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What's Up Magazine

The Luck of Talisman Farm

Sep 10, 2013 02:16PM ● By Cate Reynolds

By Anne McNulty

Tucked away in Queen Anne’s County is a farm with fallow fields and acres of green woods. This property inhabited by waterfowl and deer is surrounded by Prospect Bay, which leads to Eastern Chesapeake Bay. It speaks of a quiet Eastern Shore that existed before the Bay Bridge changed the face of the county.

During the depths of the Great Depression in 1932, New York advertising magnate Arthur Kudner Sr. bought three adjacent farms totaling 600 acres now fronting Perry Corner Road in Grasonville. He named his paradise Talisman Farm.

Here the advertising tycoon, who created slogans such as “I’d walk a mile for a Camel” (cigarette), built a 17,000-square-foot vacation home for his bride—along with a guest house, swimming pool, and tennis courts. During those dark days of the Depression, he spared no expense.

“He bought the bricks from a brickyard in Centreville and the four pillars supporting the main entrance were hewn from tree trunks layered with sheathing,” says his 49-year-old grandson Arthur Kudner III.

When guests such as statesman Averill Harriman and boxer Gene Tunney strolled in during a cold winter evening, the first thing they saw was a fire blazing in the depths of a huge fireplace. Next, they looked up at the hand-hewn beams supporting the living room ceiling.

“My grandfather got the house’s crystal chandeliers from a Mississippi river boat. Even the carvings on the dining room table were custom made,” Kudner says.

An avid aviator, Kudner Sr. built three airstrips on the property and often flew his friends in with him. Before they arrived, his New York servant staff drove out ahead to prepare Talisman for them.

“They didn’t have air conditioning in those days, so my grandfather built the house close to the spot where bay breezes wafted throughout the house. It was an incredibly designed house but also a lot to maintain,” Kudner says. “My grandfather raised corn, alfalfa, barley, and clover. He kept livestock and grew vegetables. After he fed them lunch on Saturdays, he paid his farm-hands, who gladly took the rest of the day off.”

Kudner Sr. surely noticed his Saturday lunch crowd swelling from 40 to150 people when neighboring folk also came around for the free meal he willingly provided.

Yet even those who live in luxury are often acquainted with tragedy and so it was for the Kudner family.

“My grandfather died when my father, Arthur Jr., was nine. My father and his nanny lived on Talisman in a smaller house, while my grandmother, who was a city person, rarely came to visit them. After my father grew up, he bought the farm from my grandmother. He then bought more adjoining land and doubled the size of Talisman.”

This is the Talisman Arthur Kudner III grew up to love. He also loved his mother, who used to joke with him and his younger sister, Barry. She told them, “I’d like to be a Bay Bridge toll collector so I could make people smile.”

She often spoke of her close friend Princess Grace Kelly. “Our families grew up together and I get a Christmas card from Monaco every year,” Kudner says.

When Kudner III was nine, his mother passed away after a six-year struggle with leukemia. His father, who by now was president of Tidewater Publishers and Cornell Maritime Press in Centreville, remarried when he was 15. “My father told me he found true love twice.”

When his stepsister Ariana was born, his father built a chapel in the backyard for her christening. Her second-floor bedroom suite, overlooking Prospect Bay and the pool, was fit for a princess. But tragedy struck again when at age 17, Ariana’s charmed life ended in a car accident. The family buried her near the chapel. Kudner Jr. and his two wives are also buried there. 

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“Talisman was a glorious place to live,” Kudner says, “but a full-time job to maintain it.

We had our routines that began in the morning and went on until evening. I used to mow 200 acres of grass at least once a summer. I drove the tractor to cultivate soybeans when I was 12. No one watched television. If machines broke, my dad and I figured out how to fix them. We had to have help, though. It was too much to handle by ourselves.”

