Documenting Maryland’s Dairy Industry

By Heather Barrett, Administrator of Research & Survey

Dairy barns and supporting structures, such as milking parlors, silos, and farmyards, were once common features in Maryland’s agricultural landscape. Yet, no comprehensive survey or historic context exists that documents the role of the dairy industry in Maryland. As more and more farmers leave the industry, now is the time to capture these stories and document the associated historic resources before all tangible evidence disappears.

Martha Perry Robinson (Pattie). Source: The Robinson and Via Family Papers, Archives Center, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution.

To support this effort, the Maryland Historical Trust awarded the University of Delaware’s Center for Historic Architecture and Design a non-capital grant to document historic dairy farms in Cecil, Carroll, and Frederick counties over the next two years. Additionally, the MHT Board of Trustees is funding the documentation of several farms in Garrett and Allegany counties. This project, eventually covering all 23 counties plus Baltimore City, is identified as a survey goal in the statewide preservation plan, PreserveMaryland II (2019-2023), and MHT staff from the Office of Research, Survey, and Registration is actively involved in the outreach, documentation, and research efforts.

Farmers from Western Maryland and staff from the Office of Research, Survey, & Registration at the Dairy Farmers Reunion at the Allegany County Fair in 2018 (Photo courtesy of Casey Pecoraro).

Changes in Maryland’s agricultural industry frequently translated to the built environment, requiring new forms and materials to meet evolving needs and advances. In the late nineteenth century, many Maryland farmers sought to diversify their agricultural production, moving from traditional crops such as wheat and tobacco to dairy, fruits, and vegetables. By the early twentieth century, countless dairy farmers shifted from using large multi-purpose barns that housed a variety of livestock to a more standardized barn design dedicated to safe dairy production. The U.S. Department of Agriculture publicized the new designs, which focused on increased light, ventilation, and materials, such as concrete, that promoted cleanliness. Additionally, advances in technology, such as the development of the feed silo in 1873 and improvements to refrigeration, pasteurization, and bottling, transformed the industry at the turn of the century.[1]

Main house at Leigh Castle Farm, Carroll County. Source: The Robinson and Via Family Papers, Archives Center, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution.

Near the town of Marston in Carroll County, Leigh Castle Farm is a representative early twentieth-century dairy farm that illustrates the shift in agricultural practices.[2] Harry and Martha (Robinson) Townshend purchased the roughly 53-acre farm in 1908 for $4,000. By 1910, the U.S. Census lists Harry as a farmer, with the household consisting of Harry, age 30; Martha, age 29; and Margaret, their one-year old daughter.[3] The family expanded three years later with the birth of their son Henry.

Martha Robinson Townshend and her mother Amanda Baden Robinson at the Carroll County farm. Source: The Robinson and Via Family Papers, Archives Center, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution.

In addition to dairy production, the Townshends grew a variety of crops and raised chickens. In a letter dated July 20, 1914, Martha (known as Pattie) wrote to her mother, Amanda Baden Robinson, of Brandywine, Maryland: “We have had a very wet season and such heavy electric storms … I have certainly had a terrible time this summer – labor is scarce and high – some of Harry’s hay and wheat crop was damaged but I did my best … I have done but little canning – cherries rotted on the trees and my beans are to (sic) old to can now … Only have a small crop of chickens about a hundred and five … Am raising a calf, which is much trouble around the house (?) …”[4] On the eve of World War I and with a newly established farm, this passage illustrates the challenges and hard work of farming for a living.

Dairy barn constructed at the farm in 1929. Source: The Robinson and Via Family Papers, Archives Center, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution.

Between 1919 and 1923, the Townshends added a total of about eight acres to the farm. The farm expanded again with the construction of a sizable new dairy barn in 1929. Historic photographs in the collections of the National Museum of American History chronicle the barn-raising and show a typical, early twentieth-century concrete block and frame gambrel-roofed structure. Concrete block and structural terracotta tile were common materials used in the construction of dairy barns and milking parlors in the twentieth century, as more stringent sanitation laws were enacted. By 1930, the Agriculture Census showed 858 dairy farms in Carroll County, just behind Frederick and Harford counties, with a total of 5,652 farms classified as dairy operations in the state.[5] 

Additional research, such as agricultural or farm schedules, will provide further information into the operations of Leigh Castle Farm. As we move forward with our documentation and research efforts, MHT will continue to highlight examples of dairy-related buildings, farm complexes, and landscapes that help illustrate this important chapter in Maryland’s history.


