These Old Houses

Monocacy National Battlefield Homes Offer Views of the Past

By Karen Gardner | Photography by Turner Photography Studio | Posted on 09.20.18 – Feature, History

Monocacy National Battlefield is a must see for any Civil War buff. But this national park is also home to three pre-Civil War era houses that not only withstood the effects of the 1864 Battle of Monocacy, but also give a glimpse into home life and architecture of the period.

The houses of the Best Farm, Thomas Farm and Worthington Farm are all in various states of repair and all show different aspects of life in the Civil War era. The three houses were open to the public in May and will be open again Sept. 22, which is National Public Lands Day. The free tours require reservations. The park has opened the houses on select days each year for the past three years, and Park Ranger Tracy Evans expects the tours to resume again next year. 

“We’re trying to find the right balance,” Evans says. Even returning visitors will hear another layer of history as volunteers, staff and interns learn more and more about the histories of the houses, the people who lived in them and those who worked the farms. Today, the farms are relatively undeveloped, and the surrounding farmland looks much as it did when Civil War soldiers marched over the rolling hills and alongside the normally peaceful Monocacy River bank. 

Best Farm

The story of the Best Farm begins not with the Civil War but the uprising by enslaved people on the island of Santo Domingo, today known as Hispaniola and home to Haiti and the Dominican Republic. “The Best Farm tells the story of a French-style pre-Civil War plantation, and it shows how the battlefield developed as a battlefield,” Evans says.

The Vincendiere family began to acquire the land that became the Best Farm in 1793. They owned a sugar plantation in the colony of Saint Domingue, today Haiti. The colony was home to uprisings by the local enslaved people as well as civil unrest brought about by the French Revolution. The Vincendieres left the Caribbean and returned to France before coming to America through the port of Baltimore.

Victoire Vincendiere was 18 when the family came to the United States. In 1794, the family began building L’Hermitage, which in 1798 was surrounded by 748 acres of farmland. By 1800, Victoire was head of the 108-person household, most of whom kept the farm operating. The household included 90 African-American slaves, making Victoire the county’s second largest slaveholder at that time. Other members of the household were Victoire’s immediate family, a distant cousin and other French refugees.

Clues to the family’s French and Caribbean heritage are evident in the architecture of the large white stucco farmhouse, and in the remaining outbuildings. The south wing of the original house was built around 1794. It consisted of a cellar, stairway and two rooms and had a hipped roof. The windows on the house’s ground floor are set in alcoves, a style clearly taken from French Caribbean homes where the goal was to keep the house cool in the hot, humid climate. The high ceiling also helped keep the house cool in summer. On one wall was a large fireplace.

The north side of the house was built about two years later. “After a couple of winters, the ceilings are lowered and the windows are not angled,” Evans says. The room is clearly smaller and cozier, and probably much warmer in winter. 

The large, alcove windows on the south side allowed a sweeping view of the farmland and six wooden dwellings used to house slaves. In contrast, most slave dwellings of that time in this region were placed behind or out of sight of the main house. “It may have been a sense of control and power, and they were fleeing from somewhere where people have rebelled,” Evans says. “The buildings are arranged in a purposeful way. We’d like to do a comparison to how it would have been. We are wondering, ‘Is this unique, or a result of fear of rebellion, of wanting to keep an eye on the slaves?’” 

The six outbuildings no longer stand, but there’s an ongoing archeological study of the slave village. Another, larger outbuilding still stands. Built of stone and log, it may have housed French refugees or other members of the household. The farmland that surrounded the house and outbuildings may have been for growing tobacco, but the large number of slaves may have been rented out to other farms. 

Best House

The north side of the house contains four rooms and has a shed roof. Historians have categorized the house as a mixture of French Colonial, Caribbean and early Federal architectural styles. On the back of the house was a summer kitchen, built of log and eventually connected to the main house. The stone threshing barn set behind the house to the west also dates from the 1790s but has a very different look. It’s rectangular, with large bays and an arched brick door opening, built like an English, or Yankee barn, a style used in England and continental Europe since the Middle Ages.

By 1820, Victoire updated the house, giving it a consistent roofline, and made other improvements. At this time, she began selling off property. “[It] is telltale of what do you do when you sell your house, you make improvements,” Evans says. The house was sold in 1828, when only 15 people lived in the main house at L’Hermitage, including four free African-Americans. The farm’s enslaved population had decreased to 48, or nearly half what it once was. Victoire moved to the City of Frederick, residing there until her death in 1854.

The farm is strategically located. Sometime in the 1830s, the B&O Railroad put in a rail line adjacent to the farm. That, along with its location along Georgetown Pike (today Md. 355), connecting rural Western Maryland with Washington, D.C., practically guaranteed that the farm would be a key spot during the Civil War. Troops camped on the fields of the Best Farm throughout the conflict.

The Best family began leasing the farm in the late 1830s. John Best took over farming operations in 1864, and although the battle destroyed the hay, grain, tools, farm equipment and crops, he continued to cultivate the land for many years. By the 1880s, John Best had built up one of the most successful farming operations in the region. The Trail family, who bought the farm in 1852, rented it to the Bests and other families until it was sold to the National Park Service in 1993.

