Farming built on generations

THE BALTIMORE SUN

She was Anne Ridout then, 72 years ago when she was brought home from the hospital to the family farm that had welcomed so many babies over the years. Her father grew up on the Broadneck Peninsula, just like his father before him and his father and so on, back six generations to when John Ridout inherited the land from his boss in 1793.

Nearly as old as the nation, this once rural homestead - now annoyingly suburban, some residents will tell you - has seen its share of changes in a world that has been altered in so many ways over time.

What has remained the same is the hands working the land. They have always belonged to a Ridout.

This generation's caretaker - Anne Ridout Brice - plans to keep it that way.

"It will never be developed, at least I hope it won't be," she said. "I just can't imagine seeing these lovely fields that have been part of my heritage sprouting houses."

The Ridout-Brice Farm, she has dubbed the previously nameless Anne Arundel County property (something had to go on her new sign). It was recently designated one of the state's 128 Century Farms, a distinction given to lands that have been continuously farmed by a single family for more than 100 years. She is in even more elite company, though. Only 17 of the Century Farms have been in the same family for more than 200 years like hers.

What the future will bring is always a question. So far, Brice's only child has chosen not to work the land, but went to sea as a career Coast Guard officer. Her two grandsons are still in college, putting farming behind final exams, for the time being.

But it will remain farmland. Brice has seen to that. Her property is part of the county's Agricultural and Woodland Preservation Program, which is paying her not to subdivide the land for development. It's part of 11,475 acres in Anne Arundel County that have been set aside this way.

"I feel very committed to that land," said daughter Sally Brice-O'Hara, who plans to retire within the next several years to a home she built on the property. "I really want to keep the farm as my mother desires to see it. I hope that my children will feel the same way."

The land was being worked long before the Ridouts came into the picture. It has had several incarnations, but this story begins with British Gov. Horatio Sharpe. He built a handsome five-part brick home called Whitehall on the 811-acre property in the 1760s. When he scurried back to England in the 1770s, he left his secretary, John Ridout, in charge. Later, as Maryland was moving to confiscate all British property, Sharpe sold the property to his assistant. Before the debt was paid, though, Sharpe died and left the land to Ridout in his will.

The farm, though, is much smaller than it was then. Brice owns just 60 acres. Her cousins share 100 or so additional acres. Theirs, too, would likely be designated Century Farms if they submit the necessary paperwork.

"Every time somebody had to go to college or the tax man came around, a piece of property was sold," explained Orlando Ridout IV, Brice's 82-year-old first cousin, nearby neighbor and a long-ago state legislator. "Our grandparents sold land, I'm sure, because they sent four kids to college and added a bathroom to the house."

Much of the land with the creek views is no longer in the family. Neither is Whitehall, which had to be sold because the last Ridout living there left too many heirs to satisfy. A chunk of farmland close to bustling U.S. 50, not far from the Bay Bridge, has disappeared, and a tidy subdivision of more than 100 new homes has grown up in its place.

Brice, at 72, doesn't have much patience for the newcomers. "Move-ins," she calls them. She doesn't like when they stroll down the road and pet and feed the horses she boards on her property. She has been known to chase off joggers who dare to sully the sod being meticulously grown on other fields.

"They don't know one end of a horse from the other," she says.

But Brice does. She grew up riding horses through the fields here. She only gave up riding a few years ago when she had a fall that required brain surgery. In her father's day, some of the land was used as a full-care stable for horses, breeding Percherons on the side.

Over time the farm has had many uses, though Orlando Ridout - who has done exhaustive research on his family's past - says tobacco was never grown there.

They've grown corn and soybeans and wheat. There have been peach orchards and sheep and chickens. A working sawmill was once a feature. Now, 35 of Brice's acres are devoted to sod, while the rest is home to 15 horses and their stables, with a dressage course and jumps. And under Brice's watch, horse owners who rent space take care of their own animals, from feeding to watering to mucking the stables.

"This place is the best on Earth - there's just not many farms left for what we do here," said Andrea Frazier of Severna Park, perched atop an enormous brown horse that lives on the Ridout-Brice Farm.

Brice, an only child, is the last generation in her immediate family to have grown up on this farm. Her own daughter was raised a few miles away in the house Brice moved into when she married.

Her daughter, Rear Adm. Sally Brice-O'Hara, is coming up on 30 years in the Coast Guard, currently commanding its 5th District from southern New Jersey to the North Carolina/South Carolina border. She expects to retire in the not-too-distant future. When she does, it will be to the house she built on the family farm.

The farm has really been her anchor. "When you're in the military, you do get used to packing your bags and moving on every few years," she said. "That's what's so remarkable about the farm and the community and all that I grew up with."

And she wants it to stay like it has been, to be the place her own grandmother - who died in 2002 just shy of her 99th birthday - told such rich stories about, to be the place where she can fill out the branches of her family tree the way others have done for generations.

"Sometimes I get very disgusted with the development the county has allowed," she said. "We need to slow down and be more considerate of the land that is disappearing. We can't bring that back."

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