Digging in the Past

As the Whitehaven Hotel is renovated, Ed Otter hunts for clues to its history

July 27, 1997 – By BRICE STUMP, Daily Times Staff writer

Archaeologist Ed Otter is a modern-day Sherlock Holmes as he picks into the earth around and under the old Whitehaven Hotel in search of clues to its past. He has uncovered bits of glassware, bone, metal and pottery. Nothing is made of silver or gold, but to Otter the artifacts are valuable. They are like threads, once part of the fabric of life of folks who lived here for almost 200 years.

Now that the former hotel has been raised from its foundation – the first step in a renovation project – Otter can almost stand erect under the building which may occupy the site of an 18th century store. It became a hotel in the 1880s and closed in the 1940s.

Before that, Otter said, holding silver dollar-size shards of pottery he dated between 1400 and 1600, American Indians called the place home.

Otter, an archaeological consultant, has undertaken the excavation and survey for Wicomico County Historical Properties. The work is being done in preparation of the renovation of the Wicomico County landmark by a New Jersey couple planning to turn the deteriorating building into a bed-and-breakfast inn.

Otter has found fragments of cream ware that date between 1760 and 1820 and pearl ware that may be from as early as 1780. He’s also found the top of a blown bottle, a bluish-green piece crammed with tiny air bubbles forever suspended in time. Not as large as a modern soda bottle, the bottle is similar in style to ones used in the late 18th century and could have held believe it or not – ketchup.

“From the recovery of artifacts from the shipwreck DeBraak off of Lewes, Del. that went down in the mouth of the Delaware Bay in 1798, we found a whole (intact) bottle that actually said ‘ketchup,'” Otter said with a smile. At that time, ketchup was made from a variety of bases, like walnuts, mushrooms and even cucumbers.

While it is doubtful it will be excavated, Otter has located the hotel’s old well. Long known among archaeologists as a time capsule for artifacts, wells were often used as a deep trash can when they went dry or were relocated. If there are large porcelain, ceramic or glass items to be found almost intact, the best chance of finding them is in the well. But excavating a 30-foot well is a major project involving a host of heavy machinery, and complicated and expensive life protection procedures.

What he has found in test pits indicate the early occupants enjoyed a variety of foods. Muskrat, fowl, turtle, fish, beef and pork bones were found. He has found pieces of a chamber pot, fragments of a platter with its blue feather-edge design, a bone knife handle and evidence that the early inhabitants of Whitehaven enjoyed their teas.

His sweetest find yet is several pieces of what may be a small creamer about the size of a orange. “This is a really neat pearl ware piece,” Otter said as he arranged the small pieces in the palm of his hand.

He only has about 60 percent of the creamer, but there’s enough to see the location of the delicate spout and handle and the yellow and blue star bursts accenting the sides above and below a garland of leaves encircling the piece. It has no monetary value now, but once was the pride of an 18th century hostess.

The rage of 18th century England, the custom of tea drinking came to America and was a mark of well-heeled Colonial society. Whitehaven residents embraced the ceremony and status mandated they have a tea service, a necessary ingredient of the tea ceremony, the archaeologist said. “These people weren’t backwater hicks. They had some pretty nice stuff for their day, like expensive English pieces,” Otter said.

The bulk of the material found to date is not as old as the creamer. “Most of the history of this building is 19th and 20th century, and very little 18th century, so the bulk of the material is from the 19th and 20th centuries,” Otter said. ‘This will be one of the largest collection of historic artifacts from an archaeological site on the peninsula because there has been practically no other professional work in this area of the Eastern Shore.

“Pemberton Hall (the 18th century home of Isaac Handy near Salisbury) is the only other site I know that has been professionally studied, but doesn’t have this much material. So far I have over 50 gallons of artifacts recovered from here,” he said.

One item that was found not in the ground but behind a mantel was a tin-type photograph and offers a chance to put faces behind some of the artifacts recovered. Otter has no idea who the unidentified trio of men captured on the rusting thin tin plate are, but he believes they may be related to the Leatherbury family who lived here prior to 1897.

In addition two advertising paper dolls, one letter addressed to a Leatherbury and two tickets were also found.

Reprinted with permission of The Daily Times (Salisbury, MD)