Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Amazing Nature at Bilgers Rocks

I'm always game for interesting rock formations and outcroppings, so when I learned about Bilgers Rocks, I knew it had to be on my visit list.

The World Is Looking to US, carved in 1921 just after WWI, the "War to End all Wars"

Bilger's Rocks is a massive, 300 million year old rock formation covering some 20 acres in Clearfield County, PA. The formations tower up to 50 feet above ground level.

The most striking feature about Bilger's Rocks are the various openings, crawlspaces, passageways, and arches found throughout the outcrop. Whether you approach it from on top, as we did because of ice and snow still hidden in the fissures (what doesn't see the sun won't melt quickly) or from below to explore the maze of caves and walk ways leading to mysterious "rooms" named Devil's Dining Room" and "Devil's Kitchen," this is one of nature's marvels.

Trees and plants grow through the rock crevices and through the fissures into the sun above. Ferns are still green, even in February.

The place was frequently visited throughout the years by folks wished to enjoy nature and its marvels. But it wasn't until the 1960s that there was an effort to protect the place via a park.

The scientific explanation for this incredible bit of geography is that the distinctive crevices and gaps in the rocks were primarily caused by jointing within the rocks. Joints are caused by tectonic, or mountain-building forces that move and stress rocks, causing them to fracture. The resulting cracks provide an inlet for water, which slowly dissolves the rocks and allows space for ice crystals to freeze and thaw during the seasonal cycles, further pushing the rocks apart. Eventually, plants and trees also grow up through crevasses in the rocks and can exert considerable pressure as they grow, forcing even larger gaps to form. Gravity and erosion work together to slowly level the landscape by breaking the rock into ever smaller pieces and transporting it away.

You can explore it by wandering through, over, and under the massive rock formation. On top it seems as if there's a mystical world hidden in the crevices below. I can only imagine how cool it would be to explore within the formation itself.

Because of the weather -- and incredibly rainy weekend and ice that still had not melted -- I was unable to discover for myself the evidence of Paleo man's use of the rock formation -- for that you have to go into the caves and we could only explore the formation from above. But when I return to Clearfield County, I will definitely visit Bilgers Rocks again.

Know before you go: Wear sturdy shoes and clothing appropriate for hiking in the woods. If you're planning on exploring the caves and crevices, then bring flashlights.

Upcoming Events:

Celebrate Earth Day 21 April 10 a.m. - 4 p.m. Join the Bilgers Rocks Association to celebrate Earth Day and help clean up the park!

Backwoods/Backwaters Wild Game Feast and Cook-off 28 April 4 -9 p.m. Area sportsmen will show off their best recipes for wild game such as venison, bear, wild turkey, elk, trout, catfish and more!

Mother's Day in the Park 13 May Noon to 5 p.m. Bring mom out for a special day in the park, with music and a special meal (6$/person)

Father's Day in the Park 17 June Noon to 5 p.m. Bring dad out for a special day in the park, with music and a special meal (6$/person)

Independence Day Celebration 1 July Noon - 9 p.m. Games, contests, and a day of fun, ending with fireworks, of course!

Annual Kids Day 25 August Noon - 4 p.m. Have some fun before heading back to school! Games, prizes, free hot dogs and drinks for the kids.

Art in the Park 8 September Noon - 5 p.m. Local artists and kids will display artwork featuring nature and scenes from Bilgers Rocks (art submissions due 15 July)

There is beauty at Bilgers Rocks Park no matter what season you go.

Getting there: 1921 Bilger Rocks Rd, Grampian, PA 16838

Hours: Dawn through dusk.

Website: www.bilgersrocks.net and www.facebook.com/bilgersrocks/

This post starts a series about some great things to see and do in Clearfield County, PA. To see others in this series, click on the label "Clearfield County" below this post.

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Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Hammond-Harwood House Through the Eyes of Those Enslaved There

As history tourists in America's great mansions in the mid-Atlantic region, we often remark upon the intricate carvings around the fire-places and window and door moldings, the lovely grain of the mahogany wood of the sideboard, the fine fabrics used in the bed-curtains. I recently toured the Hammond-Harwood House, an "elegant townhouse" located on Maryland Avenue in Annapolis, and, predictably, found myself admiring the moldings and the woodwork.

