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Author explores hidden local history, from John Brown to James Brown
Many from the Eastern Panhandle have heard of John Brown and his infamous raid on Harpers Ferry. However, few have heard of John Brown’s Farm and role it played in civil rights history.
“I couldn’t believe it,” said Ed Maliskas, author of From John Brown to James Brown. “This farm could be one of the biggest civil rights locations in the country.”
Nestled in the hills of southern Washington County, John Brown’s farm is across the river from Harpers Ferry and was there in 1859 when the famed abolitionist planned the deadly raid on a Virginia arsenal.
A hundred years later, the farm was bought by the Black Elks fraternal organization to honor John Brown. While they held the property, the biggest names in music performed there like James Brown, Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye, the Drifters, Fat’s Domino and BB King.
“I only heard of it by chance,” Maliskas said. “It started when I forgot to bring enough winter clothes when I moved here from Miami. I went to a local consignment shop and just started talking about music with a guy there.”
Ed Maliskas moved to the area in 2008 from Miami but brought his love of music and history with him.
“This guy in the consignment shop was talking about the biggest names in music,” Maliskas said. “I couldn’t find any information on it. I tried to find more but some people just thought this guy was crazy and I was a fool for believing him.”
Maliskas dug deep to find the truth about the hidden past of John Brown’s Farm.
“I interviewed over 100 older African-Americanss from around the area to see if they knew anything about the farm or if they’d been there,” Maliskas said. “What I found was astonishing.”
Almost exactly a hundred years after John Brown’s raid on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, a new kind of assault was being launched; a musical barrage on the eardrums from the biggest names in rythm and blues.
“I couldn’t believe it,” said Maliskas. “We have a story here.”
In 1950, at the urging of Leonard Curlin, a Hagerstown Elk, the property was purchased by the Improved Benevolent Protective Order of the Elks of the World, the Black Elks, said Maliskas.
The IBPOEW describes itself as a fraternal organization “committed to the economic, personal, and academic advancement” and works to preserve locations “that have played a role in every phase of the African-American experience.”
“From 1950 to 1965,” said Maliskas, “the organization preserved the site and got the some of the biggest names in music to come to this farm.”
The events at John Brown’s Farm perhaps would not have happened without the promoters driving the music scene.
Leonard Harris, from Martinsburg, ran the 701 Club and still lives in the area. John Bishop, of Winchester, ran “The Orchard Inn” in Berryville.
Harris and Bishop split the financial risks and came together to bring the acts to the stage, said Maliskas.
“They knew some people who worked at Carrs-beach,” said Maliskas. “It was an African-American beach in Maryland where acts had played and they got them up to John Brown’s Farm.”
Once the acts began performing and word spread, the capacity at John Brown’s Farm grew larger and larger.
Maliskas said that it really was Bishop who was the entrepreneur of the concerts with an occasional assist from Harris.
“They’d have about 400 or 500 there on a regular night,” said Maliskas. “But when the bigger acts came, they’d have thousands of young African-Americans from New York to Georgia bused in.”
It’s remarkable that such icons of the era maintained a low-key environment but as Milaskas learned more, he wasn’t surprised.
“The area was pretty racist,” said Maliskas. “This was during segregation and the black community just kind of kept to themselves. Also, the road to get there was kind of rugged and I think you really needed to know where you were going.”
John Brown’s Farm became an open secret to the community who knew and loved the various acts that came to grace the stage.
The historic farm, once home to plans of rebellion, became a music dancehall that filled the hearts and minds of the local community with sounds of posivity and dance in the middle of segregated America.
“This is a real important cultural spot,” said Maliskas. “The connections between the abolitionist John Brown, the IBPOEW’s civil rights work and the major music stars, this is a truly unique landmark.”
Ed Maliskas encourages more to learn about the hidden history of John Brown’s Farm and hopes those interested will read his book, which is heading for the printing press in about a week.
Interested parties can find out more information using his facebook page,www.Facebook.com/edmaliskasauthor.
– Matt Dellinger is a staff reporter for The Journal and can be reached at 304-263-3381 Ext. 128 or on Twitter at @MattDellJN
Abolitionist HQ reborn a century later as a black nightclub
The year is 1959. African-Americans from Hagerstown, Winchester, Martinsburg and Charles Town travel over dark, back-country roads to a common destination in southern Washington County. Hundreds of black people gather every weekend for this vital mission – to let the good times roll.
Music-lovers spill out of jam-packed cars and tumble out of pickup trucks. They stream toward the rhythmic sounds throbbing from a low-lying block building. At the far end of the long narrow structure, an electrifying young entertainer dominates the event. James Brown is on stage.
