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Motherhood at the Hermitage

Nov 09, 2010 10:48PM ● By Anonymous

As you approach the Hermitage, one of the oldest Eastern Shore plantation estates left intact, the simple act of turning off the paved road and heading down the dirt road seems to create a sense of peacefulness. Situated on the Chester River in Queen Anne’s County, the manor house and its nearly 900 acres remain in their original family—a name quite familiar to those on the Shore and beyond. Richard Tilghman (known throughout written family history as “The Emigrant”) and Mary Foxley sailed from England to Maryland on the Elizabeth and Mary in 1660. Richard Tilghman was granted 1,000 acres by Lord Baltimore in what was known as a “thumb grant,” whereby the recipient of the land was allowed to put his thumb on a map, thus owning the land under his thumb. The story goes that Tilghman “rolled his thumb” to get a larger portion of land.


The Early Years

In a letter dated 1734, Richard Tilghman II described his family’s move to the new continent as follows:

“In the year 1660 my father Richard Tilghman who was a surgeon with my mother and a son and daughter came into this province and brought with him a tolerable fortune and settled in the place where I now live. They had many children but all the males died excepting myself. I was born in the year 1672.”

And so began the legacy of motherhood over time at the Hermitage manor, in recent history more commonly referred to as “The Big House.” This unique Eastern Shore farm’s history holds countless stories of women throughout the centuries, and their struggles to raise a family in the earliest times of colonial history and development of our nation.

The home’s original matron, Mary Foxley, gave birth to six children during the 12-year period between 1660-1672. One son died as an infant, another at age 21. Richard II inherited the Hermitage, marrying into another prominent colonial Maryland family in 1700. His wife, Anna Maria Lloyd, gave birth to nine children—three girls and six boys—one of whom died very young. Richard III then inherited the plantation, marrying Susanna Frisby in 1737 and fathering eight children. So within the farm’s first 100 years, 23 children had already been born—all into a life where indoor plumbing and electricity were nonexistent.

Richard IV married his cousin Elizabeth, and she gave birth to Richard V in 1767; but, sadly, she died 17 days later. Her grave lies between her husband’s and her son’s in the family cemetery next to the house. The poetic inscription on her tombstone reflects the tragedy of her early death. In part it reads:

“Here lyeth
Daughter of Edward,
And Wife of Richard Tilghman.
Who died June 7, Anno 1767,
In the 19th year of her age…
From earliest infancy
Till her life was ended
She scarcely in the least offended
Her thoughts so engaging
Thoughts so just
All who beheld her, Lov’d
Without disgust.”

The history of the Hermitage has not been without its challenges. When Richard V (who was immortalized in a 1774 portrait by Charles Willson Peale) died young as an only child, he left no heirs—his father, Richard IV, was to decide how to will the estate. He chose a nephew, Colonel Richard Cooke, but forced him to legally change his name to Tilghman in order to receive the land. When Richard Cooke Tilghman, Jr. died, the house was left to his wife Elizabeth. Upon her death, the house went to her brother Otho, who died tragically of a gunshot wound at the estate. Otho’s daughter, Susan Williams, who was a gracious and wealthy woman, returned the manor to Benjamin Chew Tilghman III in 1918 in order to continue the Tilghman family ownership tradition. In 1977, Ben Tilghman V’s father (Ben IV) had the property put in a perpetual conservation easement.

House History

The early frame of the original Hermitage was constructed in about 1675, according to the 1798 tax assessment, which states that a new manor house was being built at that time. Over time, the manor was updated. The current house dates to 1859, with the brick “wing” being part of a much earlier building. Today, the house is the finest example of an Italianate villa in Queen Anne’s County. There are a number of historic outbuildings on the property, including barns, smokehouses, slave quarters, ice and pump houses, stables, corn cribs, gardener’s cottage, coachman’s cottage, and other Victorian cottages and agricultural buildings associated with farming operations.
“This is truly one of the premier Eastern Shore estates,” says Orlando Ridout V, Chief Architectural Historian for the State of Maryland. “It’s one of the largest, most valuable conservation donations of land in the state. The property represents one of the most prominent single-family lineage settlements on the Chesapeake. The family takes the stewardship of both the land and the history very seriously.”

