Back in the day, Ridgely was a bustling town, planned as a thriving community centered around its railroad and the commerce that its agricultural resources brought to it, bringing it to be known as the “Strawberry Capital of the World.”
With the railroad to the north and the Choptank River to the south, Ridgely was designed to have large wide streets and avenues dotted with beautiful parks – all characteristics of the town which still remain.
In 1867, the land which today is the footprint of the town was purchased by the Maryland and Baltimore Land Association from two gentlemen, one of them the Rev. Greenbury W. Ridgely, for whom the town is named. During its first year of existence, four structures were built, a railroad station, a hotel (one of the largest in the area at the time) and two residences (one belonging to James K. Saulsbury), one doubling as a general store.
Saulsbury’s store/residence still exists. Known as Ridgely House today, it houses the town offices.
Though a bright future was planned for the town at its founding, during the Land Association’s first year, it went bankrupt; leaving the town unfinished and sparsely populated. Most properties were sold at auction, but Ridgely began to grow gradually as a result of its location on the railroad line.
In time, Ridgely flourished as a result of its local crop production, including strawberries, blackberries, huckleberries, vegetables, eggs and poultry. Most products were processed in Ridgely or sent to various locations via the railroad. It is said that more than 250 canneries and food processing businesses were located in Caroline County with Ridgely the center of business.
When highways replaced railroads as the principal mode of transportation, and made other urban areas more accessible, Ridgely’s commerce slowed and the once plentiful canneries and warehouses closed down or went out of business.
Still, Ridgely today remains a popular town to live in for its quaint, beautiful charm, whose residents proudly embrace its history and laid back lifestyle.
With that in mind, the town’s upcoming 150th anniversary celebration on Sept. 23 will be a look back at the town’s past, with the refurbished railroad station once again taking center stage. Though the town was actually founded on May 13, 1867, this celebration was scheduled to ensure that the renovation of the railroad station was completed.
The celebration begins with a parade starting at noon at Martin Sutton Park on West Fourth Street and ends with a fireworks celebration at sundown, with plenty to see, listen to and participate in between.
“The railroad station will be the showplace of the day, with the parade ending at the station, where a ribbon cutting will occur, signifying the reconstruction of the building as it is believed to have looked in the mid-1800s,” said Cathy Schwab, who, along with her husband Rick, has played a major role in planning the event. Rick also played the lead role in the reconstruction of the station.
“In the early 1900s, Ridgely was a boomtown, and the railroad was a major cog in the town’s commerce,” said Rick Schwab. “People came from Baltimore and other places to pick fruit and vegetables in the summer, then returned home after the growing season. They came and went by the railroad.”
The railroad also brought ballplayers to Ridgely from Sudlersville to face off against the locals – included in the group were such once and future big-leaguers as Jimmy Foxx and Buck Herzog.
“As it is today, Ridgely in those days was also a big soccer town,” Rick Schwab added.
Although the Schwabs were not born and raised in Ridgely – they moved there 12 years ago – they have adopted the town as their home and have played a big part in researching and recreating the town’s past. With the help of county historian JOK Walsh, unofficial Ridgely historian Tommy Rampmeyer, the Ridgely Historical Society, and the support and approval of the town council, the Schwabs took on the task of researching the railroad’s use and the place it held in the town’s and region’s history.
“The celebration has been planned since 2014 when the town (council) came on board and the Historical Society joined in to assist later on. A lot of people have been involved in terms of who was doing what,” said Cathy Schwab.
“Since the train station is the property of the town, it was a big deal when the town came on board,” added Schwab.
Rick Schwab has overseen much of the work on the railroad station himself, with a great amount of “hands on” effort involved. He found quite a few surprises along the way concerning what materials were used inside.
“Rick tore out the inside of the station himself and found that the original walls and floors had been covered over at some time,” said Cathy. “He found the remaining ghost pattern of the original ticket window. The original walls were behind paneling and the original floor had been covered over by carpeting. It was also awesome to see how tall the original building had been, much taller than it has appeared to be.”
Two of the original station doors and three original windows were found.