I’m currently working on an essay that’s a kind of meditation on landscape, memory, and place or home. The focus of this essay is the experience I have of visiting my hometown of Frederick Maryland, where I haven’t lived for over 20 years. I get back fairly frequently, though, and each visit the town has changed yet also seems exactly the same. I have this image of the present as something that’s transposed on top of the past, layers and layers, and occasionally the past shines through, like a pothole in an old road that reveals the cobblestone still beneath it.
A major aspect of this essay involves my memories of an old mansion that was just at the edges of the neighborhood where I lived. By the time I was growing up in the 70’s, the building had been long abandoned and was beginning to fall in on itself. But I spent quite a few years adventuring through the old building, finding hidden treasures (yes, I know that I was trespassing and I and all the other neighborhood kids who saw it as a birthright to explore Baughman’s mansion were a perennial pain for the owners. If memory serves me right, I believe my older brother was once brought home by the local sheriff after having been found there, but we never really talked about it so I’m not sure if my memory’s right or not).
As I’ve been writing about my recollections, I’ve been sort of haunted by the place and tried to track down pictures of the building (I had once found some old black and white photos of the building in its prime in a box of old trinkets that had been left behind, but I lost them somewhere along the way). The trick was really uncovering that the place was not Baughman’s mansion as I knew it but Poplar Terrace. Anything I could learn about it was still fairly sketchy, but I was able to uncover some of its history and to find a few photos (with thanks to CC Hall, whose website these are from). Here is an old postcard of the building:
And here is a photo from a different angle of the building in its prime:
And, finally, here is a photo of the building in the era in which I explored it:
There were plenty of old stories that older kids in the neighborhood had handed down. There was an electric chair, there was a slave hanging in the old tenant’s house, there was a coffin, there was blood on the stairway, etc. Turned out the blood was a spilled paint can, the coffin was a huge chest, the slave was an ancient ham hanging from a meathook, the electric chair as near as I could tell was an old dentist’s chair. The place had been scavenged by the time I got there, but what always truck me was how much stuff had just been left there. I always had the feeling that people had just up and left the building.
Now, it doesn’t have anything to do really with the essay I’m writing, but this aspect of the building has become more curious to me. Frederick is a town that lives its history. Anything preservable is absolutely preserved; family histories are carefully recorded; historical sites are marked and documented to the nth degree. Why, I’ve begun to wonder, was this glorious building just left to ruin? I have learned that the Baughman family had a substantial influence in Frederick yet it’s fairly hard to track down. They were also connected with the Conley family who had several grandiose homes in the area which are now fully preserved and maintained on the register of historic places. So yet again I wonder what happened here? The history of this little corner of our town seemed like a vacuum when I was growing up and it seems even more so to me now that I can see some of the context. I tried to track down a bit of history through a local listserve and I got some very sketchy history and some completely incorrect info. For instance, several people told me it burned down in the 60s, but I clearly know that wasn’t the case–I was in my adventure years in the 70s and I know that it was standing when I first moved away in ’81 (I moved back for awhile, then moved away for good in ’87). It seems like an easy mistake of years except for two people to tell me this (one of them CC Hall whose pictures I have here) seems kind of odd. I also wonder if the 60s fire people are referring to is the burning of an old barn on the connected land–a fire I can remember from when I was 6 or 7, but definitely not the mansion. Now, I’m not trying to make some conspiracy here, just thinking. The building is important to the essay I’m writing as it seems a kind of metaphor for memory and history that I’m working with. But I find that I’m just curious now about the actual history of the place. I know I have some readers from Maryland here, so if there are any of you who know anything or who had any exeriences with the building as me and my neighbors did, feel free to post a reply or you can drop me a line here. I’d love to hear from you.