The Benson-Hammond House stands as a tranquil oasis amid Linthicum's bustling air and ground traffic. The 200-year-old mansion-turned-museum sits on about 3 acres, surrounded by BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport. That it escaped the wrecking ball and has thrived is due largely to a determined group of volunteers who formed the Ann Arrundell County Historical Society 50 years ago.
"We are the only museum in the U.S. located on an international airport's property," said Oscar "Skip" Booth, former president and current vice president of the 400-member society.
The society, which prefers the archaic spelling of its namesake, a British noblewoman who never set foot on American soil, is marking its golden anniversary with a look back at its accomplishments. Most notable among those are its Kuethe Library, a popular genealogical research center in Glen Burnie, and the continuing preservation of the museum, the last structure still standing on its original foundation of some 130 homes razed or relocated more than 60 years ago to make way for the airport's terminals, runways and ever-expanding parking lots.
"The society focused on this house and was dedicated to its restoration to create a tribute to the county's heritage and to teach future generations about agricultural life in Anne Arundel County," said Booth, retired after 30 years with the county library system and the author of several vignettes about Linthicum, his lifelong home.
The house, named for the first families that owned it, overlooks mature trees and grass-covered land at Andover Road and Aviation Boulevard. It was, at first, a two-story brick farmhouse with four rooms, built in the early 19th century by Thomas Benson, a War of 1812 veteran. By the Civil War era, it looked much like it does today, with the additions of a third floor and a back wing. The Bensons resided there until 1880; it was then home to the Hammond family for the next 65 years.
In 1945, the city purchased homes, farms and even a few churches in North Arundel for the construction of what would be Friendship Airport, later Baltimore-Washington International Airport. Most buildings were razed; a few were moved. The Benson-Hammond House became the residence of a succession of airport caretakers but was eventually abandoned, neglected and vandalized. The historical society took possession of the home in 1974 after negotiating a nominal lease it pays annually to the airport. It took a decade to restore the home and turn it into a museum.
"Without a really good group of driven volunteers, this house would be a gas station," Booth said.
The society, founded in 1962 in what was as a power station for the Baltimore & Annapolis Railroad, still occupies that Severna Park building. Its Kuethe Library is housed in what was once the community's public library.
Mark Schatz, a charter member and a past president of the historical society, recalled a restoration effort on the mansion that began with a big hole where there once had been a wing on the back of the house. The walls were sagging, the woodwork was rotting and much had been pilfered.
"It was really a disaster when we took it on," he said. "Volunteers really did a good job saving it."
The addition has been restored and the rooms refurbished, and the home was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1990.
"It's a real survivor," Booth said.
The exterior is painted a pale yellow to resemble the look that a few former residents remember. The rooms have been restored and furnished in period pieces, most of which members have donated and authenticated. The mishmash arrangements, as Booth calls the decor, work well together, and new donations find places, too.
A miniature tea set, once owned by the granddaughter of the original owner, is one of the few items that endures from the Benson family. Only one original mantel survives, but several painted slate ones were salvaged from other farmhouses. A portrait of Lady Ann Arrundell, who married Cecil Calvert, second Lord Baltimore, in the 17th century, hangs over the parlor mantel.
The museum has amassed a large photo collection, including images from a federal study of child laborers. Children worked as pickers, sometimes with their mothers, on the many truck farms that prospered in the early 20th century. A volunteer also put together a lean-to and straw bed, a replica of what those children slept on.
The pickers were paid in tokens, coins of different shapes containing symbols to indicate when a vegetable or fruit picker had amassed a bushel. Many of those tokens survive today, and some have been made into jewelry sold at the society's two Browse and Buy shops, which help support society programs.
The society also managed to save outbuildings from other farms and have stationed those around the house. The summer kitchen with a water pump at its door is surrounded by an herb garden. There is also a meat house, a corn crib and a three-seater privy, which is set for restoration this year.
"We had to ask the General Assembly for bond money to restore the outhouse," Booth said. "I guess that means the dollars will really go down the toilet."
Dolls lend their spirit to the house, he said. No Barbies, but several locally made Sandra Sues are in one of the state's largest doll collections, on display throughout the home. Several mannequins are dressed in period clothing, one in a wedding gown with a yellowed photograph of the bride and groom beside it.
"We save our heritage because that is basic to our nature," Schatz said. "If we don't learn from our past, how can we chart our course for the future?"
About 2,000 visitors were expected at the 22nd annual Strawberry Festival on Saturday, many of them with ties to the mansion. John Stoll, 94, and a society member, planned to grab a porch rocker and tell stories of his youth, when he was a produce picker on the same grounds.
"We would stay during the week and go home weekends," he said. "I like talking about the things that were here in days before Ritchie Highway was built as a scenic route to Annapolis. I like talking to the old-timers and the kids."
Booth and others planned to spend hours preparing fresh strawberries Friday, but it is all part of an effort to preserve Anne Arundel's heritage.
"We are still trying to promote the county's history," Booth said. "[It's] impressive that an all-volunteer organization has survived for 50 years in all the tossing and turning of the economy. I hope more join and realize how important our history is."