Maryland has a longstanding spring tradition of opening historic homes and gardens to the curious. It’s an opportunity to see how someone might have lived a century earlier in our state.
“You couldn’t just drive up my driveway and say, ‘Can I take a look about?’” says Hilles Whedbee.
But on Maryland’s House and Garden Pilgrimage, Whedbee’s home, the Shawan House, is one of six properties you can explore in Baltimore County on May 14.
Started by a few women from a northern Baltimore County garden club in 1930, the pilgrimage was a way to bring recognition to the historically significant homes in the state’s 16 counties.
The event was inspired by Virginia Garden Week—an effort to raise money to restore the gardens at Kenmore, the home of George Washington’s sister, according to a 1987 history of the pilgrimage by Hally Brent Dame.
Fifty cents would buy you entry to the tour, and $1 would get you a hardcover tour book, Dame writes.
Although most homes are historic, some amazing modern homes can be featured as well, says Whedbee, who serves as the Baltimore County chairperson of the Maryland House and Garden Pilgrimage.
What’s extra special is the pilgrimage is more than a look inside—it’s an experience. Every tour includes homes and gardens, and guests are free to roam about the grounds. The homeowners often get involved too.
“They usually greet the ‘pilgrims’ in the front hall,” Whedbee says.
Then the homeowners are on hand to answer questions and share their stories with a few friends in each room. Like a museum tour, a guide will take you around and relay interesting facts about the property.
This year’s Baltimore County tour explores the Worthington Valley.
The national historic district in Reisterstown has remained largely untouched and rural for more than 200 years. It was one of the sites of the Maryland Hunt Cup Steeplechase as early as 1922.
Whedbee’s brick Georgian-style home—belonging to her husband’s family—was built in 1750. It sits behind a roadside stand on the corner of Falls and Shawan roads.
It’s the second time the home has been on the tour since Whedbee moved in 30 years ago. Her mother-in-law first put it on tour during the 1960s.
The Worthingtons added a wing in the 1840s, and the last addition from the original blueprints was completed by Whedbee’s husband’s grandfather in 1905.
Most of the other homeowners on the tour are also family members. At the other end of the Worthington Valley are two Jenkins’ houses—“first cousins of ours,” Whedbee says.
The other homes on the tour include Longview Farm, featuring an Italian fountain and cobblestoned courtyard, and Upper Melinda—by Baltimore Sun building designer Louis McLane Fisher—with interior decoration by local legend Billy Baldwin.
Each home reflects the personality of the homeowner, and in Whedbee’s home, you’ll be able to see a bit of Whedbee herself. Her mother was a gardener, which encouraged her to maintain and add on to her mother-in-law’s gardens at the Shawan House.
On the tour, you’ll see five gardens she’s cultivated, including a shady rock garden with a pond, two perennial beds holding peonies and the daffodils she grows and shows each year and a vegetable garden.
“I have a garden in the front of the house called a Friends Garden where every plant has been given to me by a friend,” she says.
The Federated Garden Clubs of Maryland were involved early in the process, but for many years, a central committee with volunteers across the state have organized the pilgrimage, including Whedbee.
She’s been involved since 1986 and has now done four tours for the county.
“I really supported the mission of the pilgrimage—to promote the ability for people to see amazing properties within the state. The monies raised go to historic preservation and restoration,” she says.
That mission has an impact. Some tour veterans have been coming for 40 years.
Many come on the tour because they are already interested in preservation and appreciate their money going to a good cause, Whedbee says. Tickets are $35 for the Baltimore County tour.
This year, funds raised support the Green Spring Valley Hounds clubhouse, known as Stamford House on the tour, and one of the oldest homes in Baltimore County.
Each year, different counties participate in the pilgrimage. Some end up supporting the same organizations each year, such as Talbot County, which gives to its local historical society.
But sometimes that arrangement doesn’t make sense, Whedbee says, noting that when she arranged a tour in Catonsville, she would have wanted those funds to stay local.
The 2022 pilgrimage will take place rain or shine. Reserve a boxed lunch
by May 9 to pick up at the clubhouse on tour day. For more details, visit mhgp.org.
Three other counties will have tours with six to eight homes each: Prince George’s on April 30, Talbot on May 7 and St. Mary’s on May 21.