[1] Diehlmann, Nicole A. and Jacob M. Bensen, Thematic Historic Context:  Dairy Farming in Frederick and Montgomery Counties, Maryland (Appendix F), March 2020.

[2] The farm became known as Leigh Castle, named after one of the early parcels of land.

[3] Ancestry.com. 1910 United States Federal Census [database on-line]. Lehi, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations Inc, 2006.

[4] Letter to Amanda Baden from Martha (Pattie) Townshend, July 20, 1914. The Robinson and Via Family Papers, Archives Center, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution.

[5] Fifteenth Census of the United States: 1930 – Agriculture, Volume III, United States Government Printing Office (Washington, DC: 1932).

Architectural Fieldwork

By Allison Luthern, Architectural Survey Administrator

Architectural fieldwork is an important part of understanding and preserving historic places. When MHT staff investigate a site, we look closely at the historic fabric of the buildings to reveal clues about their history, changes over time, and significance. Many of these answers will be found in the building’s form, features, materials, and details. In addition to investigation, we document the built environment, analyze and interpret findings, and archive our discoveries. This process helps MHT’s architectural historians and preservationists to realize the types of historic places that survive or have already been lost. (In fact, past completed fieldwork is one of the only ways we have information about demolished historic buildings!) We use this information to create better plans and strategies for future preservation efforts. Fieldwork helps us to advance MHT’s mission of identifying, documenting, and evaluating Maryland’s diverse cultural heritage.

When possible, MHT’s Office of Research, Survey, and Registration conducts fieldwork at the request of people who want to learn more about their historic buildings. Earlier this year, MHT staff responded to one such request by a property owner in Washington County who had recently purchased a home and discovered that there were three small log buildings located on the property. Log construction was very common in western Maryland from its earliest European American settlement through to the twentieth century, and MHT hoped to help the property owner understand the age and significance of the structures on their property. 

Log buildings in Washington County. Source: MHT staff

On site, MHT staff closely investigated the log buildings, which consisted of one small story-and-a-half dwelling, one summer kitchen with a large stone chimney, and one very small storage building. Architectural historians refer to the form of these log buildings as “single pen” – they are one room enclosures with four walls. This form is associated with modest, simple structures. An important feature to consider when investigating a log building is its corner notching, or the way that the logs lock into place at the ends. Corner notching can reveal the complexity of construction as well as the builder’s regional influences. These buildings were constructed with “V” notching, as illustrated in the photo below. This was the most common notching technique.

A closer look at one of the buildings. Source: Staff photo

We also searched for nails used in the buildings. Because the form of fasteners changed over time with manufacturing technology, they are a very important way to help date a structure. We discovered that wire nails—widely used by the 1880s and still utilized today—were employed in the construction of these buildings. All of our investigation pointed to an early twentieth century construction date.

One of the log buildings examined by the MHT staff. Source: Staff photo

To document the buildings, we took notes, photographs, and basic measurements.

The next steps in fieldwork—analysis and interpretation—may not even occur in the field, but they are crucially important in giving meaning to our investigation. We used historic records to research the property, including land records, census data, maps, newspapers, and community histories. We also read through books, journal articles, and architectural survey reports in the MHT Library. From this research, we determined that the log buildings were constructed in the early twentieth century by a local family for residential use, given their small size and assemblage. The surrounding acreage was likely used for fruit farming around this time.

Fruit farming became widespread in western Maryland as refrigeration, urbanization, and transportation advanced in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Historic maps revealed that a trolley (or electric railway) line was located directly adjacent to the log buildings and would have assisted in transporting both people and freight until its dismantling in 1936. It is possible that these log buildings were occupied until the mid-twentieth century when a new, more modern house was constructed, probably by a different owner who used the surrounding land for recreation more than agriculture.

U.S. Geological Survey, Hagerstown [map], 1:62500, Topographic Quadrangle Map, Reston, VA, 1912 Source: U.S. Geological Survey

Our fieldwork will conclude with the creation of a Maryland Inventory of Historic Properties (MIHP) form for the log buildings. The MIHP is a repository of information on districts, sites, buildings, structures, and objects of known or potential value to the history or prehistory of the State of Maryland. This final step will ensure that the findings of our fieldwork will be preserved and available to researchers or interested members of the public via our library and our online cultural resource information system known as Medusa.

Fieldwork is a very rewarding process! As time and resources allow, MHT staff would love to help others with their investigations. Please contact staff in the Office of Research, Survey, and Registration with any questions (including Allison Luthern, Architectural Survey Administrator at allison.luthern@maryland.gov).