131 – Middlekauff-Poffenberger Farm, circa 1756 and 1820, north of Sharpsburg, MD
The brow of a low hill hides a collection of well maintained farm buildings, nestled in a hollow, well to the east of Sharpsburg Pike. Protected by a conservation easement, this farmstead is settled among surrounding fields that will never be developed. Bucolic and serene, it represents an enormous investment of time, money, restoration expertise, courage and sweat equity.
The farm was not always so isolated. At one time a road ran from Smoketown Road, took a sharp turn between the houses and the barn and then connected with Sharpsburg Pike after it was built around 1825. Over time, this old road was abandoned; and its western end became the long lane that presently leads from the farmstead to the pike.
A great bank barn, with new boards covering its post and beam skeleton, stands on stone foundations. Two houses, a collection of accessory buildings, and a spring-fed pond lie beyond the barn. The closer house is small and brick, with a massive, exterior chimney dominating its west gable end. This house has three bays, a center entrance and faces south. The south and west elevations are laid in Flemish bond with dark glazed header bricks accenting the pattern. A molded brick water table decorates these walls as well. Brick arches top the two front windows. These arches are repeated in two indented tablets, finished with plaster, that are placed high on the huge chimney. On the east end of this little house is a two-bay stone addition, its roof just inches below that of the brick section. A massive stone chimney inside the east gable of this section is topped with a stone corbel.
This is the earliest structure on the farm, and its builder remains a mystery. The farm was originally part of Kelly’s Purchase, a land grant acquired by Thomas Kelly in 1753. Early records note that Kelly had …a plantation at Anti-Eeatem in Frederick County… in 1756. Kelly’s son Samuel sold the 206 acre property to Samuel Beall III in 1770 for £500. At the time, Kelly’s widow and son were living in a house on Kelly’s Purchase, but the £2.43 per acre price was typical of the cost of open land with insignificant improvements. Beall sold the property to his sister Ann’s husband John Clagett in 1783 for a nominal amount, a transaction which might have settled the estate of their father Samuel Beall, Jr.
Five years later, Clagett sold the property to John Middlekauff for £1,416, indicating that significant improvements had been made in the eighteen year span since Beall’s purchase. The structure itself suggests a building date between 1760 and 1780, and the current owners are exploring a variety of research tools to discover the builder and the exact date.
This small house is a wonderful juxtaposition of the English and the German building styles that prevailed in this state early in its history. The brick section is typical Tidewater architecture, but most unusual for this area. On the first floor, this small house had three rooms with tall ceilings and aligned front and back doors for cooling air circulation during the summer. The large room on the east has a fireplace, and framing in its ceiling indicates that there was once stairs to the loft at the left of this fireplace. The west side of the house is divided into two equal rooms with corner fireplaces backing up to one another on the west gable wall. The great chimney with the plastered tablets serves these fireplaces. Upstairs the loft is divided into two rooms with horizontal beaded-board walls and gabled dormers on either side of the east room. The west room, with light only from small windows in the gable wall, had unfinished windows cut into the dividing wall between the rooms at some time. There is no cellar under this section.
Probably prior to 1820, the Middlekauff family added the two-bay stone wing to the brick house. The staircase was removed and replaced by a door into the new wing. This stone section is a step below the floor of the brick section and built over a cellar. A large cooking fireplace occupies the gable end wall, and new stairs lead from the interior wall between the sections to the lofts and to a double landing at the second floor of the stone section. One short set of steps leads into the loft of the brick section, and another goes to a loft above the second floor of the stone wing. The railing from the original stairs has been reused here on the second floor. The German builder used lower ceilings and tighter planning to squeeze four levels of usable space into the two-bay stone addition while the English builder, focused more on comfort than utility, had only two levels in a similar vertical space.
Just to the east of this little house is a small brick building (referred to as the lye house by former owners), a log smokehouse and behind that, a frame summer kitchen which is now used as an office.
Beyond this knot of buildings, a four-bay stone house faces west. A scrawl of chalk under the stairs dates the house as being built in 1820. This house is also small. The two center bays on both floors have doors opening onto the double porches. The main floor is divided, front to back, into two rooms. On the right is the kitchen with a large cooking fireplace furnished with cranes. On the left is the living room with closed stairs to the upper levels at the far end of the room. Upstairs are three rooms, a large chamber above the living room and two above the kitchen. Both front rooms open onto the second-story porch. The back bedroom has been made into a bath, and the attic has been finished into a dormitory room with four single beds.
This parcel of land passed through the Middlekauff family and then to a daughter who married into the Poffenberger family. In 1974, Harvey Cecil and Violette Poffenberger sold a conservation easement to the National Park Service to protect the farm from development in perpetuity. Seven years later, they sold the farm to Ruff Fant, an attorney in Washington, D.C. The farm had been in the same family for nearly 200 years.
Fant began the long task of restoring the farm. Architectural historians and preservationists studied the buildings to learn how they had been configured. The brick house had had one window replaced with a bay, a porch added and doors and window sashes changed. Original features were restored in an initial stabilization of this structure. The stone house had had the double porch changed, railings replaced and much of the interior altered. Over time, the stone house has been completely restored and furnished with antiques of the 1862 period—the time of the Battle of Antietam. In order to take advantage of a twenty percent federal tax credit for rehabilitation of income-producing property, the house was available for rental to visitors to the area for five years.
Ruff Fant and his wife Susan are planning the restoration of the brick house to be their main residence. An archaeological study of the grounds surrounding the house has been completed. Construction of a period garden and restoration of an outbuilding as a potting shed are underway. The handmade bricks for the garden have arrived, and the garden will probably be completed next spring. “We’re not in a big hurry,” Susan says, “We are enjoying the farm and making new discoveries about the people who were stewards of this land before us.”
Epilogue: The Fants continue to enjoy their farm and are savoring the restoration process as it evolves.
This article appeared in the Herald-Mail Sunday, September 3, 2000 as the 131st in the series.