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Tours of Key's Carroll birthplace offered

The buildings at Terra Rubra, the Carroll County homestead that was the birthplace of Francis Scott Key, are being opened to the public for the first time in decades.

New owner William F. Chaney is opening the freshly renovated home for public tours today and the next two Sundays.

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"I - my sons and I - own the home, but I really feel like it belongs to the county and the state and the country," said Chaney, a retired banker, stockbroker, insurance executive and history enthusiast who bought the property in northwest Carroll County for $1.3 million last fall. "We're stewards. ... We'll be there for the short time, but this will be part of history forever."

Since November, Chaney, 57, has been restoring the old look of the house and grounds, burying utility lines, replacing the blacktop drive with gravel and removing the previous family's modern wall-to-wall carpeting and children's wallpaper.

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"The house is in excellent condition," he said of the circa-1850s structure that replaced the original 18th-century home with what is believed to be material from the first house.

But the house needed touches such as wooden shutters, antique light fixtures, a grandfather clock and folding writing desk, he said.

"It's going well," Chaney said of the work, which he said has cost "a couple hundred thousand." It is "about 99.9 percent complete," except for new, special-order curtains that he said seem to be taking forever to arrive.

Although his family has been in the Lothian area of Anne Arundel County for about three centuries, Chaney said he and wife Patrice will make Terra Rubra their home. Terra Rubra was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1978.

"It's very exciting to have the chance to live where Francis Scott Key was brought up, where George Washington visited," said Chaney, referring to a visit by the first president to Key's father, John Ross Key, a Revolutionary War officer of the renowned Maryland Line. Chaney, a collector of historic letters, said he has obtained some "routine correspondence" written by Key.

This month is believed to mark the 224th anniversary of the birth of Key, the lawyer and poet who wrote the words to "The Star-Spangled Banner" while on a British ship in 1814.

Questions about Key's home rank among the most common inquiries to the county tourism office, said Barbara R. Lilly, executive director of the Historical Society of Carroll County. But she said the last time she could recall Terra Rubra being open to the public was during the nation's 1976 bicentennial.

She said Chaney contacted the society about opening the home to the public.

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Key was born and spent his youth at the farm, which is near Keysville, off Francis Scott Key Highway about two miles north of Keymar.

Key, who died in 1843, knew every president from Thomas Jefferson on, Chaney said, and was named a federal prosecutor in Washington by Andrew Jackson. Although Key left Terra Rubra to attend St. John's College in Annapolis, then practiced law there and in Georgetown, he returned to the farm throughout his life.

"This was one of the most prominent families in America, let alone Maryland," Lilly said, adding that Key's poetry was a minor part of his life, used primarily in letters. "It's interesting that it became just that one moment in time that he is known for."

The homestead was named Terra Rubra for its red earth. True to its name, the land changes noticeably to a deep red along roadsides and under cornstalks.

A flag flies in front of the house, and there is a monument to Key that was placed in 1915 by the Patriotic Order of the Sons of America and the Pupils of the Public Schools.

Although a few suburban homes lie across the road, there is no sound other than birds, including about two dozen Canada geese splashing in the pond.

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The original house, built from 1770 to 1771 by Key's father, was destroyed by a storm about 1850, Lilly said. It is thought that some of the materials were recycled into a new one soon afterward.

The new house is painted tan with green wooden shutters. A barn dating from the early 1920s and several outbuildings on the property are painted a deep brown with white trim.

It's not clear which, if any, of the buildings are original, Lilly said, but further historical research is planned.

Even Key's birth date is in dispute, she said. Although most have settled on Aug. 1, 1779, the marker at Terra Rubra gives it as Aug. 9, 1780, and some have placed it as late as 1786, she said.

The farmhouse, barn and grounds, including a slave burial ground, will be open from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. today and the next two Sundays. Admission fees ($2 for an individual and $5 for a family or group) are to be donated to the Historical Society and the Carroll County Land Trust.

The first tour took place last Sunday. Among the 115 visitors that day was Charles I. Ecker, the Carroll County schools superintendent. Ecker, who was born near Uniontown 74 years ago, is interested in genealogy.

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"I think it was a beautiful setting, along the pond," he said.

Thursday, the Carroll County commissioners voted to protect the land with a preservation easement through the Rural Legacy Program and the state Department of Natural Resources, said Bill Powel, manager of the county's Agricultural Land Preservation program. The state Board of Public Works must approve the easement, he said.

Powel volunteered at Terra Rubra last Sunday. ,

"Local people, some older people, had memories of the place from years ago," he said.

Terra Rubra is at 1755 Bruceville-Keysville Road, about four miles south of Taneytown. Cameras, strollers and high heels are prohibited inside.


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