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    The Laura Branch House

    built circa 1770

The Laurel Branch House

Home Sweet Home

In 1987, off Maryland route 228 in Charles County, an old dilapidated house quietly waited for a bulldozer to come by and finish what the years had slowly been trying to do; level it. But fate had another plan for this house, one you wouldn’t have given a second look at had you driven by it, for within it’s collapsing exterior walls stood sills and joists, mortise and tenons, riven clapboard and other tell tale signs of construction that happened sans electricity.

With the help of the Phillip family who owned the property and the home and countless others, particularly J. Richard Rivoire an architectural historian, the house which has become known as the “Laurel Branch” house was carefully disassembled during the summer of 1987 and moved to the National Colonial Farm where it could be reconstructed and become the center point of the Accokeek Foundation’s interpretive program.

Believed to have been originally built in the last quarter of the 18th century, the Laurel Branch house was a simple one story, two-room dwelling of modest dimensions and appearance. Deeper than wide, room behind room and exterior chimneys at one end the house was typical of an architectural style popular in lower Southern Maryland from the second half of the 18th century well into the first half of the 19th century. Homes of this style and construction were often owned by trades people or small landowners of modest means. As typical as this house is it is also in many ways atypical.

What makes this home more interesting is the way it was constructed. Much of it is far less “sophisticated” than one might think. Its sills and joists were laid without any support and riven clapboard of less than ideal dimensions was used in the construction of the roof and attic partitions. There is evidence that the ceiling rafters and joists were made from improperly dried wood and warped shortly after construction. No doubt other homes were built using these shortcuts, and no wonder only one, Laurel Branch, survived.

If there is one aspect of the house that is the most interesting and helps us date it more precisely it is the two small, cater-cornered fireplaces. Laurel Branch is the only example of this room behind room plan with such fireplaces recorded in Charles County or as far as is known, in all of Southern Maryland. This design of corner fireplaces was common in the area between 1740 and 1770 and given all the other data the house is generally agreed to have been built circa 1770.

The Residents of Laurel Branch

Fictional Composite Family

The “residents” of Laurel Branch are a fictional composite family based on historical research into the life of a typical late 18th century tobacco farmer in colonial Southern Maryland. They include Mr. and Mrs. Bolton; their daughters Charity and Rebekah Bolton; Mrs. Bolton’s sister, Minnie; Bernard, an indentured servant; and an enslaved woman, Cate Sharper. The character of Cate Sharper is unique in that, while the Boltons are fictional, Cate was an actual person. It is rare to find an enslaved person referred to by name in the historical record; however, during our research on the family who actually lived and farmed on this site in the 18th century, we found mention of a slave woman named Cate. Using her real name is essential in telling her story, not only to provide historical context for the site but also to honor the memory of the millions of enslaved African Americans whose names and stories are unknown.

Tobacco Barn

18th Century Architecture

The tobacco barn which now stands at the National Colonial Farm is arguably one of the most significantly known remaining pieces of agriculturally related 18th century architecture in eastern North America. This tobacco barn was originally the property of William Hall of southern Anne Arundel County. He had two such barns, and they were the largest and most important structures on his property. Built well, these barns survived all manner of weather, but one of the barns, at last, was endangered by development plans. Efforts by the National Park Service and the Accokeek Foundation secured the relocation of this tobacco barn to the National Colonial Farm. The barn features fascinating construction techniques, and was carefully reconstructed to preserve early agricultural messages. The original designers had made use of pieces from earlier barns. The basic construction technique is known as “tidewater framing” and consists of plates, rafters and corner braces connected by pinned mortise and tenon joints. Hand adzed oak, walnut and chestnut timbers predominate. The roof is steeply pitched at about 54 degrees, and the eves rest on a false plate (where the soffit would normally fit) allowing for increased ventilation.

The frame was covered with clapboard siding in approximately 4-foot lengths. The open spaces, where clapboards have been left off, serve to increase ventilation as well.  All siding and and roofing was secured with by completely hand-forged nails made in the 18th century. The tobacco barn is capable of housing 12,000-18,000 lbs of tobacco. At a time when most people have lost connection to land and agricultural roots, visitors are invited to enter the tobacco house, stand under the curing leaf and weathered beams and experience the rhythms of our agricultural past that continue to inform the present day.    

“Tobacco, as our Staple, is our all, and indeed leaves no room for anything Else.”

Passage from letter of Benedict Leonard to the Lord Proprietary
26 October 1729