Maryland’s Renaissance Man: The life of Governor Oden Bowie is recounted by his descendants
Oct 12, 2015 10:00AM ● Published by Cate Reynolds
Politics and raising thoroughbred horses were the Governor’s passions, and both required races. It was Governor Bowie who put Baltimore on the national thoroughbred map by building the Pimlico Race Track.
The life of Governor Oden Bowie—as politician, businessman, farmer, and sportsman—is recounted by his descendantsHigh on a hill, overlooking the upscale Bowie community of Fairwood, stands a grand and gracious property. Sited on 10 acres and almost hidden by towering trees, this two-story stucco, plantation house built about 1790, on a 1,000-acre plantation, reminds one of a time long past—a time when Maryland’s patrician families owned thousands of acres of rolling Maryland countryside and planted tobacco in their fertile fields.
Called Fairview, this mansion is the home of the Bowie family and has been for six generations. It was here that Governor Oden Bowie, 34th governor of Maryland, was born in 1826, and where he died in 1894. In his 68 years, his influence left the state a legacy that stretches far beyond Fairview and his two namesake towns (Odenton and Bowie). From ambitious endeavors (railroading and politics) to lifelong passions (horse racing and entertaining), the governor lived a colorful life.
The RailroadAlong with his father William Duckett Bowie and other family members, he chartered and built the Baltimore and Potomac Railroad, which would transform southern Maryland from an area based on agriculture and slavery to one of commerce and suburbanization.
After becoming president of this railroad around 1860, his plan was to expand the railroad from Baltimore to southern Maryland. The Civil War, however, disrupted this endeavor, and work wouldn’t begin until after the war.
By 1869, the railroad reached a hamlet, which became known as Odenton. By 1872, the railroad reached to tiny Huntington along with a 20-mile spur to Washington, D.C. Huntington’s name was later changed to Bowie in honor of the Governor, and the city is now the fifth most populous in the state.
After completing his workday, Bowie rode home on the Pope’s Creek train to Collington Station near Fairview plantation. He insisted on sitting in his favorite seat, which was the third seat on the left in the train’s last coach car. Often he would send one of his office workers to save the seat for him until he arrived.
“Rumor had it that he diverted the railroad to Bowie so he could get home at night,” says his great-grandson, O. Bowie Arnot.
Although the Bowie train station has slipped into history, the modern Marc lines in Odenton and at Bowie State University have continued to prosper as have both towns.
PimlicoPolitics and raising thoroughbred horses were the Governor’s passions, and both required races. It was Governor Bowie who put Baltimore on the national thoroughbred map by building the Pimlico Race Track.
“He loved raising thoroughbred horses on his farm,” says his great grand-daughter, Ambler Bowie Slabe. She and her sister, Maude Hays, cousins of Arnot, tell the story of how Pimlico originated.
“In 1868 our great-grandfather went to a dinner party, hosted by wealthy Milford Sanford of Saratoga, New York.”
The men proceeded to drink lots of brandy and puff on their cigars as they talked about horseracing, and after a few drinks, Governor Bowie told his friends that he wanted a big horse race held in Maryland in 1870.
“He boldly guaranteed that he would have a racetrack available for the race, which would be called the Dinner Party Stakes. He added that he was offering a $15,000 purse. That was a staggering sum in those days,” the women say.
The men also readily agreed that the owner of the winning horse would host another dinner party. The Governor, who was president of the Maryland Jockey Club, then went home and persuaded the club to buy 70 acres near Jones Falls for $23,500. For another $25,000 they built Pimlico.
The first race, held on October 25, 1870, was won by Sanford’s horse, Preakness, which became the name of Pimlico’s famous Triple Crown Race. One assumes that Sanford’s subsequent dinner party after that first race was very successful. The Governor continued to race his champion horses such as Crickmore and Dickens, and their jockeys carried the Bowie racing colors of red and white striped silks.
At Fairview, he built five stables and a three-quarter mile track for his horses. Unfortunately in 1890, he fell ill.
“You need to sell all your horses and stop going to races,” his physician ordered. Bowie later said that parting with his thoroughbreds was the greatest sorrow of his life.
PoliticsOden Bowie, a lifelong Democrat, began his political career in Prince George’s County when he was nominated as the Democratic candidate for the Maryland House of Delegates. Running against the conservative Whig candidate, he only lost by 10 votes. That proved to be beneficial since he didn’t turn 21 until after Election Day. In1849, he was elected to the Maryland House of Delegates.
