George Washington fathered the country and Abraham Lincoln kept it one nation, indivisible, but the only early American who still directly touches every citizen's life is Francis Scott Key.
His "The Star-Spangled Banner," ours by Act of Congress, brings us to our feet from kindergarten to the Super Bowl, and we are almost daily reminded of the sleepless night Key spent wondering whether the flag over Fort McHenry would still be there at sunup.
Of all the citizens of the land of the free and the home of the brave the two who feel Key's touch most directly are probably Brad and Terry Wigle of Keymar, Md., who herd goats and tourists in about equal measure at "Terra Rubra," in the beautiful Monacacy Valley, where Key was born in 1779.
Named by Key's father for the rich red clay soil of the Piedmont, Terra Rubra is still a working farm. That is, the Wigles work the 176 acres when they're not showing visitors around the place. Some days they come by the dozens.
"We welcome visitors, and really enjoy showing them around when we can," Brad Wigle said. "We've met some interesting people, and, well, we just feel that a place with this kind of historical assocaition ought to be available."
Although stone markers and an ever-flying flag attest to the authenticity of the Key birthplace, Brad Wigle tells you right off that it isn't the original house. The mansion, built in 1770, collapsed in a windstorm that swept its commanding knoll in 1858, and the owners reassembled the bricks and beams into a handsome home that is half as large but twice as thick.
For that matter, according to neighbor Lloyd Wilhide, "I understand Key wasn't actually born there anyway. It seems his mother didn't quite make it into the house." A woman who gave birth to six sons and five daughters might be expected to drop one or two in the yard.
Key grew up to be a minor author and poet and a major backstage figure in the life of the young Republic. Practicing law from his home in Georgetown - torn down to make way for the Whitehurst Freeway - he was the Clark Clifford of his day: a smoother-out, a putter-together, a Mr. Fixit. It was for this reason that he was authorized to go to Baltimore to try to obtain the release of his old friend Dr. William Beanes, who had offended the British by clapping some of their drunken sailors in the hoosegow as they staggered through Upper Marlboro during their withdrawal from the sack of the Washington in 1814.
Key got Beanes off, but was detained on board ship in Baltimore harbor because of the impending attack on the fort. Posterity has shared his agony ever since.
Terra Rubra, which amounted to 3,000 acres in Key's time, has passed through the hands of seven families. Among them were Peter and Annie K. Baumgardner, who in 1922 built what must be the most recent and most massive pegged-oak barn in America but who never knew Key was born there until Congress made the anthem official in 1931 and a couple of ladies came out from Frederick and told them about it.
Terry Wigle's parents, Naomi and Lee Barry Brown, bought the farm in 1974, and the young people were married on the lawn in May 1976. Both were students at the University of Maryland who decided they'd rather dig in the soil than in the books. Still only 21, they have the sturdy, competent air of born farmers.
"The house was in pretty good shape when we moved in, but the random-width flooring had been painted, and the fieldstone fireplace was plastered over, things like that," Brad said. "We put in a lot of work."
It shows. "I think this is the prettiest farm in Maryland," the young man said as he led the way to the graveyard where the Key family slaves lie (Key himself is buried in Frederick).
There's a movement afoot to have the place listed on the National Historical Register - it comes as a shock to discover it hasn't already been - but that's languishing in the labyrinth of government.
Listing, which awaits action by the National Park Sercice, would protect Terra Rubra from such things as highway projects in which federal money is involved. It would also make the owners eligible for matching grants for work tha maintains or restores the historic character of the place.
The Browns and Wigles hope it goes through soon, because the slate roof is beginning to go and the massive basement beams need shoring up here and there where they were weakened by termites.
"The application has been in the mill for about a year, and they've called us a few times for more information, so I think it's going through," said Pamela James, who is national register coordinator for the Maryland Historical Trust.
James said she hadn't heard the one about Key's being born in the yard, "but I still think it counts as his birthplace."