Growing up in the 1940s on the family farm, a few miles north of Westminster's city limits near Union Mills, one of John Chambers' responsibilities was to take produce remnants from the porch to a compost heap some 50 feet from the house. Inevitably, seeds from discarded pumpkins took to the soil and grew into a patch of sorts, with some two dozen pumpkins at various stages of ripeness by late 1948.
From that unintended pumpkin patch came a moment of inspiration by his father, Whittaker Chambers, that turned into the biggest news story in the country and thrust the Chambers family, a cast of characters that included future President Richard Nixon, and, indeed, Carroll County into the national spotlight like never before or since.
Nearly 70 years later, it's still a common occurrence for John Chambers to be asked about the Pumpkin Papers, so named because his father hid inside a hollowed-out pumpkin five canisters containing microfilm of sensitive documents that implicated a prominent government official named Alger Hiss.
"It does come up in conversation quite a bit," he said recently. "It's something that I've known and been sensitive to all my life from age 13 on. It's not necessarily detrimental."
Chambers was speaking at the family farm that is the only property in Carroll designated as a National Historic Landmark. The site looks much like it did in 1948, although the one-time compost heap/pumpkin patch is nothing but green grass now. The house Chambers grew up in burned down in the 1950s, but it was rebuilt on the same foundation to look the same more than a half-century ago and is now rented out as Chambers lives in a different house on the property.
He remains somewhat mystified at the public's continuing fascination with the Pumpkin Papers, not to mention the way the property is thought of as a pumpkin farm, even if it never was.
"I get a fair amount of correspondence, telephone stuff from folks around the country, and they do identify it that way," he said. "And even more puzzling, people call to see if we still have pumpkins — and if they have any papers in them."
A hiding place
Whittaker Chambers was born in Philadelphia and grew up in New York. In his 20s, he became a member of the communist party and began working as an operative for the Soviet Union. He was far from alone, later testifying about others who were involved with espionage or infiltration of the government in the 1930s.
According to his book "Witness," it was during the mid-1930s that Whittaker Chambers, a Baltimore resident, came to Carroll County for the first time, looking at some property here along with a friend and associate of his — Hiss.
Having become disenchanted with communism and having found religion, Chambers left behind his old life and bought what became Pipe Creek Farm, settling in Carroll with wife Esther, daughter Ellen and son John. He began a career in journalism that would lead to his becoming a writer and editor for Time magazine. But he kept a fair number of documents from his old life that he believed he needed for self-preservation.
Whittaker Chambers testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee in August of 1948, implicating Hiss — a former State Department official who had been a key figure in the founding of the United Nations and attended the Yalta Conference alongside President Franklin Roosevelt — as being a member of an underground organization of the communist party. Hiss denied ever having been a communist or a spy, initially denying he had ever met Chambers. Shortly thereafter he sued Chambers for libel.
Nixon, a congressman from California, chaired a subcommittee charged with figuring out who was lying.
John Chambers related how instructions from one of his father's attorneys, Richard Cleveland, began the chain of events that culminated on the night of Dec. 2, 1948, when congressional staffers armed with flashlights descended upon the family farm and took possession of film canisters from a soon-to-be-famous gourd.
"He told my father, if you have any papers or documents at all that are related to Alger Hiss, that are related to this event, that show in some way a connection or a knowledge, those kind of things … make sure that you secure them," John Chambers said.
He said his father had stashed numerous documents and five film canisters in a dumbwaiter at the home of a relative. Whittaker Chambers gathered up the evidence and returned to Carroll in need of a safe place to hide it.
"You couldn't really take them — or didn't want to take them — to a bank or various other legal offices. … And he didn't want to put them in the house — first of all, the doorknob shook when you opened it. Not exactly secure," John Chambers said, noting that his father's background and perhaps the memory of a Russian spy movie inspired his eventual choice of a hiding place.
"So when my father ... wondered where he should put [the film canisters] in a secure place, he came on what I thought was a brainstorm," John Chambers recalled. "He had some papers and those papers were then turned over to the attorneys, but he had the canisters of microfilm, so he put them in a plastic bag, hollowed out a pumpkin, got the seeds out, put the lid on the pumpkin, put the stuff inside and put it back in the pumpkin patch.
"He'd been taught the ways of, a fair amount of concealment. How do you hide in front of everybody?"
Protected in Carroll
From that night on, life was never the same for the Chambers family. Celebrity and notoriety came as the Pumpkin Papers and Whittaker Chambers' testimony led to a perjury conviction and 44 months in prison for Hiss and the Pumpkin Papers effectively launched Nixon's career on the national political stage.
"Once this thing broke open it just was like having a revolution in your life," John Chambers recalled. "It just turned on its head."
Not that a young John Chambers knew much about any of it at first.
He said he "slept like a farm boy" the night the government officials came to the farm, missing all the excitement. (John Chambers debunked the notion that Nixon himself traveled to the farm that night to personally retrieve the evidence, although he said the future president did stop by to see Whittaker Chambers on occasion en route to visiting family in Pennsylvania.)
