- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 25, 2001

Ben Allnut may be the quintessential salt-of-the-earth Maryland farmer. Deeply tanned even in October, straightforwardly friendly, he runs Homestead Farm in Poolesville, on land that has been in his family since 1763.

It's a sprawling commercial enterprise, one that opens itself to an apple-plucking, pumpkin-hunting, Christmas-tree-cutting public and accommodates thousands of youngsters bused in to pick their own. No matter: The fortysomething Mr. Allnut seems to revel in the amusement.

"It's like giving a birthday party every day," he says. "Every year I try to come up with some things that will make it that much more fun."

Mr. Allnut's farm is only one of the spots along the Potomac that make a trek up the river an exercise in discovery especially at Halloween, when the stuffed scarecrows at Homestead Farm are joined by the ghosts that still haunt the river's banks, so long as you believe they do.

You just have to know where to look and listen.

In fact, they are everywhere along the Potomac, places of lore and legend that still echo with the dramas of the past: shaded cliffs that once rang with the clash of armies; rolling farmlands that have known the plow since George Washington's day; small, secluded towns that have hardly changed since the river marked the boundaries of a divided nation.

Perhaps it is something in the air and light of October that makes the river seem to give up its ghosts more readily. As Halloween approaches and warm days surrender to cool, starry nights, the Potomac becomes a haunted river, where scarecrows sprout from cornfields and chilling tales are spun on lamplit streets.

Then, when the sunlight returns again to the farms along the river, platoons of little goblins set out to pick pumpkins and apples in celebration of the season.

Taking advantage of the river's autumn bounty is as easy as carving a jack o' lantern all it takes is a bit of planning and a lot of enthusiasm. While countless places along the Potomac allow families to enjoy the Halloween season, three spots stand out. Each is very different from the others in character, but each, in its own way, truly celebrates this time of happy hauntings. All are connected not only by the winding Potomac, but by easy drives through some of the loveliest countryside imaginable.

The old Civil War battlefield of Ball's Bluff, near Leesburg, Va., was the site of one of the most dramatic skirmishes in the entire war and the scene of the death of the only member of the U.S. Congress ever to fall in battle. To this day, the sounds of that long-ago clash between Billy Reb and Johnny Yank are said to fill the air on dark October nights.

Nearby White's Ferry, the only ferry still operating on the river, will transport you to the gentler scene at Homestead Farm in Poolesville, where families can pick apples and pumpkins and visit the animals at Mr. Allnut's sprawling working farm.

Finally, after a drive through rolling countryside, visitors can relish the sites and sounds of legendary Harpers Ferry, W.Va., and the Harpers Ferry National Historical Park. Not only is the town steeped in dramatic American history, it is said to harbor more ghosts than any other place in Maryland. Fearless travelers can end their Halloween excursion by taking the famed "ghost tour" of the haunted old town.

• • •

Perched as it is on a sheer bluff above the Potomac, and tiny at less than a mile long and quarter-mile wide, the Ball's Bluff battlefield is among the more unusual Civil War sites in the country. Ending as it did not with an orderly retreat, but with hundreds of men plummeting into the river, it certainly was the site of one of the Civil War's more unusual battles.

On Oct. 21, 1861 almost exactly 140 years ago 1,700 Union soldiers, determined to capture the Confederate stronghold of Leesburg, paddled across the Potomac in small boats. As they reached the Virginia shore, they must have gaped at the daunting task that lay before them an arduous climb up the sheer palisades of Ball's Bluff. They climbed, nevertheless, led by their impetuous commander, Col. Ned Baker.

Baker was no ordinary officer, but a sitting member of the U.S. Senate from Oregon. His political skill meant nothing on the field of battle, and after his exhausted men reached the top of the bluffs, they soon found themselves routed by a determined Confederate advance. During the melee, Baker was shot dead. Soon more than 1,000 young soldiers were retreating back to the cliffs.

As panic took hold of the small army, it fell to pieces. Most of the men surrendered to the Confederates on the spot, which probably explains why, in spite of the collapse of the army, Union casualties from enemy fire at Ball's Bluff were so low only 49 Union dead on the field of combat.

Many of the Union soldiers fled along the heights and into the Virginia countryside. Some 200 terrified boys, however, simply threw their rifles away and leapt down the sides of the bluff in a jumble of falling bodies and clattering gear.

Most were lucky enough to survive the fall and swim back across the river to Maryland, but some were smashed on the rocks and drowned in the unforgiving river. Several of the bodies, macabre messengers of defeat, floated over Great Falls and all the way down to the beleaguered Union capital.

