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Kennedy Farm the best-kept (John Brown) secret

October 10, 2009|By TIM ROWLAND

South Lynn has called the Kennedy Farm in southern Washington County the best-kept secret in Maryland. Whether or not that's true today, it was certainly true 150 years ago. John Brown wanted it that way.

When Brown's daughter, Annie, would do the dishes, she situated herself by a window with a view of the lane, where her job was more sentry than sanitary worker. Should any visitor come whistling up the path, she'd give the high sign and 20 or so men would scurry up to the attic.

Today, Washington County has a true shrine to John Brown thanks to Lynn, who bought the property in 1972 and saved it from deteriorating to dust. This Friday, those interested in its history can commemorate the 150th anniversary of Brown's march to Harpers Ferry - details can be found at johnbrownraid.org.

As best-kept secrets tend to be, the Kennedy Farm isn't easy to find (and secluded hollows are notoriously short of parking), so participants will be required to meet at the Harpers Ferry National Historical Park and take shuttle buses from there.

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This roundabout process is only appropriate, since Brown himself employed so much subterfuge. Under the name Isaac Smith, he told what neighbors there were that he was a prospector, and weapons were shipped to the premises in crates disguised as mining supplies.

Through the years, it's always been described as "John Brown's failed raid on Harpers Ferry." Today, historians are more likely to drop the word "failed."

Instead, there is increasing sentiment that Brown's haphazard rifle bursts (the first to be killed in the raid was a free black man) were the first true shots of the Civil War.

Brown had no qualms about using violence, but local historian Dennis Frye, for one, believes his ultimate goal may have been one of economics.

The Southern economy was based on agriculture, and as such, plantation owners had two chief assets: crops and equipment (the "equipment," of course, being of the human variety). Brown didn't need the slaves to revolt, necessarily, he just needed them to leave their work.

Today, that would be much the same as disabling a farmer's tractors and combines. Not only would he lose costly equipment in which much cash was invested, he also would lose his income because his crops would rot in the fields.

On this note, Brown's raid was indeed a failure. But if he didn't get inside the southerners wallets, he did get inside their heads.

To everyone in southern Washington County, Brown was exactly as he appeared to be - a common industrialist looking to make a buck. There was no reason to believe otherwise. That he could maintain this facade so well over the course of an entire summer stunned his neighbors.

And it more than stunned southern plantation owners, who all of a sudden began casting jaundiced eyes at their own neighbors whom they knew well. Or had previously thought they did.

My grandpa, in moments of disillusion, would say that he felt as if "the only people I can trust are me and thee; and sometimes I wonder about thee."

That was the South following John Brown's raid. Already a tinderbox of distrust, the raid ratcheted up paranoia to a level of no return and raised troublesome questions nationwide.

The Wayside Theater in Middletown, Va., recently concluded an excellent play by Warner Crocker called "Robert E. Lee and John Brown, Lighting the Fuse." In it, Lee and Brown wind up together post-raid, heatedly discussing the relative merits of engaging in violence for an estimable cause.

Lee speaks and you say, "Yes, I agree with Lee." Then Brown speaks and you say, "Yes I agree with Brown."

Like most good art, you leave with a few answers and a federal armory load of questions.

Such is the case with Brown and his mission. Dive into Brown, and you are diving into a pool from which you will never surface. Was he righteous? Was he insane? How did a man of such infinite organization and attention to detail allow the wheels to come off almost from the moment he set foot in Harpers Ferry? Or did they come off? In 1865, would he have looked back, convinced that everything had gone more or less according to plan? Sorry about the wholesale slaughter and all, but if that's what it takes ...

We do suspect this. Violence used as a means to an end, no matter how just, perpetuates violence. Violence escalates, it does not settle - at least not until it snowballs to a level that is almost too horrible to consider.

The John Brown story is as delicious as it is ultimately horrible. It is reason that produces unreasonableness, good ideas that produces bad, knowledge that produces stupidity, certainty that produces doubt, answers that produce questions.

And for three months in 1859, it was centered in Washington County. It's a secret, South Lynn might agree, that needs to get out.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist. He can be reached at 301-733-5131, ext. 2324, or by e-mail at timr@herald-mail.com. Tune in to the Rowland Rant video under opinion@herald-mail.com, on antpod.com or on Antietam Cable's WCL-TV Channel 30 evenings at 6:30. New episodes are released every Wednesday.

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