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Maurice River Recollections Project
River Reaches
Debra A. Barsotti
Research Journalist
Citizens United to Protect the Maurice River
and Its Tributaries, Inc.

The Maurice River Reaches Project - River Recollections
Irene Reeves Ferguson
Finding A Place for The Past

Heading west over the lower reaches of the Maurice River towards Commercial Township, travelers cross the gentle rise of the Mauricetown Bridge. The road levels over the marshy banks and leads visitors to the little village of Mauricetown. In the distance, a church's spire beckons to them, just as it did to the captains and crews that once traveled the Maurice River in their fine sailing vessels.

"This is a beautiful little town, but what do people do here? What did people used to do here?" Those sentiments are repeated throughout the seasons as people come into the area to stroll or bird-watch or picnic.

"You'd be surprised to know how many people come through town," said life-long resident Irene Reeves Ferguson. Mauricetown's annual events, including an antique show, a holiday tour, and a very popular seafood festival, attract travelers from near and far. But even on non-event weekends, visitors drift in like the tides that once brought home the sea captains who once lived there.

During one period in its history (1850-1920), 90 sea captains resided in Mauricetown. Little village shops, a hotel, a bustling shipyard, and a local newspaper provided for the needs of families and passers-by's. Today the past echoes softly in the breezes. Some of the historic dwellings have been preserved and restored. A section of the town's old iron bridge is the centerpiece of a riverfront park. And the serene views of the Maurice River stir up the memories of a simpler time.

"There is a real interest in this little village of Mauricetown," Ferguson said. "People come here from other places on the East Coast. And they come from Kansas, Oklahoma, California - and all over." Ferguson said that as people take this stroll into the past, they inevitably notice markers on the town's historic structures, and they are curious about the names on the quaint saltboxes and the stately Victorian houses.

Before Ferguson opened her antique shop in 1969, there wasn't any place in the town where visitors could go to ask their questions. There was no one depository for the rich history of the sea captains’ village. After she opened for business, people came by to ask questions about the house markers they found as they walked along the grass-lined streets. Ferguson realized that there was a curiosity and a hunger for the tales of old. She realized that Mauricetown's grandest eras - and the culture that was spawned, were almost forgotten.

Ferguson began asking her own questions. She sought out the old-timers, and the local families that had stories of their own ancestors to pass along. She soon realized that the place where she grew up held a unique spot in history. The earliest documented settler, Caesar Hoskins, arrived in 1726. The area was without a name until the 1790's when it became Mattox Landing. It wasn't until well into the 19th century that the name Mauricetown took hold.

Ferguson realized that the stories of the town's evolution, and the tales of the sea captains, the shipbuilders, the merchants, and the enterprising and resourceful residents who carved out their lives on this part of the Maurice River, were treasures that needed to be preserved. Ferguson discovered that there were other closet historians who shared her passion for preserving this local history.

This group of interested citizens met to outline a strategy. They considered becoming a part of a regional group, the Maurice River Historical Society. But with the wealth and wide realm of history in their own backyards, attics, and forgotten corners, the Mauricetown group opted for a more local focus. It would take years of effort to uncover the secrets of their village and the sea captains and the charming and somewhat opulent community that once surrounded them. The Mauricetown historians and preservationists began to meet in each other's homes. It wasn't long before a significant opportunity arose. One of the town's fine treasures was up for sale. The group agreed that the Edward Compton House was worthy of their investment.

In June 1984, with a mortgage from Millville Savings and Loan, the Mauricetown Historical Society had a place to call home. And what a home it was - at one time. The Edward Compton House was built in 1864. It is described as a stately dwelling in the Italian Victorian style. When the historical society took ownership, many of the original features had been covered over or were in a state of decay. The cookhouse no longer existed, and some structural problems on the house needed immediate attention.

