Across the Spa Creek bridge from downtown Annapolis, in the irreverent community of Eastport, a cryptic question has been popping up in chitchat at Leon the Barber's and on hundreds of bright yellow bumper stickers - "Where is Ben?"
In recent weeks, citizens of the Maritime Republic of Eastport (MRE) - who declared themselves a faux independent republic after a mock secession from Annapolis two years ago - have been consumed with finding the missing remains of Benjamin Ogle, a Maryland governor from around 1800 believed to be buried in their community. Eastportericans, as they call themselves, have pored over old land records and maps, had the republic's bard compose a ditty called "Ben Ogle's Bones" and enlisted two county archaeologists to dig for the remains.
At the heart of this unorthodox fervor is a serious effort. MRE citizens are determined to solve a centuries-old Annapolis mystery and educate residents about local history and archaeology. And there's also the hope that finding a Maryland governor's remains on their soil could bring prestige and respect to their renegade republic. "Annapolis has always had the upper hand in terms of claims to history," said Jefferson Holland, bard and poet laureate of the MRE, which, in all seriousness, is a nonprofit group, not a republic. "They're the ones with the Historic District. They're the ones with the historic landmarks. This would be one way to be like, 'Nyah, nyah, nyah. We're historic, too.'"
The quest for Ben's bones began two months ago at an MRE meeting when Eastport Alderman Ellen O. Moyer suggested that Ogle was probably buried in the community. Moyer, a Democrat, had been researching horse-racing history for an exhibit at St. John's College and found that Ogle - governor from 1798 to 1801 and a horse breeder - owned 2,000 acres of farmland in Eastport. When Ogle died in 1809, he was buried near his farmhouse as he requested. But the governor died a pauper, so his land was sold within years and his grave site disappeared.
Moyer suggested a search for Ogle's remains at the MRE meeting as an offbeat way to generate interest in Eastport history. She introduced a "resolution" to find Ogle - which passed unanimously - and printed more than 200 bumper stickers asking, "Where is Ben?" "I have had so many people come up to me to ask not, 'Where is Ben?' but 'Who is Ben?' " said Moyer, whose MRE honorific is Ambassador to the Mainland. "I don't think many people knew about Benjamin Ogle before this. It's a tongue-in-cheek way to bring to light some new information about the wealth of interesting people who have inhabited our past."
Benjamin Ogle was born in Annapolis on Jan. 27, 1749, the son of Samuel Ogle who served as Maryland governor for three terms spanning 14 years. His family was known for building Belair mansion in Bowie in 1745, a 36-room home that became a summer retreat for some of the region's wealthiest families in the 1700s.
While Samuel Ogle governed Maryland through such significant moments as the introduction of paper currency in the 1730s, his son's tenure was remarkable merely because he was head of the state during the still-tumultuous post-Revolutionary period, said Shirley Baltz, an amateur historian who has extensively researched the Ogle family.
Ogle assumed ownership of the Eastport farmland when he married Henrietta Hill, whose father owned the property. Baltz, who lived in Bowie near Belair for almost 50 years, said records show that Ogle bred horses on the farm, and the land was largely used for grazing. When the Marquis de Lafayette sailed into Spa Creek in 1781, commanding 1,200 troops to battle the British in Virginia, he camped on Ogle's farm for two weeks.
Baltz said Ogle was bilked of substantial amounts of money during his life, and the farmland had been mortgaged a number of times by the time he died. When his wife died in 1815, her heirs sold the 2,000 acres to pay the debts. "It would be nice to know where his grave was," said Baltz, who lives in Hammonton, N.J. "The Ogles were one of the prominent families in 18th-century Maryland permission to conduct a dig at the end of summer.
County archaeologist Al Luckenbach and his assistant, Jane Cox, are volunteering their time to research the subject and will conduct the dig. The MRE has donated $500 to the Anne Arundel County Trust for Preservation in exchange for their efforts and plans to invite community residents and elementary school children to help the archaeologists.
Miron said if Ogle's remains are found, he hopes the Annapolis Yacht Club will donate them to a local museum for an exhibit on the former governor's life. Finding Ogle's bones, of course, would call for a celebration the two "republics" could share. "If it happens," Miron said with a hopeful chuckle, "this is a great opportunity for the two nations to get together and form an alliance."
Ben Ogle's Bones
Find me the bones of Benjamin Ogle!
Poke in the garden or under the bridge,
Where's the colonial real-estate mogul,
Who owned all of Eastport and half of Bay Ridge?
Nobody knows where they buried the gentleman,
Chaser of steeples, breeder of steeds;
Governor over our own little merry land;
But nobody knows what his epitaph reads.
Sam Ogle, his father, was lain 'neath St. Anne's
Along with Ben's infantile brother;
They were moved to make way for the second church plans
But to where, no one's quite yet discovered
So there's oodles of Ogles, but no one knows where!
No monument commemorates them;
They might be unmarked on the grounds of Bel Air,
Ogle's Prince George's County estate, then;
Or they might be interred at his Tolly Point farm,
The place long since renamed Bay Ridge;
Or maybe where Lafayette's troops stacked their arms,
Right there by the Eastport bridge
Ben let it be known that none should complain
On the day that fate cut his life short;
If eternal contentment was Ben Ogle's aim,
Where else would he lie, but Eastport?
So if, while out mucking about in the yard,
Your spade strikes a stick or a stone,
Look keenly at what you're about to discard
It just might be Ben Ogle's bones!-
Poet Laureate of Eastport (Composed while perched on the tomb of Edgar Allen Poe, on March 17, 2000)