While the Civil War was tearing the country apart in 1861, Bowie ran for the Maryland Senate as the Peace candidate. The Federal Military had other ideas, however. Union soldiers seized the polling places and forbade the Democrats to vote.
Still a Democrat, he ran again in 1867 for the Maryland Senate, and this time he won. It was in this same year that he was elected governor, but Maryland’s revised post-Civil War Constitution, which now gave their voting rights back to disenfranchised Marylanders, stipulated he couldn’t take office until January 1869.
“The burdens of war must be relieved by peace,” said the Governor at his inauguration speech.
After four years as governor, Bowie retired from politics. His interests shifted to: Fairview; his position as president of the Baltimore Passenger Railroad in 1873; and the Episcopalian Church.
The story goes that during one long church sermon, Bowie opened his pocket watch and snapped it shut several times.
“How did you like the sermon,” the rector—a close friend—asked him.
“It was too damn long,” retorted Bowie. “Half this congregation will be going home to cold dinners.”
FairviewBefore the Civil War, Fairview’s fields had turned green with thousands of tobacco plants. Most of the Governor’s enslaved African-Americans planted, weeded, and harvested row after row of the thick stalks. Some worked in the mansion—others took care of his horses, his Devon cattle, and his Cotswold sheep. The remains of 12 cabins have been discovered on the property.
It was after the war that Southern Maryland’s genteel way of life began to slip away as technology and suburbanization began to march in. Ironically, the Governor’s new rail lines helped to speed them along.
After his death, Fairview eventually came into the hands of his grandson, also named Oden Bowie who was Secretary of the Maryland Senate from 1969–1997. He passed away in 2012 at age 97.
By this time, Fairview had been divided into two farms worked by tenant farmers. The one owned by a Bowie cousin, became a turf farm.
“It was a lovely sight to see all that green come up,” says O. Bowie Arnot, nephew to his late uncle. It’s hard to imagine that this area was ever farmland, it’s so suburbanized now.”
This was largely due to the Rouse Company, which bought much of Fairview’s acreage during the late 1980s, and later sold it to area builders.
“James Rouse was my father’s college roommate in Baltimore and became a close friend of his,” says Arnot.
“I grew up in Baltimore and I remember the parties my Uncle Oden had. He would carve up great slabs of his Black Angus beef, serve bushels of crabs, and provide lots of bourbon. People came from all over to enjoy his parties.”
Maude Hays and Ambler Slabe—both in their sixties—remember those idyllic days when they grew up at Fairview. “We lived on 360 acres with horses, Black Angus cattle, ducks, and pigs.
Before the parties, Maude would help their mother, Laura, arrange the flowers and the candles in the large dining room of the 10-room house. Both women remember the Halloween parties that took place when they were growing up.
“Our house had a spooky cellar with a dirt floor. We would lead our guests through its dimly lit rooms and they would get so scared. At Christmas we would write notes to Santa and then watch them waft up one of our four chimneys.”
Like their great-grandfather, their father was also a horse enthusiast and he would take the girls to the Bowie racetrack to watch their horses exercise. His jockeys wore the same racing colors that their great-grandfather’s jockeys had worn.
Both of the women were married at Fairview. Ambler Bowie-Slabe and her husband still reside in this historic house. Maude Hays, as did her father, works in the Maryland Senate. “We handle all the bills from their initial introduction until they are signed into law,” she remarks.
Yet time and circumstance move on, and today Fairview has dwindled down to 10 acres that include the grounds, the manor house, and the family graveyard.
“We’re considering selling Fairview,” say the women, “but it would be very difficult. Five generations before us have held on to this place.”
Fairview’s future is uncertain, but it will long be remembered for its place in the history of our state.
Snapshot of Oden BowieBorn: November 10, 1826
Died: December 4, 1894
Schools: St. John’s College Annapolis and St. Mary’s College Baltimore, where he graduated at age 12 as valedictorian of his class.
Married: Alice Carter on December 3, 1851; seven children
Served in the Mexican American War: 1845–1847
Elected to House of Delegates: 1849
Elected to State Senate: 1867
Source: Governors of Maryland 1777-1970
Frank White Jr. Maryland Hall of Records 1970