A passion for a historic property in Savage


December 31, 2004|By Lisa Kawata | Lisa Kawata,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

SUSAN BETTS thinks of her home as "hallowed ground." As owner and proprietor of the Commodore Joshua Barney House in Savage, Betts is the latest of generations of caretakers of the 18th-century house that once was home to a Maryland war hero.

"Those who own historic properties have a passion for history," Betts said.

The challenge is how to preserve history while trying to support oneself. That's why Betts purchased the home in 2000 with a plan to operate it as a bed-and-breakfast.

"My most favorite thing is to create space that is pleasing," she said. Her joy in home design and gardening is evident in each room of the three-story house, and in the ponds and fountains shimmering on the expansive lawn.

Betts gave up a gifts and accessories shop in Frederick to realize her dream, and was able to open her little inn in January 2003. In the process, with the help of friends and neighbors, she has caught glimpses of our nation's birth through the life of one of her home's earliest residents, Joshua Barney.

Betts, who grew up in Montgomery County, had never heard of Barney until she purchased the house from Bob and Wava Scaggs, who owned it for 25 years. The couple was able to get the house listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Before leaving their home, they passed on to Betts several paintings, books and files on Barney's life and naval career, as well as information about other owners of the graceful property along the Little Patuxent River.

Betts thinks it is "horrifying" that Maryland school children are not taught about Barney, a Baltimore native, born in 1759. He took part in 17 battles in the American Revolution and nine battles in the War of 1812, as a member of the Continental Navy and as a privateer.

In 1782, at age 23, Barney was commander of the ship Hyder-Ally, when he captured a much larger British ship off the coast of Cape May. Three times he was captured during the Revolution and three times he escaped, including a brilliant getaway from a prison in England, where he lived incognito in London until he could secure passage back to America.

Barney was on the small committee of men who ordered and paid for the flag that flew over Fort McHenry - the flag that that inspired Francis Scott Key to write "The Star Spangled Banner."

He also acted as envoy for Benjamin Franklin on many trips to Europe.

During the War of 1812, as commander of the Chesapeake Flotilla, Barney led the only contingent of American defenders who did not retreat during the Battle of Bladensburg in 1814. He received a bullet in the thigh for his courage. That bullet, which is now in the Daughters of the American Revolution Museum in Washington, may have led to his death four years later, possibly from blood poisoning.

Barney died Dec. 1, 1818, in Pittsburgh, while he and his family were en route to Kentucky, where he planned to live. He was buried in Pittsburgh.

In his honor, Betts has named two of her four guest rooms for Barney: the Commodore Room and the Bladensburg Room.

The house was built by the family of Barney's second wife, Harriet Coale; Barney purchased it from them. He called it "the Farm at Elk Ridge," named after what was then a large port on the Patapsco River, just a few miles north.

The original house has survived several fires and has been expanded twice, Betts said. In the 1940s, a dining room with a bedroom above was added to the east side of the house, and a kitchen was built on the first floor. A library was added to the back of the house.

Betts converted the kitchen to two powder rooms and added another wing for a working kitchen and her private rooms. She also added a room above the library. And she installed five more fireplaces.

When her grandchildren visit, they stay in the attic, a spacious, gabled room with "neat nooks and crannies," Betts said. She remodeled the room for them.

Now that it has been restored, Betts allowed her home to be part of the Howard County Historical Society's Dec. 9 Holiday House Tour. She recently held a holiday tea where guests could see the country inn's lavish and whimsical 19th-century Christmas decorations. The afternoon's pouring rain didn't deter tea lovers, who came to see a house they had never heard of even though some said they had lived in Howard County all their lives.

Guests received an added dose of history when they were greeted by Jeannette Vollmerhausen, Betts' friend and neighbor. Vollmerhausen's grandparents, William and Jeannette Carr, moved into the house in 1909. Her father, Edmund, was 16 at the time. Jeannette Voll- merhausen shared her memories of sledding on the sloping hills and sliding down the banisters.

"My grandmother used to say, `I'm going to put barbed wire on that banister,' " Vollmerhausen recalled.

While guests sipped on Lady Londonberry and Ginger Peach teas, Vollmerhausen handed out gingerbread and sugar cookies made from her grandmother's recipes.

Betts says that unless there are public-private partnerships where preservation and economic viability are linked, historic properties will begin to disappear.

"It's very expensive to maintain a historic property," she said.

She hopes one day to support herself on income from the bed-and-breakfast. For now, she must also work full time as a manufacturer's representative.

Despite the extra work, Betts considers herself blessed.

"I love my life," she said.

The Commodore Joshua Barney House will offer a Valentine's Day Tea from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. Feb. 13. Another tea is planned for Mother's Day weekend. Reservations must be prepaid. The cost is $22.50 plus tax and gratuity.

Information: Susan Betts, 301-362-1900 or www.Joshua BarneyHouse.com.

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