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The creepy house in the woods

I am so happy to see leaves on the trees again. I can even see a few through the window — behind the stacks of boxes in the living room. Getting very close to moving day now. Truck is rented. Movers are planned. Previous owners have exited. We are so organized I can’t find anything. Nothing can go wrong now … go wrong now … go wrong now.

I did a couple of sketches of the kids loafing around among the boxes. I always find sketching my kids a little more challenging than random sketching. It is as if I can already feel the pressure of creating an iconic heirloom piece. I immediately tighten up. Still these aren’t bad renditions. I hid Josie’s face entirely with Tesco, her bear. What was I going to do, tell her to put the bear down? I don’t think so. He is an icon himself.

With the weather improving and the trails drying out finally, we are venturing out more and more. We took a longer walk last weekend, this time along the opposite shore of the Patuxent River, in what is soon to be our neck of the woods. I can’t believe how quiet it is out here and how generally unspoiled. We had the trail mostly to ourselves, aside from a horse and a mule and their riders, who all politely stopped so we could pass. The mule, we were told, was 14 hands. That means “really, really big” when you are 7 years old squeezing by on a narrow trail. The mule was friendly and so were the riders.

Most of the low undergrowth has yet to come into full foliage, otherwise I think we would have missed the old garbage dump. Most of the garbage looked to be just post-war. It had that bleached sterile feel that happens when things get left out for decades. There were narrow-gauge tires, cast iron bathtubs, tin pails, green glass bottles and chrome car parts. Another few weeks of spring undergrowth and we would have missed it altogether, and likely missed the house that it gave a clue to. Even so, if it hadn’t been for the house’s red roof, I think we would have missed it anyway.

It stared at us with baleful empty window eyes a couple hundred yards away. The kids eventually spotted it. The answer was an instant “yes” when I asked if we should go check out the weird abandoned scary-looking house in the middle of the woods. These are my kids.

The house had been abandoned so long that there was no longer any sign of the road or trail that must once have joined it to Annapolis Rock Road to the south. We had to chicane our way along what appeared to be a deer path just to get near the place. The front porch had collapsed at some point, so we had to skirt our way around the side, squeezing between paint-peeled siding and the trees that seemed to be helping to hold the place up. The kids were stalled from getting inside by their mother and the lack of a floor in the kitchen. Down in the basement, we could see mason jars and tiny shoes. Spooky stuff. Exactly the kind of place I used to play in when I was a kid. Exactly the kind of place I would not let my kids play in. The whole place was a tetanus death trap. Cool, though.

Through a bit of help from Kelly Colwell from the Maryland Department of Natural Resources at Seneca State Park, and Sandra Youla at Montgomery County Planning Department, I have pieced together a few details on the old place. It was called the Wilson-Warfield farm, and was actually the second farm to have been built on this site. The first dated to the mid-1800s. This one was dated to 1915. The property served as a farm until the Department of Natural Resources acquired the land in 1970, at which point it became part of the park and the house was abandoned. In a report I read from 1979, the house was still considered a salvageable property. It is unfortunately beyond hope now. I have included a small picture so you can see what it once was. Lovely really.

Of the farm’s last owners, I managed to find out only a little through the Maryland Historic Trust’s State’s Historic Sites Inventory, a document used to catalogue properties and buildings to help decide where the state’s preservation money will be spent. This property belonged to siblings Raymond C. Warfield (1891-1969), Mary Olive (Ollie) (1883-1963) and Effie W. Warfield (1887-1966). They acquired the 175 acres  in 1939. The sisters died without descendants (which seems like an odd anomaly in such a deeply religious community). The same document says that Raymond Warfield raised chickens and pigs on the land. Through my digging, I discovered that Raymond owned a dairy farm nearby as well. As chance would have it, this is the self-same farm from which I begged a boost when my battery died in the middle of the winter. Good folk then, I’d say.

I ended up making a couple of trips back to the site without the wife and kids. Walking up through the woods on my own, it was deathly silent. There is nothing like a house with no window glass to make you feel you are being watched. This is a spooky spot, even more so if you sit quietly for a while. The critters come out to play and weird sounds are heard. Drawing this second scene, I became aware of a constant hissing noise, which I eventually realized was a Turkey Vulture sticking its head out of the attic. I was being watched after all. It was either a parent annoyed at me being there or a baby annoyed at me being there. It can be tough to tell with a vulture, as they look pretty hideous at any age.

Even 45 years after it was last occupied, there are still lots of signs of the last owners lying around. The ground is littered with the soles of shoes in various sizes from child to adult, and a washing machine with the mangle on the top and a rusting walking frame wrapped in ivy stick out from under the collapsed porch roof. There are daffodils growing up in random spots, although there is no sign of a garden edge. It has that lovely post-apocalyptic feel. This was a fun sketch. Nothing was horizontal or vertical, everything covered in ivy, trees inside and out, random pieces of forgotten lives. I didn’t exactly feel I had won the battle but I gave a good account of myself. And you will never be able to tell where I went wrong and fudged it either way. A good time was had by all — or at least by me, and not so much the vulture.

That is the end of my self-adulation for this week. So I’ll take this opportunity to point at a local D.C. urban sketcher. Christian Tribastone has to be considered as highly skilled a live sketcher as there is. He has a keen eye for the iconic and a rare ability to highlight the important and drop the extraneous.

This is Christian’s full D.C. gallery of urban sketches on flickr.

This is his personal blog link. Some more great samples here.

Great stuff all round really.

So what are you waiting for? Not more motivation. Get off your butt and go do some sketching. If you are brave enough to pick up a pencil and start drawing, there is no telling where it will lead. Send me what you create and I’ll do my best to feature it right here. Luck out there.

Got a question? Ask me.

Want to see more of my work?

Richard is a field artist and visual journalist and works as a senior graphics editor at The Washington Post.



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Richard Johnson · April 29, 2014

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