Unlike most towns, Ridgely did not “just grow” — it was planned before a single house was built. It was planned not as a country town, but as a city – a large, beautiful prosperous city, with a railroad to the north and the Choptank River to the south, laid out with wide streets and avenues, with parks and boulevards, factories and stores and a busy riverfront with docks and shipyards. It was a dream…a noble one.
Ridgely was founded in the post Civil War land speculation and railroad boom that rolled across the Delmarva Peninsula in the 1860′s. With the end of the Civil War, northern railroads were able to continue their expansion plans, and investors and merchants went looking for new markets and sources of supplies for the growing urban markets.
The land around the present day community of Ridgely was purchased in 1867 by the Maryland and Baltimore Land Association from Thomas Bell and the Rev. Greenbury W. Ridgely, for whom the town is named. In the spring of 1867, the town proprietors brought in Mr. J.J. Sickler, a Civil Engineer from Philadelphia, to lay out a plat of the city. With the plan completed, the Land Association began construction and the first year saw the erection of four buildings, including a railroad station, hotel and two private residences. One residence was constructed by James K. Saulsbury as a combined store and residence, known today as the Ridgely House, houses the town offices.
In spite of its auspicious start, the young city was doomed to failure, with the Land Association overextending and going bankrupt during the first year. The properties were subsequently sold at public auction, and the village was left with just four buildings: a railroad station, a hotel, a residence and a combination store/residence. The latter was erected by James K. Saulsbury, a seasoned seaman and a veteran of the California Gold Rush of 1849, served briefly as the County’s only hospital and presently serves as the town hall. Following the demise of the Land Association, Ridgely gradually began to grow as a rural commercial and industrial center on the Maryland and Delaware Railroad line.
From the beginning of its actual growth until the middle of the twentieth century, Ridgely prospered, maintaining a viable commercial center and a number of industrial operations; most directly related to the processing of local crops. Most of the local farmland was used to produce strawberries, huckleberries, vegetables, eggs and poultry which, along with wild blackberries and game, were either processed in Ridgely or hauled north in railcars for sale as fresh goods or for processing in the larger urban factories.
Changes in the size and condition of Ridgely came with the general shift from rail to highway transportation in the 1950′s. As business and industry began to concentrate in larger urban areas and in more central rural centers, the factories and processing plants in Ridgely could no longer compete with larger and more modern facilities operated by large regional and national corporations.
Ridgely found a niche as the “Strawberry Capital of the World.” The present streetscape, lined with stately Victorian homes, reflects that transient prosperity during the countywide Canning Boom (1895-1919). Hanover Foods, formerly an enterprise of Saulsbury Bros., Inc. for more than 100 years, is the last of over 250 food processors that once operated in the Caroline County region.
Perhaps the dream of 1867 is gone; however, Ridgely’s wide streets and pavements and period architecture give testimony to the legacy of fine planning which the originators have bequeathed to us. Present day Ridgely is a pleasant blend of commerce, industry and residential development, with its abundant historic legacy much in evidence at every turn.
Ridgely is home to a “Blue Ribbon” Elementary School and the Maryland 1997 “Mother of the Year”. The Ridgely House, which serves as the town office, dates back to 1867 and showcases a modest collection of historical memorabilia open to the public. Ridgely is now emerging as a “Heritage Tourism” destination.
Poised as it is, just across the Chesapeake Bay from the Baltimore and District of Columbia metropolitan areas, Ridgely is being discovered by the urban commuter who is willing to trade a couple of hours of highway driving for the quality of life offered by our Eastern Shore rural village community.