Union Mills Homestead

Audubon Slept Here…No, Really…Well Maybe.

2016 04 April Union Mills Homestead

John James Audubon bought a hat in Baltimore. We know that for certain because he included mention of the fact in one of his letters.

We also know where he stayed in town. When not the guest of one of Baltimore’s prominent citizens (a “Mr. Anderson” for one), the artist booked a room at Eutaw House. This hotel, on the northwest corner of Eutaw and Baltimore Streets, had been constructed between 1832 and 1835 by William Hussey and covered over 19,000 square feet. The establishment’s major competitor was Barnum’s City Hotel. Audubon mentioned this one too. Relatives of his had stayed there.
Looking over the published letters of the famous artist, it becomes apparent that he spent quite a bit of time in ‘the Monumental City” as he (and others) referred to it. This wasn’t just because of the excellent accommodations (or the hats). Audubon needed to sell subscriptions to his book, Birds of America. This wasn’t so much the giant Elephant Folio edition as the later publication which was smaller and consequently much less expensive.
It would seem from his letters that Audubon loved Baltimore and Baltimore loved Audubon. He was wined, dined, and celebrated by the locals. Best of all though was the fact that they bought his book. In 1840, he was excitedly recording the fact that he had sold 171 subscriptions in Baltimore. With more to come!
During the 1830s and 1840s, the artist travelled quite a bit up and down the East Coast. Often, the entire journey would have been by boat. Another early way of getting from Philadelphia to Baltimore would have been take the steam boat from Philadelphia to New Castle, continue by train to Frenchtown, and then finish the journey on another steam boat into Baltimore. Audubon actually mentions doing this.
Unfortunately, evidence for some of his other travels over land are less well documented. There is a tradition, however, that the famous bird artist spent the night at one of Carroll County’s early stagecoach inns. This would have been in Union Mills, Maryland.
Lying as it did, on a main stagecoach route between Maryland and Pennsylvania, the Homestead made the perfect stopover. Brothers David and Andrew Shriver had purchased land there along Big Pipe Creek back in 1797 and set out to develop what for the time was a mini-industrial complex. Two mills, one for grinding grain, another for sawing wood were soon constructed, along with the main house that proudly stands today.
David married in 1803 and left the homestead to become Superintendent of the National Road. Andrew stayed on. In the process of running the place, he had his hand in a number of different pies. As early as 1796, he held a tavern license. With Andrew gone and the stagecoaches passing by, why not open an inn? That is exactly what he did, setting aside part of the house for use as such.
Evidently, sometime in the 1830s or 1840s, John James Audubon stayed there. First mention of this was made by John Thomas Scharf in his History of Western Maryland. Originally published in 1882, Scharf spoke of a tradition that the artist was a guest at “The Mills”. This was picked up later by Raphael Semmes Payne in his book entitled The Baltimore Oriole and A Biographical Sketch of Audubon. Payne went so far as to maintain that while there, the artist became “infatuated with the Baltimore Oriole, whose anatomy and traits had already interested him so keenly along the banks of the Mississippi and Ohio.”
It may have been that Audubon, while resting at the inn, was able to watch the behavior of the oriole more closely, perhaps from the window of his room. They did (and still do) nest in the area. He may have been able to see a pair in the process of building a nest. That is something we shall never know though. We cannot even guess about the time of year he visited.

Unfortunately, the Union Mills Homestead Foundation, Inc. which preserves the house and the grist mill, does not preserve a guestbook from the inn. Not surprising. Quite a number of years have passed since Audubon would have stayed there.
Another guest at “The Mills” was author Washington Irving. Sharf mentions this too. However, here we are on a little firmer ground since some documents actually exist to that effect. But if it is true that Irving stayed there, why not Audubon?
That you will have to decide for yourself. The Homestead is open to visitors. Whoever ends up guiding you through will be sure to mention that Audubon slept there. He or she will even show you his room. All of the furniture is original, although some of it may have been moved about from room to room. Still, there is probably something there with which the artist came into contact.

Best of all, however, is in the spring when the Baltimore Orioles nest nearby. As Payne pointed out “It is natural to suppose that these same Orioles are “the lineal descendants” of those which so fascinated the illustrious Audubon.”
You can learn more about the Union Mills Homestead on their website at http://www.unionmills.org. A CCBC field trip is being planned to include the Homestead and some birding spots in the area. If we time it right, we may even find an Oriole nest.

Carroll County Chapter of Maryland Ornithological Society

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