That the Rackliffe House even exists is kind of a testament to how much people really love the area. Although it was restored on its own merits, you get the impression that it’s part of this larger movement to remind people that Assateague Island has been an attraction since colonial times, but not for the same reasons it is today.
Its easy, remote access made it prime real estate for all sorts of shenanigans over the years, but also made it kind of endearing to local families, which mostly is why the house got a makeover. It’s worth visiting for just the moment of appreciating the architecture and the nature trails that lead to the house and extend around it.
Even if you don’t know precisely what you’re looking for, it is easy enough to find the Rackliffe House as part of a larger exploration of the Assateague Island Visitor Center. The house once was part of a plantation tract that took up much of the surrounding area, but time and fortune weren’t particularly kind to the house, nor to the family who founded it.
A Brief History of the Rackliffe House
Founded in the 1750s, the building passed out of the Rackliffe family’s hands after about 100 years and, by the early part of the 20th century, was let for rent and in failing condition.
By the later part of the 20th century, the house had fallen into disrepair and had survived a fire. Generations of different owners had made structural changes to the house and covered the bare brick facade with layers upon layers of paint and stucco.
As the 20th Century came to a close a movement began to restore the house as a museum. Tom Patton, the man whose name is on the street that takes visitors to the restored house, was among those who led the philosophical (and fundraising) charge.
Rackliffe House is about more than history
Restoring the Rackliffe House was about preserving cultural heritage as well as American history, but there was, and is, more to it than that. In addition to a rich history, Maryland’s Eastern Shore increasingly is becoming an eco-tourism destination. People come to the area to hike, fish, birdwatch and kayak, among other activities.
Located between the Assateague Island Visitor Center and the Sarbanes Coastal Ecology Center the restores Rackliffe House is a real world example of what it was like to live as a partner with the area.
If the Visitor Center is about the island life throughout history and the Ecology Center is about sea life, it is appropriate to think of the Rackliffe House as about human history in the area. People have had a great affect on the area, but also have been effected by it. The Rackliffe House deals with this interaction in a particular way.
Evolving Eastern Shore Culture at the Rackliffe House
The transition from settlers to landowners and the cultural and political entailments of that transition are a central part of the Rackliffe House experience. Touring the inside of the home, you can see not only how the people lived, but the kinds of things they valued in their everyday lives.
More important, you get a sense of how the Rackliffe family rose and fell on the Eastern Shore, eventually succumbing to a lack of male heirs and, as a result, the end of the Eastern Shore line. There were Rackliffe women, but inheritance wasn’t part of the deal for Colonial- and Early American-era women.
Today the restored building provides a look into a world that is recognizable, but still radically different from the one we inhabit. Touring the grounds, and participating in the nature walk that includes them, is worth your time not only for the information, but also for the experience. A walk in an old woods among the ghosts of the past is a quiet, soul-restoring activity.
A version of this story appeared on Maryland.com