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Oh Say Can You See Purchasing the Estate of Francis Scott Key?

Author of 'The Star- Spangled Banner' lived much of his life at the Maryland farm, which is down to 149 acres. Its price: $1.3 million.

October 13, 2002|David Dishneau | Associated Press Writer

KEYMAR, Md. -- Even by the dawn's early light, it's hard to miss the birthplace of Francis Scott Key. The cream-colored brick house has a U.S. flag flying several stories above the farm fields of northwestern Carroll County.

Terra Rubra -- Latin for "red earth" -- is the 149-acre farm along Pipe Creek where the author of "The Star-Spangled Banner" played, learned patriotism and in later years entertained his grandchildren.

And it's for sale.

The Terra Rubra Home Trust, which owns the farm, put it on the market Aug. 15. The asking price: $1.3 million.

"I really can't remember when a house of this significance has come on the market in Maryland," said Charen Rubin, the property's real estate broker.

Trustee Terri Baker, who has lived in the four-bedroom, two-story house for 29 years, said the estate -- including a huge barn and several outbuildings -- has become too big for her and her 16-year-old daughter, Tenni.

"I want something that's kind of downsizing and empty nest," Baker said.

Selling also makes sense financially. Demand for residential real estate has risen sharply since her father bought Terra Rubra for about $250,000 in 1974.

"It's a good market," said Baker, a biologist at the National Cancer Institute.

She'll leave behind memories of the goats, sheep, cattle and horses she raised there, as well as plank floors and hand-forged hardware that date to at least 1865, when the house was rebuilt after an 1858 windstorm. The cellar and chimneys date to 1770, when Key's grandfather, Philip Key, settled in the hilly area 40 miles northwest of Baltimore.

The new owner will have to contend with tourists who drop in unexpectedly about once a month after spotting the estate on state road maps. Most realize that it's not a museum as they come up the driveway but some ask for tours.

"It's never really been a burden over the years," Baker said.

The buildings and grounds appear well-kept, although not always with an eye toward historic preservation. One bedroom is decorated with stars and space shuttles wallpaper. The kitchen is thoroughly modern, and the carriage house contains a hot tub, water bed and bar.

The dining room decor better reflects the home's history. An oil portrait of Key hangs on one wall, opposite a framed reprint of the poem he wrote after witnessing the British shelling of Ft. McHenry in Baltimore Harbor the night of Sept. 13, 1814. The poem, with music borrowed from an English pub song, "To Anacreon in Heaven," was declared the national anthem in 1931.

Key was born at Terra Rubra, then a 3,000-acre plantation, on Aug. 1, 1780. His father, John Ross Key, a circuit judge, told the boy thrilling stories of his service in the revolutionary army, according to a 1937 biography, "Francis Scott Key: Life and Times," by Edward S. Delaplaine.

At age 10, Key was sent to grammar school at St. John's College in Annapolis, where he lived with relatives. He also received his bachelor's and law degrees there, returning to Terra Rubra in the summers.

He practiced law in nearby Frederick and later Washington, but treasured his visits to Terra Rubra, which he inherited and willed to his wife, Polly. Delaplaine quotes an unidentified granddaughter's recollection of Key riding on horseback beside his grandchildren during wagon rides around the farm.

The family kept slaves. Baker and Rubin identified one bedroom as former slave sleeping quarters, and a slave graveyard is marked on the property. Key, who is buried at Mount Olivet cemetery in Frederick, condemned the buying and selling of slaves for profit but also opposed freeing slaves unconditionally, favoring instead the concept of sending liberated slaves to Africa, according to biographers.

Terra Rubra eventually passed out of Key family ownership, and the estate's acreage dwindled as portions were sold off to pay debts. Rubin said the property, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, may be especially appealing as a horse farm.

Although some of the farmland is protected by agricultural easements, the estate could be carved up into eight lots under local zoning laws.

Chicago-based writer Sam Meyer, author of a 1995 Key biography, "Paradoxes of Fame: The Francis Scott Key Story," said he hopes that the property remains intact.

"I think it would be nice if it were preserved," he said. "It would be a very fitting monument."

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