I got so excited when I saw this picture that Becky Herman shared on Facebook, that I had to make this little story about it.
In my book, Sykesville Stories, Volume 1, Jonathan Herman told me the story of how he moved to Sykesville to renovate this crazy old house. So here's an excerpt.
We were living in a rented farmhouse on Bachman Valley Road [outside Westminster]. It was gorgeous. We had this 100-acre farm. We’re paying like $125 a month rent. I would have been happy to just stay there for the rest of my life. But Becky is like, “well we’re never gonna own this place. We gotta find a house.”
So, she sees an ad in the paper that says, “hillside millhouse.” So, we come to Sykesville to see this place over the top of the church building on Main Street, this tower type building, this fancy house on Norwood with the towers and the cupolas and all that.
The price was $72,000, and with that came a couple acres, three buildings, chicken coops, and about a dozen abandoned cars visible on the property. (We’ll get to what wasn’t visible.) There was also a near impenetrable tangle of multiflora roses, which are invasive, non-native roses brought here around the time of the Civil War. They come from China, Korea, and Japan, but do quite well on an abandoned property in Maryland, or just about anywhere else they can get a start, and will grow happily rampant in the nearby woods.
They’re thick, tough, tall, and thorny. They spread like crazy. And like bad history, they’re extremely difficult to eradicate. They became a central feature of Jon’s early years in Sykesville.
I’m young , I got tons of energy, and this is really cool. Our plan was to fix up the house in two or three years, sell it, and move on. I just saw this as a great opportunity to fix something up.
So, there was all this stuff, multiflora roses, and all this out-of-control stuff growing all over the property. It was just really wild looking, like he [the previous owner, who I will not name] had never done anything for 10 or 20 years, other than bringing in abandoned cars and all kinds of other junk.
There were three buildings. [They were] the mansion on Norwood, the millhouse behind the mansion, and the big chicken processing plant, which is a rather large building. It’s like 52’ by 72’, two floors high, and over 4,000 to 5,000 square feet.”
About the time that they built the train station in 1883 and 1884, Frank Brown, who most likely had a lot to do with bringing the station to Sykesville, built a bunch of small boxy cottages for the summer tourists who flocked to Sykesville each summer.
John Norwood was the B&O station agent. He lived in an apartment on the second floor of the train station, and he bought one of the new cottages and began converting it into the elaborate structure that would eventually hover above the town.
There were other owners after Norwood, but for a long time, according to Jonathan, it belonged to the Allports, who ran a very large chicken operation. The man who owned the property after the Allports, and sold it to Jonathan, had been there quite a while and apparently was not a chicken farmer.
How can I say this? He was a criminal. He terrorized the town. The cops and everybody in town were scared of this guy. He slept with like a sawed-off shotgun under the pillow and was accused of a drive-by shooting in Eldersburg, during some sort of drug deal that went bad. That would have been 1983.
He’d been there terrorizing the town 20 years, and I was even told by the police when I bought it that they all celebrated when he left town.
- - The Refrigerator - -
I got the vehicles [abandoned cars] towed away. I had this enormous moving equipment come there, and in the hillside up behind the house outside of the chicken coop, I dug this enormous pit, and we pushed all the abandoned chicken coops and buildings into the pit, and then I had the fire company come and burn it. The fire company loved it. The fire company was like totally into it.
So, we burned up a whole lot of stuff, chicken coops, pig pens. I parked a dumpster on Norwood Avenue to get rid of the stuff that was on the front lawn. This is back in the day when no one even drove on Norwood Avenue. I left the dumpster sitting there long enough that I can get everything off that front lawn and into the dumpster.
It took me years to clear up this property. And the killer, which I think is completely insane now, I had a push mower, like a gas push mower, and I would cut with that for years by myself, push down that steep hill and up around the house. It would take me more than a day each time to cut the grass.
Shortly after conducting the big fire and burning everything, Jon brought in some sort of machine to smooth everything down, something he calls a track loader, which apparently is meant for excavation. He saw a hump in the ground and asked the man running the loader to take care of the hump. The man engaged the hump with his machine. [Jon mimics a big struggle, lots of grinding noises and earth flying, a sort of standoff between the machine and the hump, more grinding noises, and then, boom.]
