Old farmstead’s history runs from John Brown to James Brown
DARGAN, Md. (AP) — From John Brown’s raid to James Brown’s wail, a stream of hot-blooded American history runs through a 19th-century farmstead in the Appalachian foothills of western Maryland.
The John Brown connection is well known. The restored log farmhouse near Dargan is where the abolitionist launched his ill-fated, 1859 seizure of a federal armory in nearby Harpers Ferry, West Virginia.
Historians cite the failed attempt by Brown and a band of fervent followers to raid the federal arsenal as the opening salvo in the Civil War because it incited strong passions, especially in the slave-holding South. The farmhouse was designated a national historic landmark in 1973.
But the John Brown plaque and roadside marker 75 miles west of Baltimore don’t mention the dazzling array of black entertainers who performed on the same site a century later, during the racially segregated 1950s and early ’60s. James Brown, Ray Charles, Chubby Checker, Etta James, Otis Redding and dozens of others headlined at John Brown’s Farm, a stop on the so-called Chitlin’ Circuit before white audiences embraced rhythm-and-blues and soul music.
The now dilapidated concrete-block dance hall was built by an African-American fraternal organization, the Improved Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks of the World — also known as the Black Elks — who bought the 235-acre property in 1950 for a retreat memorializing John Brown. The site’s history is documented in a new book, “From John Brown to James Brown: The Little Farm Where Liberty Budded, Blossomed and Boogied.”
“I think it should be considered the No. 1 black history site in the United States,” said Ed Maliskas, author of the self-published volume.
Maliskas, a historian, musician and retired evangelical pastor, spent nearly eight years researching and writing the book after hearing about the R&B connection in a casual conversation in 2008, shortly after moving from Miami to Hagerstown.
His interview subjects included Al Baylor, 78, of Bunker Hill, West Virginia, who remembers donning a suitcoat and tie to dance to Frankie Lyman, Ike and Tina Turner and B.B. King.
“Anybody that was anybody came to John Brown’s Farm,” Baylor told The Associated Press in a telephone interview. “I was in hog heaven.”
Young black people from bordering states, Baltimore and Washington, D.C., met at the farm, said Hagerstown native Reginald Johnson, 74, who now lives in Rochester, New York.
“The people showed up on the weekend. That was our gathering place,” Johnson told the AP. He remembers paying $2 to attend dances that Maliskas said drew 400 to 500 people despite the farm’s remote location down winding, country roads in a valley known as Frog Hollow.
The shows were part of the Black Elks’ plan for creating a national shrine at the site for annual membership meetings, said the group’s unofficial historian, Peggy Coplin of Bala Cynwyd, Pennsylvania. The organization — itself a product of racial segregation — built the auditorium, two cottages and a stone entrance arch before financial constraints and convenience prompted a move to Winton, North Carolina, now the group’s national headquarters. The Elks sold the Maryland property in 1966, seven months after James Brown starred in the last show, on Labor Day weekend 1965, Maliskas writes.
Coplin told the AP in a telephone interview that the group would like to see the site’s Black Elks history promoted, but the organization has no money for it. Membership has fallen to about 250,000 from a mid-century peak of 450,000, she said.
Both the farmhouse, known as the Kennedy Farm, and the dance hall are now owned by South Lynn, a Washington-area wood-flooring contractor, and his son and business partner South Lynn Jr., who share an interest in history.
The younger Lynn told the AP in a telephone interview that he put a new roof on the auditorium last summer but the building needs much more work. Through the broken window of a peeling red door, one can see stacks of flooring materials that the Lynns are storing there.
“I think it would be great to promote it,” Lynn said, “if Maryland’s into it.”
Neither the Maryland Historical Trust nor the National Park Service, which helped restore the farmhouse, are aware of any publicly funded efforts to preserve or promote the dance hall, officials of those organizations said. But the nonprofit group Preservation Maryland hopes the state will at least provide funds to further document the building, which reportedly also served as a gay nightclub or disco in the 1970s, Executive Director Nicholas Redding said.
“It’s just another layer of history we need to add to these places,” Redding said. “From a preservation standpoint, it’s just about telling a richer and more comprehensive story about our state, which is, I think, a positive thing for everyone.”