120 – Hager’s Fancy, circa 1739, Hagerstown, MD

The Hager House, settled in a hollow next to Hagerstown City Park, surrounded by large trees and well-tended flower beds, is about to celebrate its 260th birthday. This was the home that Jonathan Hager, the founder of Hagerstown, built for himself in 1739. It is a museum now, furnished as if Hager had just stepped out.

There is a sense of inevitability about the place. Of course it was preserved. Certainly the community treasured it. But the real story makes it clear that the survival of the home was a matter of chance and the persistence of a very tenacious woman

Jonathan Hager came to this country in 1736, one of 388 passengers on the ship Harle that sailed from Rotterdam to Philadelphia. He was 22. On June 5, 1739, he acquired 200 acres from Daniel Dulaney for about 30 cents an acre and named the tract Hager’s Fancy. An October 1739 survey refers to two sorry houses and Hager’s dwelling house on the property. This probably means that Hager had built his stone house over two springs in the time between purchasing the tract and the time the survey was done.

The house that Hager built had a single story and a loft, with three rooms arranged around a massive central chimney on the main level. This Germanic layout was common here and was called flurkuchenhaus. The prosaic translation of this romantic name is hall-kitchen house.

The dominant room is the hall-kitchen, which spans the northern half of the house. Here, before the great fireplace, the family cooked, worked, conversed and entertained. A more formal parlor lay on the other side of the chimney. Behind it a small, unheated chamber was used either for sleeping or for storage. The loft above would have been accessed either by a steep and narrow boxed staircase or by ladder.

Hager added a batten wall to create an entry space at the front door, not a usual feature of the flurkuchenhaus plan. Built into a hill, the cellar opens at ground level beneath the porch. This door is wide. The spring flows out through an opening in the south wall, and another large cooking fireplace serves this area.

Hager sold the Hager’s Fancy tract and the rights to an additional 307 acres to Jacob Rohrer in 1745 for £200, a considerable sum that indicates the existence of significant improvements. Hager then acquired land and a substantial two-story log house with an arched-stone cellar later described as, “…a large log house, a fine building in those days. There were large log pens far enough apart to constitute a hall…” in T. J. C. Williams’ History of Washington County, Maryland. This house stood near what is now the intersection of Interstate 81 and Broadfording Road; it was torn down in 1898.

Hager also owned a townhouse on Lot twelve of the original plat of Hagerstown, the northeast corner of the square, and was living there at the time of his death in 1775. This property passed to his son and then to his granddaughter Elizabeth Hager Lawrence. She sold the property in 1850. The Herald of Freedom newspaper notes the transaction: A few days ago Mr. Jonathan Hager (not related to the founder) purchased from Mrs. Lawrence, at private sale, the corner lot of ground situated upon the public square of Hager’s Town, fronting upon Washington and Potomac Streets, and containing that ancient and dilapidated pile of buildings which reminds the beholders of by-gone days, and impresses strangers with the belief that the spirit of improvement abideth not in our midst for the sum of but three thousand dollars. A block of new edifices is to take the place of the old pile as soon as the purchaser can make the necessary arrangements for their erection. Just 75 years after his death, the founder of Hagerstown wasn’t even mentioned, much less considered.

The stone house at Hager’s Fancy survived, protected by its out-of-the-way location, and the Rohrer family, who passed it down then sold it to a cousin Catherine and her husband Michael Hammond in 1813.

At some point early on, probably during the ownership of Jacob Rohrer’s son Jacob Rohrer II (1745-1804), who had nine children, Hager’s Fancy was enlarged. The roof was raised, and a full second-story with a loft was added. The great stone cooking fireplace in the kitchen was removed and replaced with brick. A fireplace was added in the parlor. A five-plate stove probably heated this room originally, fed from an opening in the back of the cooking fireplace.

Three of Catherine Hammond’s grown children died at the house in 1844. When her surviving children inherited the property in 1857, they rented it, as did the next generation. In 1944, it was offered for sale. Mary Vernon Mish was president of the Washington County Historical Society at that time. She came to this area as an adult and immediately recognized the incredible wealth of historic structures around her. She was certain the house had been Hager’s, a fact that had been obscured with time, and she set out to save it.

