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You can't burn down history

September 30, 2006|by Johnna Maravelis

To the arsonist(s) in Williamsport:

You burned our oldest structure, but you didn't destroy history - only our ability to learn about and from it.

The historic structure you so wantonly torched in the early morning hours of Aug. 30, was a part of the estate owned by the founder of Williamsport, Gen. Otho Holland Williams. The original portion of the structure was log, built between 1750 and the early 1800s. This was possibly prior to the start of the Revolutionary War in 1775 and the drafting of the Constitution in 1787.

This log structure consisted of two rooms and a fireplace downstairs and three rooms and a fireplace upstairs, plus an attic.

In 1788, General Williams laid out the original 35 lots in William's Port. In 1789, the U.S. Constitution was ratified. On Oct. 19, 1794 (or Oct. 20), President George Washington visited Williamsport and dined at the Springfield Farm on which this house is sited, while giving consideration to Williamsport being the U.S. capital. (Fortunately, we were the number two selection, and a more navigable section of the Potomac River was chosen).

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General Williams died in 1794 at the age of 45 from an illness contracted during his imprisonment during the Revolutionary War, and the estate passed to his brother, Elie and then to Otho's son Edward Greene Williams. In 1829, Edward died and left his estate to be divided between his wife and daughter. Springfield Farm was operated by farm managers who lived in the historic structure that was torched. In 1835, the first canal boat reached Williamsport.

The addition was frame construction added prior to the Civil War, which began in 1861. The addition consisted of two large rooms downstairs and three rooms upstairs plus an additional attic which stepped down into the original attic and left the original shake shingles exposed inside the new attic.

The farm was taken over as a Union campsite. A signal tower was erected on the hill in the woods to the northeast, and the virgin timber was cut for military needs. Mrs. White later said that the "giant Oak and Elm trees were felled to build camp quarters, and for four years the depredations incident to war despoiled its beauty."

For this reason, they decided to sell at the end of the Civil War. Confederate soldiers also used property throughout the estate, as well as the entire town, after evacuating from Gettysburg to the Potomac, and were trapped for 11 days until the waters of the Potomac receded enough to reach safety in Virginia (now West Virginia). The Williams family had been associated with the estate for a full century when, on April 18, 1864, Mary Smith Williams White sold to Charles Humrichouse for $16,000.

During Williamsport Days recently, this structure was opened to the public for the first time. We only received engineering approval two days in advance, so it wasn't well-advertised, but we still had more than 150 people tour the structure. This involved Mayor James McCleaf, the council members and many town employees who assisted in preparation of the structure. It involved volunteers from the Williamsport Museum Committee who cleaned and loaned antique furniture for the tours.

The Blue Ridge Lacemaker's Guild demonstrated tatting on Saturday. Members of the re-enactors group that camped outside this structure volunteered their time to restore the house and are planning to join the museum committee. We received a number of donations, the most notable from a very young boy who gave everything he had - $2.53 - and when asked if he was certain he wanted to give it all, stated simply, "don't you want to see them save this house?"

The Potomac Garden Club has earmarked funds to replant the orchard next year and intends to fund the kitchen garden the following year. Denny Warrenfeltz, a noted historian and florist from Funkstown, had loaned us books regarding the orchards and kitchen garden and agreed to view the site and make recommendations. Another man noted his brother owned an herb farm and would assist us in setting up a kitchen garden and even teach a class.

A man from the Conococheague Institute gave us a lot of insight into the structural details and even told us how to confirm the date of construction with a core sample from one of the logs. Everyone who toured was complimentary and supportive. The weekend was a great success. Then on the morning of Aug. 30, came the news of the fire. Firefighters from Williamsport and the surrounding area knocked the fire down in an hour - amazing, considering the age and flammability of the structure. Town officials and employees have been there throughout the day along with investigators, and many members of the community have shed a tear upon seeing this loss.

It's too early to tell if the structure is salvageable. Our plans for a living history museum may no longer be viable, but let me tell you something. The history remains and the enthusiasm remains and we will find a way to make certain future generations know what was done in the past to create the freedoms we take for granted today, including the right to a fair trial - which is a right I hope you will be availed of in the near future.

Johnna Maravelis is a member of the Williamsport Museum Committee.

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