Brown’s band, studded with pioneering rhythm and blues players from Little Richard’s former band, are laying down a funky groove. The Godfather of Soul twirls, drops down into the splits, and pops back up again. The crowd squeals in delight. The good times are rolling tonight.
The year is 1959. The place is the farm known locally as the John Brown farm.
A music venue with a history
A century earlier, on Oct. 16, 1859, from this same plot of land, the abolitionist John Brown staged his infamous raid on the federal armory at Harpers Ferry, Va. (now in West Virginia). Brown rented the farm from the estate of Robert Kennedy. Brown organized and planned his raid on the armory, and gathered and trained 21 troops.
The raid went well initially, as Brown’s party easily gained control of the virtually undefended armory and its cache of rifles. He intended to use the weapons produced at the armory to arm slaves to facilitate their fight for freedom. But two days later, Brown was captured by a company of U.S. Marines under the command of Col. Robert E. Lee. Brown was tried for murder, inciting to rebellion and treason. A jury found him guilty on all three counts and he was hanged.
Still, Brown’s raid was a factor in the decision of Southern states to secede from the Union, which led to the Civil War.
Decades passed and the Kennedy Farm fell into serious disrepair. In 1950, at the urging of Leonard Curlin of Hagerstown, the property was purchased by the Tri-State chapter of the Improved Benevolent Protective Order of the Elks of the World, known as the Black Elks. They wanted to restore the house and make it a memorial to Brown and his efforts to fight slavery.
A nightclub is born
During the years that the Elks owned the property, they hosted a variety of events there. Charles Harris of Winchester, Va., attended primarily the family-friendly events as a youngster on Saturday afternoons, but he remembers hearing about other events. “It was a fun place,” he recalled. People from as far away as Washington and Baltimore came to stay for the weekend in what Harris called “cabins.” There are still three boxy little houses on the property that fit Harris’s description.
But the venue’s prime reputation was its nightclub scene.
Leonard Cooper, owner of Just Us Hair Cuts in Hagerstown, grew up in Charles Town, W.Va. He recalled the musicians performing at what he called John Brown’s Farm. He remembers seeing Aretha Franklin, Diana Ross (probably with the Primettes) and The Drifters. He especially remembered Chubby Checker’s performance.
“I’ll never forget that day” he said. “Everybody was twistin’ all night long. Cats, dogs, even the cockroaches were doing the Twist.”
He said people from all levels of society rubbed shoulders at the performances.
High-profile acts, under-the-radar venue
The principal people driving the nightclub scene at the farm were booking agents John Bishop of Winchester, Va., and Leonard Harris of Martinsburg, W.Va. Bishop ran The Orchard Inn near Berryville, Va.; he died about two years ago. Martinsburg resident Harris ran the 701 Club in Martinsburg.
From time to time, Bishop and Harris booked high-profile acts. Because audiences for these concerts were larger than their clubs could handle, the two men rented the Kennedy Farm property from the Elks. They also made the financial arrangements with the artists, usually a 60-40 split, with the artist getting the larger piece. Promotion was largely by word of mouth, but they also utilized an extensive network of African-American-owned businesses to display posters of upcoming events.
Under Harris and Bishop’s leadership, the John Brown farm became one of the smaller stops on the Chitlin’ Circuit. That was the name given to a succession of venues throughout the Southern and Eastern United States where black musicians and comedians were welcome and safe to perform. It included the Cotton Club and the Apollo Theater in New York City, the Howard Theatre in Washington and the Royal Theatre in Baltimore.
Well-managed music business
In the heyday of the music scene at the Kennedy farm, its patrons saw many performers, including Ray Charles, Tina Turner, the Cadillacs and Jackie Wilson. An exuberant club atmosphere was available for patrons – if they could find it. The Kennedy Farm is on Chestnut Grove Road south of Sharpsburg – a remote destination in a rural part of Washington County.
Tuesday, August 30, 2016 After some hard work there is a new dry hydrant in service at the John Brown Farm on Chestnut Grove Rd in the 11 Box area. Having this new “Dry” Hydrant will improve the amount of water available for use during a fire in the south county.
A very big Thank You to goes out to Deputy Chief Roger Otzelberger Jr., FF Dave Myers and Director Dave Hayes along with several others for helping complete this project. Having another Primary Water Source in South County for Fire Protection goes along way in providing better protection to our citizens who live in the non fire hydrant area’s of south Washington County.
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Chitlin Circuit at Kennedy Farm click here to read the history that will be posted soon
In the back of the John Brown house sits a most interesting piece of African American history. The Black Elks owned and operated a meeting hall and music venue which saw most of the big acts of the 50’s and 60’s play there.