Proudly residing in Md.'s past

October 22, 2006|By Cassandra A. Fortin | Cassandra A. Fortin,Special to The Sun

Nestled behind a row of dense trees just off the highway in Belcamp is a resplendent Georgian mansion known as Sophia's Dairy.

The daughter of Col. Thomas White, a lawyer and deputy surveyor of Maryland, Sophia inherited the land the house sits on as part of her dowry.

Completed in 1768, the eight-room mansion was the home of Sophia and her husband, Aquila Hall, a prominent community figure.

The original brick mansion was the largest old dwelling in the area - measuring 65 feet by 45 feet - and its outbuildings included a corn house, springhouse (to cool food), icehouse, chicken house, meat house, hog pen, apiary, barn, two slave quarters and stables.

The house, which was listed on the National Register in 1972, boasts a rich history that includes documented visits from George and Martha Washington, as well as serving as a country retreat for Robert Morris, a financier of the American Revolution and a signer of the Declaration of Independence, and his wife, Mary, who was Sophia's sister.

About 233 years after the house was built, James and Patricia Fielder purchased the property to preserve the integrity of the structure and its history.

"This house has an important history that needs to be documented, and Pat and I are the stewards of that history," said James Fielder.

Their preservation efforts began when they purchased the property and saved it from certain destruction, said Patricia Fielder.

"This house is so unique because of its originality," said Patricia. "It's so pure, and it has good bones. For the most part, the previous owners have preserved the house as it was originally. We want to continue that tradition."

To achieve their goal, the Fielders, who have been married for 34 years, are meshing his affinity for building and repair with her eye for interior design, as they embark on a journey back through time to 18th-century Maryland and its architectural styles.

Over the next few years, they plan to upgrade the grounds, construct outbuildings that will include a woodworking shop and compile a book on the history of the property.

For starters, they are systematically restoring each room in the house to make it more amenable to a contemporary lifestyle, said James Fielder, the secretary of the Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation for Maryland.

"When we purchased the house, it was in a bad state of disrepair," he said. "The plaster and paint on the walls was peeling, termites were infesting the structure, and there was running water in the basement, where about 40 snakes had made their home. And outside, there were dead trees standing in the yard."

To date, renovations on the house have included updating the plumbing and electrical systems, replacing the boiler system and repainting the interior and exterior.

But the Fielders are looking beyond the old structure and its state of disrepair, to what the old house once was and could be again.

"I believe this house was built for entertaining," he said. "The entryway is 17 feet wide and 45 feet deep. The minuet and line dancing were very popular then, and the area would have given guests enough room to dance. And also it's a warm and welcoming house."

Some pretty prominent guests agreed.

In a book titled Account of the Meeting of the Descendents of Colonel Thomas White of Maryland held at Sophia's Dairy June 7, 1877, James found detailed stories about Martha Washington visiting the house with her nieces and nephews.

"This house is midway between Philadelphia and Washington, D.C.," he said. "The book said that Martha Washington stayed here with her nieces and nephews during her trips to Philadelphia."

Illustrating the close friendship between the Morris family and the Washingtons is a letter that Fielder came across, written by George Washington to Mary Morris. It said:

"To Mary Morris

"Our Dear Madam -

"We never learnt with certainty, until we had the pleasure of seeing Mr. White (since his return from Frederick) that you were at Winchester.

"We hope it is unnecessary to repeat in this place how happy we should be to see you and Miss Morris under our roof for as long a stay as you shall find convenient before you return to Philadelphia; for be assured we ever have and still do retain the most affectionate regard for you, Mr. Morris, and the family.

"With the highest esteem and best wishes for the health and happiness of the family you are in, we are, Dear Madam, Your most obedient and very humble servants,

"Go. Washington

"Martha Washington"

For more than 50 years, the house remained in the Hall family until being sold in 1818 for $25,000 to Capt. John Adams Webster, who distinguished himself at the Battle of North Point in 1814, according to James.

After that, the house changed hands frequently until being purchased in the 1930s by the Bata shoe company as a private residence for its chief executive officer, Viktor Schmidt, James said.

During Bata's ownership, James' father and grandfather farmed the land around the property.

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