In the days before air conditioning, the main way to try and keep cool was to find a place with a breeze. Colonial planters swung open their doors at the ends of a central passage way. A home on a hill or a waterfront dwelling provided some comfort, and a dip in a body of water could be heavenly.
In June 1936, readers of The Washington Post looking for a place to escape the heat and humidity in and around the nation’s capital might have read a small ad that said:
Scientists Cliffs, restricted to scientists and professional people, Port Republic, Maryland. Cabins, elec., run, w.
This was the start of a unique colony of professionals summering and spending weekends on the western shore of the Chesapeake Bay.
Scientist Cliffs is located in the heart of Calvert County, Maryland. After an hour or so drive from Washington down Highway 4, residents of this community are pleased to see the signs for Port Republic. Another mile or two down a quiet road and they are home.
On this patch of rural land overlooking the Chesapeake Bay, George Flippo Gravatt and his wife Annie Rathburn founded the private community in 1935.
According to the Scientists’ Cliffs website, both Flippo and Annie were forest pathologists in the Department of Agriculture. They wanted to start a community of “ scientists and professional people of kindred spirit.”
Flippo was familiar with the area due to his extensive studies of the American Chestnut Trees.
The private community, consisting of rustic log cabin homes, was created when Gravatt and his wife, Annie Evelyn Rathbum, both forest pathologists for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, acquired the original 238 acres.
Their ads in the papers pointed out that the cottages were for sale to professional grads. The small notices published under - Waterfront Living - kept coming. And so did the new members. The community association's bylaws later extended membership to all college graduates and professionals.
Today, membership exceeds 450, a community that spreads across 752 acres. The single family cabins number about 250. About half are home to year-round residences. The first ones were made from chestnut trees killed by blight. The next phase used tulip poplars or pine logs, followed by wood siding in the mid 1950s.
An article in The Washington Post gives a hint towards the progressive nature of the community in its early years. In 1952, Mrs. Hilmer C. Nelson, wife of an Army officer who lived at Scientists’ Cliffs, proposed a bookmobile for Calvert County. Some stuck-in-the-past residents in the county resisted. Nelson won the battle.
Donald Dahmann, the Historian for the Old Presbyterian Meeting House in Alexandria and a Geographer in Independent Practice, has been a member since 1982.
He and his family have spent many a week-end at "The Cliffs.” Their cabin was built from local trees cut on the grounds in 1936.
Dahmann describes life there as “very casual, with nice folks. It doesn't matter who you are, everyone operates on a first name basis.”
He also showed me a primer he created, which points out that while driving to Scientists’ Cliffs along Highway 4, one sees the development of “large-lot Anywhere-USA exurban/suburban residences and their associated service expectations.”
Flippo Gravatt, a native of Roanoke, Virginia, passed away in 1969, and his wife, Annie, who lived to 92 years of age, died in 1986. Flippo championed conservation after retiring from the Department of Agriculture – he helped establish the nearby Battle Creek Cypress Swamp, a National Natural Landmark, in 1957.
If Gravatt were alive today, he would be mighty pleased to know that the neighboring 3,000 acres known as Parkers Creek Preserve looks much like it did when he was fighting for protection of the land.
The American Chestnut Land Trust website tells us the preserved land is a place where you can —
paddle through 2 miles of tidal marsh and see no signs of human development, explore 20 miles of hiking trails through 3,000 acres of permanently protected woodlands and see native wildlife and plants flourish.
Scientists’ Cliffs is a special place. The better half and I could see the care for the community and the kindness the residents showed to each other and to the strangers.
This spirit was summed up a resident, in the book, “Scientists’ Cliffs: Community and Context.”
I have been asked what about Scientists’ Cliffs has meant the most to me. My answer includes simplicity, closeness to nature, and genuine friendliness.