with.
[NR] Booze and guns, I mean that’s –
[RC] A great combination right there.
[NR] Absolutely [laughter].
[RC] We did the gun firing first before we did [laughter] any of the drinking.
[NR] Yes and everyone listen up to that. Back to the Build the Bar fundraiser, so for people who maybe run a historic site somewhere and they’re interested in incorporating alcohol into interpretation and things like that, were there concerns on the part of… on your board? I mean how did you work your way through that or is it because of the historical connection that everybody really embraced this?
[RC] It’s because of the historic connection and we have a nice track record of boozy types of programs at our site. Whenever we have rum tastings or cider tastings or beer tastings, we work with local brewers or cideries or someone else and they talk about their particular company or their particular product and then someone on staff will probably do some type of historical presentation about the drinks they had in the colonial period or what drinking meant in the colonial period. And those events sell out, so we were looking at that and this great opportunity for the preservation work on the William Brown House and we just think it’s a no-brainer to put that bar back in.
[NR] So it’s going to be crowd-sourced, some crowd-funding for this. If people want to give, how do they find out more? Are there benefits to giving? What do they get if they pony up some cash?
[RC] The best thing to do is go to our website, www.HistoricLondonTown.org and we will have the Build a Bar campaign featured prominently on our homepage for the next month or so, and so that’s the easiest way to give. We already have a $5,000 matching pledge that we are working with right now so that’s really good for us. There are different levels of benefits depending on what you are giving us. Some of them are just a small… On the lower end, you could get a pamphlet of colonial drinks, recipes for colonial cocktails. On the higher end, you get a chance to graffiti the bar and that’s something that they had in the colonial period – or actually bars today if you look around. People graffiti the bar. So I do have images of that time period of bars with graffiti on it and so we’ll let people do it in a way that isn’t scandalous. But if they just want to put their initials and a date, that’s totally fine and [crosstalk] –
[NR] If they give enough can they be scandalous?
[NR] If they give [$15,000]? I mean come on.
[RC] If you give $15,000, we’ll name the bar after you [laughter]. But this is a public site so it can’t be too scandalous
[RC] And then also maybe some drink tastings in the William Brown House once it’s all done. So we have all these different levels of giving from $1 to $10,000.
[NR] And so as you said, the best way to find out is to go to your website, which again, give that website for everybody to find it.
[RC] That is HistoricLondonTown.org.
[NR] And then also you’re on Facebook?
[NR] And so people can find you there. Before we depart here, we ask everyone this. Generally for people working in this field, it’s the most difficult question which is, what is your favorite historic building or place? And it does not have to be London Town.
[RC] I know. Oh, gosh. I’ve been to so many. I think I’m going to choose Pipe Spring National Monument.
[RC] That is in Northern Arizona, in between the North Rim of the Grand Canyon in Zion National Park and I had the pleasure of traveling there twice and it’s just a different landscape. So for me being on here in the Eastern part of the U.S., the landscape was a big draw to it. But it’s an 1800s site and it talks about the Native Americans that were there, the Mormons that moved in, and the building itself is kind of a weird castle-like structure that the Mormons built to be very defensible. But they also have some nice signage and interpretation there about preservation. So that’s one reason it stuck out in my mind.
[NR] Very cool place to pick. Something for people to look up. We’ll make sure that there’s a link to it in the notes for this show. Always interesting to hear what people pick and that’s a new one for us so that’s good. Good work, Rod.
[RC] I do what I can.
[NR] Well, it’s been a pleasure to have you here. So great to hear about all the good work that’s happening at London Town. Hopefully people both here in Maryland and beyond look you guys up, throw in a few bucks to Build the Bar and then the next time they’re in the area if you’re there visiting, make a side trip and go out to this fantastic historic site that is really doing some cutting-edge interpretation. So thanks so much for joining us today.
[RC] Thank you so much for having me on and we appreciate the work you all are doing too.
You don’t need to open a history book to find us. PreserveCast is available online from iTunes, the Google Play Store, and wherever else you download your podcasts, as well as on our website PreserveCast.org, where you can find a complete archive of all our previous episodes plus photo galleries and additional content. We’re also on Facebook and Twitter at PreserveCast.
This podcast was developed under a grant from the National Center for Preservation Technology and Training, a unit of the National Park Service, and in partnership with the Anacostia Trails Heritage Area. Its contents are the sole responsibility of Preservation Maryland and do not necessarily represent the official position or policies of the National Park Service or the National Center for Preservation Technology and Training.
Our website is made possible by the Historic Preservation Education Foundation. This week’s episode was produced and engineered by me, Stephen Israel. Our executive producer is Aaron Marcavitch. Our theme music is performed by the band, Pretty Gritty. And most importantly, thank you for listening and preserving!
Historic London Town and Gardens along the South River in Anne Arundel County was featured on the Travel Channel’s Booze Traveler program! The waterfront historic site that originally included a circa 1760 upscale tavern and boarding house was the perfect location to experience where travelers and townspeople would come together.
Sarah Marsom and the Rust Belt Coalition of Young Preservationists