13 – Old Forge Farm, 1762, east of Hagerstown, MD
Going west on Old Forge Road from Route 62, the highway dips across a one-lane bridge and rises again between fields and scattered homes. At the crest of a rise, an enormous stone structure seems to lie across the way in the distance, commanding the area from a small rise that slopes away from the building on three sides. Just before reaching this house, the road turns to the left, as though diverted by the stone presence, and proceeds over a humpbacked stone bridge that spans Antietam Creek. Upon closer inspection, the house seems curious, for it has no particular front; every approach is equally important, equally exposed and all have entrances. The stone is roughly coursed, the windows randomly spaced without headers, and the roof is slate. A broad stone terrace spans one side; a wooden porch the width of the building faces the creek, with steps at either end, a 20th century addition. Behind the house are a stone-end barn and a small stone building, called a forge, now used as a garage.
(click on any image for a larger view)
The original 30 foot by 40 foot section of this house was built when George French owned the property, and it carries a date stone of 1762 in the southern gable. This substantial home was constructed during the last year of the French and Indian War. It is the earliest dated structure known in the county.
Two years after the house was built, French sold the property, known variously as Resurvey on George’s Mistake, George’s Venture, and The Barrens, to Barnabas Hughes and his sons, Daniel and Samuel. In 1750, Barnabas Hughes had emigrated from Ireland to Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, and later migrated into Maryland. The Hughes family was wealthy; and, during the late 18th century, they owned several thousand acres between the upper Antietam and South Mountain. Barnabas Hughes died in 1764, and this property finally conveyed to Daniel and Samuel in 1769.
This complex of buildings became Daniel Hughes’ home, and he must have been the one to have the imposing 20 foot by 50 foot wing added to the east of the original house. The two rooms on the first floor of this wing have nine-foot ceilings and massive six-over-nine windows. The entrance to this section has a small fanlight over the door and a pedimented architrave, but the doorway still seems too small for the scale of the façade. Behind this door, the hallway contains the only original woodwork in the house. A deeply molded chair rail surrounds the space and extends up the stairs. The balusters are turned and support a broad handrail. Originally the balustrade was painted Prussian blue, with the square base segment done in dark blue. The woodwork around the doors has two levels and is finished with ovolo molding. Decorative scroll-cut brackets trim the steps. A bead-edged board built into the wall next to the door has a series of rather crudely cut wooden hooks attached to it. These features are typical of 18th century vernacular woodwork in this area.
The Hughes brothers had a large iron manufacturing operation in the county during the 18th century. They owned several furnaces and forges in the area. One of these lay across the Antietam on the other side of the road from the great house. Daniel and Samuel Hughes purchased this forge from James Kennedy in 1766 and two years later petitioned the Frederick County Circuit Court for a new road between Antietam Furnace on the mountain and this forge. This petition stated that, …they Labor under great inconvenience for want of direct roads from their forge on Antieatam to their coaling ground and furnace the want of which lays it in the power of any ill disposed person living between to twin them round and Obstruct their Business when they please. Your petitioners therefore hope your worships will grant them a direct road from their forge aforesaid to their coaling ground belonging to the same and from their said forge to their furnace known by the name of Antieatam. A forge was used to heat pigs of iron and to work it so that it could be wrought.
The Hughes were ardent patriots. Samuel Hughes served on the Committee of Safety in this area during the Revolution, and Daniel became one of the first county commissioners after the war. The Hughes manufactured arms for the Revolution as well as for the War of 1812, but it is believed that these armaments were manufactured at other locations. It is believed that tacks and nails were produced at Antietam Forge.
Only remnants are left of the mill and the forge, and the other 18th century ancillary structures have left little visible trace. The interior of the house itself is greatly altered, but the building still stands. There were times when survival was in doubt. For many years the property was rented. Sam Clark remembers a corn crop being stored in the dining room one winter when he lived there. When the Sharpe family purchased the property in 1939, only one fireplace remained open; and drinking water was available from a spring across the road. There was a stove for cooking and heating in the kitchen, clothes were washed with water from the cistern and some of the floors were missing. An enormous renovation project was undertaken. Six fireplaces were uncovered and rebuilt; central heat, plumbing and electricity were added; and oak floors were laid. The entry hall in the older section was changed and the stair moved. Two and a half baths were added. Unfortunately, both Mr. and Mrs. Sharpe met early deaths, and in the decades following, the house again began to decline.
