Beware the Fruitcake and Caution Tape | Angela Magnan

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Date: Fri, 2 Nov 2012 07:23:45
Subject: Re: Groupon

Dear Angela,

We are completely sold out for Nov. 17th.  The event last month pulled 220 + people and it was a bit overwhelming….we are trying to make sure that we deliver a quality event…would it be possible for you to attend on Dec. 15th?  Thanks.

Kevin

Late last August, I received an email from a friend with the subject line “Happy Wednesday!” She had very generously bought me a Groupon for a “Civil War Ghost Tour with Barbecue Dinner,” most likely because she knew I propagated a keen interest in Civil War history. I don’t get too excited about ghosts, but being a lover of sci-fi, I’m always interested to see what people’s imaginations brew up. And I like barbecue and wine, although not usually together. All in all, it was not something I would ever buy for myself, but it seemed like a potentially good time.

There were originally four options, one Saturday each in September, October, November, and December. I wanted to go in November, but after I emailed Kevin as instructed, he responded with the above email. So I signed up for December 15th. However, a few weeks later, I received an invite to a holiday party at someone’s house for that same day, and I had noticed in the confirmation email Kevin had sent me on November 13th that there were dates available in January and the months after. So I asked if it would be alright to switch to January, and he said okay. I’m glad I asked because it turned out to be so much more interesting that way.

The ellipsis-loving Kevin never sent me a confirmation of my reservation for January, but I just assumed that everything was fine, so on Saturday, the 12th of January, I drove the 45 minutes from my house in Laurel to the supposedly haunted Landon House Mansion just outside of Frederick, Maryland. The Groupon page indicated that more than 380 of these had been sold, and because there were only a few particular dates it could be used, I expected there to be quite a crowd. When I arrived at the destination directed by my GPS, I managed to spot the sign indicating Landon House despite it being hidden in the shadows of a dark winter evening. I tentatively turned into the completely unlit entrance and maneuvered my way up the gravel driveway, my car bumping and lurching in and around the dozens of potholes. My journey ended in a small parking lot. Three cars were parked there. As I pulled in and turned the car off, a group of five or six adults, one on crutches, exited the front door of the house, walked down the pathway, clambered into a minivan, and drove away. Well that was a bit weird. I was kind of early, so I sat for a bit in my car, pondering the peculiarity of this event, until another car arrived about five minutes later. Two young men and two young women emerged from the four-door sedan, strode up the path and into the house, and never returned. So I decided to do the same.

The first thing I noticed was that it was cold. There was no heat on in the house and there was very little furniture besides the tables for eating and a table for the food. How curious. Kevin, dressed in an unbuttoned, lopsided Confederate jacket and hair pulled back into a low ponytail, collected my Groupon and handed me two tickets, which he said I could cash in for two glasses of wine. I followed him into the ballroom, stepping carefully over the 30 or so oriental-style rugs scattered haphazardly over the hidden hardwood floor like someone had dropped them there like a deck of cards. Other than the rugs, the room was mostly empty besides a cooler with soft drinks and a folding table holding boxes of wine. So I cashed one ticket in for a glass of red wine from a box. He poured me a very generous helping. Then I crossed back over the scattered scatter rugs to collect my dinner from the buffet.

The Groupon had said, “guests drink wine and feast on a barbecue dinner with sides of baked beans, mashed potatoes, and applesauce, and dessert.” In reality, it was shredded pork (with the BBQ sauce mixed in, the way it is supposed to be), hamburger buns from a bag, potato salad that seemed oddly similar to that from the grocery store deli, and baked beans. I gathered my glass of wine and my paper plate dinner, and joined the others in the parlor. There were 11 of us and we all ate at one long table, which was actually a bunch of card tables covered with a plastic tablecloth and surrounded by an array of mismatched plastic folding chairs. As we sat around the table, wearing our coats and scarves, we discussed where we lived and what had brought us there. Several proclaimed to be Groupon addicts. The conversation was awkward and disjointed, which is pretty typical, I guess, when you throw 11 random people in a room together. I learned that the people who had retreated had left because one of them had fallen ill. As the conversation meandered, I looked around me at the built-in bookshelves. They contained a few interesting items of Civil War memorabilia sitting alongside some everyday items, such as disposable cups, but mostly they were empty. I wondered if someone had truly fallen ill.

