- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 11, 2004

GAMBRILLS, Md. - “We harvested tobacco in August when I was a girl,” says 72-year-old Mildred Anderson, mistress of Middle Plantation in Gambrills, in Anne Arundel County, “and hung the leaf floor-to-rooftop inside that big red barn over there.”

That was then. Today very few farmers cultivate what was once called Maryland’s “money crop” — tobacco.

Three years ago almost all of Maryland’s approximately 1,000 tobacco farmers accepted a state-sponsored buy-out that made many of the region’s nearly 5,000 tobacco barns instantly obsolete.

Many of those old barns stand unused and deteriorating. Hundreds simply have vanished into wooden heaps on the ground, or have been demolished as the widening arc of Washington’s suburbs consumes the region’s agricultural land.

Mrs. Anderson testifies to that as she remembers the raising of her big red barn, built because the family’s first barn couldn’t handle the bumper crops.

“I remember the day my father started building it — it was July 1950, when the Korean War was just being declared — and we only had the tobacco barn built right after the Civil War, which was too small,” she says.

“‘Course, today we use them both for the cattle, and hay and small grains storage. Nobody does tobacco any more.”

So many farmers don’t “do” tobacco any more that in May, the National Trust for Historic Preservation named the tobacco barns of southern Maryland as among America’s most endangered historic resources.

The irony is that tobacco was the economic engine that brought the first European settlers to the state’s southern counties, this land watered by the Potomac and Patuxent rivers and bordered on the east by the Chesapeake Bay.

More ironic still is the fact that the Algonquin word “patuxent” is thought to have meant “place where tobacco grows.”

The National Trust’s “endangered” designation applies to barns in Prince George’s and Anne Arundel counties, as well as Calvert, Charles and St. Mary’s counties.

What makes these barns unique, the Trust says, is one important thing: “Southern Maryland tobacco was air-cured, while growers in Virginia, the Carolinas and Kentucky implemented flue (heat) curing methods that resulted in barn construction very different from southern Maryland barns.”

The Trust’s designation doesn’t guarantee survival or funding for the barns’ safekeeping, but typically helps communities raise funds and build coalitions to protect the resource.

It also provides entrance to the congressionally created Historic Barn Preservation Program of 2002, which is intended to promote continued agricultural use of older and historic barns.

To date, however, there have been no funds appropriated to the program, which is administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Development program.

“These barns are well-worn icons of Maryland’s history and culture,” says Richard Moe, who is president of the nonprofit National Trust preservation group and has a weekend place in Calvert County tobacco country.

“They are defining symbols of the region and are considered vital to telling the story of southern Maryland’s rich heritage, which covers more than four centuries.”

Mrs. Anderson’s family history tells the story.

“After five generations of Duvalls,” she says in explaining the family’s ties to southern Maryland tobacco culture, “Ann Duvall Jones married an Abraham Woodward, and one of their daughters, Louise Priscilla, married an Anderson. That’s my husband’s people, which means we’re eleven generations at Middle Plantation.”

A roadside marker far in front of its big red barn indicates that in 1664 “Marin Du Vall” patented its 600 acres. He was a conservative Jacobite in France thought to have come from Nantes, the Atlantic seaport anchoring the French slave trade between Africa and the New World.

When France sided with Scotland in supporting the Stuart dynastic claims of Charles II as King of England in 1659, Du Vall is thought to have been captured by the British at sea and transported to Maryland, where he was “sold” as an indentured servant to John Covell.

Educated and ambitious, according to historical records, on July 25, 1659, he demanded and received from Covell 50 acres of land for his service. By 1664 he owned Middle Plantation and by 1683 was named commissioner for advancement of trade.

When he died at the plantation in 1694, Du Vall held extensive properties and business enterprises throughout southern Maryland. He raised tobacco and had hundreds of slaves to do the work.

“The slave cabins were right over here,” Mrs. Anderson says, walking to a gently sloping pathway behind the red barn. “There were seven of them in a row, and when my father took them down in the ‘30s you could see right through them, they were in such bad shape.”

