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Civil War-era farm a witness to history

Property is a 'modern-day casualty' of recession

September 02, 2012|By ARNOLD PLATOU | arnoldp@herald-mail.com
  • The house, barn and outbuildings at 20725 Reno Mountain Road have deteriorated since its owner declared bankruptcy. The property is on the Maryland Inventory of Historic Places, but that designation isn't expected to stop a proposal to demolish the barn. In 1862, after a Civil War battle nearby, historians say, soldiers of the North and South rushed right past the property on the road shown above, which at this point follows the same course as then.
By Kevin G. Gilbert/Staff Photographer

BOONSBORO — In the mid-1700s, British soldiers on the way to battle might have marched right past the property on the old road crossing South Mountain.

A century later, just after a battle nearby, Civil War armies did rush past on the same road, barely 12 paces away from the front door of the property’s new log farmhouse.

Today, the new battle threatening the old log house, barn and outbuildings at 20725 Reno Monument Road is the nation’s ongoing economic struggle. With its owner in bankruptcy, the property has deteriorated.

And now, the bank involved in the situation is talking about demolishing the barn as a way of addressing concerns about its dilapidated condition.

“This (property) is a modern-day casualty of the economic recession, not unlike the hundreds of Confederate casualties that passed it, retreating to Sharpsburg,” area historian Dennis Frye said.

“This house witnessed American history and witnessed Civil War history that changed Washington County and the nation,” Frye said. “And, it’s not just some old house. And, it deserves much better treatment.

“I mean, it is the equal to the sycamore witness tree at the Burnside Bridge (on Antietam Battlefield). There’s a tree there at the Burnside Bridge that actually witnessed the battle.”

The Reno Monument Road property is on the Maryland Inventory of Historic Places. Its architecture was of “significant integrity” that is typical of area properties in the mid-1800s, according to Elizabeth Hughes, deputy director of the Maryland Historical Trust.

Though the property was never nominated, it has been declared eligible to be placed on the National Registry of Historic Places, Hughes said.

Even so, Hughes and others said, there are no regulations protecting the historical nature of the property or restrictions on what happens to it.

“There really isn’t anything that we can do if it’s privately owned,” said Paula Reed, a consultant whose 1978 report first led to public recognition of the property.

Historic designations “don’t intrude on private-property rights. Even if it were nationally listed, that would not prevent the property owner from demolishing it or changing it,” Reed said.

A path for armies
The 8.63-acre property is all that remains of the 204-acre dairy farm that Charles and Nancy Stiles, now deceased, owned and worked for many years.

“I grew up there,” said Henry Stiles, 50, who lives in a more modern house a few hundred yards uphill off Reno Monument Road.

“My parents moved to the farm in ’63. Dairy-farmed there until Dad passed away. My brother took over. We milked about 90 cows, so I helped my brother farm it. About 16 years later, he moved the operation to Tennessee,” Stiles said.

Growing up, he said, he always knew the house was old.

“If you would take the old clapboard off, it’s all log in there. If you were to go into the basement, you’d see it has one of the old big, thick stone foundations that they put logs on,” Stiles said.

He said he thought the house was built in the 1700s.

“Mom had done some research on it. I think she said it was put on the national historic register,” he said.

“From what I understand,” Stiles said, “it was there when Washington and Braddock went up and down the road.”

Most likely, the house wasn’t yet built, but there is evidence that British Gen. Edward Braddock’s troops did march past the property in 1755 on what is now called Reno Monument Road, local father-and-son historians John and Dennis Frye said.

The road, which on early deeds was called the Middletown-Sharpsburg Road, is one of the oldest in Washington County, said John Frye, curator of the historical collection at Washington County Free Library.

The road, which took advantage of a low point called Fox’s Gap in crossing South Mountain, led to Sharpsburg. At the time Braddock’s men might have used the road, John Frye said, the town didn’t yet exist officially. Sharpsburg, the county’s oldest town, was founded in 1763.

During the French and Indian War, Braddock was moving his forces up from Alexandria, Va., on his way to attack the French at Fort Duquesne at Pittsburgh, when he sent some of his troops through this part of Maryland, John Frye said.

George Washington, who was hailed as a hero after helping Braddock’s troops in the battle to come and who later became the nation’s first president, probably wasn’t with Braddock’s men on their march through Washington County, John Frye said.

“We don’t know exactly what route Braddock’s troops took in 1755 to the mouth of the Conococheague Creek, where they crossed to Virginia on the way to Winchester. It’s been in dispute,” he said. “I’ve always pretty well felt that it was the old road you’re talking about.”

But, he added, “I doubt if there were any houses on that road in 1755.”

Traveling on Reno Monument Road today takes one on pretty much the same course as a traveler would have followed a century or two ago.

The road “has changed little from the time of the Civil War, other than it has been paved and it has been altered some going up the mountain,” said Dennis Frye, who is a Civil War author and chief historian at Harpers Ferry (W.Va.) National Historical Park.

Hikers can still see parts of the original road where its course was changed a bit, just off its current paved surface, Dennis Frye said.

“The original road was a bit more windy and a bit more steep. In the area of the Stiles farm, it’s following its original course,” he said.

Buildings from the mid-1800s
The “Aluminum Sided Log Farmhouse,” as it is called in the Maryland Inventory of Historic Properties, was built in the 1800s, according to evaluations done of it by consultants who specialize in examining such properties.

“This huge farmhouse has been completely sheathed with aluminum siding. It is a two-story, six-bay structure and may have been built in sections. A frame bank barn, wagon shed and other outbuildings are present,” consultant Paula Stoner wrote in a 1978 report.

Stoner, whose last name is now Reed, was hired by the county and Maryland governments in the 1970s to do a physical inventory of all local properties that were at least 100 years old.

