The Historical Society of Harford County, Inc., established at the County Courthouse in 1885, is the oldest county historical society in Maryland. Initially, the Society focused on quarterly meetings where members and others presented historical papers they had written and accepted items of historical importance for a growing archive. One of the more interesting items donated in 1886 was a cannon ball alleged to have been fired by the British on Havre de Grace in 1813. In 1995, the cannon ball, used as a door stop at the Society, was found to “be alive”. The Society had it detonated at APG and now stores some of the remaining pieces.
Throughout its history, the Society worked closely with Maryland Historical Society (MHS) and actually had offices at the Baltimore location for many years, storing records and archival material there until 1973. Some of these records can still be found at their site on Charles Street in Baltimore, but most are now housed in Bel Air at our headquarters, 143 N. Main Street. Among the shared materials are the historical writings of Dr. George W. Archer, one of the early founders of the Society .Dr. Archer served in the Civil War. Returning as a disabled veteran, he retired from his medical practice and focused on Harford County history and genealogy studies. He was the era’s most prolific documentarian of Harford County’s past.
Between 1920-1938, J. Alexis Shriver almost single handedly kept the Society going – storing, organizing, and cataloging the Society’s collection both at his home on Old Joppa Road and at the MHS in Baltimore. He, as a Society representative, started the Maryland Roadside Marker Project with the State Roads Commission. The first three signs in the state were erected in Harford County; commemorating Joppa as an early county seat, Old Cokesbury College and the birthplace of Governor William Paca in Abingdon. The sign program is still in effect today boasting numerous historical markers throughout the state.
Over the years, the Society sponsored many historical programs, publications, tours and preservation efforts. Some of the more significant include the 1931 celebration at the Rigbie House where Lafayette’s troops camped on their way to the Battle of Yorktown. This event brought hundreds of visitors including the French Ambassador, several Governors and dignitaries to Harford. The Society continues to offer a wide variety of events each year and to assist with research and encourage publication of articles and books, such as C. Milton Wright’s Our Harford Heritage and others. Additionally, after fighting for the preservation of the Hays House in 1960 when demolition threatened as “progress” called for the loss of the Kenmore Inn and the historic Hays House for development of a shopping center, the Society arranged for its relocation and operation as a house museum. The Society continues to operate the museum and offer programs here.
Over time, the Society expanded its role, developing a quarterly bulletin, preserving and cataloging County Court Records dating back to the 17th century, establishing a Research Library which includes vast genealogy resources and expanding its archival collection which now includes more than 50,000 photographs as well as paper records, textiles, artifacts and artwork detailing the story of Harford County.
These ambitious efforts made finding a permanent location essential. After many years in numerous temporary sites, in 1994, Harford County transferred the old Bel Air Post Office to the Society. This historic building now houses all of the departments that make up the Society – Archives, Artifacts, Art, Textiles, Court Records, Research Library, Genealogy, Exhibits, Gift Shop and special events. Visitors are encouraged to stop by and savor the county’s rich past.