The National Preservation Training Center has kept the house from further deterioration. Layer upon layer of paint is peeling off the walls, and termites have chewed through some of the original logs, but the house is still intact. The park hopes to preserve the house so it can continue to tell the stories of the French refugees and African-American slaves, as well as the soldiers who later walked the land.

 

Worthington Farm

The Worthington Farm is similarly preserved, and visitors can see the louvered basement window where young Glenn Worthington witnessed the battle. The house was built in 1850, burned in 1860 and was rebuilt. The classic brick farmhouse is typical of affluent Frederick County farmers of that era. Wide steps lead up to an expansive front porch that spans the length of the house.

The wide front door leads into a large foyer. On the wall is a stunning example of trompe l’oeil painting. “This is my favorite thing about this house,” Evans says. The park has requested money to one day restore the painting. “You can just imagine how this will look when it’s restored.” Frederick had several itinerant painters in the mid-19th century who painted elaborate designs on the walls of local houses. The painting continues in the main parlor of the house, where faux crown molding surrounds the room and a faux medallion can still be seen on the ceiling. 

Worthington House

The main staircase is carved wood, and it survives mostly intact. “There were no major renovations to the house,” Evans says. A kitchen was added in the 1880s, but indoor plumbing was never installed. An ice house and smokehouse survive. 

John and Mary Worthington lived in the house until the 1910s, and the home became a tenant farmhouse after that. The Jenkins family, owners of a local cannery, bought the house, which was used as a boardinghouse for farmworkers or cannery workers in the 20th century. Graffiti drawn on the walls of the house by the workers can still be seen.

Today, the Worthington house feels secluded, with wooded areas surrounding the house and a tree-lined driveway. A forested path leads hikers to the Monocacy River. The leafy vegetation muffles the sound of nearby I-270.   

 

Thomas Farm

One of docent Liz Richardson’s favorite stories to tell visitors to the Thomas Farm is the indentation caused by a bullet in the door of the house. That bullet showed how close the fighting was to the families who lived through the battle. 

Another of her favorite stories shows fate’s mischievous side. The farm was built in 1780 by James Marshall, a Scottish merchant. Christian Keefer Thomas bought it just before the Civil War to get away from the uprising in Baltimore. “The irony is, he had soldiers in his yard for the next four years,” Richardson says. 

“This house was under fire and sustained the most damage of any during the battle,” Evans says. Lt. Gen. Ulysses Grant, commander of all Union forces, used the house after the battle to hold a council of war with other generals.

The Thomas house opens for tours more often than the houses at the other two farms and is used as administrative offices for Monocacy staff. It was renovated and modernized by the owners in the 1940s, and many original features were removed. 

“There was originally a colonnade porch with big columns,” Evans says. “You can see where it was.” The upstairs door to the colonnade has been filled in and two wings to the house, one a side porch and one a garage, were added. “We would like to put the porch back on and take the wings off.” 

The house has an intact window, once exterior, now interior, made of Amelung Glass, from a well-known glass factory in late-18th century Frederick. The house has been through five phases of renovation.

Vestiges of wealth can be seen throughout. Italian marble surrounds several fireplaces and the front staircase is grand and curving with wide, low steps. An intricately carved plaster column is in the front room. Interestingly, the column, along with a mate, were removed in the 1940s renovation. The surviving column was found stored in the pool house. Park officials wanted to put the columns back in the room, and they were able to trace its origins.

“The company in Chicago still existed, and they had the mold,” Evans says. A second column was reproduced to match the original, and the two columns stand in the main parlor. 

The well-worn treads of the back staircase, which served as the front staircase in the 18th century before the house was enlarged, are evidence of the passage of time at the house. Outside, the mid-19th century bank barn, smoke house and ice house all survive.

All these features help the park tell the stories of the farm. When C.K. Thomas played host to Civil War soldiers during the four years of the war, he, like most residents of the area, played both sides of the fence. Evans tells a story about Thomas’ daughter, Virginia, who once sat on Grant’s lap. Grant asked her who her daddy favored in the war. “Daddy’s a Yankee when the Yankees come through and a Rebel when the Rebels come through,” Evans says the response was. 

A New Jersey regiment spent so much time at the Thomas farm, one of the officers brought his hunting dog to the farm and hunted with Thomas. The officer even left the dog with the Thomas family for months at a time while he was away. “The New Jersey troops had relationships with many local families,” Evans says. 

“They weren’t different from us,” Richardson says of the families who farmed the land and the soldiers who camped there. “They were all part of the fabric of our society.” 

If You Go …

Monocacy National Battlefield Historic House Tours

5201 Urbana Pike

301-662-3515

Saturday, Sept. 22. Best House, 10 a.m.-noon; Worthington House, 12:30 p.m.-2:30 p.m.; Thomas House, 3 p.m.-5 p.m. 

Tours of each house are free and limited to 20 people. You must pre-register by calling rangers Tracy Evans or Brian Dankmeyer at 301-662-3515. For more information, go to www.nps.gov/mono.