Past landscapes live on at Mount Harmon at World’s End
"Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End" is a popular Disney movie in which characters take a perilous journey and eventually sail off the edge of the map. Centuries ago, travelers could reach the "world's end" simply by sailing to the upper Chesapeake Bay.
The nickname took hold along the Sassafras River, on Maryland's Eastern Shore, where the bounty of the Bay and its vibrant maritime commerce could not offset the basic isolation of the tidewater colonial experience.
"Mount Harmon at World's End," the formal name for a historic plantation on the Sassafras River, preserves this fact for contemporary visitors. Even today, the tag line rings true.
Approach Mount Harmon by car, and time slows down. The rural roads leading to the plantation end in a dirt and gravel lane. A dramatic arch of trees embraces the entire 2-mile stretch, with gnarled trunks that grant the occasional glimpse of the gently rolling farmland beyond. The arbor peels back at last to reveal the commanding brick manor house on a crest above the water, with a meadow draped liked an apron of green from the front steps to the shore.
The view, unbroken by modern development, is even quieter now than in the past. Three hundred years ago, with few roads for inland travel, the world arrived by water.
"Mount Harmon was isolated, but the highway was right out their front door," said Paige Howard, executive director of the Friends of Mount Harmon. "It created an interesting juxtaposition between being isolated and being connected."
Sidney George Fisher owned Mount Harmon in the 1800s and kept a lively, detailed journal on plantation life, agriculture and his love for the Chesapeake landscape. In 1838, Fisher wrote, "The more I see of the country elsewhere the more I admire and appreciate the beauties of this region, and the shores of the Sassafras afford situations and views which I never surpassed."
Social life in Fisher's era was carefully nurtured, because neighbors were few and separated by miles. "Basically, anyone within reach of your boat was part of your peer group," Howard said.
When Fisher dined with his neighbors, he needed an early start. To arrive for the midday meal, he would first look downriver and spy the flag on his neighbors' plantation that signaled his invitation. He would then mount his horse, pass through 13 gates on dusty roads and cross the river by rowboat.
"It wasn't a neighborhood like we think of it today," Howard said. "Going out to dinner was quite an adventure."
Mount Harmon began as a grant of 350 acres to Godfrey Harmon from Cecilius Calvert, the second Lord Baltimore, in 1651. Howard said that such early landowners were basically land speculators and small tenant farms were established to put the land into production.
Once powered by slave labor, Mount Harmon became a thriving tobacco plantation and its shoreline boasted an important shipping wharf for the Sassafras area. The original tobacco prize house still stands along the waterfront - "prize" was the term for a huge wooden screw that compressed tobacco leaves for shipment.
The families of Mount Harmon, like many others, survived in a remote location because the bounty of the Bay and the fertility of the soil met many of their basic needs. But the work of enslaved people allowed them to reap the wealth of these resources far beyond the scale available to simple family farms. "There was a whole community of people making it possible to live here," Howard said.
In a notable piece of Mount Harmon history, the nearby Quaker influence led plantation mistress Anna Eliza Fisher to free Mount Harmon's enslaved workers in the early 1800s.
But during the 18th and 19th centuries, slave labor was vital to the plantation's success. Tobacco was a lucrative crop, used like cash to procure goods from the global market. The Chesapeake Bay provided transport, and the reach of the British Empire delivered the goods.
"By trading with England, they traded with the world," Howard said.
And so, in this colonial and early U.S. outpost, the families of Mount Harmon managed to live with cosmopolitan flair. Mount Harmon was lavished with fine furniture, dishes and decor from Europe and Asia, much of it arriving on schooners that were owned by the plantation masters themselves.
The manor house was built in approximately 1730 in the symmetrical Georgian style of fine British homes from the colonial period.
Howard lingers in the entrance hall, where the hefty front door stands open to a bucolic waterfront view. "The whole point of this entry is to impress," Howard said. It succeeds.
Spring light floods through the doorway and draws glints from the silvery, hand-painted wallpaper. The scenes depict birds on flowering trees, in subtle tones of brown and turquoise; no two panels are alike. The Chinese Chippendale stair railing is a stunning series of lattice-like geometric patterns in white wood, varied continuously as the staircase ascends to the third floor.
On either side of the entry hall, the drawing room and dining room contain Chippendale and Hepplewhite furniture. The furniture and mantles are laden with symbolism from Scotland and Ireland, to reflect the heritage of the plantation owners during the colonial period.
The house interior and its boxwood garden are re-creations, guided by the inventories and journal entries of Mount Harmon's owners. The restoration and preservation effort was led by Marguerite du Pont de Villiers Boden, a direct descendant of the families who owned Mount Harmon from 1760 to 1810.
Boden donated the plantation to a national preservation organization in 1974. Ownership has since passed to the Friends of Mount Harmon, who have expanded its special events and interpretive programs and promoted the plantation as an important piece of Chesapeake history. Mount Harmon is the northernmost tidewater plantation open to the public and a member of the Chesapeake Gateways Network.
Mount Harmon retains 250 acres of its original estate, with lovely trails through the woods and shoreline. Visitors have the unusual opportunity to view the majestic scene from the widow's walk - a small rooftop platform on the manor house. The silence is vast, and the only recognizable structure is the distant plantation house where Sidney George Fisher was invited to dinner.
The feeling of world's end still permeates this small peninsula, where land, water and humans have forged centuries of interwoven history.
"That," Howard said, "is the essence of our story."
Mount Harmon Plantation
Mount Harmon Plantation is open 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Thursday through Sunday, May through October. It is closed on national holidays.
Guided tours start on the hour beginning at 10 a.m.; the last tour is conducted at 2 p.m.
Groups of eight or more should call in advance for reservations. Educational programs and group tours are available by appointment year round.
A small sandy landing is available for canoes and kayaks.
Admission is $10 for adults; $8 for seniors; $5 for children; and free for Mount Harmon members.
Upcoming events include:
- Lotus Blossom Festival: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. July 30. The rare American Lotus is in peak bloom in pristine surroundings, with nature-inspired activities and exhibits. Admission: $5; free for ages 12 and younger and members.
- Revolutionary War Reenactment & Colonial Festival: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sept. 24 & 25. The weekend features British and rebel encampments, military skirmishes, tactical demonstrations, colonial crafts, manor house tours and food vendors. Admission: $5; free for ages 12 and younger and members.
- Yuletide Manor House Tour: 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Dec. 3 & 4. The weekend features holiday decorations inspired by Colonial Williamsburg, hearth cooking demonstrations, children's activities and a decorations and greens sale. Admission: $5; free for ages 12 and younger and members.
Comments are now closed for this article. Comments are accepted for 60 after publication.