The drama of that day is hardly evident as one approaches the park through a dull suburban development. As the paved road turns to gravel and trees close in, however, the past slowly returns to vivid life.

At the entrance of the park is a cemetery about 100 feet square where 25 white markers rise in a tidy semicircle, cradled by stone walls and eternity. There lie the men who did not turn and flee. Shortly after the fight, the Union dead were buried in a mass grave by the Confederates and rested without marker or honors until 1865, when they were reinterred together here.

This is still the smallest national cemetery in the nation. Why just 25 markers were set out for 49 men remains unknown. They are simply representative, and to the eye an aesthetically pleasing arrangement of stones.

Only one of the men is known, and his name is etched into the center stone: Pvt. James Allen, 15th Regiment, Massachusetts Infantry. The air seems very still around the old white stones, and one scarcely can imagine the tumult that led to such sad stillness.

A short path leads farther on through the autumn woods and eventually stops short at the bluffs themselves. The view is dizzying: A sheer cliff of shale and granite, adorned by clinging vines and shrubs, leads some 500 feet to the river below. The Potomac is little more than a blue smear through the trees. Now the terror of that day comes clear, and the shouts of panic and fear seem to ring just on the edge of the senses.

Ball's Bluff, for all of its smallness, is so evocative that many visitors claim still to hear echoes of the army's plummeting retreat. The C&O; Canal lies just across the river, and hikers along the towpath often stop to gaze up on the heights but they seldom stop for very long, and never overnight.

In his indispensable guide to the canal towpath, "The Towpath Guide to the C&O; Canal" (American Canal and Transportation Center, 1997), author Chris Hahn states: "Canal legend has it that this area is haunted by the spirits of departed Union soldiers, and overnight stops on the canal at this point were avoided."

Skeptics are put to the test at this point; they are encouraged to camp just below the bluffs on Halloween night.

• • •

Near Ball's Bluff lies charming transport across the river to Maryland White's Ferry, which has been in continuous operation since 1817.

For $3 each way and $5 round trip, the General Jubal Early a creaking, low-slung ferryboat named for the Confederate general who raided Washington and retreated at this point to Virginia will carry cars and people across the river and into Maryland. Here the Potomac begins to open out from the rocky stream to a wide waterway, and the views up the river are spectacular.

From the ferry, signs along Whites Ferry Road lead to the large and inviting Homestead Farm. On any given day in October, squadrons of school buses line the drive leading into the farm as children from throughout the area head to the farm for a day of October fun.

Passing through the fenced apple orchards at the entrance to the 746-acre spread, visitors soon see why, of all the Maryland farms open to the public, Homestead remains one of the most popular.

A produce stand welcomes visitors with racks of apples and cider, jams and bottled sauces, and happily waving scarecrows and witches. Pyramids of pumpkins and gourds are stacked everywhere.

This year, in addition to the pumpkin patches and hayrides Mr. Allnut offers every year, Homestead features a collection of farm animals for the children to feed and pet.

Most are displayed in fairly typical surroundings: the ducks in their pond, the pig in his sty. But for his goats Mr. Allnut has come up with a high-flying idea.

At the beginning of the Halloween season, he built a "sky walk": a series of 10- to 15-foot pillars connected by planks. Goats love to climb, and sure enough, visitors approaching the big central barn at Homestead are greeted by the remarkable sight of several goats perched high above the barnyard, contentedly chewing away, oblivious to the gasps and laughter from the children below.

"Didn't need to coax them up there at all," Mr. Allnut says. "Just showed it to them, and up they went."

Mr. Allnut is proudest of the corn maze, which he designed himself. "After I got lost in there a couple of times, I knew it was OK," he says with a grin.

The maze, all 1* square miles of it, is intimidating at first as one wanders through the towering ranks of corn and the sounds of the farm die away, replaced only by the rustle of the stalks and the occasional cawing of crows.

Soon the main path branches off in several directions which one to take? A path to the right leads only to a wall of tumbled corn; retracing one's steps leads back to an unfamiliar-looking tunnel. There's a left, leading to what looks like a sunny space. Perhaps that way …

So it goes for those who wander through the maze. Patience ultimately is rewarded with the discovery of the center of the maze and (not to give too much away) a view of Homestead and the rising Blue Ridge Mountains beyond.

Just beyond the maze, Mr. Allnut has set up a large black chalkboard with words "Where is your group?" stenciled above it. It's an easy way for teachers and chaperones to check on where their students are as they tour the farm.

Two small children, each carrying a basket full of gourds and apples, approach the board and look around, giggling. When they're sure nobody is looking, they grab an eraser and a stick of chalk and set to work. After a moment, they dash off hand in hand, laughing.

