Wharf in Lower Marlboro in about 1925. The large house on the bluff overlooking the wharf was offered to the county fire department as a practice site and was burned in the 1970's. The Harbour Master's House is at the far upper right. The automobile on the dock dates the photograph; there were no improved roads leading to Lower Marlboro from either Chaneyville or Sunderland until the mid-1920's. The dirt roads were heavily rutted, impassible at times in wet weather, and until 1880, even had many farm gates across them, each of which had to opened and closed by every passing traveler, sometimes only after receiving permission from the land owner. As late as 1950, Chaneyville Road leading into Lower Marlboro was one lane of gravel (or often mud).
The Twentieth Century - 100 Years of Change
Like much of the rest of the United States, Lower Marlboro changed more in the twentieth century than in all the rest of its history combined. In 1912 telephone service became available, and a few years later, kerosene street lights with round globes were installed on subscription basis, with the help of funds raised by a school play. They were lit each evening by property owners and remained operative until electricity was brought to the town in 1936.
Lower Marlboro was a thriving commercial center when the river was the main source of transportation, but first the railroad and then the automobile diminished the importance of waterways beginning in the late nineteenth century. After having survived economic slumps after every major war, Lower Marlboro began a prolonged decline in the early 1900's, further punctuated by tornados in 1913 and 1920, the Great Depression of the 1930's, and finally a major fire in 1935. Steamships continued to operate regularly until 1932, when a hurricane destroyed many of the wharves on the route. The Great Depression was already causing businesses to struggle, and the increasing use of automobiles made rebuilding the wharves unattractive from an economic standpoint. Steamship operations on the Patuxent ended by the mid-1930's.
From the 1930's to the 1970's, houses fell into disrepair. Few homeowners wanted to maintain the old wooden structures, preferring to build smaller houses with modern conveniences that were less expensive to heat. Many old wooden houses were torn down throughout the eastern half of the United States during this period.
But Lower Marlboro was fortunate (though not all residents thought so at the time). In the early 1970's a visionary developer, Perry Van Vleck, discovered the town. Already experienced in historic reconstruction, Van Vleck ably took on the renovation of several of the old structures. Van Vleck was active in the commercial real estate market, as well as being a historian and student of early construction techniques. At a time when many old frame structures were being demolished, he devised a plan to save them. The houses remain today, each with its story and treasured by a succession of owners.
From 1796 until 1965, Lower Marlboro had its own post office. Several buildings served as the post office, the final location being Hinman's Store (or more accurately Cox's Store, since the vacant Hinman's building was taken over by the Coxes after their own store was destroyed by fire in 1935). It was this building, with the postmaster's house next to it, that Van Vleck chose as his first restoration project in Lower Marlboro. When he finished the renovation he re-named the combined structure "The Harbor Master's House." With the exception of Patuxent Manor, where renovation was begun in 1969, all of the restoration of houses in Lower Marlboro occurred after Van Vleck took the risk with the Harbour Master's House and Millennia in 1971.