Today only a lush green pasture rolls behind the barn, a gentleman’s estate with cattle munching lazily by the pathway where the old slave cabins stood.

The farm had been divided by family members over the years so that only about 190 of its original acres remain. Du Vall’s first house was destroyed by fire, but from its foundation rose a succession of replacements. By 1819 the present main house was built, a red-brick three-storied Federal jewel, with a Queen Anne front porch added later. The mansion stands on the hill above the slave cabins.

Inside are 12 pieces of the original 1819 furniture, and on the walls among old family portraits are evocative paintings and acrylics of tobacco barns. Mrs. Anderson, who was an art teacher for 31 years, including five years at Anne Arundel County public schools, is a professional painter. She is also president of the county chapter of the National League of American Pen Women, an arts program supporting women writers, artists and composers.

“What’s so interesting about tobacco barns for me,” says Mrs. Anderson, who lives in the great house with her husband Marin, a partner in a law practice in Annapolis, “is that growing up on this farm, my father and mother didn’t believe in spoiling children. I worked the fields with the hired men, and did all but the most difficult manual labor.”

It wasn’t all negative, she allows with a laugh. “Remember, those were days before television and a million other distractions. No matter who you were or what you did, working tobacco meant socializing, talking with those around you, singing with them, joking with them,” she says.

“I remember the stories,” says Mrs. Anderson, recalling long ago when her father came home after selling the family crop at the Upper Marlboro tobacco auction. “He told us one of the farmers put a rotten watermelon in the middle of his hogshead of tobacco. You got paid by the weight, and I guess he thought he could get away with hiding it in the middle of the leaf.”

“My mom and I almost died laughing,” she says. “It could be such fun times.”

For Steuart Pittman, the history of Dodon Farm, also in Anne Arundel, is almost tangible.

“My grandmother told me about her grandmother,” says Mr. Pittman, 86, a founding partner retired from the downtown law firm of Shaw Pittman, and assistant secretary of defense in charge of civil defense during the Kennedy administration.

“She was proud of the fact that they educated their slaves,” Mr. Pittman says of his great-great-grandmother. She is thought to be a Quaker lady from Philadelphia who had married into the Steuart and Pittman family.

It took the Civil War to finally free the family’s slaves, but his great-great-grandmother had insisted that the 100 to 150 Dodon slaves could marry and go to church, and learn how to read and write, Mr. Pittman says.

Resting his hand upon a weathered beam over the fireplace, he says, “We took this from the schoolhouse ruins in 1954 when we rebuilt this house after it burned down.”

He is showing visitors the family home on the farm, some 550 rolling green acres nestled in absolute quiet off a little country road between Davidsonville and Harwood. He lives here in a great house first built in 1720, with two of his children and their families living elsewhere on the sprawling horse-breeding property.

On the mantel behind him in the big house — rebuilt in 1830 and 1954 after disastrous fires — is an oil of Daniel Steuart, who bought Dodon Farm from another settler in 1725. He was a physician who left Scotland near Perth to begin a new life in Maryland, with a practice in Annapolis and a tobacco operation at the farm.

In a thick ledger kept in the big room, Mr. Pittman traces the family lineage to Queen Anne, the last Stuart to rule England (from 1702 to 1714). She was the granddaughter of Charles II, who was executed during the Catholic-Protestant civil wars of the mid-1600s. (Prince George’s County is named for her husband, Prince George of Denmark).

“All Steuarts or Stewards or Stewarts from Scotland in America are related to those kings long ago,” he says.

The Pittmans started getting out of tobacco by the 1940s, says Mr. Pittman, a Yale law school graduate and former U.S. Marine officer who served in World War II.

“But I remember how hard the work was in the heat in the fields,” says Mr. Pittman, who didn’t work the fields himself but recalls how the heat sapped the energy of the hands, who were both black and white.

“It never ended. In winter, the old-timers would go to the [tobacco] stripping rooms at the barns, and sit by the stove drinking whiskey all night as they stripped the tobacco leaves for pressing into hogsheads.”