The house is filled with period furniture and artwork, all to be admired. A significant portion of the  furniture on display had belonged to previous owners -- there's a direct connection to history that is almost palpable. (There's also a story to be told about the effort to save the house itself, and the items that go with it -- but for another blog post, I think! The furniture pieces were tracked down and repurchased by the Hammond-Harwood House Association shortly after it purchased the mansion in 1940.)

On the walls are paintings by Charles Wilson Peale and his son, Rembrandt Peale. The younger Peale painted a lovely portrait of George Washington (himself a slave owner) astride his favorite horse; it now hangs above a mantel in the study.

And I have caught myself thinking, "Oh, how lovely to live here" when touring this and similar homes -- Gunston Hall, Montpelier, Belle Grove Plantation, among others. And sure, the surroundings are opulent and comfortable for those who lived there and were served.

But what did Sara Matthews think, as she did the serving, toiling within the confines of the Hammond-Harwood House? What did she think as she served dinner to and cleaned up after those who enslaved her? What about those nameless other enslaved individuals (nameless to history, anyway) whose enslavement made those comfortable lifestyles possible?

The cool thing is that the Hammond-Harwood House Association is trying to give those names back to the house's history, uncovering the life-stories of the enslaved individuals who lived and worked there. In partnership with the Maryland State Archives, the Association funded several summer internships at the house. It was through the work of these internships that the lives of Sara Matthews and her family, as well as several other enslaved individuals at the house, were revealed.

Because Sara was enslaved by the then-owner of this magnificent example of colonial Georgian architecture, we won't ever know what she really thought, what her life was like, how she was treated, who the father of her children was. What we do know is that she was the mother to four children -- Mary, Matilda, Henry, and Benjamin, also enslaved.

We know that Benjamin Matthews ran away, that his owner put in a notice in the Maryland Gazette, offering $100 reward for his return, that he was re-caught and returned to enslavement at the Hammond-Harwood House. We know that they lived in the south wing of the mansion, sharing cramped quarters above the kitchen.

Periodically, the Hammond-Harwood House Association offers "African American Experience Tours" covering nearly 250 years of the African-American experience at the historic mansion.

So as I admired the lovely formal dining room and its jib door (one of the few in Annapolis), placed to maintain the room's symmetry, we were asked to also think about how hard it was for Sara or one of her children to serve the multi-course dinners there, constantly moving quickly up and down the steps.

A jib door is one disguised to look like the wall surrounding it, or in this case,
a window to maintain the room's perfect symmetry.

The Hammond-Harwood House likely had up to five enslaved individuals at any given time during the first half of the 19th century. Most of the slaves in the house were women; it is likely that they were primarily assigned domestic chores, i.e., "house slaves."

So for Sara, the beautiful main bedroom, with its lavish bed-curtains imported from China, was not a lovely place. It was her workplace, where she and her daughters most likely tended fires and swept out ashes, washed linens and made beds, swept floors and polished furniture, cleaning up the messes the white folks made.

The second most lovely bedroom was inhabited by the lady of the house. At the foot, an enslaved woman might have slept.

The ballroom with its cheerful yellow wall color and ornate mirrors must have been a nightmare of housework for Sara and her daughters. I imagine them dusting the furniture, sweeping the floor, scrubbing it after a ball or a family wedding.

During the tour of the house, amid the discussions of the furnishings and artwork, the tour guide will most likely point out a chair in the study, one that Founding Father Thomas Jefferson (and like Washington, also a slave owner) had built, most likely by John Hemings, one of his slaves and judging by the look of the chair, a most talented artisan, known for creating furniture and other items at Jefferson's homes. (If Hemings' name sounds familiar, he also was the half-brother of the president's well known enslaved mistress: Sally Hemings). (The chair is not original to the house.)

But Jefferson has a connection to the house, beyond the chair. Apparently he was in town (Annapolis briefly served as Capitol), and stood in front of the house, sketching the front door. He remarked, "that is the prettiest front door in Annapolis!" I wonder who carved out the detailed wood molding above that prettiest door and what they thought of it?

