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Fred Dorsey 'lives' Belmont Manor's history in Howard County

For The Baltimore Sun

The first portion of the mile-long road that leads to Belmont Manor and Historic Park winds through a wooded area where dozens of downed limbs and trees litter the landscape.

After another half mile or so, the view suddenly shifts from the messy detritus of winter to a manicured knoll where the ochre-colored stucco of the early 18th-century manor house stands out against the spring sky.

Belmont, a Georgian home perched on 68 secluded acres in Elkridge, was purchased by Howard County in 2012 from Howard Community College after changing hands a few times between 1964 and 2004.

One of the more popular free offerings at the historic estate are the tours led by Fred Dorsey, a 10th-generation cousin of Caleb Dorsey, who purchased the land in 1732.

Caleb gave the property as a wedding gift to his son, Caleb Dorsey Jr., who built the 14-bedroom manor house for himself and his wife Priscilla in 1738.

“When people learn that the person who will give them a tour is someone who can trace their lineage to the original owners, they are so excited,” said Cathy Allen, Belmont’s manager. “Fred doesn’t just recite the history, he lives it.”

Dorsey, 82, is a local historian who has lived in Howard County for 40 years and has served as president of Preservation Howard County since 2011.

The nonprofit had listed Belmont as one of its top 10 endangered sites from 2006 through 2011 when changes to the property were under consideration by then-owner Howard Community College.

“The county stepped in and saved the day” when it bought the property seven years ago, Dorsey said.

Despite its name, the property isn’t a park in the traditional sense and has no facilities like hiking trails or picnic areas. Most Belmont events are private, so spur-of-the-moment visits are discouraged.

The property at 6555 Belmont Woods Road primarily serves as a venue for weddings, which comprise more than 60 percent of its rentals and brought in $349,000 in revenue in fiscal 2018. Conferences, executive retreats, paranormal investigations, holiday parties and afternoon teas are also held.

Since the site is not routinely open to the public, tours are in demand and open houses are held four times a year to satisfy people’s curiosity, Allen said.

While Dorsey refers to Belmont as a hidden gem, he says most of the people who come to these tours already know that Belmont exists and want to see it up close and hear about its history.

Dorsey leads two types of tours at Belmont: for the county department of recreation and parks, which manages the site, he takes visitors around the grounds and inside the manor house; for the Howard County Conservancy, which operates a nature center in the carriage house at Belmont, he focuses on the grounds and outbuildings.

As a member of the prominent Dorsey family, he likes to tell stories that humanize the historic home, which hasn’t been lived in since the property was sold in 1964 to the Smithsonian Institution. It was later sold to the American Chemical Society before the college bought it.

“To go back in time and relate the family stories makes the house come alive,” Dorsey said.

The spot where one-time owner Howard Bruce liked to sit by the fireplace to read and enjoy an evening drink is a favorite stop on tours.

“Howard called on his butler one evening to bring him a knife, which he then used to carve a notch in the wooden fireplace surround where he could set his glass,” he said.

Grandchildren would sometimes gather in the master bedroom to watch Bruce’s wife Mary, a descendant of Caleb and Priscilla Dorsey, as she combed her luxurious hair.

And yes, as with many historical sites in Howard County, ghost stories abound, Dorsey said.

One tale involves hearing wooden carriage wheels and horses hooves approach the house, followed by a knock at the door.

“But when the door is opened, no one is there,” he said.

There have also been accounts of unexplained chilly air flowing into a conference room and curtains that had been closed before locking up being reopened from inside.

A cemetery at the back of the property contains 17 grave sites and four unmarked graves, which were located using ground-penetrating radar, Dorsey said.

“The story goes that Billy Barton, a champion steeplechase horse that Howard Bruce owned, is buried on the property standing up in full racing tack,” Dorsey said of the famous horse that raced in the 1920s.

During the Revolutionary War, iron forges on the property manufactured cannonballs and possibly bayonets, he said.

“Interestingly, few artifacts have turned up” from that time, he noted.

“People are interested in what happened at Belmont, not just in dates,” he said. “It grabs their interest.”

Allen worked as a historian and assistant parks chief for the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission in Prince George’s County for nearly 34 years before retiring and coming to work at Belmont.

The Clarksville resident wanted to be knowledgeable about Belmont, even though that’s not a focus of her job, so she turned to Dorsey for a crash course instead of doing her own research.

“We’re not meant to be a historic site with [regular] tours,” Allen said. “But the county wanted people to appreciate Belmont’s history and having Fred lead these tours for us is exactly what we needed to do.”

For Dorsey, the job is intensely personal and his presentations are far more than rote recitations of information.

“Giving tours is a source of continued excitement for me because I’m always learning something new,” he said.

Editor’s note: Two tours were given by Dorsey on April 14.

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