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Owners of Terra Rubra, birthplace of Francis Scott Key, receive Star Spangled flag

Members of Taneytown Boy Scout Troop 718 fold the Star Spangled Banner at the meeting of the Taneytown Heritage Committee on Monday before presenting the flag to the owners of Tera Rubra.
Members of Taneytown Boy Scout Troop 718 fold the Star Spangled Banner at the meeting of the Taneytown Heritage Committee on Monday before presenting the flag to the owners of Tera Rubra. (KEN KOONS/STAFF PHOTO / Baltimore Sun Media Group)

When William and Debra McGrew made their decision to purchase a 150-acre property in Keysville, it was largely based on the land being flat and connected. That the property is the birthplace of the author of "The Star Spangled Banner" is an added — if sometimes inconvenient —bonus.

The McGrews — with help from their youngest daughter — raise beef cattle at the farm in Keysville known as Terra Rubra, the birthplace of Francis Scott Key, who penned the poem that became the national anthem during the Battle of Baltimore at Fort McHenry in 1814. The property has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1978.

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On Monday, the Taneytown Historical Committee and Taneytown History Museum presented the McGrew family with an American flag which was recently flown at Fort McHenry during the Star Spangled Bicentennial Celebration. The presented flag featured 15 stripes and 15 stars, also known at the Star Spangled Flag, to symbolize the 15 American states at the time of the Battle of Baltimore.

"We just wanted to recognize the part that this little portion of Carroll County played in Francis Scott Key history," said Nancy Eyler, president of the Taneytown Historical Committee and Taneytown History Museum.

A monument to Francis Scott Key and a flag pole where a United States flag flies 24 hours a day are housed on the front lawn of Terra Rubra.

The McGrews plan to display the Star Spangled flag on special holidays such as Veterans Day and the Fourth of July.

"What is surprising is how many flags we go through," Debra McGrew said. "They wear out quick. Last winter we went through two. They were really tattered."

The McGrews, who are originally from Carroll County — Debra from Eldersburg and William from Gamber — began looking at acquiring a new farm in February 2011. The couple had been living in southern Pennsylvania, where they owned and worked four farms.

"My husband is always looking at farm land and for the longest time trying to get us to move," Debra McGrew said. "We raised five kids at the other farm. I dug my heels in and said 'I'm not moving.'"

But, as the last of their children left home, Debra McGrew told her husband she would consider relocating if he found the perfect farm.

On Feb. 15, 2011, William McGrew saw a listing for Terra Rubra. The McGrews made an appointment and visited the farm the next day and by Feb. 17, had put a contract on the property.

"We left for vacation in Florida and during the week he negotiated the property and got the contract and signed about a month later," Debra McGrew said. "That happened fast."

William McGrew liked the look of the property, his wife said. It is basically flat with some rolling hills and all of the farm is on one side of the road. At their previous farm, they had to cross several roads.

When the McGrews purchased the land, their real estate agent, who specialized in historical properties, informed the couple of Terra Rubra's significance.

"It wasn't so much the history that drew us to the farm, but the farm itself," Debra McGrew said. "The history part is really just an added bonus."

In order to keep Terra Rubra preserved, Debra McGrew said there is a list of things they cannot do to the property. For example, they cannot put siding on the house or paint the house a "crazy" color; it has to remain in line with the way it looked when it was built.

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Debra McGrew said she is often surprised how many people have heard of Francis Scott Key, but often know very little about his life or his contributions.

"We feel very blessed to live here, it's such a beautiful farm," she said. "It's a little bit that we can do for our patriotic duty to take care of the farm and keep the information and the story of Francis Scott Key alive."

Terra Rubra is generally a quiet, peaceful place to live, McGrew said, although because of its historical significance, people will routinely come to try to visit and tour the property, something she still hasn't gotten used to.

Terra Rubra is private property and the McGrews do not open it for tours.

"I'm am surprised at how many people stop by to look," Debra McGrew said. "I'm a very private person and when people pull in the driveway any time they want and want to look at the house... I've learned to be grateful and accommodate."

Reach staff writer Krishana Davis at 410-857-7862 or krishana.davis@carrollcountytimes.com.

About Terra Rubra

Terra Rubra is Latin for "red earth."

The 3,000-acre plantation belonged to John Ross Key, a circuit judge and Revolutionary War army officer.

Francis Scott Key was born there in 1780.

The original house was sold after Francis Scott Key's death and deteriorated, according to the National Register of Historic Places. After a storm in the late 1850s destroyed the home, it was torn down and a new home was built. Some of the materials of the original home were used to construct the newer building.

Source: Baltimore Sun archives

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