By Josh Davis, Associate Editor
(Dec. 6, 2018) The Merry Sherwood Plantation in Berlin recently reopened for event bookings under the direction of Ruth and Jim Arty, a couple who came to the Eastern Shore after retiring from the Baltimore area.
Built in 1859, the massive home was something of a wedding gift from wealthy Philadelphian Henry B. Johnson to Berlin native Elizabeth Henry.
The 8,500 square-foot building combined gothic influences with architectural elements of the Greek revival and 19th century Italianate style, according to official literature.
It was originally named “Sherwood” and designed to accommodate lavish parties. The home once sat on 1,200 acres with a view so vast that Berliners could see the surrounding waterways from the top floor.
Sen. Orlando Harrison and his brother, George Harrison, purchased the home and its remaining 285 acres in 1902. It changed hands several more times and in 1991 became the property of Kirk Burbage. In 1991, the house was officially added to the National Register of Historic Places, as “Merry Sherwood.”
Jim Arty trained at Cornell University and worked in the hotel, restaurant and catering industry until retiring last year.
Ruth Arty, by her admission, “had nothing to do with the hospitality industry … but [had] always done some weddings for fun.” That included working with “brides that didn’t have moms, as kind of a charity work, because my own mom passed before our own wedding,” she said. “And I was the wedding coordinator at one of the private schools in Baltimore.”
She retired in January after serving as the executive director of the Maryland State Board Of Morticians And Funeral Directors, which operates under Maryland Department of Health.
Ruth first came to the area many years ago during a speaking engagement. No hotels in the area were available at the time, but Merry Sherwood belonged to one of the funeral industry members and just so happened to be free.
“They left a note saying, ‘return the key to Burbage Funeral Home.’ I knew of Mr. Burbage, because I licensed all the funeral homes in the state, but I didn’t know him personally at all,” Ruth said. “And I returned the key and said to him … ‘why is it idle, it’s such a beautiful property? It should be a wedding venue.’”
At the time, she said, Burbage was noncommittal, saying it was formerly a bed and breakfast but, “there were some reasons that I needed to close it.”
“He jokingly said, ‘if you ever retire, I’ll call you.’ And that was the end of that,” Ruth said.
Last year, during the annual Delmarva Funeral Service Association Christmas party, Ruth announced her retirement.
“After that, I got a call from Mr. Burbage who said, ‘you retired! What are you going to do?’ And I said, ‘absolutely nothing,’” Ruth said with a laugh. “I said, ‘Jim and I are going to buy a house in Delaware and enjoy the shore.’”
In March, they did just that, putting in a contract to build a small home in Long Neck, Delaware.
Burbage again contacted the couple after they had moved and said he wanted to reopen Merry Sherwood. They met in April and were convinced to take the job.
“We both love entertaining and parties and, Jim won’t tell you, but he’s very talented culinary-wise, and Mr. Burbage has been wanting to add some service to his funeral clients,” Ruth said. “He spoke to Jim about doing funeral luncheons, so he could offer the house to his clients, and they would have some place quiet for respite and they wouldn’t be rushed out of a restaurant … and we agreed to do that.”
Ruth said the home and its sprawling grounds had been well maintained, but still needed some work. Landscaping efforts for the gardens, designed by Southern Living magazine, were ramped up during the last several months and some additional work on the home and its interior has been done.
The goal is to revitalize the home and rebrand it as a first-class venue for weddings and private parties. Upstairs are eight bedrooms and seven baths, and the downstairs library can become a handicapped guestroom if needed. A wheelchair lift can bring guests to the upper floors, and there are downstairs dining rooms and other areas large enough to accommodate large gatherings.
Each room is distinctive and many of the interior furnishings are one-of-a-kind.
“Every room in the house is different,” Ruth said. “The interior decorator for the home is Mark Showell, who has a small shop in Berlin and then the larger interior decorating shop in Rehoboth. He is responsible for the inside of the house and, in fact, comes through periodically.
“He does decorating for a lot of old mansions in the Baltimore area,” she continued. “He’s really very talented and very meticulous about the house.”
The grounds are also unique, from the front porch that’s available for cocktail parties, to several reception areas large enough for gatherings of several hundred.
“We have four ceremony areas [mapped out], all of which are a little bit different,” Jim said. “We don’t have cookie-cutter weddings – everything will be custom for the wedding couple.”
Merry Sherwood reopened in October for funeral luncheons and officially opened as a wedding and special event venue on Nov. 1.
A “Flannel Formal” gala for the Lower Shore Land Trust, held for 170 guests on Nov. 17, was well received.
“That went well and it did get the word out that the house is opening. We did get a lot of calls,” Ruth said. “We’re late for the 2019 season, but we’re hoping if the word gets out enough that brides and grooms that don’t want long engagements or haven’t found a venue will want to come next summer.
“We expect, by 2020, the word will be out and it will be up and running again as the grande ole dame of the special events venue,” she continued. “We’ll traveled all around the shore since we’ve been down and we really haven’t found anything like it. It is unique.”
For more information, call 410-641-2112 or visit www.merrysherwoodplantation.com.