135 – Seibert-Fernsler House circa 1790-1810, Black Rock, Hagerstown, MD
Landis Road winds east past a series of new townhouses, doglegs in front of farmsteads and finally reaches an open stretch of fields and pasture. On the north side of the road, amid this rural landscape, a forlorn brick house stands boarded-up, still square and solid but abandoned. A concrete block well house occupies a prominent place in the front yard and a charming stone springhouse shaded by brush is off to the east. Beyond the springhouse are the fallen remains of a vast stone barn.
The front façade of this two-story house is laid in Flemish bond. A water table topped with quarter-round molded bricks rests on the low limestone foundation. The brickwork in the remaining faces of the house is common bond, with three rows of stretchers between header rows. In Washington County, common bond is usually five rows of stretchers between header rows. Flat brick arches surmount each opening with the height of the arches diminishing from one-and-a-half plus bricks on the first level to a half brick at the attic level. The entrance is in the central bay, with two windows on either side. The ground slopes away toward a spring-fed stream behind the house. The one-story rear wing has much higher foundations to accommodate this slope and opens almost at ground level at the rear.
The brickwork in the house, combined with the gable-end bargeboards that narrow toward the peak of the roof, and the wide, pegged doorframe around the rear door indicate that this house was probably built in the late 18th century or the very early 19th century. Brick structures were rare in this area before 1820, making this a most unusual example of local architecture.
In 1791, Wendel Sibert (Seibert) sold five contiguous parcels of land to Michael Fernsler for £750. The early deed describes a 100 acre parcel from Coblers Hall, two smaller parcels from the Resurvey on Meshack’s Garden and a little over eleven acres from Resurvey on the Old Fox Deceived. The deed also included …all houses, Edifices, buildings, Barns, Stables, Gardens, Feedings, Woods, underwoods, commons, commons or pastures… on the parcel. While this seems to specify features on the land, it probably is just a conventional list included in deeds of the period and may not reference actual characteristics. Given the architectural evidence, it would appear that either Wendel Sibert or Michael Fernsler built this brick house.
The property, including an additional 21 acre parcel purchased from Sibert in 1794, remained in Fernsler’s family until his heirs sold it to Samuel McCauley in 1860. Samuel sold the 150 and 1/8 acres to his son John for $10,500. He then sold the same land to his son Charles for $9,758.12 in 1872, indicating that John had not been able to complete the deal. Charles’s widow and children sold the property to Amos Harlan Shifler in 1894 for $6,377.65. Shifler’s daughter Fannie C. Stoner inherited the property in 1918. She sold it a year later for $12,000 to Jacob Wesley Symons, who sold it five years later, taking back mortgages. Jacob Symons had to take the property back to secure his mortgages and eventually sold it in 1930 to Dr. Edward W. Ditto, Jr., who bought the adjoining Henry McCauley farm at the same time. Deeds describe an easement through the McCauley property, giving access to the other road because Landis Road had not yet been developed.
Dr. Ditto lived in Hagerstown but owned a dozen farms around the county. He raised Belgian horses on the farms along Mount Aetna Road, then Hereford cattle. His son, Edward III, remembers the farms fondly. He recalls playing in a large cave in the woods, visiting the little cemetery, digging blue thistles each summer and sledding down the road in the winters. Ditto sold both farms, 311.17 acres in all, to the county commissioners in 1974 for $350,000.
Program Open Space was new, and the Board of County Commissioners sought these funds to purchase land for several parks, including the Ditto farms. This was to be a regional park, retaining its rural character. Dr. Ditto III remembers his father insisting that this land always be kept in pristine condition for recreation. One of the proposed uses of the land was as a golf course, with a farm museum using one of the complexes of early buildings as well. The commissioners approved a proposal to have the oldest house on the farms nominated to the National Register of Historic Places; and long-range development plans for Ditto Farms were initiated. Both farm complexes were nominated and approved for the National Register of Historic Places. The farms were rented, the land tilled and tenants occupied the houses. And so it remained well into the next decade.
The National Register of Historic Places nomination reads, As a historical and recreational park, these two adjoining farms are being brought together to promote an understanding of the agricultural history of the Cumberland Valley and Western Maryland, as well as providing for the recreational needs of the community. Somewhere the vision was lost. The golf course was eventually built. The McCauley House was restored as a residence for the manager of the course, but the great stone barn on Landis Road collapsed and the house deteriorated. Eventually it was no longer safe and the county had it boarded up. The golf course board planned to have it torn down to make room for another nine-hole course. The sturdy brick building had survived 200 years, almost 80 of them as a tenant house, but its days were numbered in 1998.
