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62 years on the farm, and staying put

The Baltimore Sun

EARLEVILLE -- One distant autumn day, a seven-point buck stepped out of some woods and made straight for two wild turkeys feeding in a field. Joseph Smith Whitlock, watching from 60 yards or so, felt sure the deer would chase them off. But no.

"One of them old turkey gobblers jumped up and smacked him on both sides of the head with his wings," he recalled. "That old buck shook his head and walked back into the woods."

Whitlock chuckled at the memory. That turkey smackdown has stayed vivid in his 82-year-old mind, though it happened long ago, "probably in the '70s, sumpin' like 'at."

Cackling next to him was Don Wright, a 65-year-old pipe-smoker behind the wheel of a Toyota truck so dirty its dashboard looked two-tone: blue and brown. The two men were driving a visitor around Grove Farm, lately covered in the tan stubble of last year's soybean crop.

The Wrights may own this Cecil County farm, but nobody knows its rolling 744 acres like Whitlock, a retired farmhand who's lived on the land 62 years. Now his deep roots and steady presence in their lives have inspired an unusual act of loyalty.

Not long ago, the state of Maryland agreed to buy Grove Farm for $14.3 million. The Wrights are delighted that the undulating fields, sloping woods and marshes, all bookended by a Chesapeake Bay tidal creek and the Sassafras River, will be preserved as a wildlife management area open to the public.

Best of all, they say, Joe Whitlock will get to stay in his one-story house with its big black Kodiak wood stove hunched by the kitchen table.

If the sale is finalized at the end of February as planned, the Wrights will leave their two houses, one dating to 1820, and empty the timeworn barns. But remaining behind, free to fish Pond Creek, wander among the poplars and chestnut oaks or maybe take his gun to the lay-down blind in the woods will be the short, white-haired man with a bamboo walking stick who's been as much a feature of these parts as any of those landmarks.

Allowing Whitlock to stay was "stipulation No. 1," explained David Wright, Don's 52-year-old cousin. In 2001, the Wrights began exploring a sale after some in the family concluded that the farm was too expensive to maintain. They made the same point to all would-be buyers, from house-hungry developers to the preservation-minded state: "This is Joe Whitlock. He's been here longer than any of us, and he's staying."

One developer had offered $17 million, but the family reached a deal with the state, which agreed to the Whitlock provision, so long as the Wrights retained liability for the two acres on which his house sits. The Wrights were happy to do so. After Whitlock dies or leaves, the plot will revert to the state.

Whitlock is immensely grateful. The pale green wood-sided house is where he raised four children and nursed his wife, Elizabeth, before cancer and Alzheimer's took her life in July. The farm is where he worked his body to the breaking point, roamed all over and, year by year, came to see the Wright clan as family. Why would he want to go anywhere else?

"It just means home, that's it," he said.

Southern Cecil has always been his universe. He did visit New Jersey and travel south to Williamsburg, Va.; he has been across the bay to Baltimore a couple of times. That's about it.

Part of his inheritance is a thick, rich Eastern Shore drawl. Old corncobs get tossed in a "pahl." He fishes in Pond "Crick."

Whitlock was continuing tradition when, at age 20, he pitched up at Grove Farm in late 1945. His father, John, was a farmhand on this very spread, and his father worked on another farm.

He was hired at $99 a month by Dr. Arthur Wright, Don's grandfather, who wore a suit vest and New York sophistication. Wright bought the farm in 1936, partly, Don says, as a hideaway for himself and his mistress. By the time he retired 10 years later, he was head of surgery at New York University's medical school. The doctor had married well: His father-in-law, John B. Stanchfield, was lieutenant governor of New York and Mark Twain's lawyer.

When Dr. Wright, as people still refer to him, died in 1948, his son Stanchfield Wright took over the farm. His other son, Richard, became a lawyer in Baltimore. The Baltimore Wrights, including Don and his seven siblings, visited the farm on weekends and summers, which is how they grew so close to Joe Whitlock.

When Whitlock started in 1945, the last slave born on the property - known today only as Brad - had died just five years earlier. And horses still pulled the plows. A momentous change came in 1950 ("sumpin' like 'at") with the arrival of the first tractor, an Allis-Chalmers model. That made life easier, but farming remained grueling, especially at harvest.

"A lot of hard work back in them days. Used to take 12 men to bring in a crop. Now one machine does everything," said Whitlock, clad in a blue plaid shirt and camouflage suspenders. In fact, the Wrights have long leased their acreage to the Spry Brothers Inc., a large farming outfit.

Whitlock fed his household on the deer he hunted and on the bounty he and Elizabeth grew in their vast one-acre garden: sugar corn, lima beans, beets, tomatoes, squash. He hunted with his children and, more recently, with his developmentally challenged grandson, Colton, a gregarious 18-year-old.

After decades of farming, hunting, trapping and rambling, he knows every corner of the land. Don Wright, who owns a furniture company in North Carolina and plans to keep visiting Whitlock, said: "Joe could walk across a marsh that only Joe Whitlock and God could walk across. You'd sink up to your armpits."

Whitlock says that other than a few creaks, he still feels good. He gets out and about, on foot in black Reebok sneakers and on the road in his Ford F150 pickup.

His memory is clear. Bouncing along in the Toyota, Wright asked about a cluster of stones. "That used to be a peach house," Whitlock answered. "When they wasn't packin' peaches, they used to kill hogs in there."

Whitlock's mind is a catalog of anecdotes from this place. Like that nighttime raccoon hunting expedition when his brother-in-law climbed a tree in pursuit of one raccoon, only to break a branch and tumble to the ground.

Or the time in 1946 when he went hunting with his foreman, "Mr. Jack Hussfelt." Whitlock's job was to steer the buck they were tracking to where Hussfelt lay in wait. But when the deer emerged and headed for Whitlock, the farmhand fired.

Hussfelt, hearing the gunshot, shouted, "Which way'd he go?"

"Down," came Whitlock's reply.

So much has changed. The farm went from livestock to cash-crop cultivation. After Jeanne Wright, Stanchfield's widow, died in 2001, her son Arthur lived there for a time. But in recent years the Wrights have been visitors to their own farm, some from Kent County, some from out of state. Whitlock himself gave way to Joe Jr., a retired teacher who mows the grass and does other chores three days a week.

More change is coming. The state has yet to spell out the public's future access to the farm, which will likely offer kayaking, trails and some hunting.

What is certain is that Joe Whitlock will stay on the farm as long as he is able. He'll still rise at 4 a.m., eat Cheerios mixed with Raisin Bran for breakfast, see what's in the Cecil Whig. He'll wait for his grown daughter to drop off her school-age daughters, Haley and Sarah, and then see them off on the school bus.

He'll still have his bean soup for lunch and his midday nap, spend time with Colton, his grandson. He'll get out on the farm, too, and be glad it's still there even if the Wrights aren't.

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