There is a haunting going on at an old Howard County estate near Clarksville, MD. But it is not the unhappy ghosts of the dead; it is a happy haunting, where the living are haunting the place of a happy past. They come alone, in pairs or with their children, carrying old photographs. They are in the winter of their lives, but in their faded photographs, they are children. The owners of the estate find them wandering the grounds, lost in memories of years ago when they spent a summer there before World War II. They are haunting Montrose.
Revisiting the Past
I took my mother back to Montrose for her turn at haunting 65 years after she spent a summer there as an 11-year-old. She could never remember exactly where the camp was, but when my aunt remembered its name, we were able to locate it. When I contacted the owners I learned that my mother was not the only one searching for Montrose because of happy childhood memories.
Montrose was a farm estate owned by the Randalls, an old Maryland family descended from John Randall, the brother of James Ryder Randall, author of the state song, “Maryland, My Maryland.” It was a working farm, with a large manor house built in 1844 and expanded in 1898. By the 1930s Montrose was owned by Louis and Martha Randall, who had 11 children. They also had boarders, children who lived with the family and attended the local schools. During the summers they operated a summer boarding camp.
My mother, with her older and younger sister, arrived at Montrose in June 1940. The house had been wired for electricity only a year earlier as part of the New Deal’s rural electrification project, and gaslight jets were still in the house, as well as oil lamps and lanterns. There was a gravity-fed indoor plumbing system. Draught horses were still used to work the farm, which also had riding horses, cattle, milk cows, pigs, chickens, barns, stables, a smokehouse, an icehouse and a dog. The camp also boasted a tennis court and a large pond for swimming, with a diving board and a shed for changing.
There were as many as 25 campers from Washington and Baltimore, both girls and boys. The girls slept on cots in a large dormitory-style room on the second floor of the house and in two small attic rooms with dormers overlooking the front lawn. The boys were housed under more rustic conditions, in a group of small, rough-hewn cabins near the house. The Randall girls who still lived at home and other male and female college students hired as counselors for the summer supervised the campers. The summer household and kitchen help consisted of female college students hired from one of the traditionally black colleges in the South, with which Mrs. Randall had some connection. The Randall boys worked the farm.
New Skills and Wonderful Memories
A lot of the campers’ time was spent in the tack room and with the horses, learning the basics of horsemanship and riding. By summer’s end, the more proficient were doing jumps. In 1940 my mother was among the “proficient” novices allowed to jump. This was a mixed blessing, she felt, since a large part of her “proficiency” as a horsewoman was attributed to her “skillful fall” from a runaway horse. She had lost control of the horse and her grip on the reins, but had clung desperately to the horse’s mane before eventually sliding off. For this she was highly praised. Apparently falling from a horse without getting trampled or breaking bones was an admirable skill.
That summer there was also a small rebellion staged by the campers. Like many rebellions in history it was about food: cereal, to be specific. The farm tradition at Montrose was hot cereal for breakfast. This was intolerable to the young urban sophisticates among the guests who would settle for nothing less than the modern, cold cereals from the box to which they had become accustomed at home. The revolt took the camp proprietors by surprise. A vote was allowed to settle the matter; the results weren’t even close. Corn Flakes and Wheaties became the breakfast of the camp champions for the rest of the season.
Besides the horses, the usual camp activities were the order of the day, with three exceptions. On Wednesday mornings, all were gathered to tables where pencils and paper were distributed. Despite great protest from the campers, letters of at least three or four sentences were composed to parents and envelopes were properly addressed. On Saturdays the campers were loaded onto a flatbed farm trailer and pulled two miles down a graveled country road to the small intersection at Clarksville. There the small fortune of a dime was spent on penny candy, soda or ice cream at the little country store. Sundays, the Catholic campers made the same trip by cars with the Randall family for Mass at St. Louis Catholic Church, where according to my mother, it was so hot that it was common for women and girls to faint.
My mother still has three photographs taken at Montrose by her father. One is of herself and her closest friend that summer. The other two are of my mother and her two sisters gathered around their mother.
Within the next 18 months, my mother’s life and the world changed forever. Her mother died unexpectedly in November of 1941; two weeks later, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor plunged America into World War II. My mother and her two sisters found themselves at St. Mildred’s Academy in Laurel, MD, a small convent boarding school which would eventually become Pallotti High School.
For my mother, Montrose remained a beautiful memory of a time before the innocence of childhood was shattered by the untimely death of her mother and a world at war.
Originally published in The Business Monthly, October 2005