Growing Up at the Hermitage

Benjamin Tilghman V now resides at the Hermitage, along with his wife Margo, who is president of Church Hill Theatre. Ben visited the estate during the summer from the time he was a young child. Today, he and Margo make it their year-round residence.

“What I remember most is the smell of the box bushes,” says Ben, describing the old English boxwoods on the terraced gardens leading from the house down to the river. “It’s a very pungent, very evocative smell. I have a thousand childhood visions of the farm—milking cows in the milking barn, taking out a .22 and shooting snakes all day, and rushing to pick up the straw because a thunderstorm was coming as we saw the black-green of the lightning over the water.”

Ben’s mother, Elizabeth Tilghman Morison, lives in near by Chestertown and still visits the farm every Saturday. She fondly recalls raising her children at the Hermitage, and describes the manor as a “mysterious and wonderful place.” When Elizabeth began visiting the farm at age 14, she was known as “Mr. Tilghman’s girlfriend.” She remembers a house with no electricity and being given a little candle when sent to the guest room on the third floor.

Each summer over the years, Elizabeth returned for a visit. In speaking of raising her three sons at the Hermitage, she recalls: “The boys loved it—the water, the picnics, the little boat with a motor to motor around in. They would catch crabs and keep them in a live box, and they tried to keep the soft-shell crabs out so the other crabs wouldn’t eat them. We would take a big sailboat to Annapolis. But the thing the boys loved most was to go down and visit the farm animals. There was a quiet-tempered cow that would let the boys milk her. I can still picture my young son, with his red hair, milking that cow. It was the cutest sight!”

The Hermitage Today

The mother at the manor today is Margo Tilghman. She and Ben V raised three girls and a boy, spending summers at the Hermitage. “We spent our time in an unstructured way,” says Margo, who never signed her kids up for local activities. “Many mornings we would read storybooks in bed until we got hungry; then we would pack up a picnic lunch and go to the river shore and spend the day playing in the water and on the beach. We’d catch minnows with pieces of hot dog, and just stay as long as we felt like it. At the end of the day, the kids would play at the dairy farm and watch the milking cows. We’d have a simple supper, then go down to the dock to watch the sunset, catch fireflies, or have a bonfire on the beach.”

Although the sweeping water views from the wrap-around screened porches are well enjoyed by Margo and her children today, she loves the home’s library and its many collections. Since the estate has never left the family, books have collected over the centuries, ranging from scholarly treatises and military strategy books to books on early farming trends and gardening. Although she recalls picking out novels to read all summer (“The Indiscretion of the Duchess,” she laughs), Margo’s favorites are the personal journals with sketches and stories about life at the Hermitage. There’s a fantastic collection of miniature books (see The Antiques Column on page ) that were left by Ben’s father, who worked in the publishing industry.

“What I love about living here is the sense of the people who have gone before,” says Margo. “When our son’s wedding was held here, I wondered how many other weddings have taken place here over time. When there’s a dinner party here, I think about all the dinner parties held here over the centuries. What were their conversations like?” She enjoys using items in the house that women over the centuries have used before—the china, linens, books—and the tradition of their uses. Margo treasures the water views from the windows, the way the light changes at sunset, the views of the fields, and the way the water of the Chester River sparkles at certain times of the day.

Interestingly, the photographer for this story is directly connected to the Hermitage. Skip Faulkner’s father Lee worked on the farm from 1949 until he died in 2003. Lee and his wife Viola lived on the farm in a cottage. They maintained a small kitchen garden, worked the dairy farm, mended fences, drove tractors, and performed the day-to-day tasks that running such a huge farming operation entails. Ben Tilghman remembers Lee fondly when he says, “Our kids followed him around like puppy dogs!” He adds that serving five generations of Tilghmans truly made Lee Faulkner the “embodiment of the Hermitage.” To this day, Skip Faulkner still lives in the cottage and was enthusiastic about taking photographs for this article.