Volunteers help restore farm dating to 1690s

September 15, 1995|By Erik Nelson | Erik Nelson,Sun Staff Writer

The spirit of Thomas Browne, the Patuxent Ranger, came back to Mount Pleasant yesterday, alive in the sinews of five women who blazed a trail with sickles, pitchforks and handsaws.

They were among about 45 corporate executives, office workers and bankers who left their computer workstations to sweat in the sun while restoring the Ranger's 300-year-old farm in Woodstock.

"We had no power tools, so it really felt like we were going back in history," said Marian Chichester, part of the trail-building crew and office manager for Williamsburg Builders, one of four local companies that took part in the project.

The restoration project was one of 137 that took place throughout Central Maryland in which an estimated 1,500 volunteers from 85 companies donated their labor for the United Way's Day of Caring.

Locally, volunteers from Williamsburg, the Ryland Group, the Enterprise Foundation and Elkridge Bank pulled down old fences, cleared weeds and sawed dead wood on the Ranger's old farm.

Their effort is part of a 2-year-old project intended to convert Mount Pleasant, owned by the Howard County Conservancy, from a tenant farm into an open-air environmental and horticultural classroom.

The barn and outbuildings, most of which date back more than a century, had become choked with weeds and littered with rusted farm equipment and even caches of old books.

The Patuxent Ranger was the first European known to have traveled through the area, settling between the Patapsco River and the headwaters of the Little Patuxent River in the 1690s.

Ranger Browne was dispatched to the area by the governing council of Anne Arundel County to survey the headwaters of the Patuxent, keep tabs on native inhabitants and protect settlers.

The farmhouse, which offers a half-mile view, has a dining room ** believed to be the Ranger's original 1690s cabin.

The modern-day trailblazers were more used to working inside the Columbia offices.

"It made you feel like you were walking back in history, because of the numbers on the trees," said Ms. Chichester, who saw "1922" carved on a beech. "You could tell it was 1922, too, because the bark had grown and pulled out and expanded that number."

On the other side of the 232-acre property, a crew from the nonprofit Enterprise Foundation pulled barbed wire from fence posts, then used an automobile jack to pull the metal fence posts from the ground.

The crew gave up after pulling about six posts, then decided to leave the rest for the farm's 1950s-era International tractor, which leaks hydraulic fluid.

Evelyne Bloomer was sweating and smiling when she returned to Mount Pleasant's 300-year-old farmhouse after rolling up the rest of the barbed wire.

"We took a break and we put our feet in the creek," said Ms. Bloomer, an assistant office manager for the Enterprise Foundation. "It was wonderful -- it was just a lot of work."

When the project is done, one of the teaching areas will be within the granite foundation of a barn believed to be about 150 years old.

Yesterday, nine volunteers from Ryland used rakes and shovels to clear away more than a century's buildup of manure and straw from between the 10-foot-high walls, all that is left of the barn.

Eventually, split-log benches will be built to furnish an open-air amphitheater.

Just outside of the old barn, Margaret O'Leary, Ryland's treasury operations administrator, tugged on thorny multiflora vines, clearing them from a wall believed to date back to the 1800s.

Cutting through the vines with a long-handled pruner was Cyrus Swett of Ellicott City, one of about 10 University of Maryland Cooperative Extension Service master gardeners who guided crews from the four companies.

"We did very, very well; we got a tremendous amount of work done," said James H. Eacker, president of the conservancy.

The conservancy became part-owner of the farm in 1993 after the 1992 death of the Patuxent Ranger's last direct descendant, Frances Brown.

The wills of Miss Brown and her sister, Ruth Brown, who died in 1990, in effect dictated the preservation project under a coalition of the conservancy, county government, the Maryland Environmental Trust and the Department of Natural Resources.

The project's biggest single advance so far was the planting of 16,500 tree seedlings this spring, made possible by a $17,500 grant from the Chesapeake Bay Trust.

The trees will serve as a buffer for the East Branch, which runs along the project's eastern edge and empties into the Patapsco River.

In front of the old house is a gnarled tulip poplar with a bronze plaque put up in 1976, which reads: "It has stood its ground, survived the American Revolution, and continues to serve an appreciative nation."

And it continues to stand that ground in the face of intense development pressures that are changing the character of rural Woodstock.

In about 15 years, the poplar tree will overlook office buildings, tidy subdivisions, condominiums, a golf course and a shopping center planned across the road.

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