Nixon's Farm keeps on rolling Events facility thrives in west county

June 27, 1996|By Diane E. Otts | Diane E. Otts,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Turning from the bustle of Route 32 onto the single-lane drive of Nixon's Farm is instantly calming. Acres of rolling fields dotted with wildflowers are bordered by lush woods, with bright yellow picnic tables clustered in their shade.

But beneath the quiet exterior lies the Nixon family's 40-year struggle to make a living with its 129-acre farm in West Friendship in western Howard County. "It's been constant hard work," said 39-year-old owner Randall Nixon.

Hard work, said his mother, Mildred Nixon, and "recognizing good ideas when they came up and not being afraid to try them."

The farm, which grossed about $500,000 last year, is a prospering conference and special events facility that offers catering and a recently renovated conference room in a 100-year-old barn. Inside, there is seating for up to 225 people.

Outdoors, the farm can accommodate 5,000, "though there are never that many people sitting at once -- they're off hiking or playing ball or fishing in the pond," Mildred Nixon said.

The growth of Nixon's farm from a homestead to a retreat to a thriving events center is a story in perseverance that began when Mildred Nixon's late husband, Roosevelt, moved to Baltimore in 1946.

The young black man was seeking better opportunities than he'd had in North Carolina as the son of a sharecropper. Starting with earnings from full-time work and amateur boxing, he ran a gypsy cab service, an unlicensed fleet that served black patrons.

He married Mildred Barnes in 1950 and built a chain of liquor and grocery stores and bought an apartment building.

But Mildred Nixon yearned to raise their children on a farm. The couple looked in Howard County because it was known to be more accepting of blacks' owning farmland than other areas at the time.

The beauty of the farm hooked them. "The first time I saw this place, I knew I wanted to live here forever," she said. They bought the farm in 1956.

Although working the land proved unprofitable, the farm was a wonderful retreat. "People were always following my husband from the city," she recalled.

RTC By the early 1960s, the farm evolved into a country club for Jewish and black professionals who were barred from local social organizations.

The land sometimes was rented for picnics, and for a time Mildred Nixon ran camps to give city children a chance to enjoy the country and to provide playmates for her two sons.

But a 1972 tragedy prompted the farm's further growth: Roosevelt Nixon was shot and killed by a robber in one of his liquor stores.

His widow, knowing she would soon have to finance college for her sons, scoured the library to find the best use for the land. "Besides development, the answer was always recreation, but they never said what kind of recreation," she said.

Recalling the farm's earlier success as a retreat, she decided to open it to corporate functions, company picnics, school field trips and family reunions.

After some catering mishaps, she decided to take over the cooking. "I had never cooked for anybody before," she said.

She consulted a commercial kitchen salesman to see what could be done to turn the barn into a kitchen. "He said, 'Nothing. You'd be better off cooking outside.' So we did."

She had eight 37-inch woks custom built for use over gas jets. She also bought a large grill and, using tips from the grill's instruction booklet, experimented until she knew exactly how many coals and what cuts of meats would yield perfect results every time.

Fried chicken coated with her "secret recipe" of "sea salt, whole wheat flour and fresh air" emerged as the farm's specialty and remains so to this day.

Growing up on the farm "was heavenly," Randall Nixon said, but as a child he aspired to "anything but running the farm." He earned philosophy and law degrees, but -- after hints from his mother -- he returned to work the farm in 1987 with help from his wife, Jennifer.

Mildred Nixon still cooks in a pinch, but Barbara Jean Edwards is the head of the kitchen now. For Edwards, the farm is also a family tradition: Her sister, her late husband and all three of her sons have worked there.

After 20 years at Nixon's, she still loves it. "When I'm home, I can't wait to get back to work," Edwards said.

While Randall Nixon has been careful to maintain traditions such as his mother's recipes, he has also expanded the services provided by Nixon's Farm. The farm now plays host to events year-round, offers off-site catering and has a more extensive menu of homemade foods.

Recently, the farm was called on to prepare a meal for 200 people at a Baltimore conference -- with just 27 hours' notice -- after another caterer backed out.

They already had all the food at the farm, Edwards said, and

"once we got everything together and found the place, we were a success."

The business is hard work, Randall Nixon said, often requiring 12-hour days, six days a week. "Running a small business is non-stop crisis management," he said.

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