John Chambers said he really didn't know much at all about what his father was involved in — "I never had the faintest notion … I undoubtedly had many hints, it just didn't register or occur to me" — until a newspaper arrived one day.
"I opened it up and there was my father's picture on the front page. Big display," he recalled, noting that his mother then sat him down and explained it all to him. "We just had to be much, much more protective of each other and conscious of the swirl that was going around."
While the nation argued and divided its allegiances between Hiss and Whittaker Chambers, John Chambers recalled that the family was always treated well by Carroll countians. He was told, much later, by a former classmate at Westminster High School, that the student body had been instructed to take it easy on him and his sister.
"He said teachers at Westminster High School notified the pupils that the Chambers family was having troubles and to treat them well. Don't tease them. Don't push them around or punch them any more than you have to," John Chambers recalled, laughing. "I think I was protected in a way that you would only pray your sons were protected. They really reached out. … And not just the teachers, but the community."
Whittaker Chambers' memoir, "Witness," was published in 1952 and became a bestseller, helping to pay his not-insignificant legal fees (and, indeed, still producing some royalties for the family well into the 21st century).
But the country was divided. Hiss continued to proclaim his innocence, including in an autobiography, and was widely believed, particularly in academia. He told a reporter from The Baltimore Sun in 1974 that he wasn't bitter.
"No one who did unkind things to me was the cause for bitterness. Chambers was out of his head and Nixon was a man on the up escalator. Bitterness doesn't hurt anyone you're bitter toward," Hiss told the Sun. "None of what went on was justified. It was all hyped up for political purposes. There was certainly no domestic threat of communism."
Whittaker Chambers never really came to grips with it all before his death in 1961.
"Thank God [my father] didn't live to see some of the rest of it as it came down the historic pike," John Chambers said. "I think he felt an awful lot of people on either side had no feeling about it, no sense of his purpose, no intention of realizing why he'd done what he'd done … I think he felt that he died not understood or liked in any particular way by his compatriots."
Redemption came later for Whittaker Chambers, whose story has been in some measure backed up by documents unearthed after the fall of the Soviet Union, and the Chambers family. "Suddenly we go from being villains to being patriots. It was amazing," John Chambers said.
In 1984, President Ronald Reagan posthumously bestowed upon Whittaker Chambers the Presidential Medal of Freedom. In 1988, Pipe Creek Farm was granted national landmark status, the bronze plaque locked away on the property for safe keeping.
And in 2001, members of President George W. Bush's administration commemorated the 100th anniversary of Whittaker Chambers' birth.
John Chambers attended that tribute.
"A gentleman who was at one point head of national security in the White House, had been apparently a longtime operative, came up to me and told me, 'Well, you know, we really knew your father was telling the truth all along because we had these tapes and we had this line of communication that we had gotten surreptitiously,'" John Chambers recalled. "I asked him, 'How in the hell did you let somebody, an individual of that kind, swing in the wind that long when you knew what he was doing was more than courageous?' He was fighting the fight himself, singlehandedly."
John Chambers is bemused by the fact that his father — who wrote and translated numerous books and plays, and had a distinguished career in journalism — will forever be defined by the happenstance of a pumpkin containing five film canisters.
"He really didn't anticipate how the notion of papers in a pumpkin would just blow up," John Chambers said, "and how this thing would move up to the national headlines. Not because he didn't feel there was a great deal of substance in what he was trying to do, in what he was saying, but of all the things that you've laid your life down — of all the things — that this pumpkin thing would become front and center."
John Chambers has had a fascinating life of his own, including 30 years as a journalist that included his being on site and reporting on the Robert F. Kennedy assassination as well as the irony of his covering the Nixon White House. (Chambers does a funny impression recalling the times when Nixon would invite Chambers over to talk to him after a press conference and, in his distinctive voice, ask about the Chambers family.)
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He said he has a lot of stories, but would never pen a book of his own simply because he doesn't feel he could measure up to his father, "the master."
In fact, through all the years, he and his sister, who now lives in Easton, have been largely reticent to discuss in public the Pumpkin Papers.
"Absolutely, yes indeed. We're not in it for the show. And when you talked about it you just, inevitably, got burned," he said. "[My sister] became much more sensitive to the negative aspects of it and rarely talked about and tried not to identify with it. …
"For me, from fairly early on, I would introduce myself or be introduced and it would be, 'You're not that Chambers are you?' That type of thing."
Through it all, a little dab of fame mixed with a bit of infamy and a long career spent covering and working with major political figures, John Chambers said all he really wanted to do was be a farmer. And that's what he has been for the last decade — on the same property where government officials once removed microfilm of secret documents from a not-yet-ripe pumpkin that essentially sent Alger Hiss to prison, made household names of Richard Nixon and Whittaker Chambers, turned Carroll County into a historical footnote and created the Chambers family's legacy.
"This was very much a turn of life. Had it not been for them, I would not be able to afford fine milking boots and blue jeans," John Chambers said with a smile, referring to the Pumpkin Papers. "And I probably would not be standing here."