Cloverton is a Williamsport gem

June 10, 2011|By PAT SCHOOLEY | Special to The Herald-Mail
  • Cloverton, now owned by Pat Cushwa, is on U.S. 11 on the outskirts of Williamsport.
By Yvette May/Staff Photographer

WILLIAMSPORT, Md. — This is the 187th in a series of articles about the historical and architectural treasures of Washington County.

Snugged into a copse of old trees and surrounded by massive boxwood, the handsome brick house stands back from Potomac Street/U.S. 11 on the outskirts of Williamsport.

In 1843, Isaac Motter, a farmer, purchased 101.75 acres of land from the estate of Edward G. Williams for $5,087.50. This parcel, parts of land patents named "Leeds," "Number Seven" and "Dear Bargain," was situated at the edge of Williamsport on the north side of the turnpike to Hagerstown and across the road from Springfield Farm. Motter sited his home close to the road, saying he did not want to maintain a long lane such as the one at Springfield Farm.

Motter then contracted with Elias Sprecher, 30 years old, to build his house. Sprecher chose Andrew Neikirk, Upton Marin and Thomas Stuart to help him.

On Feb. 23, 1852, about the time the house was finished, Stuart penciled on a scrap of beaded molding in clear, flowing script, "Thomas W. Stuart is my name and Maryland is my nation, heaven is my dwelling place and Christ is my salvation. When I am dead and all my bones are rotten, look on this board. May my name not be forgotten." He was 22.

Motter named his homestead Cloverton. It had solid walls three bricks thick held together with common bond, five rows of stretcher bricks to each row of headers. The house has three bays in the front elevation with its main entrance in the right bay, under a broad porch with a one-story roof. Windows have six-over-six sashes. The tin roof has cast metal snowbirds. Double porches under the main roof span adorned the right side as well as the rear of the ell that extends behind the main block. A brick smokehouse with a steeply pitched hip roof stands behind the house on the right. A small two-story stone house, with one tiny room on each level, stands to the right. It has a deep, overhanging gable that protects the stone-lined, hand-dug well beneath.

The ground slopes back from the road behind the house, and the basement opens just a few steps below grade. Above it, hung at the peak of the gable of the ell, is a brass bell whose rope once threaded through the porch roofs below it. This rope was pulled to call farmhands to dinner. The basement has a large cooking fireplace furnished with period cooking utensils and a beehive oven extending into the room behind the fireplace, a massive rounded mound covered in rough cast, accessed from the left side of the firebox through a cast iron door.

On the first floor, double parlors stood on the left and a broad hall to the right. Stairs with turned balusters rose to a landing, with three steps leading to bedrooms in the ell, while another flight of steps turned to lead to the bedrooms in the main block of the house. There are five in all.

There were six fireplaces as well. Carrie W. Motter, the maiden daughter of Isaac and the last Motter to live in the house, scratched her name in one of the windowpanes with her diamond ring.

This property endured the Civil War, as did all of Washington County. Family tradition recalls that the young bugler for the Massachusetts Regiment died in the small bedroom upstairs. Roger Keller researched this story and found from war records that it is true.  

Isaac Motter's will, probated in 1878, leaves his wife "the farm on which I now live, also a one story log house and lot adjoining the Corporation of Williamsport, with all my horses, cows and hogs with my farming utensils including wagons, carriages and sleigh with all the crops unsold also my household and Kitchen furniture with clocks, library, liquors…and the balance to my dear children." The executors were Anna E., Nancy A. and Joseph L. Motter.

In 1913, the family finally sold the farmstead to Alex Anderson, "excepting One and 25/100 acres of land reserved on which is situated the Mansion House." It was not until 1936 that the estate of Mary Motter, the last of the family to own the property, sold the house to Victor Cushwa and Margaret Bresnahan, his wife, for $5,000. The house had stood empty for most of those intervening years. It had deteriorated sadly: porches were falling off, and you could stand in the living room and look up into the attic.

In 1692, Capt. John Couchois and his family left Alsace-Lorraine in front of a rising tide of Catholicism and settled first in Berks County, Pa., then migrated to the Dry Run area of Washington County, near the Pennsylvania border and Fairview Mountain. The family home, a clapboard mansion, stood on Spickler Road. A small family cemetery is still noted on local maps. Over time, the spelling of the family's name changed to Cushwa. And over time the family married into local families, many of them Catholic, and so became stalwarts of that religion anyway.

