In 1732, the Maryland Assembly passed an act that was intended to found a town at the bridge near the head of the Choptank River, a point where the meandering stream described an S-shaped curve known as the "Great Bend." At this time Caroline County had not yet been founded, and the Commissioners for Dorchester and Queen Anne's Counties were directed to purchase twenty acres of land on their respective sides of the river to be laid out into forty equal lots. A plat of this proposed town, to be known as Bridge Town (not to be confused with Nine Bridges, which was also called Bridgetown on the Tuckahoe River), can be found in the land records of Dorchester County. The site was a reasonable one for the founding of a town, since it was one of the few crossings over the upper Choptank River and a potential stopover point for overland and river traffic.
While the 1732 Act was passed founding the town, and Hughlett's tobacco warehouse had been built by at least 1769, 1783 is the earliest date the town can actually be considered as existing as a town. The Act of November 21, 1763, which called for the establishment of public warehouses for the inspection of tobacco referred to the warehouse at Choptank Bridge as Bridgetown Warehouse. Nathaniel Knotts was appointed tobacco inspector for Choptank Bridge on October 4, 1748. The course of the river has changed somewhat today from what is was when the town was first laid out.
The original owner of the property on the Dorchester side of the river was an enterprising native named Peter Rich. A merchant, innkeeper and considerable landowner, Rich crossed the Choptank in 1732 and patented thirty-one acres of lowland in the Great Bend of the river adjoining the western end of the bridge, which tract he named, not coincidentally, "Bridge Towne." It was a classic case of land speculation: the property was uninhabited and too swampy for agriculture, but as an innholder, Rich saw that here was an ideal location for a town. Whether he had gotten wind of the Assembly's plan for the area, or had himself instigated the Act of 1732 is unknown. In any event, Rich sold twenty acres of the "Bridge Towne" tract to Queen Anne's County, bought back a lot that was well-situated to accommodate passing travelers, and sat back in anticipation of the town that was to grow up around him.
The area was still too sparsely populated and through traffic not yet sufficient to support a town. Rich's lot was the only one sold within the seven-year trial period, and in 1740 all lots on each side of the river reverted to the owners of the original tracts involved.
In spite of this setback, Peter Rich prospered in the area. In 1736 he purchased a 200-acre tract called "Ingrams Desire," that adjoined the "Bridge Towne" tract and included the major portion of the hill above the western end of the bridge. He also amassed more than 1,000 acres on the other side of the river. The area's population increased at the same time, and when Rich died in 1762, members of the Chance, Hughlett, Genn and Campbell families had taken up surrounding lands.
In 1747, Rich had deeded half of "Ingrams Desire" to his daughter Sidney and her husband Nathan Harrington; their son Peter Harrington in turn acquired this property in 1778, along with other lands, and in the following year began to sell lots in what was to become the town of Greensboro.
Thomas Hughlett operated a three-story brick tobacco warehouse dating from circa 1769. The lower level which was used to store the tobacco was divided by brick walls into four compartments, one of which had a fireplace; the second floor was used for hanging and drying of tobacco; and the third floor for the making of tobacco baskets and packing cases. Thomas' son Richard operated a tannery in the building until his death in 1827. Jonathan Nichols and Joseph M. Bernard then used the building as a tannery. The tan bark mill for the tannery was mule driven. The tannery was later removed by John Sangston and used again as a tobacco-drying house. Much of the brickwork had been removed and used in other structures.
The new town, known as Choptank Bridge, took root on a hill to the west of the ill-fated Bridge Town. Harrington initiated the development of his property at the point where the road that ran from the Choptank River crossing southwest to Tuckahoe Bridge was joined by the road that ran south from Nine Bridges (modern-day Bridgetown). These were the main traffic and trade routes through the area, and nine lots fronting these roads were sold between 1779-1785. After this year, traffic between Nine Bridges and Tuckahoe Bridge increased, and river transport reduced the need for the road from Denton; consequently, the town began to grow along what was to become Main Street. The original layout of Greensboro was not, therefore, the product of a conscious and pre-arranged design, so much as it was a response to the advantages and the shifting nature of a rural crossroads. This conclusion is supported by the irregularity of the earlier lots, grouped around a three-cornered intersection, when compared to the conventional rectangular parcels that were laid out after 1785.
Choptank Bridge grew quickly during its early years. In 1791 the town was officially surveyed and its name changed to Greensboro. Between 1779 and 1812, Peter Harrington and his neighbor and cousin, Bachelder Chance, conveyed 27 lots from their adjoining properties, a total of close to thirty acres. From its beginnings, the town was plainly intended to provide essential services to the surrounding planters. Twelve of the grantees that received lots before 1812 were listed in the deeds as merchants or various sorts of tradesmen, including a saddler, a tanner and two carpenters. In addition, Harrington and his heirs appear to have made a conscious effort to recruit physicians to live in Greensboro and serve the surrounding area.
Peter Rich had sold a choice 1.5 acre lot to Dr. William Sargent Kitteridge in 1762, and nine physicians are known to have practiced in Greensboro between 1784 and 1825. When compared with Denton, Greensboro's early residents were, indeed, fortunate. The former town had no physician before 1804, and could boast of only the most conventional kinds of tradesmen.
The diversity of trades and the greater need for physicians in early Greensboro can probably be explained by the relatively small size of land holdings in the vicinity of the Choptank River bridge. Here, family farms of no more than a few hundred acres were the rule, population was rather dense, and the demand for the services that could be provided by a town was consistent. During much of its early history, however, Denton was surrounded by the extensive holdings of a single absentee landlord, Colonel Edward Lloyd of Talbot County, and real growth for that town had to wait until the eventual breakup of those estates.