Ultimately, it's okay to admire the woodwork and molding, the mahogany sideboard, and imported chintz bed curtains, as long as we also give a thought to the nameless individuals who carved, polished, swept, washed, and involuntarily worked on and in these lovely and historic houses.

Getting there: 19 Maryland Avenue, Annapolis, MD

Hours: Please check the website for future African American Experience Tours and other events.

Website: www.hammondharwoodhouse.org

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I wonder who carved out the detailed wood molding above that prettiest door and what they thought of it?

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

More Romance on the Rails

We first went on the Romance on the Rails two years ago, and enjoyed it so much we went on it again this year. Every year the Western Maryland Scenic Railroad offers this romantic excursion in February (throughout the year, other excursions are offered).

Bruce, the train conductor, welcomes each guest personally onto the excursion!

Romance on the Rails serves a lovely four-course dinner of shrimp appetizers; salad and bread; lasagna, honey-glazed salmon, filet mignon, Virginia baked ham, or crab cakes; and dessert. A complimentary bottle of wine is offered to every couple.

As the train ride begins, you are served the appetizer and salad. The train ride begins at the historic Western Maryland Railway Station in Cumberland, traveling west from downtown Cumberland, through a natural cut in the mountains, around a horseshoe curve, over bridges, and through a tunnel. Along the way, servers start bringing out your main entree (which you pre-order when you purchase the tickets). We rode past scenic ridges, valleys, and small towns, ascending 1,300 feet in elevation to Frostburg.

After 90 minutes or so, we pulled into Frostburg, for our layover. During the layover in Frostburg, you may gather in the Frostburg station to play a WMSR version of the Newlywed Game.

After a while, everyone boards the train again to enjoy dessert and coffee for the ride back down to Cumberland through the scenic mountains.

Getting there: 13 Canal Street, Cumberland, MD 21502, most easily reached via Interstate 68. Cumberland is centrally located from nearby metro areas, about 2 and a half hours from Baltimore, Washington and Pittsburgh.

Hours: Check the website for excursions and times.

Website: http://www.wmsr.com/

Looking for other scenic railroad adventures? 

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Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Freedom Bound: Runaways of the Chesapeake

Update June 2019: The Freedom Bound exhibit -- and in fact, the entire Historic Annapolis Museum -- is currently closed. The Freedom Bound exhibit will re-open in the fall at the Reginald F Lewis Museum at 830 E Pratt St, Baltimore. The building at 99 Main Street, Annapolis is currently undergoing renovations and will reopen in 2020 with new exhibits about the history of Annapolis.

Nine individuals trying to escape slavery or servitude, nine unique stories, all coming from the Chesapeake Bay region between 1728 and 1864, help us understand a little more the horrors of slavery and enforced servitude, and also tell part of a larger experience shared by thousands of others in the region, offered in Freedom Bound: Runaways of the Chesapeake, a museum exhibit that also challenges our conceptions of life in the American colonies.

German immigrant Frederick Grammar built this substantial brick structure
soon after a January 1791  fire destroyed most of the buildings along the waterfront block.
Merchant and slave owner Lewis Neth set up shop here by the end of that year.

Freedom Bound tells the stories of among others, Nace Butler, an enslaved man who successfully sued for his freedom and won; Isabella Pierce aka Bridget Castilo, a convict servant who assumed another identity; and Henry Smothers, who went to fight for the Union in 1864. The exhibit also shares artifacts from the period, introducing us to what those individuals had to consider before their flights, and how their owners tried to regain control of them.

Servitude is a loaded term, I think. Too often have I visited plantations and old plantation houses, and heard about the servants, if anyone other than the owner and his family are mentioned at all. But there was a category of servants: indentured servants, usually British or Irish individuals, who arrived here before the American colonies gained their Independence, when indentured servitude was abolished.

Although it's impossible to be certain of the numbers, it is estimated that before the revolutionary War, one-half to two-thirds of the immigrants who came to the American colonies arrived as indentured servants. They worked for between 4 and 7 years, and like kidnapped Africans forced into slavery in the colonies, often in horrific conditions that could lead to bodily injury, maiming, or even death. The mid-Atlantic region -- between Virginia and New Jersey -- had more indentured servants than the other colonies.

