SALISBURY, Md. — Hundreds of people, some clad in woolen 19th century-era attire, gathered Friday to celebrate the opening of the Eastern Shore of Maryland’s newest landmark.
State and federal park officials described the new Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Visitor Center as a structure built to erase myths and to create a real-life picture of one of America’s most celebrated icons.
"It's opening the doors and letting the public experience the story of Tubman, who is a household name, but few people know her real story," said Tony Cohen, a historian who consulted on the project.
After eight years of planning, the visitor center is a reality itself. Rising from a clearing among farm fields and marshes in southern Dorchester County, Tubman's native home, the $22 million facility represents the centerpiece of the first national park to honor an African-American woman.
“Today, we’re celebrating Harriet Tubman Day,” Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan declared. "Long after all of us are gone, new generations will come here to learn about and to honor one of our most truly incredible Maryland heroes."
Maryland Park Service Superintendent Nina Settina said the project's staff spared no effort in tracking down every detail about Tubman's life. Their goal: to humanize a woman whose deeds were large enough without being made larger than life.
"At 17 acres, this may be one of the smallest (parks) in our system," Settina said, "but like Harriet Tubman, it will be large in the hearts and minds of people around the world."
Tubman was known to drink her tea with butter in it. So, Settina promised butter would be available to anyone willing to emulate Tubman's taste in tea at a reception following the ceremonies.
"A few of us tried it, and it tastes great," she said.
Friday's ceremonies included a Tubman re-enactor and a contingent of men dressed as Civil War soldiers from the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, the black unit that was the subject of the 1989 film "Glory." A little-known Tubman fact: She spent time with the unit during the war, cooking meals and burying its dead.
The park is operated jointly by the state and federal park systems. Then-President Obama named the site a national monument in March 2013, the same month as the 100th anniversary of Tubman's death.
The park's exhibits focus on Tubman's years in bondage, her escape from slavery and multiple, daring returns to bring others to freedom. A sister national park in Auburn, N.Y., where she spent her later years, memorializes her years as an activist for women's suffrage and as the founder of a home for elderly and needy blacks.
The Dorchester park sits not far from two sites that figure prominently in her early life: her birthplace on a plantation south of the community of Madison and where she lived on a small farm near Bucktown.
The visitor center's design conveys a subtle, biographical message about its namesake, said Chris Elcock, the building's architect. The view to the north was kept cleared, while the view to the south is more imposing, or "tighter," as Elcock put it.
“The essential idea is you’re moving forward to escape the circumstances of slavery," he said.
In addition, a walking trail around the grounds splits off into different directions, reflecting the life-or-death decisions Tubman and other Underground Railroad "conductors" would have to make on the path to freedom, Elcock said.
The park presented officials with an interpretative conundrum: how to engage visitors and tell Tubman's story given that they had no artifacts to display. Instead of personal curios, the facility relies on specially created sculptures and placards emblazoned with some of Tubman's most poignant quotes.
"So, we're stretching the meaning of artifact a little bit," said Josie Fernandez, the park's acting superintendent.
Park officials did have one asset working in their favor: a landscape that has changed little during the past 160 years. The visitor center serves as the "gateway" to the Tubman Byway, a 125-mile driving tour that stretches through Maryland and Delaware and into Philadelphia.
"We have a visitor center here, but her story transcends a place," said Diane Miller, program manager for the National Park Service's Underground Railroad Network to Freedom, which consists of sites across the country.
She and other park officials hope visitors leave with a truer understanding of Tubman. She was a real person, they say, not just a face on the $20 bill. ("Coming Soon!" notes a display reserved for the new currency.)
She helped at least 70 people to freedom but not hundreds, as the myth goes. Although a historical marker designates a farm near Bucktown as her birthplace, she was actually born elsewhere.
Much of the corrected information comes from recent scholarship, dating from after many people learned such "facts" at school, Cohen said.
Now that it's open, he said, the new visitor center "just brings to life some aspects of Tubman's life that would have fallen through the cracks."
Follow Jeremy Cox on Twitter: @Jeremy_Cox