“The Strawberry Capital of the World:” That’s the title of the artwork above by a famous “rug hooker,” Mary Sheppard Burton. The setting is our own Pittsville, Md., one of the towns just off of Route 50 between Salisbury and Ocean City. (The artwork is below here as well, in a bigger size at the end of the story.)
Burton was born in Salisbury in 1922. She won fame as a “hooker” while living through her adult years in Montgomery County, Md. She passed away in 2010. Today, she has numerous works in the collection of the Smithsonian’s American Folklife Center. She is also in the Rug Hookers Hall of Fame.
From old newspaper articles about her through the years I learned that her grandmother and great-grandmother were both rug hookers. Her Pittsville piece is part of a collection of works that she called the “Tell Me ‘Bout” series. That name comes from the years when her four young children were very eager to hear their mom tell bedtime stories about her youth on the Eastern Shore.
In her later years, Burton re-created those bedtime stories as artworks, accompanied by little letters to her children and grandchildren. Here is what she had to say about “The Strawberry Capital of the World.”
“I want to ‘tell you ’bout your Granddaddy John Raymond Sheppard. He was my Daddy, and I was crazy ’bout him. He was both Mother and Father to me when I was a wee little girl; my mommy was gone.
“John Raymond was a beautiful, mischievous little fellow. Only Grandma (Emma Smith Sheppard) called him John Raymond, ’cause he played boyish pranks. Most people called him Raymond. His Daddy, John Gillis Sheppard, and my Grandma had two boys: Chester, the oldest, who was redheaded and freckle-faced, and John Raymond, who was so pretty. He had blond corkscrew curls and big blue eyes. Then there was Anna, who was always accusing the boys of picking on her. They probably were.
“Raymond and Chester lived in the little house next door to the Methodist Church. Grandpa had helped to build that church. He built the house, too. Chester and Raymond had the job of ringing the church bell, for that was how everyone in the village knew what time it was. They loved to ring the bell for services, weddings, and funerals too.
“The bell worked on a rope. When one boy pulled hard, the other boy flew up in the air. When that one came down, the other found himself airborne. This was quite like flying. On occasion, they rang the bell because they just ‘had to do it.’ It was great fun until reckoning time.
“The ‘Strawberry Special’ was one of the many engines that pulled the Baltimore, Chesapeake, and Atlantic [raliroad] cars between Salisbury and Pittsville each day. Across the tracks from Grandma and Grandpa’s house was the train station. Every week a lady from the eastern shore of Virginia rode the train a hundred and fifty miles to take a rug hooking lesson from my Grandma.
“In this rug she proudly shows the conductor how much progress she’s made on her own rug. (History repeats itself.) Down the street you’ll find Minas Davis’s bank, the barbershop, the milliner’s, the packing house, and Grandpa’s wonderful store. People could enter the front door while the train unloaded dry goods through the back door. Neat, wasn’t it?
“And the children went to school in the four-room schoolhouse where your Granddaddy stuck a girl’s pigtail in his inkwell in his desk. It was hickory stick time around there. In the schoolyard are pictured five little girl cousins. In small villages everyone knows, and is often related to, everyone else. Beyond the Methodist church is the old cemetery. There, your great-grandparents, your grandparents (on my father’s side), and all their cousins, my cousins, and some of your second cousins are buried. It is a beautiful peaceful spot. I love to read all the information on the tombstones. The saddest thing is to see all the graves and stones of precious babies. Life was truly hard but love was abundant.
“The railroad track was the center of town. Everything was built on one side or the other of the track. Dr. Lawrence Freeny took a mad gallop down Main Street to the end of the train. There the mule had panicked and upset the load of strawberries. The driver was on the ground and Dr. Freeny was frantically trying to mend him.
“Now, children, I could (and should) go on and on, but I’ll have to tell you ’bout more stories in another rug and on another day. I have many precious stories in my heart and head. Time is fleeting and I want you to know all these treasured things. Pleasant dreams, Mom.”
Here again is “The Strawberry Capital of the World.” In the footnotes below this image I have a link to another site where you can really zoom in on details if you like.
–posted by Jim Duffy for Secrets of the Eastern Shore/Whimbrel Creations LLC in June 2023.
If you want to get a closer, higher resolution look at this work, go here to the American Folklife website and play around with the display sizes and the zoom option.
Like several other Delmarva towns, Pittsville really was a contender for the title of “Strawberry Capital of the World” during the early 1900s. According to the booklet “Pittsville: A Pictorial History,” as many as 52 rail cars full of strawberries were known to pull out of the Pittsville Station every day during harvest season in those years. You can read more about those strawberry boom times here.
For those of you like me who don’t know a thing about rug hooking, here is one definition I came across: “The art of rug hooking consists of pulling loops of yarn or fabric through a stiff base such as burlap, linen, or rug warp. The loops are then pulled through the material with a crochet-type hook mounted in a handle.”