Historic Maryland Homes and tours of Maryland homes
- Published on Wednesday, 07 March 2012 09:16
- Written by Nadja Maril
Inspired by her family home, writer Ann Jensen creates new ways to share history
It's easy to walk right past the Sands House, with its pale-yellow clapboard siding, gambrel roof, and red trim, and not notice the special green plaque identifying it as one of the oldest houses in Annapolis. Built before the city's Golden Age of the Paca, Hammond Harwood, Chase-Lloyd, and Carroll houses, this piece of pre-American Revolution history has managed to survive intact. The house predates the paved streets and sidewalks, automobiles, telephone poles, and utility wires that now crowd the street.
The earliest years of the Sands House are a bit of a mystery. Its builder is unknown and the precise date of construction is up for discussion. But the first document that mentions the Sands House is dated 1739. Archeological research suggests that an earlier house was built on the same site, and that some attic beams dating from trees cut down in 1681 were from that 17th-century house. Today the house is identified with John Sands, who purchased it in 1771 from innkeeper John Carty.
Writer Ann Jensen is John Sands' great-great-great-great granddaughter; she now lives in the house that stood when Marylanders debated the equity of paying exorbitant tea taxes to the British. She belongs to the seventh generation of a family that has lived in Annapolis since it was a small but prosperous colonial port.
Step inside the front door and you are in the oldest section of the building. Visitors to this original section of the house can look out the front windows and try to imagine what it was like when everyone traveled by horse or by foot. They can imagine nearby City Dock, once a busy port in the tobacco trade as well as the import of goods from around the world. A climb up the narrow, curving stairway takes you to what was originally Ann's grandmother's room. Here she remembers her grandmother, Janie Revell Moss, brushing her hair 100 strokes each night before braiding it and climbing into bed.
"It's my favorite room," she says, "although I don't spend much time there as you can see by all the dust. It has the very simple, old mantel and the wide board floors of an earlier time. I like my grandmother's cannonball bed and her library desk." The room remains furnished as it was when her grandmother was alive. Stowed beneath a chair are her grandmother's old-fashioned, lace-up shoes with chunky heels. A swing-arm gas sconce is still hooked up to its original pipe above the dressing table, and a hand-stitched quilt covers the high bed.
"I am not a collector," Ann says. "Except for books; I have a lot of books I can claim as my own, but most everything else in this house has always been here."
Some days, she longs to live in a house where the lines are straight, the floors don't creak, and the walls don't crack. But when you live in a house with original wood-lath-and-oyster-shell-plaster walls, you have to make a few compromises to ensure that history is preserved. The stories that go with the house, stories Ann heard growing up from her mother, grandmother, and great-aunt, have inspired her as a writer. They are stories she has shared in magazines, books, and recently in a stage production.
This month at St. John's College, the Anne Arundel County Trust's presentation, "1862, Annapolis Oppressed," will include entries from Anne's great-grandmother's Civil War letters and journals. They are part of a collaborative effort based primarily upon the research of Willard Mumford, Jane McWilliams, Robert Worden, Michael Fitzpatrick, and Michael Parker, among others. Using their material, Ann wrote the script for this spring's presentation. Many of the things in the old parlor of the Sands house are from the Civil War era.
"Everything here I've grown up with," she says. "Yes, I've changed things but it's nice having objects I've known all my life. It was very absorbing when we first returned to the house. But that's another story."
Ann grew up in a number of different places. Her father, a Michigan native, was a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy and a career Marine officer. She attended schools in Virginia and North Carolina, but her family always came back to the Sands House for Christmas and other holidays. Her parents moved back to Annapolis when she was 16, and she attended Annapolis High School.
"When I was eleven I was writing short stories," she says, "and I always put a lot of time into my letters." She was in her freshman year at Gettysburg College when her father was transferred to Japan. She joined her parents and finished her studies through the Far East Division of the University of Maryland. Marriage to a clinical psychologist took her to the South.
Her daughters, Kelly and Erica, were born in Louisiana in 1968 and 1970, and then her husband took a position with the Prince George's County schools that brought her back to Annapolis in the early 1970s. Always the writer, Ann began writing articles for Annapolitan magazine, which began in 1971 in a small book format. She also wrote and illustrated a paper doll book on the Sands children of colonial Annapolis that was published by her parents, Margery and Fred Dowsett, to commemorate the bicentennial in 1976.