Several of the individuals featured in this exhibit lived and worked in Annapolis, but others, such as Nace Butler, hailed from St Mary's County, and Candis, from Frederick, MD. Jack, a man who was kidnapped from Africa as a young boy, was enslaved on George Washington's plantation.

Rolla Ross was actually enslaved by a family that owned the building that the museum is housed in. During the War of 1812, when he was 14, he and about 20 other enslaved individuals from the Annapolis region sought refuge on British war ships. He ended up serving in the British navy until 1840, until he retired back to Southhampton, England where he lived with his wife, children and grandchildren.

Getting there: 99 Main St, Annapolis, MD 21401

Hours: Monday, Tuesday & Thursday: 11 am – 4 pm; Friday, Saturday & Sunday: 11 am – 5 pmClosed Wednesdays.

Website: http://www.annapolis.org/contact/ha-museum-store

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Updated June 2019

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Truth in History at Belle Grove Plantation

Belle Grove Plantation, in King George, VA, is a gorgeous place, high up on a bluff on the eastern shore of the Rappahanock River. James Madison, the fourth President of the United States, was born there on March 16, 1751, although the house, which was the childhood home of his mother, Eleanor Rose Conway, where he was born no longer exists. A much grander one was built on the same location -- re-purposing much of the same materials -- in 1790.

The outside of the house -- now run as a bed and breakfast, historic site and special event venue -- conveys elegance and sophistication, with its perfect symmetry and expensive, curved doors -- a unique feature then and now that conveyed the owners' importance and wealth -- and the inside lives up to the promise of the exterior. Last weekend I got the opportunity to visit Belle Grove Plantation, now run by business owners Michelle and Brett Darnell. Wednesday through Sunday afternoons, they also offer tours of the historic house and property.

The formal dining room.

Too often in the past, when I toured historic plantations, they glossed over the ugly history of slave labor, even referring to the enslaved workers as "servants." So I was intrigued by Michelle Darnell's most recent addition to the tours being offered at the plantation, the "Enslaved Experience and History Tour."

Even in the elegant bedrooms, there are reminders of the plantation's past. Part of the bed's headboard is removable, and was used by two enslaved workers to fluff up the feather bed. Now a more modern mattress resides on the bedframe.

Darnell takes the opposite approach: she honors and acknowledges the plantation's full history -- even the inconvenient truths of the enslaved community held on the property. She believes there's truth in history.

"When I came to Belle Grove, it was my desire to remember and honor all who lived here," she said. "To leave out one part of our history because it makes me uncomfortable, well, its like acknowledging my face because it looks nice, but never mentioning my feet which aren't as pretty, but [which] work so hard. Each part is important and plays a role in the history."

The Enslaved Experience and History Tour grew out of the Historic Mansion tours. Visitors on the house tours frequently asked about the enslaved community at Belle Grove.

"What did we know about them? How many were there? Where did they live?" Darnell remembered the visitors asking. "It has always been my desire and passion to tell all the stories of Belle Grove Plantation. To recover and tell what I can."

The ornate medallion in the formal dining room is a recreation of the original.

She notes that, in fact, the story of Belle Grove started long before with the Native Americans and even the pre-historic peoples who may have lived on the land.

The winter kitchen offers displays and a discussion of slavery at Belle Grove.

"But when it came to the enslaved community, I really didn't know what to tell about them. I have very limited information on them because they were kept as inventory stock. No names, no faces. Just like animals. But their story is just as important," she said.

"Belle Grove wouldn't be what it is today without the enslaved people working here," Darnell said, gesturing toward the elegant grand hall, where she greeted the group that had assembled for the Enslaved Experience and History Tour. Her gesture encompassed the house itself, and by extension, the entire plantation.

While I was expecting a discussion about actual enslaved individuals on the property, perhaps a tour of the slave cemetery, buildings where they'd lived and labored, Darnell explained that wasn't possible.

