Since it’s June, which just so happens to be the birth month of a local Delawarean by the name of Nancy Sawin, I thought it only fitting to share her story, as well as her Cecil County ties.
My mother, who is an avid art and antiques dealer, first mentioned Sawin to me several years ago. She told me about some of Sawin’s artwork and books, including a series of sketchbooks that had been published back in the 1970’s. My mother told me that she had known of Sawin for several years as they often frequented the same antique shops and “dealer’s haunts.” At some point, after Sawin’s death, my mother had come across and purchased several of these sketchbooks. As my mother was showing me her collection, one of these sketchbooks in particular, had grabbed my attention. It was titled Backroading through Cecil County, Maryland.
I was immediately drawn to it due to my love of local history. As I began flipping through the sketchbook, I was excited to see so many recognizable places that I had probably driven past hundreds of times or more without even given them a second thought. For me, this was an exciting find! My mother graciously gifted the sketchbook to me and off I went to explore it further.
Focused solely on Cecil County, the sketchbook depicts hundreds of historic homes and structures dating back to Revolutionary and pre-Revolutionary times. The sketchbook follows a sort of back-roading map that takes the reader on a journey through all 9 districts of the county. Stating in Fredericktown with District 1, the reader travels north from there.
Each section of the book provides the reader with a sketch of a historic structure accompanied by a little excerpt about the structure, or about the time period and what was happening in Cecil County at the time that the structure was built.
I absolutely loved the concept of the book and felt like Sawin and I probably would have been kindred spirts had we ever met. Coincidentally, one of my favorite pastimes is back-roading and exploring all the hidden little gems of our beautiful county.
Needless to say, that sketchbook and I have been from one end of the county to the other over the past few years. While I haven’t been able to find all the sites depicted by Sawin, I have been successful in finding most of them.
Sawin’s book made me curious about Sawin herself. Until my mother had mentioned her to me, I had never heard of her.
Sawin was born Nancy Churchman Sawin on June 21, 1917 in Wilmington. Her parents were Ellen Quigley and Sanford W. Sawin. Most Delawareans (and maybe some Cecil County natives) would probably recognize the surnames of Churchman and Sanford. Her mother had a passion for education and founded the Sanford School in Hockessin, DE, which is still thriving today.
Sawin was a highly educated woman during a time in which most women were married homemakers instead of pursuing education and life experiences. She attended the Tower Hill School in Wilmington, as well as Linden Hall (Lititz, PA) for her early education. She went on to earn her undergraduate, masters, and doctorate degrees from three different colleges and universities.
Education was very important to Sawin, but her love of art seems to have rivaled that of education and learning. Graduating in 1938 at the age of 21, Sawin received her undergraduate degree in illustration from Principia College in St. Louis. She spent a year at the Crouse College of Fine Arts at Syracuse University, and then spent time studying under the legendary Frank Schoonover, another famous Delawarean artist.
Her career as an educator spanned quite a number of years. Having followed in her mother’s footsteps, most of Sawin’s educational career was spent working for the Sanford School. She first began there as a high school teacher and field hockey coach and by the time of her retirement in 1973, Sawin held the position of Head of School, a position she had maintained since 1961.
A talented field hockey player, Sawin was a member of the All-American Field Hockey Team. In 1977, the same year that she published Backroading through Cecil County, Maryland, Sawin was inducted into the Delaware Sports Hall of Fame. Then, in 1988, Sawin was inducted into the U.S. Field Hockey Hall of Fame. These are just a few of the many accomplishments that she achieved in her lifetime. She was, in every facet, a modern-day Renaissance woman.
Sawin died on April 18, 2008 at the age of 90 and was buried in the Wilmington and Brandywine Cemetery.
This past Memorial Day, my partner and I invited his mother to join us as we went on a back-roading adventure through parts of Cecil County. With Sawin’s sketchbook in hand, we went searching for some of the historic homes and buildings that she had sketched all those years ago. We had a great time that day, and probably the best part was when my mother-in-law commented to us, “You guys do the coolest stuff!” I’m sure Sawin would be happy to know that her sketchbooks are still bringing joy to readers so many years later.