“It’s the best kept secret in the state!” declares South Lynn as he gazes toward the small log house perched on high stone foundations, and he launches into the story of the old place. This rustic cottage is a National Historic Landmark, one of only two in the county. Lynn’s love affair with the little house began in 1965 when he saw a story in the Washington Star headlined: John Brown Hideout for Sale with a photograph of the place and a Hagerstown dateline. In 1859 Abolitionist John Brown had come into this area with a plan to start an insurrection of slaves. He searched for a private piece of property where he could work without being noticed by neighbors. Dr. Robert F. Kennedy had purchased a collier’s cottage and 194 acres of land from Antietam Iron Works in 1852 as an investment. He had the one story-high stone foundation built and raised the one-room cottage onto them, then added a larger, two-story wing to the northeast. Kennedy died seven years later, and his farm was empty. Brown, calling himself Isaac Smith, rented the place for $35 in gold from the trustee of Kennedy’s estate and lived there while he gathered troops and organized his abortive raid on Harpers Ferry. His 16-year-old daughter Annie and his 17 year old daughter-in-law Martha served as cooks and housekeepers for this Provisional Army which grew to number 21 soldiers, including Brown’s sons Owen, Watson, and Oliver.
The farm passed through many owners and was altered extensively over the years. In 1950 it was purchased by the National Negro Elks when Leonard Curlin, a Hagerstown Elk persuaded the Tri-State Elks Lodge to buy it. The Elks had hoped to restore the house and make it a museum and shrine for Brown, who, Curlin said, “struck the first blow for my people.” Funds were slow in coming, and the Elks could no longer maintain the property. They had placed the farm on the market when Lynn saw the story in the paper. When he went to see the house, he was overwhelmed even though it was in very bad shape. Meanwhile Bonnard Morgan purchased the farm for resale in 1966. In 1972, Lynn leased the house for a year. He took this time to do research in the Maryland and National Archives to make certain that this place really was what people said it was: the house that John Brown rented before the raid on Harper’s Ferry. At the end of the lease Lynn convinced three friends to join him and buy the house with about 2 acres for $40,000.
It has really been Lynn’s project since then. He has courted politicians, lobbied the Maryland Historical Trust for funds, written grant applications and applied his considerable charms to get restoration specialists to help. A. W. Franzen, a noted restoration architect working for the National Park Service, prepared a report describing the 1859 building and its proposed restoration. In the end, the Department of the Interior funded about half the cost of restoration. Louis Goldstein, Comptroller of the State, got behind the project and allowed the Bureau of Public Works to fund much of the rest.
Several sources of historical information made the project possible. A drawing of John Brown’s Residence appeared in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper on November 26, 1859, and provides a clear picture of the front of the little house. Annie Brown lived to a considerable old age, wrote numerous letters, and was quoted extensively about life at the Kennedy Farm, In 1860 a Senate Select Committee convened to inquire into the facts and circumstances connected with Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry.
Using this historical information along with physical evidence found in the building, Franzen pieced together how the house had been altered over time and which parts of the house were original. Armed with a plan, Lynn cleared debris and began restoration. National Historic Landmark status was granted in 1974. This recognition opened doors for both recognition and funding. Lynn’s sons, South Jr. and Sprigg, helped in the process. Sprigg purchased period furnishings for the house as well. Over time, Lynn and Harold Keshishian bought out the other two partners, with Keshishian remaining in the background but providing critical financial support for the effort.
The house itself is functional, without ornament. The original collier’s cottage was a single room with a loft, probably with little or no foundation. Dr. Kennedy enlarged the house by having tall stone foundation walls created to make a ground level. A large stone fireplace was built in the interior stonewall that supports the northeast side of the cottage and divides the ground level. This level was used for storage in 1859. No interior stairs connected the ground floor with the second floor at that time.
The main level of the house is accessed by steps leading from the ground to a porch and contains three small rooms. The collier’s cottage became the kitchen with an iron cook stove and a single door opening onto the porch. The addition is also accessed through a door on the porch and contains two rooms. The first room was used as both a dining and a living room in 1859 and has the closed winder staircase to the attic where the men slept and hid when neighbors appeared. The back room, entered from the dining room through an original four-panel door, was Martha and Annie Brown’s bedroom. Moldings are plain; windows have six-over-six sashes. Logs are hewn and joined with inverted V notches. The gable ends of the house were covered with random width beaded boards.
The house had been extensively changed. The collier’s cottage had been expanded and a double porch put across the front of the house. The northeast gable end of the house had been veneered with brick and the rest of the house stuccoed. A stairway to the ground level was placed under the stairs to the attic removing much of the interior stonewall beneath it. An addition had been cobbled onto the rear and side of the collier’s side. To reverse all the alterations, the house had to be taken apart then put back together again using the original fabric that remained and replacing that which was missing. It was a huge task, but Lynn saw it through.
John Brown sits at the dining room table now, his piercing eyes fixing visitors as they enter. His son Owen stands beside him and another lieutenant behind, all marvelously realistic mannequins made by Robert Dorfman of Ellicott City, Maryland South Lynn talks with the figures; someday he expects them to respond, with the help of some sophisticated electronics. The house is open whenever Lynn is there, cutting the grass or doing other chores. Tours can be arranged by calling Lynn at (202) 537-8900. But it’s a good visit even if no one is around. The site is peaceful, you can peek in the windows, and on the porch there is an information button box that will play tapes when buttons are pushed.
Lynn continues to be enthralled with the house and its history. “We’ve been an non-profit from the beginning,” he says. But they just recently got 50lc3 status from the government as the John Brown historical Foundation. He dreams of raising funds to create a museum and a bookstore on the property. After twenty-seven years, Lynn is still fascinated by the place and still loves to give tours.
Terms to Know:
- Collier: When iron manufacturing was active in the county, charcoal was needed to separate the metal from ore. Colliers burned timber with insufficient oxygen to produce this charcoal.
- Gable: The triangular section of an exterior wall in a building with a ridged roof.