The slave schoolhouse today is nothing but a patch of weeds by the present-day horse breeding barn. The old site is across a field from the farm’s biggest tobacco barn, a beauty built early in the 20th century.

The farm’s oldest barn went up after the Civil War and stands right beside Dodon Road as one approaches the farm. Beside it is a more modern horse barn.

As to the slaves freed after the Civil War: Do any of their descendants live nearby today or keep in touch with the family?

“They drifted away,” Mr. Pittman says. “Gone with the wind, and we don’t know about them, and I guess they don’t know about us.”

Vivian Jones, an 80-year-old retired public school teacher and former principal of Brooks Elementary School in Huntingtown in Calvert County, knows another part of the tobacco story.

After the Civil War her husband’s great-great-grandmother, Rachel Chase, bought a tobacco farm in Huntingtown from a white family that Mrs. Jones presumes owned slaves.

Rachel Chase ran the place her entire life, eventually passing 50 acres, with its clapboarded old house and tobacco barn — still standing but looking a bit wobbly — to Mrs. Jones’ husband, Joseph Wesley Jones who runs a school bus service in Calvert County.

And she left a trunk.

The Joneses have kept the trunk all these years, most recently in the garage in the house where they live now, a stone’s throw down the road from the old farm.

“We always wanted to look into the trunk,” Mrs. Jones says.

So in June, she and her daughter, Deborah Riley, a teacher in Prince George’s County, finally hauled the family heirloom into their kitchen and began unpacking it. They didn’t know what to expect, Mrs. Jones recalls, and were intimidated by her husband’s formidable great-great-grandmother.

What they found in the ancient trunk were papers from Civil War times onward — detailed ledgers, photos, newspaper clippings, and letters back and forth between Rachel Chase and the War Department, as she fought for a pension and an explanation of how her husband, Thomas Chase, died while serving as a volunteer in the U.S. Colored Troops during the Civil War.

“She won her case,” says Mrs. Jones, “but what was so astonishing is the progressive strength of this woman, her handling of difficult matters in a world where blacks didn’t get much respect.”

“We always heard there is no black history,” says Mrs. Jones, “so Debbi and I had no idea what to expect. Of course, I didn’t know anything about black history, because I was never taught it in school.”

For now, the family is inventorying the collection and considering how to entrust it to a safe place for historians and others to examine.

Meantime, their old tobacco farm is being surrounded by development, even as they ended tobacco production in the buy-out and have to fend off developers “offering us the stars and moon for our land,” she says.

“We just know that this needs to be preserved,” says Mrs. Jones.

“That’s what really concerns me,” says Teresa Wilson, a historic preservation planner for the St. Mary’s County Department of Land Use and Growth Management. “What is disappearing in southern Maryland besides the tobacco barns?”

She is the principal spark behind the effort to get the National Trust for Historic Preservation landmark status for Maryland’s old tobacco barns, and served as coordinator for all the county planners participating in the program.

“I fell in love with them the first time I saw them,” Ms. Wilson says of the barns. “Tobacco barns strike me as these vernacular buildings not built by architects, but by farmers and slaves and workers using something from within their experience.”

Ms. Wilson, a native of Charlottesville, moved to Maryland 27 years ago and got a degree in historic preservation from Goucher College, with an emphasis on tobacco barns.

“They have a kind of dignity and beauty to them,” she says. “It’s a rustic, I don’t know, window into their experience and past.”

That’s why the counties fought for the historic designation, she says, which will be augmented in November, when the five counties’ historic preservation working group meets to consider an array of programs to preserve as much possible of the buildings and cultures the barns represent, she says.

Planned is a Web site and brochure for visitors to use to tour individual barns open to the public, along with state and national programs to financially support barn owners to keep the barns standing. Oral history programs and festivals tied to the barns and people are also under consideration.

“What we know is that the time to act is now,” she says. “Before the barns and the people whose livelihood came from tobacco just drift away.”

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