Die Deutschen in Amerika—Two German Homes in Maryland

Prior to the 19th century, Germany did not exist as a unified nation but rather as a confederation of nation states ruled by a panoply of aristocrats. There had been tension between many of these groups for centuries, but none more contentious than after Martin Luther stirred the religious pot in 1517 setting the stage for the Reformation. As a result, through part of the 17th century the Thirty Years War ravaged central Europe wreaking havoc throughout.

Exhausted with political, religious and economic strife, Germans turned their eyes towards the seemingly bountiful wilds of North America. The English settlers in Jamestown, Virginia had included a German in 1607 and he was followed by a group of German craftsmen the next year. Pennsylvania’s founder, William Penn, travelled through the German states and the Netherlands proclaiming the gospel of his colony. Germans began to flood the colony of Pennsylvania towards the end of the century and they also began to trickle from there into other parts of the east coast. Western Maryland, that part of the state west of the Chesapeake Bay, saw part of this influx of Germans, particularly in Frederick and Washington counties.

In 1739, German immigrant Jonathan Hager purchased 200 acres within the Cumberland Valley and named it Hager’s Fancy. Some years later, he established Elizabethtown on a nearby tract of land which he named for his wife. On the other side of South Mountain, which, at this point, forms the southern side of the valley, the town of Frederick was founded by a land speculator in 1745. This land was settled by German immigrants, among them, Josef Bruner, who purchased a portion of land from Daniel Dulaney, the land speculator, in 1746. Both Jonathan Hager and Josef Bruner would build large, German-style stone houses which remain as monuments to the Manifest Destiny that brought them to this New World.

Hager House
110 Key Street

Jonathan Hager, a native of Westphalia, arrived in Philadelphia in 1736. He moved into Western Maryland, an area that was sparsely settled, three years later settling on 200 acres. He built a crude cabin which was quickly replaced by yet another cabin most likely while constructing the stone house that still stands. Interestingly, this home is built over springs. It is supposed that this protected the family’s water supply in the event of attack by natives.

Hager House, 2008, by Acroterion. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

The house remained with Hager for seven years until he sold it to another German immigrant, Jacob Rohrer, who is believed to have enlarged the house from one and a half stories to two and a half stories. Meanwhile, Hager acquired a larger tract of land and built a fine log home there. Hager continued to purchase land and in 1762 he founded Elizabethtown. The town’s name was later changed to Hagerstown in his honor.

The home remained in Rohrer’s family until it was sold to the Hammond family in 1814. It remained with them through most of the 19th century until 1890. After that, it went through a series of owners until it was purchased by the Washington County Historical Society in 1944. Speculation among the staff working in the house lays the blame for most of the spiritual activity on the Hammonds. Research has uncovered that at one point in the mid-19th century, the Hammonds lost all of their children in quick succession during a six-month period, quite possibly due to an epidemic.

According to the site facilitator, “there are stories for each room in the Hager House from the attic to the basement.” The staff also states that at least 13 deaths have been recording within the 22” thick stone walls of this house. Among the numerous accounts of possibly supernatural phenomena are the appearances of two specters, one a man in 19th century attire seen on the porch and a woman in Victorian style dress seen in the upper hallway. Accompanying these apparitions are many odd sounds including screams heard in the basement, laughter, footsteps and phantom smells including perfume and tobacco.

Jonathan Hager’s town became a successful crossroads town. The town’s proximity to important cities such as Baltimore, Washington, D.C. and Pittsburgh brought national events to the front stoop of many Hagerstown citizens. Among these events, the Civil War brought a plethora of battles to the pastoral farmlands of the area including one of the bloodiest battles, Antietam which is just south of the city. This crossroads effect also brought success to the nearby town of Frederick.

Schifferstadt Architectural Museum
1110 Rosemont Avenue

Around the time of the French and Indian War, a couple years after British General Braddock had marched through the area on his way to Fort Duquesne in what is now Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where his troops would be repulsed by the French, Josef Bruner decided to replace the family’s modest wood home with a substantial stone structure. The farm had been named for Josef’s hometown in the Rhineland-Palatinate region of Germany and Josef’s son, Elias, owned the farm at the time and really could be credited with one of the finest examples of German Colonial architecture in the country. The house that the Bruners built has come down to the present with alterations, but many of the original features have remained including wood cabinets around the fireplaces, a squirrel-tail bake oven, arched windows, a winder staircase and a vaulted cellar.

Schifferstadt, 2008, by Acroterion. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

The home passed through many hands until the early 1970s when the suggestion was made to tear down the now ramshackle old house and replace it with a modern gas station. The owner, upset by this prospect, sold Schifferstadt to the Frederick County Landmarks Foundation to preserve. With its wealth of architectural features, the home made an ideal architectural museum and work was performed to restore the home and provide visitors a glimpse into the lives of the town’s original German settlers. Docents provide tours and lessons into historic daily life, but they’ve also encountered some of the original inhabitants themselves.

The first reports from staff members working in the house concerned hearing voices in the house when they were alone. Another reported hearing a door slam in the house after she had just checked all the doors. She quickly left but when she checked the next morning, all the doors were as she left them. Footsteps have been heard on the winder staircase. At some point in the early 80s, staff members heard hammering and other construction sounds with voices speaking German.

Over the years, reports have built up and include apparitions such as the man who walked into the gift shop and dematerialized in front of a staff member or the little boy who has been spotted in the attic. Investigators have spent time in the house and have been rewarded with EVPs including direct answers to questions and some replies in German. The Mason Dixon Paranormal Society investigated in 2008 and captured enough evidence to deem the house as actually being haunted.

Investigator Michael Varhola who, with his father, authored Ghosthunting Maryland, toured the house and documented much of the evidence. He explains that two of the more active spirits in the home have been identified by psychics as a young woman, Wilhelmina, and a young boy, Christian. Wilhelmina was a young midwife who died in the kitchen when her clothing caught fire. One staff member was physically hugged by a spirit in the kitchen, quite possibly that of Wilhelmina. The young boy, Christian, may possibly be three-year-old Christian Bruner who died of a fever in the house. He’s possibly the young boy seen occasionally hiding in the shadows of the attic. He may also be the little boy that children in the neighborhood have spent time playing with.

If, while visiting Schifferstadt, you feel a calm touch in the kitchen or see a slight spirit in the attic shadows, they’re only the kindly spirits of colonial Germans curious about the inhabitants of the country they helped create.


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3 Replies to “Die Deutschen in Amerika—Two German Homes in Maryland”

  1. Old houses have interesting stories to tell, like when they were built and who their first owners were. The Hager House is what interests me. It's made the house of a German immigrant who made his way to the United Stated and eventually laid the roots for Hagerstown, which makes it a historical house.

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