The walls are not made of hay bales, the roof is not covered with vegetation, and there are no solar panels to be found. But 18-century Pemberton Hall is still the work of a designer who built with natural processes in mind.
“The house is angled to catch the prevailing winds all year round,” said Bill Wilson, an educator, restoration volunteer and curator with the Pemberton Hall Foundation.
He said that its original owner, Isaac Handy, may have been influenced by his youth in Bermuda, where he worked aboard ships with his older brother.
The two-story brick home—which was built in 1741, in what was then Somerset County, MD, on the Chesapeake’s Eastern Shore.—features towering ceilings that move summer heat above the living space, and one of the smaller rooms, which served as a private family space, catches continual sunlight regardless of the season.
“The sun floods this room all day long, which would make it very warm in the winter, once the fire was also lit,” Wilson said. “Handy may have been doing a bit of solar heating here.”
Positioned along the Wicomico River, the Pemberton Hall plantation also boasted Mulberry Landing, one of the best wharves in the area, which provided convenient access to shipping routes in the Chesapeake Bay. Its remains now mark the oldest documented bulkhead wharf in North America.
From the outside, Pemberton Hall is no Tara. Its dark, heavy walls project the sturdy security of an oversize brick cottage, anchored in a flat expanse of fields. Across the threshold, though, is a delightful surprise—pools of light, air and dramatic color in a space that somehow feels both cozy and grand.
In 1741, Pemberton Hall was nothing short of a mansion. “Handy built his house at a time when 90 percent of the people in the Chesapeake Bay region were living in houses that were less than half the size of his great room,” Wilson said.
Today, Pemberton Hall, owned by the Pemberton Hall Foundation, is surrounded by 260 acres of parkland owned by Wicomico County. Both are members of the Chesapeake Bay Gateways Network, and are collectively known as Pemberton Historical Park. The historic home, combined with 4.5 miles of trails along the Wicomico River, make Pemberton a great destination for history buffs, birders and hikers—or anyone needing a deep breath in a tranquil setting.
Pemberton Park also provides a research setting for Salisbury University and a wide range of environmental and history programs for more than 2,000 students each year.
Autumn events, like the annual Colonial Fair and wine festival, draw thousands of visitors and feature period re-enactors who entertain and educate the entire family.
The Handy family was prominent in 18th century Somerset County, the parent of today’s Somerset, Wicomico and Worchester counties.
Handy was one of five founders of the city of Salisbury, which became a major hub for both land and water commerce on the Eastern Shore.
Handy began life as the son of a former indentured servant, born in 1706—the same year as Benjamin Franklin. After living with his brother in Bermuda, he returned to Maryland to inherit half of the interest in his father’s sloop.
He married Anne Dashiell and purchased Pemberton Plantation in 1726. The couple lived in a 16-by-20 house for 15 years before building Pemberton Hall. Together, they raised 11 children, and Handy became a successful planter, ship owner, justice of the peace, member of the Provincial Assembly and colonel in the local militia.
Discovering the details of Handy’s world has been a labor of love for Wilson, who helped to save Pemberton Hall from destruction and chaired the creation of the park.
“First it became a tenement house, then it sat empty and the owners were thinking about tearing it down,” Wilson said. “The kitchen had collapsed on its foundation. There were drop ceilings and divider walls. The great room fireplace had been filled in four times.”
The Pemberton Hall Foundation, created in 1967, worked with the Maryland Historical Trust to rescue the house. Many original features—including raised panel walls, heart of pine flooring, thick doors, colonial hardware and vibrant paint colors—emerged from layers of “updates” and dusty basement corners. Tiles and bricks in the great room fireplace still bear black stains from 18th century fires.
The furnishings and decorations are more than atmospheric accents.
Each item has been chosen and placed to match three household inventories that date to the 1700s and list the contents of the hall in great detail.
“We know exactly how many chairs they owned, what kind they were, and which rooms they belonged in,” Wilson said.
“We know they had a tea service, which was just becoming popular here, and they displayed their glassware and Chinese export porcelain in the great room cabinet or ‘bofet.’ Owning glassware and ‘chaneyware’ was a really prestigious sign of wealth.”
Researchers also learned that 12 illustrations adorned one of the great room’s walls.
“The inventory told us that Handy’s pieces were shellacked and tacked to the great room wall. And now we know why,” Wilson said.
Within the great room, two doors, facing each other from opposing walls, lead outside. Wilson swung open both doors, and a startling blast of air flushed through the room along the wall where Handy’s artwork once hung. Wilson explained that the strength of the breeze outside was enhanced by the angled position of the house—an invaluable aid for enduring Maryland’s humid summers, but forceful enough to rattle picture frames and tear unprotected artwork from the wall.
“It never stops, even in the winter,” Wilson said.
The period prints chosen to reproduce Handy’s “pictures” are framed and shellacked—and fastened securely to the wall.
Three of the plantation’s original boundaries are intact. Aside from a few acres leased for farming, most of the land has reverted to diverse natural habitat, including wetlands, a freshwater pond, an upland hardwood forest and a swamp forest. Four and half miles of trails provide a variety of hiking options over relatively flat terrain, including 32-acre Bell Island with views of the Wicomico River and tidal marshes.
Visitors on the History Trail can stand at the site of Mulberry Landing and imagine the flat-bottom boats that ferried goods back and forth to ships anchored in the river channel. At low tide, an overlook provides a clear view of 18th century timbers that once dammed up the wetlands between Bell Island and the mainland, and provided the plantation with a convenient source for ice.
Archaeology and extensive research have documented many other features of the landscape, including the location of structures that housed 16–20 enslaved Africans.
Archeologists have also unearthed the locations of a well, orchard and milk house, and traced the exact path of Handy’s rail fences—known as “snake fences” or “Virginia fences”—as they crisscrossed the land.
“Handy became an upper middle class planter and an example of what that level of hard work and community involvement in the 18th century was about,” Wilson said. “The house, itself, is an example of vernacular Eastern Shore architecture preserved intact, and unfortunately, there are very few of these examples that still exist.”
Inside Pemberton Hall, Wilson did a short, sideways shuffle on the sunlit pine flooring of the great room. He aligned himself with one of the massive windows, and pointed to the view beyond.
The window framed the golden brown hues of a fall farm field, which only a few years ago was threatened with a subdivision. Now a preserved portion of Pemberton Historical Park, the field has been worked continuously since Handy’s time. A wooden snake fence, placed precisely where Handy’s once stood, cuts through the field at rhythmic angles.
“There. That view hasn’t changed for more than 250 years,” Wilson said.
Pemberton Historical Park
The park’s grounds and trails are open daily from dawn to dusk. There is no admission fee for the grounds.
Tours of Pemberton Hall take place 2–4 p.m. Wednesday through Friday and on Sunday from May through October. Tours can also be arranged for other times and dates by appointment. Admission to the hall is $2.50. The Hall, which can hold up to 50 people, can be rented for meetings and special events.
Pemberton Historical Park is located about 2.5 miles west of U.S. Business Route 50 in Salisbury, MD. Take Salisbury Business Route 50 to Route 349 (Nanticoke Road). Travel about a quarter mile and turn left on Pemberton Drive. Go 2.2 miles and turn through the park gates on the left.
For information about Pemberton Historical Park, visit www.pembertonpark.org or call the park at 410-860-2447. To contact the Pemberton Hall Foundation, call 410-742-1741 or write to 540 Riverside Drive, Salisbury, MD 21801.
To learn more about other sites in the Chesapeake Bay Gateways Network, visit www.baygateways.net.