12 – White Oak Forrest, late 18th century, east of Hagerstown, MD
Beyond the eastern edge of Hagerstown lies a random collection of modest homes grouped about a crossroads called Fiddlersburg. Down a long lane past a row of mailboxes and a chained pasture gate lie the stone ruins of an 18th century farm, barely visible on a winter’s day behind the bare branches of a grove of trees. Two huge millstones lie off the lane almost obscured by underbrush in a hollow that once held the mill. The huge, roofless house, victim of a long-ago fire, looms before the visitor. The front door swings open to reveal a crater into the basement and the charred remains of the fireplace lintel, which was almost eighteen inches square. The remaining windowpanes ripple images as the sunlight streams through. Two rooms to the north are connected by four folding doors, allowing half the first floor of the house to be opened into one great space. In the basement below is a huge board covered with rubble and supported by trestles–a crypt or cooling board on which corpses were laid to await burial.
South of the main house are three stone structures. The furthest is a small building with much of its west side collapsed. Closer to the house is a small rectangular, windowless structure with the remains of floor joists visible at its top. Entered by a door several steps beneath ground level, a large stone barrel-vaulted root cellar is revealed. The narrowest part of this vaulted roof is nearly two feet thick, and the perimeters of the building were built up to form a level base for the floor of the small schoolhouse that once was on top. This mass of stone surely would have kept vegetables at a steady temperature through the winter. A bit further away is a smaller, older house with two chimneys and vestiges of two porches. Inside, hanging from the beams of the lower level ceiling, is a structure about eight inches high and four or five feet wide by about 30 inches deep. Extra beams have been added for support, and two beams, roughly five inches square, hold the bottom, which extends horizontally into the room from the outside wall. The inner ends of these beams are round and are held by two U-shaped metal rods, which are secured into the joists of the next floor. The second level reveals a small fireplace and chimney supported by this exotic piece of carpentry.
The oldest building remaining in the complex faces the main house to the west. The northeast side of this two-story building is shrouded with a deep, overhanging double porch covered with lattice. The windows are randomly placed and most have segmental arches typical of 18th century construction. The windows have wide wood frames and pegged joinery. Brick chimneys extend from inside each gable end. At the south end of this building are the remains of a millrace with the metal skeleton of a paddle wheel lying in its channel. A gear wheel is attached to the axle of the paddle close to the building and above the second story another gear wheel joins an axle that runs through the building to the other side where yet another gear wheel is mounted. This, apparently, was the mechanism for transmitting power from the stream to the well to pump water; for an old iron pump, probably installed after the paddle wheel fell into disuse, stands beneath it. It is here, on the second floor of this springhouse, that early Mennonite meetings were held; and it is believed that this building is the oldest meeting house in existence in the county.
The land on which these buildings stand was once part of a tract granted to Isaac Simmons in 1738. Simmons’ daughter married Martin Bachtel, and the farm passed into the Bachtel family. In 1816 Martin Bachtel (probably the first Martin Bachtel’s grandson) purchased this farm from his father Samuel, who had acquired the land in 1765. Martin renamed it White Oak Forrest. Both Martin and Samuel were ministers in the Mennonite Church, and meetings were held at the farm until 1835, when the Miller Meeting House was built. Martin Bachtel’s name was first on the list of subscribers who contributed money to build that church. Mennonite tradition says that Martin Bachtel was “defrocked” (probably between 1835 and 1841, the year of his death) …because he was in the distilling business and gave over to drinking.
White Oak Forrest remained in the Bachtel family until 1854, when it passed into the hands of Samuel Bachtel’s (probably the son of the second Martin, grandson of the first Samuel) daughter and her husband Joseph B. Loose. In 1950 it was sold to the North American Cement Company.
The Mennonite Historical Association of the Cumberland Valley is interested in acquiring the farmstead to restore it. Gary Batey, manager of the cement company, would like to see them have the buildings, but sees the ground beneath them as a nonrenewable resource, one whose value grows each year. That, after all, was why the cement company bought the land. They would donate the buildings to be moved, but the Mennonites do not have the funds to both move and restore the farm. Progress and history are at loggerheads. But there is time. Gary Batey doesn’t expect to see the time when the cement company taps the stone beneath the farmstead. Meanwhile, the stone walls wait, silent sentinels of another era.
Epilogue: The Mennonite Historical Association was given three of the millstones, the cooling board from the basement and a door to the house. Stone from the house and mill were used to refurbish stonework in the county. All the buildings have been demolished.
This article appeared in the Herald-Mail Sunday, April 1, 1990 as the 12th in the series.