CARROLL COUNTY, Md., is the answer to your fears that concrete has been pulled over everything. This is the place you imagine fleeing to when you're stalled in rush-hour traffic in Washington. Carroll County is two-lane roads, pastures stretching unendingly, hay ricks, corn fields, swallows swooping and darting over fence posts -- The Country.
It's tucked away in the northern part of Maryland, between Baltimore and Frederick counties, and its largest city, Westminster, has scarcely a parking meter busy on a Saturday afternoon. Carroll County is farm country and has been since the first Germans came here to settle. The harvester and the reaping machine were invented, here; rural free post delivery began in Carroll County. Unions Mills, up north in the county toward Pennsylvania, was an early example of an industrial park, but what you will like about Caroll is that it is not industrial.
Even the road by which we arrived was an adventure in bucolic meanderings, a road it was hard to remember had started out in Washington as Georgia Avenue. Eventually it changed its personality, renamed itself Rte. 97, and by the time it crossed the Carroll County line was so undulating and unimproved that we were warned against it when we stopped for gas. We persevered and loved every mile, though we came home on Rte. 27, closer to our neck of the city.
You have to have a very large map of Maryland to plot a Carroll County visit and even then we could not find the first stop on our itinerary, the rather famous Montbray wineries in Silver Run. "We're near Union Mills," said Claire Mowbray when I called for directions, so we carelessly imagined it would be possible to make inquires when we arrived nearby.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Hamilton Mowbray (his name differs slightly from his winery's), a Johns Hopkins doctor of experimental psychology who quit the academic world for his vineyards, is far more famous outside Carroll County than in. We were misdirected at every turn, ultimately to another winery which does not encourage visitors and was surprised to see us. The Montbray winery is beyond Union Mills by about a mile, and you must look sharp to pick up the sign for it on the right.
One taste of Mowbray's Seyve-Villard will convince you it was all worth while. Mowbray was awarded the Croix de Chevalier de Merite Agricole for this wine by the French ambassador, kissed on both cheeks and decorated with ceremony. He offers visitors a glass and takes them through his wine operation, shows them the grapes growing in the rich Carroll County soil and explains the whole process from the crushing of the grapes to the drinking. He will also sell you some of his wine at retail discount since no wholesaler is involved, and the price is a bargain for either the white or his Cabernet Sauvignon.
Mowbray began his business as a hobby when he found, after taking his PhD at Cambridge, England, that back in this country, teaching in a university, he could no longer afford the expensive European wines he preferred. In 1973 he made his choice and left the academic world behind to make his hobby his life. The locals were hard put to hide their smiles. A dairy farm had recently failed where he bought the land and nobody had ever grown grapes there. "He's growing the wrong juice," they said, slapping each other jovially on the back.
These days they come around to see what it's all about, tasting tentatively and looking doubtful when Mowbray warns them the wine is not sweet. Mowbray, no doubt, wins them over. He is a host par excellence, a charmer, and so is the whole family. They even invited us into the house to wash off the poison ivy we had encountered in our first attempt to find him.
We salted away a couple of bottles in the trunk and turned back to take a look at the Union Mills Homestead, down the road a bit at Rte. 140 and Deep Run Road. This old weathered gray house sheltered the Shriver family for three centuries and several generations. Imagine, if you can, a house which has never changed hands outside the family, where nothing was ever thrown away, from the top hats on the coat rack to the Valentines received through the years. This is American history compressed into family archives, and one of the nicest things about it is that our guide was the 19-year-old great-great-granddaughter of one of the two brothers who built it.
The Shrivers were leading citizens when they built the house in 1797, and travelers often found their way to their door. Washington Irving sat before a fire and talked late into the night at the Homestead; James Audubon watched a Baltimore oriole build a nest in one of the willow trees in the back. The Shriver family established a grist mill here, a saw mill, a tannery, blacksmith and copper shop, and the services brought farmers from the entire countryside. Waiting for their grain to be ground, they stopped a while on the veranda, talking crops and inevitably politics. Troops from both the Union and the Confederacy, en route to Gettysburg, were fed in the Homestead's big kitchen.