The founders of Greensboro appear to have been liberal in religious matters, as well as sensitive to economic needs. In 1789, Peter Harrington, himself a Methodist, sold a lot to a group for the building of a church; and Bachelder Chance did the same in 1795 in the case of a congregation of Quakers. Neither of these early meetinghouses survives, although the Methodist MeetingHouse Lot is a local landmark, and contains many graves of local historic importance.
However, two buildings survive from the period when Peter Harrington was directing the development of Greensboro. One of these is Harrington's own house at the corner of Church Street and Bernard Avenue. Its construction was begun before August 9, 1786--when a deed mentioned the street leading to Peter Harrington's "new house"--and was probably completed by 1789. Harrington's was a fairly small two-story brick house with a chimney at each end, and a fireplace in every room. Although located on a northeast corner, the house faces east, toward Main Street and the river, since it was built on what was the western edge of town. The exterior of the house has been extensively remodeled, so that its vintage and masonry construction is not readily discernible. During the late nineteenth century, a kitchen wing and porch were added, and the brick walls, covered with stucco and clapboard. The interior has also been refurbished.
Near Sunset Avenue on the bank of the river stood David Whiting's Tannery, an unusual three-story brick building with a full basement and a solid brick partition running from basement to the roof. Whiting, who had already been a property owner in Greensboro for two years, leased lot 9 of Harrington's town in 1785, for a term of 99 years. Since his occupation is clearly indicated on his 1783 deed for lot 4, we can suppose that Whiting built his tannery soon after leasing the property, and long before his lease was assigned to William Rich, Jr. in 1814.
Few tanneries of this period remain intact. Greensboro is unusual in that it supported two such establishments during the early nineteenth century--the Whiting Tannery and the "Hughlett Ruin" on the north side of town. In each building, a massive central chimney provided a fireplace for each room, making possible the control of temperature and humidity in each chamber that was necessary for the tanning of hides. Unlike the Hughlett Ruin, on whose foundation a store has been built, the Whiting Tannery had been used as a private residence and as apartments. The Almshouse, built circa 1778, was located along the east side of the river about a quarter-of-a-mile below the bridge.
Throughout most of the nineteenth century, Greensboro continued to develop along the lines envisioned by its founders. Retail merchants and tradesmen continued to locate here, helping to make the town a local market center. A stage line carried mail and probably passengers between Horntown (Accomack County to Eastville) with a stop at Greensboro (then Bridgetown).
At least 17 vessels were built in Greensboro including the two-masted schooner Dexter built at the Satterfield & Moore Shipyard in 1871. Sail and steamboats traveled up the Choptank, bringing, among other cargo, fertilizer for local farmland, and carrying away local produce. The railroad came to Greensboro in 1867 and by 1900 six trains visited the town daily.
After the turn of the century, a number of manufacturing plants came to Greensboro, drawn, in part, by the presence of local agricultural produce, and an adequate labor force. The following canneries operated in Greensboro:
- J. H. Bernard (1889-1918)
- A. B. Roe (1889-1897)
- W. C. Satterfield (1899)
- D. S. Truitt (1899), Satterfield (1897-1900)
- F. P. Roe (1900-1940)
- Curry & Jarman (1908)
- W. P. Day (1908)
- Swing Brothers (1908-1934)
- Roe & Horsey (1910)
- C. R. Rich (1917-1918)
- J. O. Bernard (1919-1927)
- Eglantine Canning Company (1919-1958)
- Orrell & Smith (1919-1920)
- Swing Company (1935-1939)
- Greensboro Canning Company (1939-1958)
- Thomas J. Faulkner (1945)
The Pet Milk Company, formerly Helvetia, offered employment to hundreds of people from 1920 until it closed in 1971. The F. P. Roe Cannery burned to the ground in 1941; the victim of a carelessly used blowtorch, and the Quality Ice Cream Company was discontinued following the war. On the corner of Church Street and Cedar Lane workers manufactured toy baseball gloves in a brick building, where professional athletic equipment was produced earlier in this century. The decline of the area's agricultural base, always the mainstay of the local economy and the source of population growth, has, in recent years caused an accompanying decline in local industries.
Most of Greensboro's surviving buildings date from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the period of the town's greatest prosperity. The Foster Hotel, located of North Main Street and originally called the Riverside Hotel, is being restored to its former grandeur, and stands as a reminder of the years when Greensboro was a local social center and a stopping point for travelers. On the corner of Sunset Avenue and Church Street stands the Goldsborough House. Built during the late nineteenth century by the descendent of a prominent local family, this handsome two-story frame Victorian house is owned by the Caroline County Historical Society.
Throughout Greensboro are sprinkled Victorian dwellings of considerable merit, many of which incorporate parts of earlier structures. Some have been restored, including one on North Main Street that has undergone a curious transformation into the Federal style. In addition, there remain some of the commercial structures that made Greensboro a local retailing center during the nineteenth century.
In this century, larger towns in the area have overshadowed Greensboro, including Denton and Federalsburg. Unlike some older communities on the Eastern Shore, the resources have not been available to restore and maintain many of Greensboro's historic structures, and the center of the town has undergone many changes over the years. These changes in themselves, however, are one reason why Greensboro is important and interesting to the scholar. Unlike many early tidewater towns, Greensboro was not oriented primarily to water traffic, but to a set of converging overland trade routes that were supported by the presence of a river landing.
While the government's plan for a town on this site had been premature and poorly-conceived, several generations of local residents possessed the wealth and the vision to realize a scheme that was more timely and more responsive to the unstable conditions of a growing region. Greensboro's evolution--from a prosperous rural town, supplying the area with goods and services, to a center for the processing of local produce, to a sleepy village lying outside the mainstream and living largely on memories--lends it a significance that is, perhaps, greater than the town itself.