I have always written these articles in the third person, letting the buildings and their histories speak for themselves. This time, I would like to describe my own involvement with this property. In 1998, Lisa PreJean, editor of the Lifestyle section, asked if I would do an article on the National Register of Historic Places sites in Washington County. To do this, I asked Jane Hershey, who knows the secrets of nearly every road and old building in the county, to go with me to find them all. Most nomination forms were written before street addresses were assigned in the county, so the combination of distances from intersections and descriptions of the buildings included in these forms—now 24 years old in this case—were all we had to go on.
It was obvious when we found it that Ditto Knolls was slated for demolition. We were sad that such a lovely building had been let go. Indignant, we went to the county commissioners to plead for the house, pointing out that it was listed in the National Register and that they should set the example for preservation. The commissioners were surprised to learn the house was in the register and were supportive of saving the building. Jane and I, along with a small group of old-house buffs, were given a tour of the interior. Peeling paint festooned from walls and ceilings like Spanish moss, and boarded windows made it very dark, but the house was solid and well laid out. The downstairs woodwork dates from the 1840s, while the upstairs woodwork is original. It was such an exciting tour that two of the participants expressed interest in buying the property and eagerly pursued Dean Lowry, the County’s Real Property Administrator and the man in charge.
The golf course board resisted parceling off the farmhouse. It was difficult for them to imagine how they could build the planned nine-hole addition and still buffer the house. (The first rule of historic preservation is to reach the owner before plans have been made.) Because the commissioners control the land, eventually the golf course board came around, devised a parcel that allowed them to keep the nine holes and became excited about having the house restored.
Getting the parcel defined took time. The health department had to determine the required 10,000 square foot septic reserve. Percolation holes were dug. Much of the acre is in flood plain and would not qualify. At last it was decided to give an easement for this reserve across the road under the proposed nine-hole golf course. With county staff working on important projects worth millions of dollars, Ditto Knolls was a minor consideration. Two years passed.
Charen Rubin, a Realtor specializing in historic properties, volunteered to help. She developed a plan for the sale, and the commissioners were again supportive. Historic Preservation easements were worked out with the Maryland Historical Trust, the plat was drawn and the golf course staff agreed to clean and mow the yard.
On the second of January, the commissioners gave one last boost by approving an advertising budget of $3,000 (to be reimbursed from proceeds), agreeing to have the house broom-cleaned, the boards removed and making suggestions for the sale date. We were on a roll.
But it wasn’t over yet. On the ninth of February, I was told that a conversion issue with Program Open Space existed, that the heads of Department of Natural Resources, Planning Department and Housing and Community Development all had to sign off on the plan. It might take nine months. Our plans were set, the dates were on the calendar and our ads were being submitted. Not again!
I called everyone I could think of: the governor’s office, Senator Donald Munson’s office, Department of Natural Resource. Finally through the good offices of Ron Bowers and his friendship with John Braskey, who heads the Cumberland office of Program Open Space, we received commitments to facilitate the process. We pushed ahead with the plan.
HISTORIC NATIONAL REGISTER HOME SURROUNDED BY GOLF COURSE TO BE AUCTIONED! Now, something IS happening. On March 17th and March 28th the property will be open for viewing by prospective bidders from nine to five. The property will be auctioned May 23rd in the County Commissioners’ meeting room, second floor, 100 West Washington Street at ten a.m. Yvonne Hope, chair of the Washington County Historical Trust, has put the property on the web and has been getting good response. Charen has arranged for the auctioneer and has placed the property in her own ads. Two local restoration specialists, David Gibney and Richard Bachtell, have been kind enough to give estimates on the costs of rehabilitating the house to help prospective bidders. We’ve pulled a packet of materials together to send to interested parties and they are going out fast.
County government deserves enormous credit for going forward with this project. Staff and private citizens have been able to work together, each using their own talents; and the county commissioners have given their full support from the beginning. This is not a big-money project, but it preserves a unique building, saves our landfill from having to accept the remains of another house (rehab is recycling at its utmost), puts another property on the tax rolls, turns the net proceeds of the sale back to Program Open Space and the only cost is our time. WIN-WIN-WIN-WIN. What could be better?
Epilogue: The house was sold May 23, 2001 for $65,000 to Gregory Fortes, a man experienced in restoration, who returned to this area from Texas to buy the house. He began work before settlement.