A living tradition

Ann Dowsett Jensen has opened her family's 18th-century home to the public

October 18, 2006|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,SUN REPORTER

Ann Dowsett Jensen lives in a cozy yellow clapboard house in Annapolis - a dwelling older than the country and one of the oldest in Maryland's capital. Her ancestors moved in amid pre-Revolutionary War fervor - as far back as 1771 - and ran a tavern on the premises. Somewhere around the house, there's a British halfpenny to show for the Colonial era.

Seven generations later, Jensen tells family tales in a way as authentic as social history gets, according to experts who chisel into the Colonial city's past as if it were a piece of ivory. But here, the past is held between hand-hewn beams. And not surprising for its time and place, 10 family slaves once lived here, too.

A self-contained woman with snowy hair, Jensen began opening her house at 130 Prince George St. to public tours on Sunday afternoons this year, sharing the historical wealth within the walls. The nonfiction writer has 2 1/2 centuries worth of family hand-me-downs. Much of it is valuable - early American furniture, Baltimore Album quilt squares, quill-penned correspondence and Civil War music sitting on the piano as if the Confederate tunes had been played just the other day.

"It's a little bit of everything from every period, since we never threw anything away in successive generations," Jensen said of the melange in the Sands House, named for her early ancestors. They were not officeholders or large landowners, but they held a solid place in society as publicans. "I'm piecing together the history of these people, who were not rich or famous," she said.

Visitors are treated to an intimate out-of-museum experience as she tells stories about maiden aunts and widows, and the parlor where, by custom, relatives' bodies were laid out. A famous story concerns the Rev. James L. Smiley, who came to stay as a boarder in 1906 and left 50 years later.

"He was like a member of the family," Jensen, 66, said. Records show an Ann - or Anne - in all seven generations. She and her brother and sister inherited the house from her mother a few years ago, but Jensen has lived here since 1989.

Ann Sands, the first Ann in the house, wrote playfully about girlhood in 1776: "She will be good but God knows when."

Gregory A. Stiverson, president of the Historic Annapolis Foundation, said the Sands House, near the City Dock, could become a museum without changing a thing. And, he said, it possesses more character than even the most pristine period-house museum.

"It's the coolest house," Stiverson said. "It blows my mind, to see the tea table with John Shaw chairs." Shaw was a 1790s-vintage Annapolis cabinetmaker.

"The house has an inordinately domestic feel missing in most museums," he added. "It's the history of one family, all of a piece of a continuum."

Over the years, the house has passed down mostly through mothers and daughters. The intact collection of female family memorabilia under its roof might be the rarest aspect of the collection, with ordinary objects such as a spinning wheel painstakingly preserved over years. Jensen, author of a children's history book, takes particular pleasure in an 1896 Ladies' Home Journal issue with a cover article by Louisa May Alcott, author of the classic Little Women.

A lady's dresser, which belonged to Jensen's grandmother, almost looks like a modern piece. A beret-style 1877 wedding hat, worn by her great-grandmother, Susannah Sands Revell, is on view upstairs. An 1830 Maryland bed, a sure showpiece in most settings, blends into the scene.

Other domestic items include a homemade corset, a darner, a hair bodkin, a tin apple baker, a whale-oil lamp, a thimble recovered from the ground and a curious sewing box crafted from wooden cigar boxes.

"That's always a conversation piece," Jensen said of her grandmother's sewing box. Her great-aunts Sarah and Emily Sands, she noted, were professional seamstresses.

From the way Jensen, a divorced mother of two daughters, speaks of long-dead personalities in her lineage, it's clear she's also a caretaker of the family sorrows and memories. A sentimental treasure is a 1776 letter written by William Sands, a Revolutionary War soldier who wrote home after fighting in the Battle of Long Island: "We expect please God to winter in Annapolis those that live of us." Not two weeks later, he was dead at age 20.

Jensen, by opening up the doors for visitors, is continuing a long tradition. Her late mother, Marjorie Moss Dowsett, was known for sitting on the porch and engaging strangers and passers-by in conversation.

Said Jensen: "She liked to tell them, `I was born in the room right over this window.'"

jamie.stiehm@baltsun.com

Tickets to tour the Sands House at 2 p.m. Sundays are available at the St. Clair Wright HistoryQuest Center, located near City Dock at Green and Main streets. Admission is $15. For information, call 410-267-6656 or 410-295-9715.

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