140 – Land of Promise, circa 1800-1831, south of Clear Spring, MD

Big Spring Road winds through rolling countryside outside of Clear Spring. At a sharp turn, a lane forks to the left and travels a half-mile before crossing a small stone bridge and reaching a small hollow. Here mature trees and the brow of a hill shelter a remarkable collection of early buildings. The lane circles among these structures past a pond that is fed by a small stream flowing from the springhouse. Five of these buildings are made of roughly-coursed stone. The great bank barn with its hand-hewn timber framing and stone granaries sits apart from the others, near the spot where the lane completes its circle and joins itself again. The other four stand close together near the pond, each facing a different direction, like a group of friends in casual conversation.

In his book, Mennonites of the Washington County, Maryland and Franklin County, Pennsylvania Conference, Daniel R. Lehman describes Nathaniel Nesbitt (1725-1807) as a Scotch-Irishman who came to Pennsylvania as a young man, prospered, and then purchased a large tract of land near present-day Clear Spring from Evan Shelby. Nesbitt was not a Mennonite, but he married Veronica Whitmer, a Lancaster, Pennsylvania, woman  whose parents Peter and Anna (Baughman) Whitmer were Mennonite. Veronica died in about 1781, and Nathaniel married Elizabeth Streight (Stright) in 1783. Nesbitt borrowed a large sum, £2,000, sterling, from wealthy Mennonite landowner Jacob Mayer(s) of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. To settle this debt, Nesbitt sold Mayer 674 acres of land on April 27, 1776.

In 1790, three of Mayer’s children settled on this land; and, when Jacob Mayer died three years later, his Washington County land was divided among these offspring. Martin, whose last name was changed to Myers over time, held the northern section of his father’s Maryland holdings. When the bank road bisected his property in 1820, he laid out a town he called Myersville and sold lots. The name of the town was later changed to Clear Spring. The middle section, called Land of Promise, went to his sister Anna and her husband Daniel Smith, who was to become a Mennonite bishop in the Clear Spring area. The southernmost section, 150 acres also called Land of Promise in early deeds, went to Henry Shenk and his wife Mary Mayer Shenk.

The 1803 Tax Assessment ledger lists Henry Shank (the spelling had changed by this time) as owning 225 acres of land, called Land of Promise, valued at £360. He also had five horses, fifteen cattle and a few sheep and hogs as well as household furnishings. Shank’s total assessment was £445. The value placed on the land indicates that it was nicely improved, but records indicating just what those improvements were no longer exist. Henry Shank did not own slaves.

It was the Shanks who built the farmstead at Land of Promise, and it was the Shanks and other descendants of Jacob Mayer who are buried in the small family graveyard along the lane.

At some point, Henry Shank built a two-story stone house that faced southeast. It had an interior stone chimney on its southwest gable wall serving the first floor fireplace. This house had two doors and one window on the first floor, with two windows on the level above. Oddly, the first floor of this house now has only one room and does not show evidence of ever having had dividing walls removed. Oral history suggests that Mennonite services were held at the Shank’s house, so the two doors may have been related to these services.

Windows are fully framed, with a raised lip on the sill for the sash to slide behind. The jambs are cased in wood. Lintels above all the first floor openings are made of three stones, with the middle one a wedge-shaped keystone to hold the others in place. A closed stairway with winders runs along the northeast gable wall and opens into a hallway on the second floor. Windows at either end of this hall have paneled jambs, a more elegant treatment than on any other window in the house. Two small chambers on the southwest side of the house complete this floor. Another closed staircase leads into the attic, which has a single window in either gable.

A four-bay addition was built on the northeast side of the house at some later time, probably in 1831; for this is the date that is roughly carved in a stone near one of the two doors into this section. This wing has a double porch under the main roof span and two rooms on the first floor. These rooms are the width of the house with doors onto the lower porch as well as on the opposite wall. The end room was the kitchen, with a large cooking fireplace on its gable wall as well as another closed staircase that accessed the three chambers above. The room between the kitchen and the original block of the house was probably a dining room and had a fireplace on the wall it shared with the kitchen.

Facing the porches, but a little to the northeast, is the summer kitchen with another large cooking fireplace. This fireplace had a special damper that could close the chimney and divert smoke to the loft above, thus allowing it to serve as a smokehouse. This level is entered through a door in the gable opposite the fireplace and is accessed with a short flight of steps.

