Carroll farmer saves land by giving it up

THE BALTIMORE SUN

For several years, Howard "Bub" Leister has resolutely resisted pressure from developers who have offered him more than $2 million for the Hampstead land he has farmed for more than a half-century.

He treasures the view from his back porch - fenced green pastures surrounding a rustic red barn and a glistening pond - and wants to preserve it for future generations.

So Leister, 89, has sold the 100-acre farm to Carroll County for $1.1 million, about half its appraised value. The land will become Leister Park, dedicated to the longtime farmer and his late wife, Reba.

"I didn't want to see houses here," he said. "I've got my life here in this farm, and I wanted something for the future, something to be remembered by. The park means my name will stay here for a long time after I go."

Gifts like Leister's are rare, county officials said.

"I cannot recall any gift of this size," said Commissioner Julia Walsh Gouge, who is serving her fourth term in office. "He really is giving the county more than a million dollars."

Carroll County has worked diligently to safeguard its farmland from development and is nearly halfway to its goal of 100,000 preserved acres. But, in and around population centers such as Hampstead, residential subdivisions have gobbled up family farms.

"I had it set in my mind that no developer was ever going to get this place," Leister said. "This was always country, and I want to keep it that way."

When he offered the property to the county last winter, he said, "they went for it, hook, line and sinker. They had it appraised and surveyed right away."

Richard Soisson, county director of parks and recreation, said the park will be "an oasis for the community." The county will build hiking trails, a picnic grove, a playground and a few ball fields and possibly expand the well-stocked fishing pond. Soisson confirmed that the farm had been appraised at $2 million.

Hampstead Mayor Haven Shoemaker commended Leister for his generosity.

"He had more than one opportunity to sell this property for a lot of money," said Shoemaker. "Rather than saddle the town with more houses, he held out for open space."

Hampstead has been home to Leister all his life. When he and Reba married more than 66 years ago, they lived in a home near Route 30 and Houcksville Road.

They bought the farm for $12,000 in 1951 and moved into the 100-year-old log home on the property. Two years later, they added a new kitchen, but they made few other changes.

"My wife didn't want to come down here from town, but I convinced her because I knew it was a good investment," he said. "We both worked here. There was never a lot of money around, but we worked hard and made a living here."

And raised their son, Jack, there. With several business interests of his own in North Carolina, Jack Leister has no plans to return to Hampstead. He urged his father to sell the farm.

"I think that it is really wonderful that my father is giving something back to the community," said Jack Leister.

Reba died last fall, and a bout of pneumonia put Bub Leister into an assisted-living home in town for several months. The farm is still home, though, and he likes to show it off.

"This house is solid, not like the new ones," he said. "It won't fall apart in a few years."

Leister does not raise beef cattle, bale hay or sow grains anymore. But he still mows the lawn, putters about the barn and tends a vegetable garden.

His hair is whiter and thinner, and he is a little leaner than the man who ages in photos on the mantel in the living room. The deep lines on his face, the weathered complexion and the calloused hands - one of his doctors compared them to sandpaper - speak to years of hard labor.

Many times Leister painted the 12,000 feet of white fencing that kept in a herd of about 70 cattle. He plowed the fields and planted acres of grain and vegetables. He sold hay, hauling the crop across the state in tractor-trailers.

He still diligently tends to the two-story house, which is filled with family mementos and Reba's favorite things. He gives the lawn tractor a weekly workout around the grounds and keeps well-used tools and farm equipment stored in the barn and in working order.

"Bub is going to take care of this place as long as he can," said Darlene Sadler, who helps with housekeeping. "He has always been a farmer, a man who has to have something to do."

Leister will reside in the 150-year-old home - now painted white and covered in clapboard - as long as he chooses. The house will eventually become the park caretaker's residence, Soisson said.

Surrounded by homes and the Lions Club park, the property lies just outside the municipal limits on Black Rock Road. Leister long ago built steps to make it easier for young athletes to climb over his fence and retrieve errant balls. Nearby, the town is renovating an old school building for senior housing.

"This is a beautiful piece of property that fits so well with our other projects," said Ken Decker, Hampstead town manager. "When the seniors move in, they will look out on one of the most picturesque scenes in Carroll County, and the more energetic ones can go take a walk there with Bub."

Most summer days, Leister rocks in a white metal lawn chair positioned at the back door. He is more than willing to expound on farming, Hampstead lore and his family.

"He is our local living legend, with an incredibly good memory," said Decker.

Richard Armacost, a town maintenance worker, frequently stops by Leister's farm for a morning cup of coffee.

"I have known him my whole life and his whole life is this farm," said Armacost. "He has really made this corner of Hampstead a nice place."

County and town officials acknowledged Leister's gift at a dedication ceremony yesterday. He asked that the commissioners pose with him at the new sign marking the entrance to the farm.

Leister's arthritic knees force him to use a cane, but he put it aside for the photo. "He is standing tall today," said Sadler.

Decker gave Leister a cap with the town logo - the Hampstead train station.

"Stick around, Bub," said Decker. "We will have a real shindig here for your 100th birthday."

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