113 – Rohrer House Farm, circa 1770, east of Hagerstown, MD
Hopscotch Lane winds north from Trovinger Mill Road, a vestige of an early road that ran between Rohrers Mill and Old Forge Road, fording the Antietam. On the left side of this old roadway is a farmstead behind a white three-board fence. A great frame bank barn set on stone foundations dominates the quiet scene on the right. A gray-painted brick house stands among old trees to the left. Several small accessory buildings are scattered between. This quiet 25 acre farmstead sits on a bluff that slopes down into the oxbow of Antietam Creek that surrounds it on three sides.
The yard around the house is marked with narrow concrete walks and concrete curbs that once defined flowerbeds and gardens. There is a small rectangular fishpond. The house has three bays, two stories and stone foundations. The windows have two-over-two sashes common after 1870, and flat arches of stretcher bricks top both window and door openings. The composition roof is new, and small brick chimneys rise from either gable end. A frame addition at the back of the house has screened porches on its north and south sides.
This appears to be a mid-to-late 19th century house typical of farms in this area. Closer examination shows a different picture. The Flemish bonding of the front façade ends just above the first-story windows; and outlines of one-story gables can be seen on the present gable ends, suggesting that the building was once just a single story cottage. The older brickwork on these ends is laid in common bond, three rows of stretchers to one of headers. The upper sections of the gable walls are laid in a six-to-one ratio. In the basement, close set logs, flattened on one side, serve as joists, with a few stones still caught between them. This building technique was used in the 18th century, and the stones are remnants of an early insulation that combined stones, clay and other debris tucked between the logs to close the gaps.
On May 10, 1768, a land patent was issued to John Rohrer for an 817 acre tract called Nancy’s Contentment. This patent mentioned John Rohrer’s Mill, which is now known as Trovinger Mill. This tract was resurveyed two years later as The Resurvey of Nancy’s Contentment; this resurvey referred to John Rohrer’s Dwelling House. In 1792 the Rohrers, who probably built the 18th century section of the house, sold this property. The little, one-story brick house which was expanded into the present structure may well have been the dwelling house mentioned in the early deed and thus would have been built prior to 1770.
The main entrance of the house is in the center bay under a single-story porch that spans the front of the house. This door opens into the living room that fills the south half of the original house. On the gable wall (left) is a small, recent fireplace that has replaced the original. All walls have wainscot and chair rail; and, at the back of the room, closed stairs tuck into a corner. On the wall beside these stairs is a cupboard built into a window opening that was closed when the wing was added to the back. Beside this cupboard is the original back door, made of vertical battens on one side and raised panels on the reverse side. The door hangs on its original long strap hinges, but has had a nine-light window cut into its upper half.
On the north side of the living room are two small rooms. This three-room floor plan is similar to that of many early Germanic homes in the area. The heavy doorframes in this section are 18th century and are trimmed with ovolo molding. The basement exhibits more 18th century features with close-set trimmed logs which support the floor above, visible in parts of the ceiling. A large cooking fireplace with a simple mantel board supported on triangular brackets centers on the south wall between two broad, squat doors that open to the outside.
The kitchen at the rear of the house is in a circa 1900 addition. The fireplace, on the west wall, has a firebox taller than it is wide and is framed in plain, two-inch thick boards. An adjacent chimney cupboard is finished with a batten door. In the basement beneath this fireplace is yet another large cooking fireplace built into the stone foundations.
On the second floor, the stairway from the living room enters a large, light, central room with three bedrooms around it. Two have six-panel 18th century doors. These doors were probably reused when the full second floor was added in the late 19th century. Four steps lead down to an ample bath and a fourth bedroom in the space above the kitchen.
For many years this home has been a summer place for Oliver and Margaret Silsby and their six children. The Silsbys lavished care on the land, retaining a broad meadow behind the house and planting 10,000 conifers along the edges of the creek. Nature paths were mowed among the trees and along the stream for all to enjoy. The Silsbys placed the home in the National Register of Historic Places because of its extensive 18th century detail, the continuum of changing styles of vernacular farmhouse architecture and its association with the early mill and the early road.
The Silsby’s family is scattered over the globe now, and the farm has been sold to Lucas and Barbara Brennecke, who fell in love with the setting, the stream and the history of the place. The Brenneckes are sensitive to the history of the Rohrer House Farm and will soon launch an extensive renovation program to both restore historic fabric that has been lost and to expand the house to fit their needs. An architect has been hired and has suggested raising the low ceiling of the kitchen to follow the roofline and thus eliminate the bedroom and bath above. The kitchen will be expanded into the southern porch and a new screened porch wrapped around the house. A library addition is planned for the back of the house. The front porch and the living room fireplace will be restored. The two rooms to the right of the living room in the main block of the house will be opened into a single large dining room. The attic will become a guest room, and a larger guest house will be constructed in half of the forebay of the barn. The other half will become Barbara’s studio so that she can continue her interior design business. A new circle driveway will enter the front of the property.
Barbara will use her skills to be true to the history of the farm and keep all the work in context while making the farm fit their needs. The Maryland Historical Trust will approve all work so that the generous 25 percent state tax credit can be used. The Brenneckes are excited to be starting work on the old house. They look forward to moving to a new community and to enjoying the lovely place that is now theirs.
Epilogue: The Brennekes spent a year-and-a-half determining what kind of restoration could be done. They were disappointed that the kitchen addition had to be taken down because of extensive structural damage. They have replaced it with an addition that is quite similar on the exterior but houses a large, open great room.
This article appeared in the Herald-Mail Sunday, March 21, 1999 as the 113th in the series.