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Jeff Holland: Whimsical Spriggs Park Farm an example of how citizens can band together to preserve nature

Jack Neil (left) and son Devin on one of the paths through the woods
Jack Neil (left) and son Devin on one of the paths through the woods (Jeff Holland)

I’ve always been curious about the origin of the name of the Magothy River. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, the river was labeled “Maggotty River” on a map drawn in 1690. The USGS web site speculates as to whether the name refers to mosquito larvae or an Algonquian phrase meaning small plain devoid of timber.

My impish nature leads me to think that the name actually stems from English word “maggot,” but not in the way you’re thinking. In the mid-1600s, when this area was first settled by English persons, they used the word maggot to mean a “whim” or “fancy,” as if one had a maggot wiggling about in his brain. “Maggoty” meant full of whimsy.

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I’d like to think that because of my recent excursion to Spriggs Farm Park on the Magothy, where I met my old friend Jack Neil, an attorney who lives nearby with his family. Jack showed me a black-and-white photograph of a grinning Mrs. Spriggs proudly cradling a watermelon the size of a full-grown pot-bellied pig in her arms. At her side, perched upon another colossal gourd, sits a cat, looking about as if to detect lurking watermelon rustlers.

The farm, located on the banks of the Magothy River between the modern suburban communities of Ulmstead Estates and Bayberry, was actively cultivating watermelon, peaches and tomatoes for about 100 years until Mrs. Spriggs’ husband, Frank, died in 1982.

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Frank Spriggs was the Arnold postmaster. He wrote a letter in 1967 about life on the farm. They would ship the produce to market in Baltimore aboard a bugeye schooner. “Some of these watermelons grew so large one year,” he wrote, “that the captain of the Bug-eye refused to handle them as they weighed 70 to 90 pounds apiece.” To me, that’s whimsical. Downright maggoty.

According to Jack, Mrs. Spriggs lived to the ripe old age of 100 ½. When she died in 2008, the 54-acre farm passed on to her friends and caretakers, who could easily have sold the property to developers. Instead, Jack Neil and other concerned citizens formed the Spriggs Farm Preservation Foundation and spearheaded the transformation of the farm into a county park.

Under their aegis, Anne Arundel County purchased the site in 2011 for about $3 million, including $1.3 million from Maryland’s Program Open Space and $700,000 from the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund, matched by $1 million from the county Forest Conservation Fund. This is the fund that developers contribute to when they cut down too many trees.

I met Jack and his son, Devin, a recent graduate of Salisbury State, on one of those hot-and-muggy mornings this past week. Jack opened the gate – this is one of those county parks where you need to log onto the web site to get the combination to the lock – and we drove up the hill to park by the Spriggs’ old farmhouse.

Jack was eager to show me around the property and talk about the success of the foundation to preserve the farm from development and make it accessible to the public. He told me about the Spriggs and the history of the place as we walked down the gravel road to the river’s edge. As the road opened up onto the former watermelon patch, now a meadow, a large doe emerged from the brush and gave us a long, studious look before sauntering across the road and disappearing into the woods.

“We see deer all the time,” Jack grinned. “They spend the night carousing around the neighborhood, then in the morning we see them sneaking back into the park,” like college kids limping back to their dorm rooms on the ‘walk of shame.’

We stopped at the picnic area on a bluff overlooking the river. You can see Gibson Island and Dobbins Island, and catch a glimpse of where the Magothy estuary meets the Chesapeake Bay. Baltimore Lighthouse would be there at the mouth, just out of sight.

The water here is pretty shallow, Jack noted. “When the north wind blows all the water out of the Bay in the winter, you can walk all the way out to the end of that pier,” he said, pointing to a neighboring dock that extends more than 100 yards out into the river. The park property has more than 600 feet of shoreline. We walked down the bank along a narrow path through the towering phragmites, the invasive reeds from Eurasia. There was a narrow beach along the shore that would be walkable at low tide. You can launch a canoe or kayak here, but if you do, take care, as the trail down the bank is quite steep.

“We’re working on plans to eradicate these phragmites,” he noted. “We’ll also build a living shoreline to protect this bluff from erosion.” The path led through the reeds to an inlet where a trickle of water feeds a three-acre tidal pond.

I followed Jack and Devin back up the bank and into the oak-and-holly forest. A sandy path led us through the woods to emerge on a high bluff overlooking the pond. As we talked, we watched an industrious muskrat swim across from the far bank with a thatch of reeds in its mouth to feather its nest. An Eastern Kingbird swooped to snatch a bug from just above the surface. A Great Blue Heron scrawked across the pond, gliding pterodactylly.

“There’s an eagle’s nest over there somewhere,” Jack said, gesturing to the woods on the other side of the pond. Neighbors on that side of the park have their own access at the end of Stonington Way.

“When you’re here early in the morning, the bird songs are like a symphony,” Jack said. “The slopes around the pond act like an amphitheater, so if you stand here on this bluff, it’s an amazing sound. Then the Mockingbird starts to sing and everybody else shuts up.”

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The path led us along the rim of a ravine back to the farmhouse near the entrance to the park. The old house looks run down, but Jack reported that there are no definite plans to renovate it any time soon. Jack said he hopes the foundation can use the site to develop environmental education programs for county schools as well as the community college.

I noted earlier that the name Magothy might be Algonquian in origin. We ran across lots of ancient oyster shells on the path high up on the bluff overlooking the pond, indicating that people were there feasting on the luscious bivalves perhaps thousands of years ago. Jack also mentioned that prehistoric arrow heads and tool points have been found in the eroding river shoreline.

Still, this site seems more significant in its preservation of the history of the truck farms that once made northern Anne Arundel County famous for its produce. Even more than that, Spriggs Farm Park is a prime example of how local citizens can band together to preserve places like this for the rest of us to enjoy.

Look on the Anne Arundel County web site www.aacounty.org for details on accessing the park. The site notes that Spriggs Farm Park is a gated park with a combination lock. Access to the park is limited due to site conditions and capacity. Park only in fenced parking lot and not on the road. Anne Arundel County Department of Recreation and Parks reserves the right to close the park or restrict access for operational, maintenance, or safety reasons. The gate must be secured immediately upon entering and leaving the park. Complete the online form for the combination lock numbers. The combination lock numbers will automatically appear once the submit form button is selected.

There is no admission to this park, but be aware that Anne Arundel County has reinstated weekend fees at its regional parks, including Quiet Waters Park, Kinder Farms Park, Downs Park, Fort Smallwood and Jug Bay Wetlands. Those fees are $6 per car on Saturdays and Sundays. Senior passes and lifetime military passes will be honored. Weekday entry will continue to be free until Sept. 1, 2020. The county’s other 130 parks will continue to be free of admission as usual.

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Spriggs Farm Parkis located at 965 Bayberry Drive Arnold, MD 21012. To get more information you can call (410) 222-7317.

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