That was 20 years ago. Today, long and loving hours of restoration have brought the past to life - and brought life to the past. The Compton House now has a library, a meeting room, and a parlor. On the second floor, the themes of village life are displayed in wall exhibits, charts, artwork and artifacts. There is a room for and about children; a room highlighting the businesses and occupations of the townspeople; and a "river room". Ferguson, who is now curator at the Compton House, is having a grand time transforming the spaces of the house to show off the treasures of the town.

Ferguson, who served a good many years as president of the historical society, understands the value of an almost forgotten story, a tattered flag, or a faded document. Her mother, Irene McClain Reeves, was somewhat of a historian, a local expert in the genealogy of the families on both sides of the Maurice River. Ferguson's brother Joseph wrote a book, Maurice River Memories, capturing the days he spent with his father on the river as a youngster. And her grandfather, father, and uncles, who fished, hunted, and trapped the river, are woven into the historic fabric of the Maurice River.

"When my dad was young, this was a self-sufficient village," Ferguson said. There were several grocery stores, a cobbler, milliners, carpenters, and a wheelwright. Many of these businesses were located on the properties where the craftsmen lived. "Everything was right here," Ferguson said, including the Flagg Hotel, built by one of her ancestors. But as the years of her childhood slipped by, the bustle and opportunity of the 19th century had already begun to fade.

By the early part of the 20th century, the culture and traditions of the sea captains had become the town's legacy. Houses and properties passed through generations of owners. Some of these owners recognized the historical significance of the dwellings. But unfortunately, some of them didn't.

As she was growing up, the character of the town started to change. The shipyard was still busy, as oyster boats needed maintenance and repair work. Ferguson's grandparents, Ethyl and Morton Reeves, lived directly across the street from the Compton house and adjacent to the shipyard.  "My grandfather had a big barn down on the river," she said. From her grandparents' house, Ferguson used to watch the activities at the shipyard.

But the hotel rooms that once lodged wealthy merchants were now rented to hunters and farm laborers. And then it burned down. "That was in 1928. I remember that night," Ferguson said. The hotel was very close to her family's house. She remembers sitting in her mother's lap, listening to the commotion of that night.

Ferguson said that she enjoyed the quiet that was settling around the village. Even though the river's activities began to dwindle and the economic base shifted away from the banks of Maurice River, she never considered leaving the area. When she and Hammond Ferguson married in 1952, they searched for a place in the neighborhood that they could call their own. They purchased the Alfred Haley House. Ferguson furnished the house with vintage pieces that she collected and restored. And then she put her energies into transforming the property's old cookhouse into her own antique shop.

Even though Ferguson lived within a stone's throw of the Maurice River, she admitted that she never "got the river in her blood." Her brother Joseph and sister Louise did, but Ferguson's preferred to stand on the high ground on the banks and watch the tide flow along winding waterway. "I like to look at it. It's beautiful," Ferguson said. She remembered how her friends were preoccupied with water activities like swimming in the summers and ice skating in the winters. "But I didn't want to learn to swim," she said. "My mother could swim. My dad had a reputation for being the best swimmer on the river. He glided through the water so silently, like a fish. And my brother Joseph was a good swimmer," she said, with a shake of her head as she recalled some of his daring antics - "like jumping off the old bridge," she chuckled.

And even when times were tough, Ferguson recalled that her sister Louise still managed to get herself a pair of ice skates. The young people would head to a place where the old bridge joined the meadow. There was a little depression at that spot that would freeze over to make a good ice skating pond. "My mother would let Louise skate there with her friends because it wasn't too deep," Ferguson said. "They would light a bonfire on the shore. I would sit and watch the fire from my window."

Ferguson can't explain her reluctance to join in the Maurice River fun. She mentioned that as a child, one of the neighboring youngsters, a nine-year-old boy, drowned in the river. "Uncle Morton brought him up, and I remember seeing him," Ferguson sighed, wondering if this had something to do with her fear.