During the Civil War, the Turner family -- the third family to own the plantation -- where forced out of their home when Union soldiers took over the property; the Turners lost everything. The Turners fled to Chotank, VA. Darnell believes that while the plantation was occupied by Union soldiers. most of the records were destroyed, most likely burned by the Union soldiers.

The lack of records was exacerbated by a fire in the local King George County courthouse in the 1950s, which probably also destroyed important records that could have shed light on the plantation and the people who lived on it. Ironically, the Union occupation that most likely destroyed the records probably ended up saving the house itself, as Union troops traveling down the river fired on the other major properties, but spared Belle Grove.

Darnell was able to locate some records of the names of enslaved individuals who were kept on the property.

In the absence of records, Darnell knew that the only ones who should tell the enslaved community's story would be former enslaved individuals themselves. She turned to slave narratives to tell the story of slave-life on a plantation. The compelling and somewhat emotionally intense presentation itself focuses on foods that came over with kidnapped Africans, the experiences of three individuals who survived slavery to write about their experiences, and some of the artifacts and evidence found on Belle Grove itself.

The old Ice house.

Darnell is convinced the property still holds secrets, among them the whereabouts of the slave cemetery. She has spent considerable time and effort to locate this important and hallowed place. "When I first arrived, I went to several meetings, historical and civic, just to meet people and ask questions. Oral history is important. But it isn't always correct," she noted, ruefully.

At one of the meetings, she finally received the information she was looking for -- or so she hoped. "A gentleman told me he knew where the cemetery was. He only told me it was in the field," she said. She also visited Camden Plantation, on the other side of the Rappahanock; Camden was built by the same family that established Belle Grove, so she expected there to be similarities between the two plantations. She used that as her guide, and thus started her search in Belle Grove's main field, near the silo, because she had noticed similarities to the Hipkins-Bernard Family cemetery, located on the north side of the plantation house (now marked by a rock and a plaque). 

She brought in some ground penetrating radar, but to no avail. "I can't tell you what a disappointment it was and what a joy," she said. Although they didn't find the cemetery, they did locate the Colonial Road leading down to the river where they shipped out tobacco and other items to England in the 1700s.

"But I won't stop looking," she vowed. "Only when I stop have I failed."

Darnell founded the James Madison Belle Grove Foundation in 2016, a non-profit whose prime mission is to preserve, restore, improve, maintain and educate the public about Belle Grove and its amazing American history. "Our current goal is to restore and preserve the 1720-1750 Summer Kitchen, Ice house and Smokehouse," she said, noting that whereas on other major plantations in Virginia those original structures no longer exist, they still do on Belle Grove.

Inside the summer kitchen and slave quarters.

"The Virginia Department of Historic Resources came out to inspect Belle Grove in 2014 -- as a Virginia Landmark, you have to submit to an inspection to be sure we don't change anything -- when seeing our outbuildings, we were told they were priceless. Structures dating to this time period and more over the slave quarters aren't around anymore. They were built with poor materials and have long gone."

The old summer kitchen and slave quarters.

"Our goal is to restore them to the 1720 - 1750 period. In the kitchen side, we want to display artifacts and tell the history of Belle Grove. On the slave quarters side, we want to create a memorial for the enslaved community. While we don't have all the names, we do have some. We want to create a bronze plaque with those we do know and include those we don't as a way to say, 'These people were here.' If we can't find the graves, we can still honor them," Darnell said.

Know before you go: In addition to the Enslaved Experience and History Tour, you can enjoy Afternoon Tea and a tour of the Historic Mansion, a Ghost Hunting Tour or stay the night at Belle Grove Plantation Bed and Breakfast. Check for Special Public Events each month on their calendar located on their website or check their Facebook page at Belle Grove Plantation at Port Conway.

Getting there: 9221 Belle Grove Drive, King George, Virginia 22485

Hours: For availability and hours of tours, please check the website.

Websites: BelleGrovePlantation.com (Bed and Breakfast); BelleGrovePlantation.org (James Madison Belle Grove Foundation)

The hallway on the second floor is almost as grand as the first.

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The house's "main" entrance faces the river.