They have left behind a message for all to see: "Everyone got lost in the maze and starved."

• • •

About an hour west of Homestead Farm lies what is said to be the most haunted town on the river, a settlement that rises vertically on a great granite bluff above the confluence of two storied waterways, the Potomac and the Shenandoah.

Harpers Ferry, W.Va., famed location of abolitionist John Brown's desperate raid on the federal arsenal there in 1859, has changed little since those dramatic days. Antebellum homes, inns and warehouses line the steep streets, and when the evening darkness descends and the shadows along the cobblestoned lanes lengthen, it is very easy to imagine that some of the many famous souls who came here during life may still linger on in death.

No Halloween expedition along the Potomac could be complete without a visit to the lovely, evocative town or an evening stroll through its streets in the company of Shirley Dougherty or her granddaughter Ann Kelican.

Mrs. Dougherty, 73, is the keeper of Harpers Ferry's ghostly traditions. A native of Cumberland, Md., she visited Harpers Ferry countless times as a girl and made a habit of collecting its legends and lore. After moving to the village in 1978, she became even more fascinated by the place, especially some of the stranger aspects of its history.

Mrs. Dougherty put her years of research to good use in 1977, when she conducted the first ghost tour of Harpers Ferry. Since then, her tours have become a well-known tradition in the town. She no longer conducts the tours herself; she has passed that job on to Mrs. Kelican.

On an Indian summer night in mid-October, a group of tourists gathers on the patio of a town restaurant. Mrs. Dougherty sits atop a picnic table, greeting new arrivals and chatting about her unusual calling. When asked what her favorite ghost story is, she thinks for just a moment, then answers directly, "the crying boy."

The crying boy is said to be the ghost of an infant who still haunts one of the old hillside buildings, the large brick building that was the lodging of the munitions workers employed at the federal arsenal. Through the years, residents have reported hearing the baby's plaintive cries sound through the walls.

When asked why that ghost is her favorite, she smiles without a trace of irony.

"Because I heard it," she whispers. One night in the late 1980s, she says, she had just finished her tour and was walking alone back up the hill when she heard a baby wailing. Because the building was unoccupied, she could only assume it was the little ghost.

Soon a glowing light appears down the street, and stepping through the twilight comes a young woman dressed in the bustles and shawl of the 1860s. Mrs. Kelican steps onto the patio and, after a word with her grandmother, turns and greets her visitors.

"Few places are stranger than Harpers Ferry," she warns, "and few places have harbored stranger residents." Soon she is leading a group of some 50 ghost hunters through what they hope are Harpers Ferry's haunted streets.

Mrs. Kelican's clear, strong voice carries her audience out of the present day and into the misty past as she walks from building to building, her lantern held aloft like a pale beacon.

Pausing at Hogs Alley, she tells of the ghost of a slave murdered there by an angry mob who still can be seen wandering on moonless nights, his throat a blood-red gash. Farther up the hill, she stops at an old barracks that housed both Union and Confederate soldiers during the Civil War and is said still to resonate with loud thumps and bangs. The soldiers' ghosts, Mrs. Kelican says and you can believe her or not even have been seen by once-skeptical members of the National Park Service.

The tour reaches its literal height at the old Roman Catholic Church of Saint Peter's. The church stands high above the twin river valleys below. To the left, the Bolivar Heights stand above the rolling Shenandoah; to the right, the dark Maryland Heights stand guard over the misty Potomac. In between, the lights of Harpers Ferry are clustered like constellations fallen from the star-studded October sky.

Here Mrs. Kelican weaves perhaps her most affecting spell, telling a tale not of terror and fear, but of love.

"Two Indian tribes once fought over these heights," she says to the small throng, gesturing out over the rivers with her lantern. "A brave warrior from one, named Potomac, fell in love with a maiden from the other. Her name was Shenandoah, which means 'Daughter of the Stars.' "

Her tale is an old one, told around campfires and in the towns of these valleys through countless Octobers. Hearing it reminds one that Halloween celebrates not death and fear, but the power of the human imagination, the endurance of memory and folk tale, the wondrous mysteries of the past.

Of course, the love of Potomac and Shenandoah proves ill-fated; forbidden to be together by their warring tribes, they die alone and brokenhearted.

"But," Mrs., Kelican says, her voice rising, "after their deaths the spirits of the land decreed that they should be joined forever. Potomac became the river to the north, and Shenandoah that of the south. And here, at Harpers Ferry, they were allowed to join together and flow forever, as one, to the distant sea."

Gazing past her lamp, out into the dark night on the cusp of Halloween, one easily can imagine it all to be quite true.

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