In his free time, he roamed the woods and built tree houses. He swam in the pool and in Prospect Bay. His favorite pasttime, however, was to take his little Sunfish and sail to St. Michaels. “If you got an idea, you did it,” Kudner says. “Living on that property made you feel like you could be and do whatever you wanted in life. It was inspirational.”

He looks away for a moment and says, “If I had a choice, I’d be there until I died.” Instead he was forced to move away six years ago.

“I couldn’t afford to keep the property after my dad passed on. Then it became tied up in his estate. It had to be sold. Selling it became a perfect storm of unfortunate circumstances that I had nothing to do with. But it was a great privilege to live there.” Kudner no longer owns Talisman, but his roots reach deep into its soil.

TALISMAN TODAY

Today, like an aging and neglected beauty queen, Talisman’s elegant manor house sits vacant, waiting for time to erode its splendid bones.

Before Arthur Kudner Jr. passed away in 2002 at age 67, he designated 610 acres as a conservation easement, and circumstances have been unsettled since. Since his death, the farm has been subdivided, gone through auction, and a few parcels have been sold to private owners. It’s currently back on the market.

In 2006, David Sutherland, formerly of the U.S. Land Alliance, a company which buys land and resells it as conservation property to private owners, bought Talisman for $20 million with a small loan from the estate.

The company then sold 271 acres to Queen Anne’s County. With $4.6 million funding from the state, the county added $400,000 to the purchase.

“Originally they intended to use the acreage for a sports complex— now it’s conservation land,” Sutherland says.

In 2008, 1,091 acres of unsold land went to auction, which was unsuccessful. Currently 820 acres, which included the 610-acre easement, are on the market for $10.9 million. It’s being sold by Cabin Creek Farm LLC, a group of investors whose principal person is Richard Pritzlaff, president of the Biophilia Foundation. “I’d like to see all the land preserved and protected,” says Sutherland, who is no longer involved with Talisman.

TALISMAN PRESERVED

Ecologist Ned Gerber, director of the Chesapeake Wildlife Heritage Organization, walks around a reconstructed wetland marsh, wearing his standard work shoes, cap, and shorts. His main office consists of his smartphone and his battered pick-up truck, which carries all sorts of equipment. He watches tree swallows and purple martins fly over the marsh, which absorbs runoff from the corn and soybean crops.

Working in partnership with Pritzlaff to manage the easement property, Gerber points to the berm he recently built. “We build berms to stop the runoff into the Bay. The wetlands absorb the runoff nutrients from the fields after which the filtered water runs into the Bay. We basically have a natural sewage system here,” he says.

Gerber looks around him and at distant Prospect Bay shimmering in the sunlight. “I go to school here every day.”

A THERAPEUTIC TALISMAN

At Talisman’s Therapeutic Riding Farm, 18-year-old Brooke Souder is helped off her horse, Zack, by three volunteers who lower her into her wheelchair. Cerebral Palsy has left her only the use of her left hand and some limited body movement, but her mind flies free. She’ll be attending college this fall with the help of a specially designed computer. 

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Brooke’s brown eyes light up as she pats Zack and leans her face against his head. She laughs when he gently nuzzles her. A 29-year-old retired race horse, he’s the perfect partner for Brooke. When she rides him, her body starts to relax.

“Zach starts whinnying when Brooke’s car pulls up,” says volunteer Allison Moffatt. “If I hadn’t seen the progress she’s made in three weeks, I wouldn’t believe it.”

Anne Joyner, who runs the Talisman Therapeutic Riding program, is happy to hear this. She has a long-term lease with Cabin Creek LLC, which enables her to continue the therapeutic riding center she began in January 2012. This petite lady has big plans.

“Our goal is to have 20 horses and five programs,” she says. “Riding is especially helpful for autistic children. Troubled teens benefit, as do disabled children, adults, and wounded veterans.” Currently the program has an occupational therapist. Physical and speech therapy services are also being planned.

Meanwhile, Arthur Kudner III rarely returns to Talisman. “Once in a while I quietly come to visit my dad’s grave,” he says, where his family’s presence will remain for years to come.