The house is jam-packed with the domestic possessions of three centuries. On the parlor table are copies of a 1892 Life magazine. A scratchy old record of the "Old Gray Mare" complete with horse neighs still plays on the 1914 windup Victrola. On the wall is a framed $10 share in the 1876 Philadelphia Contennial Exhibition and on the music rack a ballad entitled, "When the Cruel war Is Over." In the children's room a dress pattern, as complicated as a road map, is spread beside the old sewing machine. Outside the house stands a privy that has been admired by architects.
Nothing, you remember, was ever thrown away and so recently the original bill for the materials for the house turned up. They cost $46.
Cockey's Tavern in Westminster was our original choice for lunch, but we found it shut up tight on Saturday at noon, so we turned west to Tanneytown on Rte. 97 where the Havilah Inn keeps its doors open all weekend. The inn is a family-run operation and specializes in seafood, especially crab. The crab was unusually good, but it was the fresh blackberry pie, baked by the daughter of the owner, which delighted us. What we couldn't eat on the spot, we bought and tucked in beside the wine. I would love to get the recipe for that pie.
All of Carroll County is picture pretty but the lovely little village of Uniontown is the jewel. The whole town was made a Registered National Historic District in 1970, and we should be forever grateful that progress can no longer threaten it. Uniontown was settled in 1802 and it must have looked much the same way then.
The village is one street lined by handsome old houses. There's nothing else at all but beautiful old trees, a combined general store and post office and a one-room schoolhouse. I asked Thomas Devilbiss, the 87-year-old gentleman who runs the store, how many people live in Uniontown.
"Lemme see," he mumbled. "I haven't counted lately." I didn't get the exact figure but it's somewhere around 250. Everybody who lives there works somewhere else and returns at night to life preserved as it used to be. When a young couple with a tiny baby moved in recently, they created quite a stir. Uniontown is the past, a quiet little village where even Westminister is a world away.
Agricultural Carrol County has one remarkable link with international trade and it would be a shame to miss it. The International Gift Shop at New Windsor is a museum quality outlet for handcrafts made in far-away countries and the prices (which skip the middleman) are a bargain. Baskets from Thailand, Indian brass and batik, woven rugs from Ecuador, wooden bowls from Haiti and a rather extensive jewerly section are all made by artisans trying to fight their way out of chronic poverty. The shop is nonprofit and purchases direct from the artisans themselves. We had to move the pie and the wine over a little to make room for the things we bought in New Windsor.
Carroll County is the only place where I have ever been personally introduced to a turkey, even encouraged to pat his strangely rough back. I did, and you can do the same if you visit Carroll County Farm Museum. Charles Scott, the caretaker there, explained to me that this fowl was "just a big old pet," and I will never feel the same about Thanksgiving again.
This handsome old country place was once the poor farm, a home for county pensioners phased out in 1965 and turned into a re-creation of a typical farm home of its time. It was built in 1852, but the furnishings, acquired later, range from colonial to Victorian.
Some interesting steel engravings hang on the walls and the old wall telephone you crank up is fun, but the new acquisition of more than a dozen truly beautiful patchwork quilts, all worked by Cora Nash Price of Arcadia, Md., in her long lifetime, is the exhibit that caught our eye. The Price family Bible is displayed beside the quilts, along with her snapshot album and some old photographic portraits of her family.
On Oct. 11 and 12, the farm museum is planning a harvest gala when a calliope will play all day, pumpkins will be judged and late 19th-century crafts demonstrated in the blacksmith shop and smokehouse, as well as in outbuildings of the old poor farm where spinning, weaving, pottery making and quilting will be going on. Craft demonstrations take place every weekend on an irregular time basis, though the entire operation shuts down in November. The farm opens at noon and closes at 5.
If you come in October, you must call ahead to get into the Union Mills Homestead which, after September, is not ordinarily open. On the weekend of harvest gala, it will be open by appointment. Call 301-848-2288 or 301-876-2085.
N. B. Mowbray likes to have his visitors phone ahead, too. Telephone 301-346-7583.