No pumpkins to be harmed in the making of this reservoir

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June 29, 2007|By LAURA VOZZELLA

Soviet spy Whittaker Chambers turned on communism and Alger Hiss and then was forced, in the hard times that followed, to sell a chunk of his Carroll County farm. A half century later, Chambers' son has finally reassembled the family farm - only to see it threatened anew.

Carroll County, where new houses can't be built without new water, wants to take part of the farm to build the proposed Union Mills reservoir.

When John Chambers objected - the property, northeast of Westminster, was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1988 - he said county leaders brushed him off this way: "We're not threatening to take the pumpkin patch."

That pumpkin patch. Everybody focuses on the spot where, in 1948, Chambers famously stashed microfilmed state secrets in a hollowed-out gourd. He turned the "pumpkin papers" over to the House Un-American Activities Committee, which helped to send Hiss to prison for perjury, heighten the Red Scare and propel Richard Nixon to the White House.

Cars still pull up and strangers from as far away as Alaska - Cold War history buffs, but also priests, inspired by the spiritual awakening that led the spy to reject communism - ask to see the pumpkins.

Even in its day, the patch was no more than a "renegade" vine growing out of the compost heap on what was then a nearly 400-acre farm, John Chambers said. Today, it's just grass, part of the 40-acre parcel that Chambers parted with in the late 1950s.

"I always felt that the price that I paid for [his father's accusing Hiss, a former State Department official and Hopkins grad, of spying] was the breaking up of the family farm, something that's been dear to me since I was old enough to know it," said John Chambers, 70. "My end-of-life goal has been to reassemble it and make it available to the next generation as a farm."

He bought back the 40 acres last fall and soon got wind that Carroll County had its eye on another part of the farm.

Carroll planning director Steve Horn said the reservoir plan has been on the books for decades, though it has only recently advanced to the state Department of the Environment, which is reviewing it. The county Web site shows a map of the proposed reservoir and an unaffected "Chambers Homestead," the pumpkin patch area.

But the project would claim land - Horn says 15 acres; John Chambers fears it will be even more - in another part of the farm. That area includes the farmhouse where Chambers moved his family after selling off the 40 acres in the late 1950s. It was there that he wrote his best-selling autobiography, Witness. It also was there that Chambers, who died in 1961, asked to have his ashes scattered.

"Clearly everyone is interested in protecting the historical integrity of any place in Carroll County," Horn said. "We have to balance our desire to do that against the need to provide a safe and adequate water supply for current and future residents."

It is little solace to John Chambers, a retired journalist, that the county has no designs on the famous "pumpkin patch." The "back farm" he could lose is where his parents, financially and emotionally spent after the Hiss affair, "found solace and comfort and purpose to their lives."

"This is where my parents died," he said. "This is the area of the farm they most loved."

John Chambers hopes the land, already under easement through the county's farm preservation program, will be protected by its National Historic Landmark designation. But like his father, he's not putting too much faith in government.

Just a little home away from home

Political intrigue at Whittaker Chambers' farm didn't end with the Cold War.

A tipster called not long ago to say that state Sen. George Della - who'd just outed Baltimore City Councilwoman Rikki Spector for more or less living with her out-of-district boyfriend - resided not in his Baltimore district, but on the Chambers farm.

Della said he'd sold the place to John Chambers last fall. But even when he did own it, Della said, he only spent weekends there.

Della swore he is not now, and never has been, a carpetbagger.

Connect the dots

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