Reclaiming patch of history Landmark: John Chambers dreams of resurrecting his father's Carroll County farm, where a pumpkin played a central role in the Alger Hiss espionage case.

November 17, 1998|By John Murphy | John Murphy,SUN STAFF

Fifty years ago, microfilm squirreled away in a hollowed-out pumpkin at Pipe Creek Farm in northern Carroll County played a pivotal role in one of the most celebrated espionage cases of the Red Scare.

No pumpkins grow there anymore.

Like air raid drills, fallout shelters and Khrushchev's shoe, this 390-acre Cold War shrine is a fading memory.

But another legacy of this tract of steep pastures and breathtaking views persists -- that of the farm itself and the role it played in the life of a frumpy ex-Communist named Whittaker Chambers after the turbulent years of the espionage case.

Part life-preserver and part refuge, the farm helped Chambers survive a period of his life when he was out of work and reviled by many for accusing a former State Department official of being a Soviet spy.

Today that memory is being honored by Chambers' son, John, who plans to return full-time to Pipe Creek and farm as his father did before him.

But like many family farms, the future of Pipe Creek will be a struggle, Chambers says. The historic farmhouses and outbuildings need thousands of dollars of renovations. Miles of fences need mending. And one 40-acre tract of the original farm property, under separate ownership, is up for sale, portions of which could be carved up for residential development.

Chambers dreams of pulling all the land back into the family.

"I guess I'm falling back into the family business," said John Chambers, 62, who will retire at the end of the year after a career as a journalist, consultant, organizer of presidential inaugurations and political appointee. "The time comes when you feel like you need a place to stand. I think it's a Kentucky poet who said 'What I stand for is what I stand on.' "

On a recent damp November morning, Chambers had his two feet planted ankle deep in clover near the banks of the Big Pipe Creek. The creek runs along the northern border of his farm. To the south, the land thrusts up and forms steep fields, eaching bearing its own poetic name, like downhill ski runs: High Germany, Hit-Or-Miss, Legonier, Cold Friday.

Chambers plans to raise 500 sheep on these hills, enough to sustain his new life as a full-time farmer. He owns 120 sheep now.

"You learn an awful lot about the cycle of life," Chambers said. "There is an understanding of the cycle of rain and sunshine and the cycles of the year."

Pipe Creek Farm is no longer one farm, but three contiguous tracts occupying 390 acres of green pastures and rough woodland north of Westminster. The "home place," as it was called by Whittaker Chambers, is a 40-acre plot now owned by Democratic state Sen. George W. Della Jr. of Baltimore.

The remaining tractsare owned by John Chambers and his sister, Ellen Into Chambers, of California. All three parcels have been designated national historic landmarks.

Chambers lives with his wife and daughter in the "back place," where his father spent the last year of his life. The two-story, gable-roofed house, made of bricks formed from the clay of the banks of Big Pipe Creek, is a shrine to Whittaker Chambers. A Presidential Medal of Freedom plaque awarded to Whittaker Chambers by President Reagan stands by the fireplace, and copies of his writings line the bookshelves.

Della's 40-acre tract, however, is the most famous portion of Pipe Creek Farm.

In was here on Dec. 2, 1948, during the opening days of the Red Scare, that Whittaker Chambers led investigators to prove that a dashing former State Department official from Baltimore, Alger Hiss, was a Communist spy.

Chambers had stepped forward with the charges after the House Un-American Activities Committee began investigating alleged communist infiltration of government, industry, organized labor, universities and Hollywood. During the 1930s, Chambers had been a member of the Communist underground, living in Baltimore because the city was close to his Washington contacts.

Asked to back his accusation, Chambers dramatically produced -- from the hollowed-out pumpkin on his farm -- microfilm of government documents he said Hiss had given him for transmission to Soviet agents.

The "pumpkin papers" led to Hiss' conviction for perjury. He served 44 months of his 5-year sentence and fought to clear his name until his death in 1996.

In most accounts of Chambers' life, the significance of Pipe Creek Farm ends there. But it had another role to play before Chambers died in 1961.

In the years after the case, Whittaker Chambers found himself a social outcast, reviled among those who believed his accusations against Hiss, a Johns Hopkins and Harvard Law School graduate, were lies.

The man who had built a distinguished career as a senior editor at Time magazine found no one willing to take a risk on him anymore. When he went to New York to ask for his old position back, he was turned away.

"He had been at the pinnacle of American journalism. Then it was a closed door," John Chambers said.

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