In the 1920s, sisters Ruth and Frances Brown embarked on teaching careers in Howard County that would span nearly 50 years.
Aside from their abiding commitment to education and children, the women, who never married, took pride in their family heritage, which dates to the 17th century. In their later years they became especially interested in having a say in what would happen after their deaths to their beloved Mount Pleasant, the 232-acre family farm on Old Frederick Road.
An open house to showcase recent renovations to the historic Brown family farmhouse in Woodstock will be held Friday to commemorate what would’ve been Ruth Brown’s 115th birthday. Birthday cake will be served.
Mount Pleasant became the home of the Howard County Conservancy in 1993, thanks to the will and determination of the Brown sisters, who died two years apart in the early 1990s.
The property, which is a nature reserve and educational facility, is owned by the conservancy in partnership with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources and Howard County government, and it is under a conservation easement that is held in perpetuity by the Maryland Environmental Trust.
That the Brown sisters had such a clear vision for their legacy and for Howard County’s future “is amazing,” said State Sen. Edward J. Kasemeyer, a Democrat representing the 12th district who was a student in Ruth Brown’s eighth-grade class in 1958 at the now-defunct Ellicott City Junior High School.
“I admired these women and it makes me proud from a distance that they had the foresight to request that their farm not developed,” said Kasemeyer, who described Ruth Brown as “a unique individual.”
James N. Robey, who served the county as a state senator, county executive and police chief, agreed.
The Brown sisters “were hardcore educators back in the day, when teachers relied on mimeographs and other basic teaching tools.” They also cared deeply about their ancestry and their land, said Robey, who was in Ruth Brown’s class in 1950 at the former Ellicott City Elementary School.
“She was an exceptional lady. The strange thing about her [was that] she had eyes in the back of her head that no one could see,” Robey joked.
“When she was writing on the blackboard, she could see what you were doing behind her and if you were misbehaving, she’d just whirl around and aim a piece of chalk at you,” he recalled with a laugh. “Good accuracy, too; she hit most of us.”
Meg Boyd, the conservancy’s executive director, said the historical farmhouse’s renovation was enabled by the expansion of the conservancy’s main building two years ago, which in turn permitted them to move offices out of the farmhouse.
“It’s been our long-term goal to open the farmhouse for tours since visitors [to the conservancy] are always interested in seeing inside,” Boyd said.
Guides will be available during Friday’s event, set for 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., to discuss the property’s history and answer questions.
Ranger Thomas Browne — the family’s surname was originally spelled with a final “e” — was first commissioned in 1692 by the colonial government to patrol the northern county between the Patuxent and Patapsco rivers and monitor activities of Native Americans in the area, Boyd said.
“Many people believe he first set up a shelter to live in,” Boyd said of Browne, who in 1703 received a 400-acre land grant titled Ranter’s Ridge.
The log cabin he is believed to have built in the 1770s comprises the central core of the current farmhouse, which was built in six stages beginning during the 1800s, according to the conservancy’s website. The logs of the cabin’s walls can be seen under the farmhouse’s siding through a viewing window that was installed at the back, she said.
An in-depth history of the property, along with a historical timeline and a copy of a book on Mount Pleasant, is available online at hcconservancy.org by clicking on “locations.”
The recently completed interior renovation focused on period furniture and other items and cost $5,000.
The $200,000 whole-house renovation in 2013 covered installation of a geothermal heating and cooling system, insulation, and storm windows and doors along with new bathrooms and kitchen. It was funded by a state grant and matching private donations, Boyd said.
Boyd said the conservancy’s five-member History Committee managed the year-long renovation of the farmhouse, part of which remains the caretaker’s residence.
The smaller bedroom belonging to the Brown sisters’ brother, Samuel, was “brought back to its roots in order to reflect the time period with the right furnishings and fixtures,” Boyd said. These items include a rope bed, foot warmer and chamber pot, among others.
There are nine historic buildings on the property, including a smokehouse, carriage house and a working blacksmith shop believed to currently be the only one of its kind in the county, she said.
Chris Garbart, who chairs the conservancy’s History Committee, said the group “wants visitors to look at the farmhouse and understand how frugally farm people lived.”
There’s been discussion about offering tours of the farmhouse on a regular basis, she said, but nothing has yet been decided.
The connection between the Brown sisters — “whom many people described as characters in a good way” — and children throughout their lengthy careers is a strong component of the conservancy’s mission, Garbart said.
The sisters were known for judging the pretty baby contest at the Howard County Fair each summer and taking part in Grange, which was a farmer’s association, she said.
“Hopefully Ruth and Frances are looking down happily” on what their beloved farm has become, she said.
Deb West, a committee member, said the group has been asking people to share memories of the sisters, both of whom her grandmother had known. She is currently sorting through class photos that have been donated.
“The Browns were very much into civic duty and family heritage,” West said.
“Their dad died when they were both under 10 years of age, and their mother managed the farm and raised three kids,” she said. “That must’ve been quite a struggle.”
West also attended Ellicott City Elementary School, where she could hear Ruth Brown across the hall as she sang a good-morning song each day to her students that included the words, “We’re all in our places with sunshiny faces.”
Having the opportunity to open the Browns’ home to visitors means a lot to the conservancy, Boyd said, adding that she hopes farmhouse visitors will allow time to investigate the nature center or explore the four miles of hiking trails that are open daily from dawn to dusk.
“All of this is possible because of the sisters’ incredible gift. Can you imagine all the developers that must’ve been knocking on their door?” Boyd said. “But they held firm, and to be able to honor their wishes is really special to all of us.”