Behind the summer kitchen/smokehouse is another house, smaller than the main house, but standing a full two stories with yet another large fireplace and simple mantel. This house has a single, ample room on each floor. Walls are plastered and the woodwork is simple. This may have been a servant’s house, or it might have been used by the family as a residence or as a summer house.

The springhouse stands a few steps beyond, the fifth stone structure of this farmstead. The springhouse is entered through a batten door on strap hinges opposite a small four-pane window. This window also has the raised lip across its sill that appears on windows in the main house. The loft above has remnants of a floor, and a good-sized opening in one of the gable ends holds a window. The spring itself rises outside the springhouse and flows through it, available to cool crocks of food, milk or butter that were set in it. The spring itself has been excavated and a set of stone steps lead into the water.

The Shank family remained at the Land of Promise until 1888 when the farm, then a little more than 85 acres, was sold. Between then and 1921, when Stillwell Johnson purchased the farm, it changed hands five times.

It may have been the Johnson family who built a two-story, German-sided hog house near the barn. The Johnson family owned the property until 1966, when it was sold to Charles E. and Mildred M. Shirk. Two years later the Shirks sold the farmstead with just over 55 acres to David T. Cottingham and John Wayne Burger.

Land of Promise had deteriorated over these years. Many windows were missing, steps had fallen and all the systems in the house needed to be replaced. John Burger and David Cottingham set about a restoration project that would last many years. They changed the extra doorway in the original section of the house into a window. The original door in the center bay was stored in one of the outbuildings and replaced with a modern one. They also kept the porch rails and posts that they replaced.

Systems were replaced, debris removed, walls patched and then painted. In 1979, they added another wing to the house, attached to the gable end of the kitchen. This gave them a modern kitchen with a bedroom and bath above. Kitchen cabinets are made from recycled barn boards, still rough and grayed with age. Yet another closed stairway accesses the second floor in this newest addition. In the dining room the gable wall fireplace has been closed in and a larger one built on the northwest wall of the room. To do this, one door and three windows on that northwest wall had to be closed and filled with new stonework.

The living room ceiling was removed so that the joists were exposed, and the spaces between were finished with a rough plaster.

Near the barn, Cottingham and Burger built a large frame building with an ample woodworking shop area and a vast display room. Here they restored and displayed some of the antiques they collected. A pond with islands was excavated in front of the house.

Cottingham and Burger lived long, productive lives in this lovely setting and eventually died there. Their estate was auctioned in June 2000. The farmstead, now 36 acres, drew keen interest among the Clear Spring community, who were afraid that the land would be subdivided and developed. Fifteen individuals registered to bid on the property. Lisa Poole bid for her parents Rodney (Cork) Shank and Betty Lou Shank, for her husband Cedric Poole and for herself. When she finally won the auction, the place erupted with shouts and cheers, with handshakes all around and just a few tears of relief.

The Shanks are locals, descendants of the Shanks who built the farmstead and who are buried in the small graveyard along the lane. Cork’s great-great-grandparents lie here, and yet he never knew that his family once owned this farm. It had always been known in the community as the Johnson farm, and the bend in Big Spring Road where the lane begins is called Johnson’s Bend. In preparation for the auction, the deed was researched, and it was then that the Shank family learned of their connection with the early builders of this farmstead. A plan was made for Lisa and Cedric to share the house and its many dependencies with her parents, and so they do.

Cork and Cedric worked together to clear brush and weeds that had overgrown the landscape during the last few years. Cracks in the walls were patched, and the living room ceiling that Burger and Cottingham had removed was restored and plastered. Floors were sanded and walls repainted. The bathroom in the 1831 wing, partially removed when they bought the property, has been replaced with an elegant Victorian confection of Lisa’s design.

There are few regrets. Lisa and Cedric are sorry they didn’t buy the damper from the summer kitchen fireplace; but, when it was sold, they did not know they would be the successful buyers of the house. One wonderful gift from John Burger’s niece is the extensive set of eight-by-ten black and white photographs that David, a former Herald-Mail photographer, took of Land of Promise while he and John Burger were working on it. A Shank relative presented the family with the oval-framed formal photographs of Cork’s grandparents that now hang in the dining room.

Cork has a garden, fenced to protect it from deer. The family rejoices in the parade of flowering shrubs that color the yard throughout the growing season. They think about removing the new fireplace in the dining room so they could open the windows and door that were closed on the northwest wall, but they recognize the amount of work that will be. For now they are enjoying the sense of place and the strong sense of family.

This article appeared in the Herald-Mail Sunday, December 2, 2001 as the  140th in the series.