The first Victor Cushwa was born at the old family mansion in 1833 and learned the trade of tanner from his uncle, George Cushwa. He managed the Washington County Leather Manufacturing Co. until it was destroyed by fire in 1872. He then went into the coal, cement and brick business. This became Victor Cushwa and Sons in 1888 when his son, Victor Monroe, and son-in-law M. Emmett Cullen joined the business. His younger sons, David K. and C. Frank, joined the firm in 1901.

Victor Monroe Cushwa had nine children, five strapping sons and four daughters. Only one of these sons, Victor, married; and he had only one son, another Victor. This Victor fell in love with Margaret Mary Bresnahan, a vivacious, dark-haired Irish beauty with a degree in fine arts from a Boston college.

Victor had passed the decaying mansion for many years, and went to his hard-working, frugal family and asked them to help him buy Cloverton for his wife. Even though the family brick company was going broke, the family managed to come up with $5,000 to buy the house. It was 1936. Men would gladly work for a dollar a day, and many of the brick company employees were happy to help with the house just to have work. They worked slowly and carefully, choosing only the best quality products available to rebuild the house.

Margaret wanted to open the house up, to make it more like the homes she knew in Boston. She had the wall between the double parlors removed to create a single vast space beside the side hall. New, sophisticated beaded woodwork, hand made by Wilbur Cushen, decorated this room. Mirrors were installed around and above the fireplace. Bookcases filled the north wall. Walls were carefully replastered, air conditioning installed. Nearly every room was papered, the front hall and dining room with papers that resembled hand-painted murals. Everything was of the finest quality, and much was custom made.

Margaret also took the wall out from between the two bedrooms on the second floor of the ell and created another large room. She covered the kitchen fireplace, hiding it behind a butler's pantry, and placed the stove in the middle of the room. The blue enamel sink and its splashboards extend the length of its wall. In 1938, the Cushwas moved in and began to furnish the house. Family antiques came from the Cushwa side. Margaret purchased French antiques. Victor preferred local treasures and added these to their home.  

Victor Monroe Cushwa went to the state legislature. Here he sponsored a bill making Good Friday a holiday. The brick company was an important part of the economy, employing a large workforce and being a large presence in Williamsport, where the warehouse with Cushwa painted in huge letters remains at the canal basin. Victor Cushwa, Victor Monroe's grandson, served as state senator for many years and is honored as the namesake of the pedestrian bridge in Allegheny County that spans Interstate-70.

Margaret starred in many Potomac Playmakers events, was active in most of the artistic ventures that occurred in the county. She created the gardens around the house, nurturing tiny slips of boxwood that her father gave her into the massive plants now in the garden.

When her husband died, she lived alone until 1977, when her son, Victor, his wife Pat and their son Victor moved into the home to care for her. When Margaret's wheelchair ran into the walls damaging the wallpaper she so loved, she took out her paints and added new designs to hide the damage.

Margaret died on Aug. 15, 1981. But the house is as she left it. The green carpeting from 1935 is still there, unworn and unstained. The wallpaper from the same era still looks fresh, an amazing testament to good care and buying the best. Pat Cushwa, now a widow, loved her mother-in-law's taste.

 "It takes a village," she says of her role as caretaker, and describes how friend and florist Denny Warrenfeltz  trims and cares for the boxwood in return for greenery to use at his floral shop and how another family friend, Todd Bowman, clears the snow from the driveway in the winters. She says that the town of Williamsport "wraps its arms around you," and that is the reason generations of families choose to stay in the vicinity.

Tthe hand-dug well collapsed and had to be filled in, but its stone edges still form a circle beneath the overhanging roof. Pat would like a different kitchen, like to have its fireplace back, but as with all the potential changes, the prospect is too massive, too expensive, too disrupting to contemplate. Instead, she will live in the house, care for and enjoy it and hope that the next owner will respect its history and do as fine a job as Margaret and Victor did when they saved it.  

Terms to know:

  • Bay: Each space along the façade of a building defined by an opening.
  • Bond: The pattern of interlocking units of a masonry building that strengthens the structure.
  • Header: A brick laid with its small end toward the face of a wall. Laid this way, the brick spans two courses of bricks, holding them together.
  • Stretcher: Brick laid with the long, narrow side toward the face of the wall.
  • Hip roof: 1. A roof formed by four pitched roof surfaces that slope toward the ridge or come to a point. The hip is the external angle formed by the joint of two sloped roof surfaces. 2. A roof that slopes from all exterior walls, forming a pyramid.

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