The City of Hagerstown was finally persuaded to give the historical society $3,000, half the purchase price of the house and its surrounding nine acres, because the city wanted land to widen Walnut Lane. Mary Mish also spoke with J. Alvey Long, owner of a one acre tract that lay virtually in front of the house. Long had paid $3,000 for this property and intended to build a factory there. He agreed to sell the land and accepted her offer of $1,000, in effect giving the society a $2,000 gift.

Committees were formed, and fund raising began. Historians were consulted. An architect made renderings of the house as it would look if it were returned to its 1739 story-and-a-half size. A civic group made a fourteen-foot-tall model that was displayed in front of the courthouse. Articles appeared in the paper picturing furnishings that had been donated to the house by individuals or by Friends of the Jonathan Hager House. Each article ended with a plea for donations. The Western Maryland Railway was persuaded to redirect its sewage from the vicinity of the property to a trench along its tracks, correcting flooding in the basement.

Endless letters were written. The memory of the Founder of your City is not to be scorned but is rather something of which to be uncommonly proud, Mish wrote to the mayor and council. Money came in small sums; but finally by 1948, funds totaled more than $9,000. The projected cost was $25,000. But things did not go smoothly. Mish wrote a friend, The Hager House restoration has currently bogged down. It’s a long story—one that has been painful to me all fall. With Hagerstown bicentennial year coming up in 1962, if I cannot get the City and County behind the project now I shall indeed be‘in a fix.’ All I need is an additional $10,000-$12,000! After all these years of effort, I have, of course, no intention of giving up on the job now.

Mish went to the General Assembly and got an act passed to allow Hagerstown to contribute to the project. The mayor and council approved a $5,000 donation on condition that the County Commissioners would contribute a like amount. Work began in 1952. The area under the porch was excavated, and artifacts were unearthed. The spring rooms were restored, adding a flagstone floor where there had been dirt; and these rooms were opened to the public. The upper floors continued to be rented.

The Washington County Historical Society completed most of the restoration and gave the property to the City of Hagerstown in 1954, retaining ownership of the furnishings. In 1967, the project finally was finished with the completion of the museum building. Mish had spent 22 years of her life cajoling the community into saving the Hager House.

The Hager House is a remarkable example of early architecture and in many ways typified its time. The flurkuchenhaus floor plan, the cellar doors so wide that livestock could be brought in, the cooking fireplace on the lower level to provide heat for butchering and for laundry, were all common features. Insulation between the cellar and the upper level often was used, and here is one of the few examples of this type of insulation still remaining. Short boards cut to fit between the joists were wrapped in dry straw, then wedged into place, fitted tightly together and covered with lime plaster. The cellar ceiling has been restored to reveal how this insulating system was constructed.

The Hager House has many unusual features. The ceilings of the upper floors are nine feet high; and the cellar floor was once eight inches lower (restoration added a concrete floor and flagstones), making that ceiling originally quite high as well. Only a few houses were built over springs, a feature that secured the family’s water supply but increased dampness. The newel post on the second floor shows a man in profile, a feature one authority said shows Jacobean influence. The banister on this level is solid, a series of five raised panels. John Nelson, curator for the Hager House, eventually noticed that this paneling was a door placed on its side, and to support his premise, points to the filled hole where the latch would have been. The house is full of mysteries. Why were the ceilings high, when was the stair rail added, who elevated the roof?

The period furnishings throughout the house open a window on 18th century life on the frontier that was to become Washington County. Ingenious implements—cranes, trammels and reflecting ovens—helped people cook over open fires. Blacksmith’s tools were used to make hinges, latches, hoes, scythes and many of the other things that civilized living here. The small first-floor chamber is filled with the tools of cloth making—spinning wheels, a yarn winder and carder—while the parlor is furnished to depict Jonathan Hager as a fur trader.

This article appeared in the Herald-Mail Sunday, October 10, 1999 as the 120th in the series.