Hampton House was once the largest home in the United States. Today it’s a National Historic Site and a monument to a way of life whose time has passed. Seven generations of the Ridgely family lived here from 1745 to 1948. “Ridgely’s Folly” as it was called is a great lens through which to see a wide variety of historical phenomena at work–early industrialism, agriculture/plantation life, indentured servants and slavery, the list goes on. While the Ridgely family rests at the heart of the story, the grounds and those who worked there allow for an even larger look into a bygone society. Both the Mansion and the Lower House/Farm are open daily for tours. Depending on staff availability, additional Grounds Tours and special-themed tours are offered as well as special themed days and events. Depending on your interest, it’s possible to spend anywhere from an hour (visit the mansion only) to an afternoon or morning here (add on the Farm House and Grounds).
The Mansion tours start on the hour every hour and last about an hour. You can only visit the Georgian manor house by taking a tour. While we managed to take Laura to more than one historic house while she was a baby, we’ve now entered a more delicate period. Let me be blunt–toddlers and historic houses are a bad combination! While I am all for taking children to as many places as possible, a little common sense also helps. Tours are designed for adult audiences and the no-touching rule is constantly in force. Over the past few years, we’ve taken the tour four times, twice with the girls when they were babies. The quality of the tour is directly linked to the Ranger or Docent/Volunteer on duty. We have had amazing tours and ones that left us bored and looking (hopefully discreetly) at our watches. If you’re visiting without children, take the chance and go for a tour. Hampton is unique in that practically all of the furniture and decorations are original to the house. When the Park Service acquired the property, they also acquired the furnishings and family archives along with it. The result is rooms furnished to represent the way the family lived. Different rooms represent periods in the family’s history from the colonial period on through the 20th century.
Yesterday, since we had the girls with us, we chose to visit the Lower House/Farm. The Lower House actually represents both the beginning and the end of the Ridgely’s and Hampton’s story. The First Master, Charles Ridgely, Jr. lived here while building his ‘folly’ up on the hill. John Ridgely Jr. stayed here until his death. The Park Service has stripped back the walls to show the various ages and modifications of the house. Successive generations added additions to the farm house which served as the overseer’s home and later as the farm managers. We were lucky in that we chose to visit the farm while most visitors were up at the Mansion. The result, we had a Park Ranger to ourselves and he was able to talk both to us and the girls. The farm house is child-friendly. Indeed, an entire room has been set up with objects for them to touch, feel and smell. While aimed more at school-age children, Laura (and Elise to a lesser degree) enjoyed pulling out the drawers and exploring their contents. A facing table contained objects representing the Ridgely’s and their environment from an orange–the Ridgely’s built an Orangery–to a quill pen and a wooden bowl. Considering her age, I was surprised by how curious she actually was! That said, I have to admit that the wooden twig brooms were clearly the highlight of the visit along with the chance to ring the house’s bell. Even if you choose not to visit the Mansion on the hill, displays inside the house allow you to get a brief overview of the Ridgely family. A wonderful timeline plots the families’ story against that of the USA.
The farm house, slave quarters and adjacent buildings were all designed to look harmonious together. Indeed, the architectural ensemble is called a ferme ornée, an ornamental or decorative farm. Even the stone slave quarters were built to impress–our Ranger noted that they were nicer accommodations than most Americans had at the time! (My photos of the slave quarters didn’t turn out so I chose a photo showing a bit of the farm house, one of the ferme ornéestyle barns in the background and a log cabin. The Park doesn’t display the cabin as slave quarters as there is no documentation that they were ever used as slave quarters.) The Ridgely’s were clearly trying to make a point both about their own wealth and the way they wished to be seen as good masters. While the stone houses are lovely to look at, you can’t escape the fact that its occupants weren’t free. Over a hundred slaves ran away from the property. Thanks to the Park Service’s use of the archives, you can even look at a copy of a Christmas list showing gifts to slave children as well as a reward offered by the family for the return of a runaway slave. Another neat building to visit, and a kid favorite, is the dairy with its running stream water.
We chose to picnic and walk the grounds after our tour. Hampton was famous for its parterres or formal gardens and they are currently being replanted/restored. Three tiers of gardens sloped down from the house. The first tier is now replanted and in bloom, the second level is designed but not yet planted. I’m not sure if there are plans to add the third tier back in the future. A walk around the grounds also lets you visit the family cemetery, ice house and other outbuildings on the property.
Notes: Bathroom facilities, including a baby changing station, are available both in the Orangery by the Mansion and near the Farm House. A Gift Shop is available in the Mansion as is a Park Ranger desk if you have questions about times or need a brochure. Even if you choose to focus on the farm, the Mansion Ranger desk is a useful place to stop.