All of a sudden, a refrigerator pops out of the ground and practically flies into the air.
-- The Truck - -
We probably moved into the house within six months. I had to renovate the in-law apartment first, and that’s where we lived. There’s the main house with all the towers and the cupolas and stuff on it, and then somewhere in the 1950s, they built this in-law apartment. Dolly Hughes lived there with her husband, and they were related to the Allports somehow.
We hadn’t moved into the main building yet, but we were still living in the in-law apartment. It was nice. My standards were pretty pragmatic. Add a refrigerator, clean it up. There was a kitchen, a dining room, a living room on the first floor. There was a bathroom upstairs and two bedrooms.
I had the push mower, and I was constantly cleaning up outside. I had various tools to hack away at stuff. I had a Korean machete. And directly behind the house, there’s like a terrace, and we’ve been looking out of the window of the house and living there all this time. I even cleared all that property and buried all that stuff, and had it burned up on top of the hill, and there was still more stuff, and one day I’m clearing more away, when I see these big truck tires.
We were living there close to two years, when I finally discovered there was a 40-foot tractor trailer bed in my backyard. It wasn’t buried. It was covered with these multiflora roses. I remember coming down to the house and saying to Becky, “I found a 40-foot tractor trailer in our yard.” She goes, “no way.”
Someone had parked this tractor trailer on the property maybe 40 years ago. Maybe the Allports used that at some point during their chicken business, but the point is that I had done all this cleaning, and I had gotten rid of all the chicken coops, and all this other stuff, and the property was still so overgrown that I didn’t see a 40-foot truck bed.
I had worked around it over a year and a half. I would go out on a daily basis with all sorts of sickles and hand tools and my Korean machete and hack away at the site, until I finally got into this tire. The tires were flat, and they wouldn’t turn because they were rusted solid. I had a guy named Bob Hall drag the truck away to the junkyard on Main Street.
Why Doesn’t the Tower Fall?
Norwood had running water. On top of the building behind the mansion was a windmill tower. Inside the tower was a hand-dug well, with stones all neatly piled around it from top to bottom. The well was 50 feet deep and 6 feet across. Near the well was a concrete cistern. The windmill’s blades attached to an armature, which attached to some hardware. You can still see it up there behind the house.
When the wind blew, the blades moved with the wind and turned the armature, which moved the machinery, which pumped water into the cistern and out through pipes into the house and outbuildings. If there was no wind, Norwood could still get running water from the cistern. It was all based on wind, mechanics, hardware, ingenuity, gravity, and the properties of water.
John Norwood was very cutting edge. He was an inventor. He had several patents. This was high-tech in the 1890s, where you had water running into the cistern and through pipes on the property.
This entire windmill, it seems like a pretty simple building, but the building wasn’t that simple, because it had double-wall construction, and the walls were filled up with hay to insulate it. So, in the winter, they could cut ice off the river, or wherever they could get it, and they would store it in the windmill tower. So, in winter, the tower was also the icehouse.
So, I’m fixing up the property. I’m doing all this stuff, and part of my concern is that there is this enormous windmill tower, which is probably 35 feet tall, sitting on top of this building.
It’s a tower, in that it’s enclosed. A lot of old windmills were just open. This is closed, so when you look at the house, when you drive past it on Norwood Avenue, you can still see the armature, but there’s a closure around it all.
So, I’m renovating the building and we’re making it into apartments and we’re fixing it up, and I realized that the entire structure beneath the mill, on at least two sides, had completely rotted. There’s this big 40-foot structure, and it’s perched on a hillside, and two sides of it are completely rotted out.
So, I contacted this engineer, and I invited him over to say how do I fix this? What should I do so it doesn’t fall over? And he prescribed, you know, build this wall, put this in there, kill the well, do all this stuff.
And then I said to him, “Okay, but why doesn’t it fall down? What’s holding up the windmill?”
And I’m waiting for some smart answer. He thinks for a few seconds, and then he says to me, “Undeterminable forces.”