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Suburbanites became instant dairy farmers Couple highlight history of their 1800s farmhouse


When Karen and Lou Hobson moved to their 19th-century farmhouse, the basement was a dirt-floored cellar and the eggs the previous owners had cooked for breakfast that morning were still on the stove.

On the way to their new home in the northwestern corner of Carroll County, one of Mrs. Hobson's prized Queen Anne's chairs bounced from the back of a friend's truck and into the traffic on Route 140, its delicately carved legs scraping the asphalt.

Before the couple could finish unpacking that night, they had 25 cows to milk -- and they'd never milked cows before.

The circumstances might have sent a lesser family back to their impeccably remodeled Cape Cod in the heart of historic Ellicott City. In truth, Mrs. Hobson did return to their "old house" later that afternoon, angry and upset to be leaving a perfectly good home for a rundown farmhouse on the outskirts of Harney that was "pretty dismal" at best.

Twenty-three years later, the circa 1823 house that was "straight out of American Gothic" shows little evidence of its dingy origins. The Hobsons are still dairy farmers -- the milking herd of registered Holsteins at Cowlick Farm now numbers about 75.

And three years ago, the couple and their son and daughter-in-law opened Cowlick Gardens, a wholesale and retail greenhouse business across the road from the barn.

What was an incredibly risky proposition -- "Everyone figured we wouldn't make it," Mrs. Hobson laughed -- has become a way of life. At the heart of their operation is the Georgian-style, red brick farmhouse they spent eight years restoring.

"I really like the house. It'd be really hard for me to leave here," Mr. Hobson said, seated at the old farm table in the keeping room, the afternoon sun from a nearby window playing on his face.

Long interested in Colonial furniture and decor, Mrs. Hobson was enchanted by the Early American notion of keeping a special room for family activities, so she christened the former kitchen at the rear of her house their keeping room. A wood stove burns in one corner and a comfortable sofa and chair invite curling up with a good book or taking a nap.

A punched-tin electric chandelier hangs over the table where the couple eats daily meals. The dry sink along the wall doubles as a buffet when guests are invited over for casual dinners. The notched wood piece was built for the original owner of the house by his father when that young couple moved to the farm in the early 1800s.

Friends who visit the Hobsons always peek first at the keeping room to get a glimpse of its ever-changing decor. Mrs. Hobson has an extensive collection of antique and American primitive paintings, figurines, toys and other items that celebrate various holidays.

The paintings on the keeping room walls are changed regularly, allowing her to showcase a collection of works by self-taught Pennsylvania folk artist Bobbi Becker. Free-standing pieces -- such as the three-dimensional wooden Noah's Ark set out from now until just before Easter -- are displayed on the dry sink, table and a high shelf.

A permanent collection of cow curio fills an antique glass case set in the small space between the open doorways leading to the kitchen and the living room.

More items related to dairying are displayed in these rooms, including a milk bottle from the old Rockland Dairy bearing the name of its owner -- Mr. Hobson's late father, Charles E. Hobson.

Mr. Hobson's parents operated the Ellicott City dairy until he was 8 years old.

The counters in the narrow kitchen are covered in rust-colored ceramic tile, compliments of Mrs. Hobson's late father, who ran his own tile-laying business.

The dark-stained kitchen cabinets are made from lumber that was taken from an old grain bin in the barn. Herbs flower in a wooden trough inside the window well.

The cabinets and appliances along the kitchen's rear wall stand noticeably higher than the opposite side "because of the way the house leans," Mrs. Hobson said.

The chair that long ago tumbled off the truck as the couple moved here sits next to the fireplace in the living room, road rash still evident on one leg.

This room, like most of the others on the first floor, is done in Colonial blue -- the only hue his wife can see in the color wheel, Mr. Hobson joked. Creamy accents and splashes of rose keep the color scheme from becoming monotonous. The doorways into the living room -- next to the kitchen and off the front foyer -- are visibly tilted. Members of the family that once owned the farm told the Hobsons this is due to the heavy sheaves of wheat stored in the living room during the Civil War.

Living just a few miles from the border of Adams County, Pa., Taneytown-area farmers found their livestock and grain subject to seizure by both Union and Confederate troops. Industrious mice dragged kernels of grain to hiding places behind the walls and "we have found wheat everywhere," Mrs. Hobson said.

The Hobsons were able to preserve the original plaster and moldings in the formal dining room, formerly a little-used parlor. A blue-and-cream porcelain chandelier from their first home hangs above the table. Mrs. Hobson's blue Delft china is displayed in an open wood hutch.

The Hobsons added a peg board in the foyer.

The Minuteman costume hanging from one of the foyer pegs is no decorator's accessory. Their son, Steven, wore the suit, which Mrs. Hobson made, in a cow competition during the Bicentennial.

The open stairs in the foyer lead up to the bath, two bedrooms and master suite. The high-ceilinged bathroom was once used to store sugar in an effort to keep the expensive staple out of the reach of vermin.

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