At the end of 1986, my husband and I bought the farm. The colloquial meaning of that phrase has been a source of wry amusement as we have struggled with the restoration. The sheer scale of the project is daunting. Water had to be brought to the wing–not an easy chore when there is no crawl space. Apparently these pipes were plumbed before the floors were relaid. Doors were found and hung, floors stripped and oiled, walls patched. The terrace was added both as an amenity and to secure the front of the wing from water intrusion in an effort to halt the rising damp in the dining room walls. (Our latest guess is that this moisture comes from leaks in the heating system, soon to be replaced.) The last owner had gutted the kitchen after a freeze of the water and heating pipes. Holes had been cut in the floor to locate the broken lines, and these openings were left to snare the unwary. We removed the 1940s pantry and added beams in both the kitchen and the dining room to stabilize the upper floor. Wide white pine boards were removed from the attic floor, remilled and laid in the kitchen. We have been fortunate to find able help, but much of the work we have done ourselves. People who do much of their own work often lavish time on small details that they would never ask contractors to do. I chose to punch the tin for the kitchen cupboards; to make the tiles for the kitchen island’s surface and the fireplace hearth; and to make the cabinets of weathered pine floorboards, retaining all the marks of age and preserving the gray color of the wood.
The task is only started. Half the house has not been touched, and we have just begun on the yard. Working on an old place presents a special set of problems. The original fabric should be retained and restored wherever possible, but it is often difficult to decipher what once was. We have only one tantalizingly obscure photograph of our home before it was renovated 50 years ago. It shows nine-over-six sashes on the side of the original section, and corbelled chimneys, but an intervening lilac veils the entrance to the wing. If we could only see…Ultimately, this is not a museum; a livable home must be created with as much deference as possible for the history and the style of the structure. It comes down to personal taste based on knowledge of the particular place and of the general era. It is often agonizing, and sometimes mistakes are made.
But there are special rewards for people whose special insanity is old buildings. It is apparent that the neighbors here have been worried about this old place for some time. They come by to chat and to cheer us on; they praise our efforts extravagantly. When we work outside, horns honk and hands are raised in encouragement. The neighbors are happy to see the old house get yet another lease on life, and we are happy to be part of it.
Epilogue: The house restoration is complete. New wiring, new plumbing, security system and a new boiler with new copper pipes to the radiators are all in place. The keeping room had a large stone fireplace built out over the original cooking fireplace some 50 years ago. This was removed, and it became obvious why it had been added. The original firebox had an arched brick lintel. Only four bricks on the left and a brick pocket on the right remained of this element. This fireplace is part of the massive central chimney column that serves three others and may have included an oven as well. A horizontal wooden beam built into the masonry above the firebox had bowed from the weight of the chimney column and apparently caused the lintel to fail. Mason David Geller designed a Rumford fireplace for this spot and rebuilt the lintel with an elliptical arch of handmade bricks.
The stone-end barn needed attention too. The machine shed, a later addition, has had sliding barn doors built for the end facing the road and a garage door added on the back. The stone wall to the left of the barn doors began to tip inward and had to be taken down and rebuilt. During demolition, mason Bill Showalter discovered that a wooden sill had been built into this barn structure between the two levels of the barn. The barn had burned at some point; and, over time, rodents had destroyed this charred timber, causing the wall above it to tilt. The wall has been rebuilt and much of the barn repointed.
The single most expensive effort, and undoubtedly the most important, was replacing the roof with Buckingham slate; and yet this may be the most economical, for Buckingham slate is expected to last nearly 200 years. The list of new, repaired or restored features is almost endless and will continue to grow as long as we live here. But this list really isn’t important. The house and the land it sits on give us a way of life, a way of looking at life, that we love. Quiet surrounds us here, broken by bird songs and occasionally the voices of our sheep and barnyard fowl. We are a part of this place, and we are happy to work on it, improve it, make it safe for the future just to repay it for all the joy it has brought us.
The tillable acres have been placed in conservation programs, and we spend time on weed control while waiting for the trees and the warm season grasses to make the fields their own. Gardening has become important. We continue to add landscaping, fruit trees and gardens. We are in the maintenance phase of our lives here: stewards of a home that belongs not just to us but to the community and the future as well.
This article appeared in the Herald-Mail Sunday, May 6, 1995 as the 13th in the series.