The Best Barn In Maryland
Dawn and I have a thing for barns.
Where we live, down in Southern Maryland, we mostly see big old tobacco barns, sometimes two or three on a single farm. That’s because this was once tobacco country, and the old plantations needed big, airy barns to dry and cure the plants before selling them. A surprising number of these barns are still standing, though often a bit askew with age. The tobacco settlements in the 1990s idled most of these buildings and many have fallen into disrepair.
Much of Maryland also remains horse country, so it’s also not uncommon when driving in rural areas to see old stables that city folk might mistake for a barn. That’s also true for many of the other outbuildings you commonly find on a farm — the sheds and corn cribs and piggeries that dot the exurban landscape.
Dawn and I also frequently pass anomalies, buildings that appear to be barns, but of a type we can’t identify. Whenever we drive north on Route 2 towards Annapolis, we always comment on a pair of newish barns on the east side of the road. Both are topped with tall, ornate cupulas that wouldn’t be out of place on a rural church in Russia, but undoubtedly make these the fanciest barns in Anne Arundel County.
The oldest barn in Maryland — indeed, the oldest standing agricultural structure in the state — is the Mackall Barn, just half an hour south of us in Historic St. Mary’s City. The old, bonnet-roofed barn was built in 1785 by John Mackall, whose family once owned all of St. Mary’s City. The barn was originally used to store grain (silos hadn’t been invented yet) but shifted to tobacco when slavery made the big tobacco farmers the tycoons of their day. Later, it was used to shelter cattle.
The National Park Service presides over another fascinating barn — one of several at the National Colonial Farm in Charles County. What sets this barn apart is the siding. Unlike traditional tobacco barns, which are clad with vertical boards with narrow gaps between them for ventilation, the siding of the barn at National Colonial Farm is clinker-built like a dinghy. The boards are arranged in horizontal strakes and overlapped like shingles to make the barn more weather tight.
Another difference: Instead of using fully finished lumber, like you see on most barns, the builders of this one left the edges of the siding planks untrimmed, giving the barn a more rustic and organic look.
But what all these old barns have in common is that they’re built of wood. Most are post-in-ground structures with timber frames of oak or chesnut and yellow pine or loblolly siding. They’ve survived so long because the lumber used in their construction was rot- and insect-resistant. And because hard-working farmers kept them in good repair.
But my favorite barn is another anomaly. It’s the giant stone barn at Woodlawn Manor, just outside Sandy Spring in Montgomery County.
Woodlawn is well worth a visit. Although the old Georgian manor house is now closed for renovation, there’s still plenty to see on the property. There’s a trail meant to educate visitors about the rigors escaped slaves experienced along the Underground Railroad. About half the old plantation grounds are used as horse stables and pastures for the Maryland-National Park Police. Sometimes, you can catch a glimpse of a team of Clydesdales grazing in the meadow.
But for me, the main attraction is the barn. It’s one of the few stone barns in Maryland. The only others I know of are the Long House Granary and the Mule Barn, both part of the Hampton Plantation, a National Historic Site in Towson.
In 1832, Dr. William Pennell Palmer, the owner of Woodlawn Manor, hired Isaac Holland, a stone mason from the neighboring plantation, to build a barn like no other in the state. Holland constructed the walls of the barn out of local rubble butressed with massive quoins of cut stone.
The interior, which also serves as a museum for Woodlawn Manor, is timber-built with extraordinarily fine joinery for an old farm building. As was often the case, the barn was built on a hillside, allowing walk-in access to the towering hayloft on the second floor. This level also had metal-lined bins for storing grain.
A ramp led to a threshing room on the third floor. Doors and windows provided ventilation as well as a draft to aid in the winnowing of grain.
Stairs also lead down to the stables on the ground floor, but it’s more impressive to head back outside and approach from the downhill side of the barn. On the south side of the barn, four vaulted arches provide access to the horse stalls, the piggery, and the wagon shed. In fact, the Woodlawn barn is an early example of a multipurpose barn, with one building replacing many of the common outbuildings on a wealthy 19th Century farm.
But while the Palmer/Holland barn may have been unique for Maryland, it was typical of the big stone barns built in eastern Pennsylvania at the time. That should come as no surprise, because both Palmer and Holland were Quakers whose families came down to Maryland from Pennsylvania in the late 1700s. And they didn’t just bring architectural innovations with them.
Like many Quaker farmers of his time, Palmer believed in a modern approach to agriculture. He was early to adopt the use of guano and lime for fertilizer, for example. He also advocated for rotating crops and planting clover to improve the soil and feed the cattle. In addition, he was one of the first plantation owners in Montgomery County to transistion from grain production to tobacco.
But the move to tobacco led to Palmer’s ostracism from the historic Quaker community in Sandy Spring. That’s because tobacco could only be made profitable with the use of the free labor of enslaved people. Most Quakers of this era were anti-slavery, but Palmer married into a non-Quaker family, inheriting more than a dozen slaves from his father-in-law. He appeared to have no compunction putting them to work in the fields. It was forced labor that made it possible to convert Woodlawn into a tobacco plantation. An old log cabin on the property is thought to be a rare surviving example of slave quarters in the state.
In the end, the Friends House in Sandy Spring banned Palmer, though it’s not clear whether his excommunication was because of the slaves or because he married out of the Quaker community.
But even in the bitter pre-Civil War era, many Sandy Spring Quakers, like their peers in Pennsylvania, were abolitionists. The township served as home to a sizable community of freedmen, and many escaped slaves sheltered there on their way to freedom in Pennsylvania. Sandy Spring pays homage to this history with a pair interesting of museums.
The Sandy Spring Museum, on the town’s historic main street, is classic small local museum. Its collections include replicas of a 19th Century schoolroom and a blacksmith’s shop. The museum also includes art exhibitions and studio space.
And if you’re in area, make sure to visit the Sandy Spring Slave Museum and African Art Gallery, not far from the town center. Though the museum’s only open on the weekend, even just strolling through the museum’s grounds is a humbling experience and a good counterbalance to the slave-built opulence of Woodlawn Manor.
A facsimile of a slave ship gives the visitor a sense of the brutality of the Middle Passage and a log cabin shows what slave quarters might have looked like. But there’s also a replica of Nelson Mandela’s boyhood home and a walkway lined with of dozens of placard depicting the Black struggle for equality.
That, too, is the legacy of Sandy Spring.
Dennis is a travel, science, and business writer who has traveled all his life. The son of an Air Force pilot, he was born in England and lived in ten states growing up. Much of his youth was spent in Hawaii and Southeast Asia, where he traveled widely, including extended visits to New Delhi, Singapore, Hong Kong, Vientiane, and old Rangoon.
What Makes A Good Barn?
Summary Rural Maryland is chock full of different kinds of barns and in all kinds of scenic landscapes. Tobacco barns, dairy barns, cattle barns etc. How do you pick a favorite? For us, it's largely about location. The contrast of an old wooden barn weathering out in a fallow field. A stout, big-doored tractor barn on a working farm. Or, in this case, a massive stone barn on a historic plantation. That history is important, too. What does the barn tell us about the people who lived here before? Does it evoke images of old times? Finally, how was it made? A beautiful barn reflects craftsmanship and pride that lives on for generations.