I was the only one to come alone, and a woman with striking silver white hair and eyes sparkling with kindness gently tried to include me in the conversation. I liked her immediately. She struck me as someone with the capacity to make even the most cynical person see that there is goodness to be found in every moment. Two seats away from her sat another woman, just slightly younger, who turned out to be a vegetarian who eats fish, and the conversation moved from farmed fish to organic eggs. The pescetarian began talking about her neighbor who “is a fruitcake because she drinks raw milk.” I cringed. Some of the other guests responded with gasps of “Ugh, really?!” I let them chatter about this in horror for a couple minutes before I chimed in. “Actually, I grew up on a farm,” I said, “and we drank raw milk every day.” I felt it best not to mention that I still like to drink it when I can find it. Those who had been horrified responded with a collective “hunh.” Then, complete silence. I tried to guess which of these ten people now thought I was a fruitcake. The silence was interrupted by the introduction of a new topic: flu shots and death by flu. For the rest of the evening, I noticed the pescetarian with the fruitcake neighbor was a bit more judicious with the quantity and content of her words.

After dinner, we returned to the ballroom for a tour of the house, which is a really beautiful, 12,000 square foot plantation-style mansion with a rather eclectic 268 year-old history. Based on a too-quick perusal of the Groupon and the website for the place, I had assumed the place had recently been acquired by this fellow and he was just starting to work on it to transform it into an historic destination. “We are pleased to announce the formation of the Civil War Heritage Center at Landon House,” one of his emails had said. “Its purpose is to provide a regional approach to the promotion of all of the fantastic Civil War history in the Mid-Atlantic region.” Despite the odd choice of the word “fantastic,” that sounded alright to me. So, giving this guy the benefit of the doubt, I chalked up the condition of the house to match that preconceived idea. The tour, however, gave me other ideas.

We started on the first floor. Before we left, some of the others used their second ticket to refill their wine glasses. When asked if she wanted a refill, one girl replied that she had already used both tickets. Kevin casually informed her he didn’t care: she could have as much wine as she’d like. While standing in the ballroom, Kevin, who was the only one working this event, talked mostly about the history of the house before the Civil War, during, and immediately afterward. The house, which was originally built in Virginia, has apparently been moved three times, each time completely taken apart and then rebuilt elsewhere. At various times, it has been used as a silk mill, a plantation house, a military academy, and as a school for girls. It was abandoned at its current spot in 1860 and served as a stopping point for both Confederate and Union soldiers during the war. The Confederate General J.E.B. Stuart held a famous ball in the house immediately prior to the Battle of Antietam, and after the battle, the house was used as a hospital for the wounded. In the parlor, Kevin showed us what is called a lightning sketch that was drawn on the wall and preserved by a previous owner of the house. Soldiers from both sides drew sketches of their respective leaders, including Stuart as well as Abraham Lincoln, using charcoal from the fireplace.

After we circled through the empty rooms of the second floor, we exited onto the veranda, reentered by another door, and then hiked up the stairs to the third floor. We made an immediate right at the top of the stairs and entered a small room with a low bed that looked to have been remade rather hastily. There was a framed rock band poster sitting atop a cabinet and personal items stacked in corners and against the wall. I’ve never really believed in ghosts, but I felt very uncomfortable in this room. Perhaps it was just the contrast between the barrenness of the rest of the house and the chaotic clutter of this one small room, made even smaller by the slanted ceiling of the third floor. Whatever it was, it felt oppressive and threatening. There was a distinct negative energy in that room. And this is where Kevin began to tell us about some of the haunting stories associated with this house. People who had stayed here, but not Kevin himself he admits, have apparently heard children moaning in agony and have seen a woman dressed in black, presumably a widow, carrying a lantern.

We tramped down the long, narrow hallway to another bedroom which was also supposedly haunted. Ghost hunters had collected audio of voices in this room. The distinctive feature of this room was a Civil-War era four-poster bed that had been donated and was apparently used by newlyweds who rented the estate for weddings. In theory, this may seem like an appealing concept, but I wonder how many newlyweds were aware of how short and cozy these beds used to be. Not exactly the king-sized bed of a honeymoon suite.

