Farm holds family's roots

Heritage: Harford County land has been in one family's hands since 1765, putting it among 12 Maryland farms held by the same families more than two centuries.

June 21, 1999|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,SUN STAFF

Blood may be thicker than water, but land is thicker still.

Back in 1765, just two years after the French and Indian War, a Scottish minister named Archibald Wilson settled down to farm the rolling countryside in what is today northern Harford County.

Two hundred thirty-four years later, Bob Jones, a sixth-generation descendant of that original settler, owns Hawks Hill Farm with his brother Samuel. Though they rely on a tenant to manage the 172-acre dairy farm, it is at the core of the family's history.

"All this land was Wilson land," says Bob Jones, 70, as his arm sweeps across surrounding pastures and cornfields, taking in about 2,000 acres of neighboring farms as well.

His mother, the former Mary Wilson, learned to milk cows by hand at Hawks Hill when she was 9, Jones notes. He remembers riding a mule down a long-since-overgrown lane to get the mail.

Farmers' love for their land is legendary. But relatively few in Maryland can match the Wilson family's longevity with this place.

Hawks Hill was one of 19 "Century Farms" recognized recently by Gov. Parris N. Glendening for staying in the same family more than 100 years. But of 85 such farms honored by the state since 1996, only 12 have been held for more than 200 years.

"It is a rarity," said Bob Tibbs, president of the Harford County Farm Bureau. While there are a handful of other two-century-old farms in the region, their number is dwindling as sprawling suburbia consumes more and more land.

Houses have begun to sprout by Hawks Hill Farm as well, on former pastureland once owned by a branch of the Wilson family. Jones says a real estate developer offered to buy 40 acres of their place a few years back.

It would have been easy enough to sell the land for houses. Samuel Jones, 73, has his dairy farm in Forest Hill, about eight miles south of Hawks Hill. Bob Jones, who lives in Westminster, chose a career as an agriculture extension agent but regularly visits the ancestral farm, handling business dealings with the tenants.

Homesteads nearby

The family's ties to Hawks Hill overcame the urge to make money by selling it. Bob Jones recalls how descendants of Archibald Wilson branched out to establish homesteads nearby.

He points out neighboring farmhouses occupied by cousins, or built by his forefathers. Some of the contour strips his grandfather installed in the fields at Hawks Hill to reduce soil erosion in the 1940s are still there.

"My grandfather had nine children -- four girls and five boys," Jones says. "All lived within 10 miles of here, and either were farmers or married farmers."

Bob and Samuel Jones bought the farm in 1961 to keep it in the family, after an uncle who had purchased it from their grandfather died. He fell off a ladder in the barn.

The farm has been worked by tenants since. Paul Shahan and his family have lived in the five-bedroom farmhouse -- part of which dates to the 1850s -- for 10 years.

"There's times when it's fun, and times when it's work," says Shahan, 41.

Helped by one full-time farmhand, a couple part-timers and his daughter, Amanda, 19, Shahan milks about 100 Holsteins and tends to nearly 70 other cows too young to produce.

He also raises corn, alfalfa and barley to help feed the herd. Bob Jones stops by every month to split the proceeds from the milk sales with Shahan.

`Hope of the future'

Amanda, studying agriculture at Delaware Valley College, says she hopes to become a veterinarian or to follow her father into farming, in part because she can't stand to be cooped up indoors.

Jones says she represents "the hope of the future."

Dairy farming has been an erratic business in recent years -- hampered by droughts, fluctuating milk prices and increasing government requirements to prevent livestock waste from polluting streams and the Chesapeake Bay.

"Farming itself has become very complex," Jones observes. One of the most discouraging aspects, he adds, is that it has become increasingly difficult to attract young people.

Indeed, Jones says, the end of the Wilson family's stewardship of Hawks Hill Farm may be nearing. His two children have no interest in the farm, he says, and only one of Samuel's five children has stuck with the family livelihood.

"We are probably the last generation of the family to own this farm," Jones says.

Still, even if the family's ties to the land are broken, it has been spared from the bulldozer. Jones says that a few years ago, he and his brother rebuffed the developer's offer and decided instead for a deed restriction guaranteeing that Hawks Hill will remain a farm.

"Frankly, we'd have been much better off putting it in houses," Jones says. But he says that their action, along with that of neighboring farmers, has set aside 500 acres to be kept in agriculture.

"Here we're the sixth generation farming it, it has a certain sentimental value to us," Jones says. "It would've been a little difficult seeing houses on that land."

Two-century family farms

Maryland officials have identified 12 farms that have been owned by the same family for more than 200 years. This list shows current owners and the approximate year their ancestors acquired the land.

Baltimore County

Thomas's Choice, Mr. and Mrs. Robert Gill Howard, 1734

Cecil County

Bethel Farm, Charles England, 1770

Dorchester County

Spocott Farm, George Radcliffe, 1663

Trice's Farm, John Trice, 1732

Harford County

Hawks Hill Farm, Robert Jones, Samuel and Sara Jones, 1765

The Vineyard, E. Hayes Gardner, 1741

Montgomery County

Kae-lee Farm, Thomas Woodfield, 1756

Retirement Farm, Percy Willett, 1741

Queen Anne's County

Walls Home Farm, Louise Walls Skinner, 1786

Talbot County

Wye House, Mary Tilghman, 1658

Wicomico County

Three Oaks Homestead, Kathyrn Allen, 1760

Worcester County

Roger and Fay Richardson farm, 1768

SOURCE: Maryland Department of Agriculture

Pub Date: 6/21/99

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