"I wrote nostalgia pieces," she says. "Lots of interviews with people who are now dead, documenting what it was like to live in Annapolis years ago." As Annapolitan magazine thrived, it developed a loyal following of readers. Ann continued to write articles, many focused on history, after the magazine changed publishers and format and became Annapolis magazine.
In 1993 the magazine was sold and publication ceased. At about the same time, several local historians founded the Annapolis History Consortium to restore professionalism and accurate research methods to the telling of Annapolis history. "We wanted to dispel misinformation and myths," Ann explains. As a result she and historian Jane McWilliams co-edited a five-part series, "Studies in Local History" for the Maryland State Archives and Maryland Historical Trust.
Other writing projects included co-authoring a book with Quentin Snedicker, published by Tidewater Press, titled "Chesapeake Bay Schooners," and a history of the Colonial Players community theater that she wrote with the late Beth Whaley to document the group's history and celebrate their 50th anniversary in 1999. That same year Tidewater Press published her children's book, "Leonard Calvert and the Maryland Adventure," illustrated by Marcy Dunn Ramsey. The book tells of the founding of Maryland through the story of Leonard Calvert. The success of the Leonard Calvert book encouraged Tidewater editors to publish the story she really wanted to tell, about her great-great-great uncle, William Sands, who fought and died at the battle of Long Island in the summer of 1776.
"My grandmother and my great aunt had been telling that story for years, how the Maryland Line had held off the British troops, and a group of just over 400 men held off 10,000 British soldiers to provide cover so that the main body of retreating Continental troops could escape from Long Island. They held the line, which is why we're called the Old Line State."
Among the family treasures passed from generation to generation are two letters written by 19-year-old William Sands to his parents, John and Ann Sands. They tell the story of a young man initially preoccupied with gossip about a girl traveling in the company of the troops. But soon he's faced with the responsibilities of soldiering, when large numbers of men from Philadelphia and Elizabeth Town desert their posts. "We expect please God to winter in Annapolis, those that live of us," he wrote in his second letter, just before the battle.
"Two hundred fifty-six men of the Maryland Line were killed that day," wrote Ann in an article about her home and family for the Annapolitan. "William Sands was one of them."
Ann entitled her book about William Sands "The World Turned Upside Down," which was first published by her parents. After her book about Leonard Calvert was selling well, Tidewater agreed to publish "The World Turned Upside Down" with illustrations also by Marcy Dunn. Fourth and fifth graders now use the Sands book to study Maryland history in Anne Arundel County and several other jurisdictions and schools throughout the state.
On occasion, area students have had the special privilege of visiting the actual house where William Sands grew up. "I used to see Key School students standing outside looking at the house and decided to invite them in," Ann explains. Later, when she came to live in the house, she occasionally opened the house to historic tours.
The only room that has been open for tours is the front parlor in the original section of the house. (A new wing was added behind the house in 1904. Known as the new section, it still qualifies as antique. Ann, her daughter Kelley, and their two dogs primarily live in that section.) In the parlor is a small display of items that were excavated from underneath the house during restoration in 1987. Ann's mother, Margery Dowsett inherited the house along with her brother, Major Revell Moss. Although Revell had lived in the house for many years, he hadn't maintained the building. That year it was discovered that he had cancer and could no longer live alone. He moved in with his sister, and much-needed structural repairs began. Working with a team of professionals and using funds from the sale of her house in Eastport, Margery began the work of emptying the house. She and Ann spent many hours sorting through the vast accumulation of items so that the work could begin.
Ann's current writing project, in addition to editing the quarterly newsletter of the Tin Can Sailors Association and her freelance projects, is a novel set in the Sands House. "It is a work of fiction but I can't help being influenced by this house. Everything here I've grown up with and I learned even more when the Archaeology in Annapolis started digging under the house in 1987. Thanks to historian and archaeologists, I've discovered all sorts of things I didn't know about this house and my family, and now I want to make certain that I and everyone else get it right."
History and storytelling are a big part of Ann Jensen's life. Living in one of the oldest buildings in town, she creates new ways to tell and share stories to multiple generations.
Editor Nadja Maril first met Ann Jensen in 1990 and is always grateful for any excuse to spend time admiring the pieces of history preserved inside the Sands House. A fan of Ann's books and articles, she thanks the Dorsett/Jensen family for opening up their home and their assistance in researching and photographing this story.