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Pillars of Salt, Post Twenty-five
John Burbridge purchased plots of land that would become Mexico Farm in 1812 and 1813. Tobacco was a big cash crop, as was wheat and barley, Indian corn, and hay. A slave owner, Burbridge became so heavily indebted that he had to put the property on the north branch of the Potomac river — an idyllic, fertile flood plain — up for sale in 1822.
The public sale attracted monied interest. Burbridge had divided the land into utilized tracts named “Cresaps Kindness,” “Cow Pasture,” “Conclusion,” and “Dispute.” These tracts, combined with unused vacant property, were together called “Mexico,” Burbridge’s way of honoring Mexican Independence, a popular cause for some Americans, which was achieved in September, 1821. This inspiration is ironic, considering the enslaved people that worked Burbridge’s land and who were sold along with it. Mexico Farm, 1,292 acres of land along with four slaves, twelve horses, twenty sacks of wheat, 1,500 bushels of Indian corn, 300 bushels of oats, five stacks of hay, and a whole crop of “new and old” tobacco were sold to Edward Day of Baltimore for more than $15,000.
The property commanded such a high price because it was good farmland for sure, but its location on the river positioned it prominently in proposals to extend slack water navigation of the river to and around Cumberland. At the time, the river was still the main transportation mechanism for coal, timber, furs, agricultural products, and whatever other materials needed shipped out of the mountains to Washington, Baltimore, and the coast. The canal would arrive in 1854, a few years after the railroads, meaning that these shipping proposals never materialized.
Day had business partners from Baltimore, Alexander MacDonald and Nicholas C. Ridgely, with whom he operated a grain and milling venture. MacDonald and Ridgely owned property on Mechanic Street in Cumberland and, in 1824, they purchased an “undivided two-thirds” of Mexico Farm from Day. In 1854, MacDonald’s one-third share of the farm and its profits were sold by a trustee for his estate to Margaret S. Duncan. It was around that time that the historic farmhouse structure was built.
Duncan was able to double her investment in the property within fourteen years. She sold the MacDonald portion, including the two-and-a-half story L-shaped brick farmhouse laid in Flemish bond on the southwestern facade with a five-to-one variegated common American bond elsewhere. The property was held by Henry F. Weber for less than one year. At that time, around 1855, the property and farmhouse passed to William Long. The deed retained by Long mentions not only the house, but also right of way for a ferry road to the C & O Canal and a public highway that forded the Potomac and led to the town of Frankfort, now Fort Ashby, in West Virginia. The house in particular was owned by the Long family until 1974.
Down along the river, not far from where the Mexico Farm airfield still operates, my grandfather maintains a small campsite. On the way there, passing along Uhl Highway, parallel to Route 51, is the place where my great-grandmother was born and raised.
There was little more than the two-room former schoolhouse when my great-grandmother was born in 1918. The road was not paved. It was just a dirt track running back into the hollers. There was a train line that could be picked up and rode into town, or east toward Green Spring, West Virginia. My great-grandmother didn’t go into town until she started high school at Fort Hill. She met my great-grandfather at church, a little red brick room on a hill a short jaunt from her homestead.
The place hardly looks like a holler now. Everything has been cut clear for the most part. There is the highway, of course, and now an industrial park where Hunter Douglas and a minimum security prison operate. My great-grandmother was involved in the firehall and gave historical tours of a canal boat during local heritage festivals that have since been moved closer to downtown. I would eat raspberry ice cream by the bowlful between my great-grandmother’s tours, while she sold sweets out of a little wooden booth.
My great-great-grandfather and -mother built a larger dwelling for the family as they grew, but they never really moved into the new house. They would cook and do the cleaning, laundry, and take meals together. They would host family or other guests, but each night would themselves retire to the little house where my great-great-grandmother, Theadosia Rose, gave birth to her children.
There’s now a contemporary home also on the property, which, I believe, is still owned by my great-uncle, the youngest of my great-grandmother’s children, though he does not live there. We stopped at that old homeplace on our way to see my grandfather at his campsite. I walked tentatively down the slope, stopping here and there to take a picture in the full morning light. No one saw or, if they did, no one cared.
That the original house was still there after all this time is something. It is different. There’s the cars, the contemporary home, but it is also the same. I have a photograph of my great-great-grandmother standing with my great-grandmother who’s holding my great-aunt in her arms while my grandfather stands, looking at something off camera. My grandfather is a toddler, just a boy, and my great-great-grandmother is resting the tip of one finger from either hand on each of his shoulders. It must’ve been 1947 or -48. Sometime before 1950, just after the War had ended.
The only person really looking into the camera is Theadosia. She’s squinting a little, and her jaw is set. She’s not smiling, but her proud look gives her an air of contentment even as one side of her mouth turns slightly down into a frown all too familiar to anyone who knows this side of my family. My great-grandmother is smiling as she holds her baby daughter.
“It was a good life,” I have my great-grandmother saying. We think, sometimes, it is a life that is no more. But that is not exactly true. Those old days still linger, their echoes caught and reverberating in the holler, their frequency somehow amplified and projected still into this day, this morning, and I can still see it standing here.
It is not an image of a golden time, but it is an image of time. Here is not a place to which we should return to stay, but it is a place where we can tarry to listen. There are good and bad things waiting in the past. Good and bad things that linger, that are carried on. There is nothing ideal about the single line furrowed across my great-great-grandmother’s brow, nor in the hollow of her cheek. But there is something real.
We just have to have eyes to see it.