We marched back downstairs and filed into a room in the basement. Scattered (of course) here and there were plastic skulls and feet and gory bodies left over from October’s Haunted Mansion Tours, advertised as “a night you will remember forever as you experience the phenomenal Landon House Mansion & Estate in all her majestic glory.” A night to remember, I wouldn’t doubt. Majestic, though? Hmmm.

But the most interesting aspect of the basement was a mural on the wall that was painted by a previous owner who was the wife of a diplomat. This area of the basement had apparently served as a play room for their 11 kids, each of which is depicted as an elephant in the mural. In another room nearby, which Kevin told us used to be slave quarters at one time, there was nothing but buckets, all different kinds of buckets, big black ones, smaller white ones, colored ones. And straight ahead of us, parallel to the ceiling, an exposed pipe had sprung a leak; most of the buckets were already full of water. He explained that he had learned not to fix leaks because when you fix one, another appears further on down the pipe and that it was better to have a leak out in the open than behind a wall. What an odd thing to say, I thought, especially for someone maintaining an historic property. As he advised us to keep to the right to avoid the mist, I started wondering what in the world was going on here. Who is this guy and what is he doing with this house? Earlier, when out on the veranda, a second-story porch stretching the length of the house, the floor had felt a little bouncier than it should, and I hugged the wall as I walked across it. Just in case. Especially after I noticed at the very end, it had been roped off where part of the floor had caved in.

After seeing the basement, the official part of the tour was over. We returned to the first floor, and as we all stood just inside the entranceway, someone asked Kevin what his plans were for the house, and he said “I have no plans,” and shrugged. “The house was foreclosed on two days ago.” Then he started talking about how he’s venturing back into movie producing which is what he was doing before he bought the house 14 years ago. “Fourteen years?” I thought. “What has he been doing for the past 14 years?” He ended up answering my unspoken question.

Apparently he has spent a lot of his time making videos in the house. He re-enacted the Confederate ball. Okay, that’s fine, I thought. But then it all went downhill. He staged a Survivor-like game where the two teams were the Union and Confederate soldiers, and their challenges involved things like pitching a tent and putting on a corset. He taped some Civil War music videos with music he’s written himself. (I watched one later online. The primary repeated lyric was “your love is like Confederate money.”) He’s put all this together and is on post-production on a film he described as “Alice Cooper does the Civil War.” For about ten minutes, he practically heated up the house with his enthusiasm, sharing with us what he obviously considered to be his brilliantly creative ideas for this pet project of his, which will be released on the anniversary of the Battle of Antietam. Released on YouTube, I discovered later.

So as I shook Kevin’s hand and thanked him on my way out the door, I thought “thank goodness they’re taking this wonderfully historic and potentially beautiful mansion away from this guy, who is the real fruitcake in all of this.” He seems like a very well-meaning individual with a lot of passion for life, but using an historic mansion as a playground for YouTube movies maybe isn’t the best use for that passion. And it certainly won’t pay enough to fix the leaks in the basement, shore up the veranda, and turn it all into a Civil War Heritage center. Maybe somebody with a bit more experience in fundraising development, or perhaps a lot more experience and a tighter grasp on reality, will buy this architecturally and historically interesting building and actually be able to fix the leaks in the basement.  Of course, it could potentially be demolished for the sake of building yet another Wal-Mart or strip mall, but I certainly hope not.

Whatever happens, I can’t help but wonder if years from now, when each of us is long gone, the new owners of the property might hear additional noises emanating from the ether: the mysterious sounds of one man and his electric guitar. “Your love is like Confederate money…your love is like…”

Originally from Vermont, Angela Magnan moved to Maryland to complete the M.A. in Writing program at The Johns Hopkins University. She completed her degree in 2010 and now works at a museum in Washington, D.C., where security guards enrich her vocabulary with words she probably could have lived without.

2 comments

  1. Hi Angela, I read your piece and enjoyed it. As for the NBM security guards, I guess I haven’t spent enough time with them to decode their vocabulary. Best, Roa (NBM Information Desk Volunteer and a fellow writer)

  2. angela! i know u know how much i love this
    story if yours. (!!) i write now cuz i am back
    and ur gone -happy 4 u- and i just want to
    say i hope ur well, and happy. of course,it
    is sooo not the same without u!
    hope u get this note, i miss u! rhoni
    ps keep writing, please!! u crack me up
    AND i always want to hear what u have to
    say. cheers!

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