This morning I attended the funeral of Helen Keene Warburton, 97, at Immaculate Conception Church. While the old parish bell tolled out as mourners streamed out of the church my mind reflected on some of my personal experiences with this community-oriented individual, a true friend of historic preservation in Cecil County. In a reflective mood after the service, I drove to a nearby quiet spot, Elk Landing, a place that was important to Mrs. Warburton.
On those 62-undisturbed acres right in the center of the county’s most developed area, I ambled along the creek on this beautiful Wednesday in October. The sun was lifting the frosty overnight mid-autumn chill so I couldn’t help but enjoy the serenity of this place. The Little Elk flowed silently along, while the wind caused colorful leaves to fall gently to the ground, and the sun illuminated the Hollingsworth House, a relic from the end of the 18th century. Not a sound disturbed the tranquility on this brilliant day.
I vividly remembered another time at the Landing over eight years ago. It was a warm spring day about 12 months after we started working to save this historic site. One afternoon my phone rang and it was Mrs. Warburton calling to see if she could tour the place. I’d known her for decades and was aware of her work with many charities, as well as her interest in historic preservation, so I naturally was pleased to show her around since we had the daunting task of raising funds for restoration. She had been instrumental in saving another part of Elkton’s built environment back in the 1950s or ‘60s, Holly Hall.
The Hollingsworth House didn’t look like much when she walked through the door, the place suffering from generations of neglect. It didn’t have heating or air conditioning, and when darkness descended on the Elk River there was no electricity to light rooms in the once grand mansion. Exterior brick walls were deteriorating, interior walls were pealing, and some parts of the structure need strengthening. The front porch had partially collpased and on rainy days water poured through roof openings onto priceless anti1ques and cultural relics that had somehow survived the passage of centuries. But we ambled safely throughout the property, talking about the history of the site as we dreamed out Elk Landing’s future. At one point I hesitatingly asked if the sprightly 90 year old wanted to climb the steps to the second floor. Without pause, she shot right up to the third floor.
Not too long after that Mrs. Warburton called to say a Foundation she headed, Associated Cecil Endeavors (ACE), would donate $100,000. The Elk Landing Group had started business with only the cash contributions of our original board members so fund-raising was our urgent priority, if were going to realize our dreams. You can imagine how happy we were to hear of this generosity since we had about $600 in the bank. Over the next several years, we received several other substantial donations from ACE, the total approaching $400,000. She also made a contribution to stabilize another structure, the stone house since it was in danger of collapsing and we didn’t have money to provide temporary structural support.
Working with that critical capitalization, we were able to apply for large state grants and match those dollar-for-dollar. Several rolled in, including a bond bill for $200,000 and a Maryland Historical Trust grant for $50,000 as well as a few smaller ones. We thus essentially doubled the private contribution. As winter 2003 got underway, a place that had survived many bone-chilling seasons was going to soon shine much brighter in the warmth of the next summer on the Chesapeake Bay.
Mrs. Warburton and ACE made a neglected plantation shine again. While we had other successes in preserving the property, the support of this benefactor was particularly important. These gifts allowed us to continue moving ahead with an ambitious plan to build a living history center and meet the required dollar matches for grants from other sources.
This friend of preservation was born on January 7, 1911, at Golden Hill, Dorchester County, MD. ( Her parents were John Francis Chaplian Keene and Zoe Augusta LeCompte Keene.) After moving to Cecil County as a teenager in 1928, she became a community leader as she matured, working to better Union Hospital, the Cecil County Public Library, United Way and much more. The 91-year-old was honored by the Elkton Chamber of Commerce as the 2002 citizen of the year. As an enthusiastic group of well wishers looked on at the reception in her honor, I remember remarking “If history in this county has a friend it is Helen Warburton” as I presented her with the well-deserved award.
The place she was helping restore was built by Zebulon Hollingsworth and Gordy Johnson used to play this colonial character for us. Performing the role as only Gordy could with his engaging style, he joked with the lady easing through the ninth decade of life. I remember worrying a little about tiring her as he kidded around, but she enjoyed keeping the bantering going. At one point he commented that he was born in 1735. Without hesitation she quipped, “You know, you age well” to this centuries old gentleman. The room erupted in laughter and applause. As we wrapped up that evening she remarked to the crowd: “This will be a day that I will always remember. This will be among my most cherished memories. May Glod bless you and may God bless the United States of America.” (Her obituary in the Cecil Whig contains many more details about her long and remarkably productive life.)
Mrs. Warburton was a tireless advocate of historic preservation. She promoted Elkton’s rich history with a passion and she deeply carried for this community. This community is a much better place becasue of her many varied contributions to the public library system, the United Way, Union Hospital, and much more. She will be missed.