But she has other, more pleasant, childhood memories that she'd rather share. "Life was simple," Ferguson said. "We were poor, but we didn't know it. We were always warm and safe. We had food, and kids to play with." Store-bought toys were not the norm, Ferguson said, but orange-crate dollhouses, stick guns, and other creative inventions provided plenty of childhood diversions.

What Ferguson really loved was school. "I was so sad that I couldn't go on," she said. Opportunities were limited during those years, she explained.  "My brother went into the Navy Air Corps. A couple of years late, my sister graduated. I had my job by then, in a little office." Ferguson said that her sister went to work at a local glass plant, and saved every cent she made so that she could continue her education. "Then she went to Philadelphia," Ferguson said, adding that her sister moved in with their aunt so that she could attend the Philadelphia College of Industrial Arts and Design. "Louise became a successful commercial artist," Ferguson said with pride. Her sister worked for John Wanamaker until the retail giant closed. From there, she went on to an advertising agency where she still works. "At the age of 75," Ferguson said with admiration. "And she still teaches at the art institute one night a week."

Ferguson talks about her mother often - and with loving fondness. "Dad was the riverman. Mom was a homemaker." Her mother did everything that needed to be done in the house, Ferguson explained, adding that she could paint, wallpaper, and even lay linoleum. "She was an excellent cook. She made our clothes and her clothes. She made the dress she was buried in. She was very particular about what we wore and what we ate. No soda. And I didn't have coffee until I started working. But Mom made us treats - cookies, muffins and root beer."

Ferguson recalled how her mother created holiday memories, even when times were tough. "Mom would fix something special, even though we didn't have very much," Ferguson said. "We ate muskrat at many of our holiday dinners." Ferguson described her mother as resourceful and ingenious. "She could stretch a dollar to buy so much."

Ferguson said that even though the family didn't have much, they shared that with others. "Mom would make two pumpkin pies, one for us and one to share. Dad would clean the fish he'd catch and I would take some to the neighbors. We'd have huckleberries and blackberries - and we always took a quart to a neighbor." There was always someone in need during those years. Sharing was a way of life in the little village, Ferguson said.

There was plenty of family around in those days. Her family didn't own a car, so there wasn't much opportunity to travel. Fortunately, the Reeves family members lived all around the town. And the McClains, who lived nearby, often came to visit. "Uncle Johnny was still in Leesburg at the time. He was the uncle who ice-skated from Leesburg all the way to Mauricetown one year, " Ferguson said, recalling the impressions that made on the youngsters in the neighborhood.

In her later years, Ferguson worked together with her mother in the antique shop. "She did the wallpaper and painted. And she refinished furniture. She was good at it. She could do chair caning, weaving, and rush seats. She really enjoyed it," Ferguson said.

Ferguson has also enjoyed the challenges of restoration, especially those undertaken at the Edward Compton house. "It's an on-going, never-ending process," she said. But she takes pleasure in knowing that visitors will be able to come into the little village on the Maurice River and learn about its people and its past.

Ferguson is also pleased with the good relationship that has developed between the Mauricetown Historical Society, the community, and the two other important entities in the town, the Mauricetown Fire Company and the Methodist church. "We all get along splendidly," she said. "When one of us has an event, we'll try to take advantage of the crowds and invite them to come into our buildings." Ferguson said that simultaneous events compliment, not compete, with the main event. As an example, she explained that when the fire company holds their annual Seafood Festival, shellfish is the main attraction. Dessert isn't on the menu. But for those who can't do without, the historical society sweetens the day by hosting their Dessert Festival. "It's worked out real well," she said.

The historical society recently celebrated their 20th anniversary in the Compton House. And the preservation work still continues. There are plans to complete a replica of the cookhouse that once stood on the property. There are hopes to expand the holdings in the library. And there are still boxes and envelopes stuffed with personal letters, news clippings, photos, maps and other documents about Mauricetown and its people.

Ferguson looks forward to putting more of the pieces of this puzzle together for Mauricetown's visitors - and for the next generation who will make the little sea captains' village their home.