In 2003, another expert examined properties, including the old log farmhouse, in what was called the Park Hall/Locust Grove Rural Historic Landscape part of the county.

The consultant told the Maryland Historical Trust that the old farmhouse “is capped by a side-gabled roof sheathed in asphalt shingles. The dwelling appears to have been built in sections. The foundation on the western end is constructed of stone that has been parged. In other words, plaster or mortar was used.

“The eastern end of the house is supported by stone piers. There is a center brick chimney, and two rebuilt interior end brick chimneys. This house and farmstead is consistent with the form, setting and landscape found throughout the Park Hall/Locust Grove Rural Historic District,” the consultant wrote.

Dennis Frye said he can confirm at least some of that information firsthand.

“I’m familiar with the place,” he said, noting that he graduated from Boonsboro High School at the same time as did Mike Stiles, one of the Stiles’ sons, and used to visit when the two were growing up.

“The house is definitely mid-19th century,” Dennis Frye said.

Seven or eight years ago, when he went back to the property, he took a close look at the old barn and saw clear evidence that it, like the house, was built in the 1800s.

“All the wood in the barn was ratchet-sawed, meaning there was no circular saw marks in any of that wood,” Dennis Frye said. “A ratchet saw is kind of a straight-up saw. It uses vertical motion to cut wood in a sawmill.”

Builders began using the circular saw after it was invented in the late 1800s, he said.

In addition, Dennis Frye said, he saw that the barn was built with “nothing but hand-cut square nails. There was nothing from the latter part of the 19th century in that. The outbuildings are mid-19th century, too.”

So, it’s likely that the house and barn were there on Sept. 14, 1862, when troops of the North and South engaged in a major battle at Fox’s Gap, not more than a mile and a half east on the old road, both Fryes said.

On that day, Union and Confederate troops clashed at three gaps along South Mountain — Fox’s Gap, where the heaviest fighting took place, at Turner’s Gap a mile to the north and at Crampton’s Gap about seven miles to the south, John Frye said.

The Confederates held the Union army off for “a full day at all three passes, but they had to retreat to what they did over at Sharpsburg,” he said, referring to the Battle of Antietam on Sept. 17, 1862. “It was the first time the Army of Virginia under Gen. Robert E. Lee ever retreated.”

That means that all of the Confederates pulling back from Fox’s Gap “retreated by that building,” Dennis Frye said, referring to the log farmhouse. “And, (Union Maj. Gen. Ambrose) Burnside’s Union 9th Corps pursued via that route.”

The battle’s significance has left a lasting reminder on the old road itself. Its name was changed to Reno Monument Road in recognition of Maj. Gen. Jesse Reno, a Union officer who was killed at Fox’s Gap, and the monument erected there in his memory in 1899.

Clean up and knock down?
What will happen to the old farmstead now seems largely a foregone conclusion amid the nation’s ongoing economic climate.

Like many of the 3 million or more properties foreclosed on in America since the recession began in 2007, the old farmstead likely will be offered for sale at public auction.

Sheri Anne Stewart, who bought the property in March 2007 for $399,000 but then couldn’t sell her Sharpsburg home as she’d planned, was far behind in paying on the loan by 2009, according to interviews and Washington County Circuit Court records.

After she moved out and won bankruptcy protection from her debts in 2010, the Reno Monument Road property began deteriorating. Neighbors said someone ripped aluminum siding from large parts of the house, exposing green shingles and the old clapboard, and wires were torn out and noxious weeds began taking over its fields.

“Every time you go by, somebody has dumped something” on the property, neighbor Jimmy Hartle said. “It’s become the dump for the neighborhood.”

Dennis Frye said the property was never that way when the Stiles family had it.

“The Stiles(es) used to keep it in immaculate condition when they owned it,” he said.

Last week, after a reporter called, Bank of America — which is listed as the lender in papers Stewart filed with the U.S. Bankruptcy Court — said it is taking action to begin cleaning up the property.

“Foreclosure has not been completed on this property; however, we had a vendor visit the property last week to cut the grass around the home,” the bank wrote in an email. It said more areas would be mowed there soon.

In addition, the bank wrote that it is considering destruction of the old barn.

“We have submitted bids to demolish the barn to the mortgage investor who owns the loan,” the bank wrote.

It wrote that such demolition might not occur until there is a foreclosure and the deed is officially transferred from Stewart.

There don’t appear to be any governmental regulations that might save the barn from destruction. The property is outside the Antietam Overlay area around Antietam National Battlefield, in which the county Historic District Commission controls any action requiring a building permit.

Instead, any hope of saving the old farmstead might lay in whoever buys it after the foreclosure.

Hughes, of the Maryland Historical Trust, and Reed, whose Hagerstown-based company, Paula S. Reed & Associates, does cultural resource evaluation throughout the nation, said low-interest loans and tax credits for rehabilitation are available to private owners of historic properties.

“There are a lot of incentives available to people who want to fix up their (historical) properties,” Reed said.

Additional incentive might be that the property could still be nominated — and approved — to the national historic registry, she said.

“I never went inside this property. I never researched it. Who knows? There may be something that would” enhance its historic value, Reed said. “I can’t imagine that there can’t be something tied to the Battle of South Mountain” — a battlefield that is on the national historic registry, she said.

The unchecked deterioration of historical properties anywhere is wrong, Reed said.

“It is a shame that any historical properties get lost,” she said.

What ran Sunday
 • From his modern home, it pains Henry Stiles to look a few hundred yards down Reno Monument Road and watch the deterioration of the historic farmhouse where he was raised. It’s not known how many properties are like the old farmstead, those on which borrowers have stopped paying, but the lender hasn’t pursued foreclosure action.

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