The American Revolution brought numerous opportunities for the elite, upper level of Colonial society to amass fortunes, at least those who supported the war. Even businesses that did not produce war materials benefited from the promise of an economic windfall.
Captain Charles Ridgely (1733-1790), the builder of Hampton mansion, was one of this elite class of landowners. With his huge iron works, Northampton Furnace, Ridgely provided ammunition, cannon, and other iron supplies to the Continental Army. He expanded his farming operations to sell surplus food. Ridgely also bought land grants from veterans and fleeing loyalists, doubling his land holdings by the end of the war.
Due to the wartime economy, Ridgely became one of the wealthiest men in Maryland. The Ridgely family continued to be influential in Maryland politics and business through the nineteenth century.
Hampton Mansion is a striking example of late-Georgian architecture. The grounds and outbuildings of the Hampton Estate attest to the Ridgely family’s wealth and prestige at the time of the American Revolution.
Even before the 1790 completion of Hampton Mansion, the Ridgely family’s workers had made the surrounding lands profitable. Colonel Charles Ridgely (1702-1772), the first of the Hampton landowners, had made his fortune from his Northampton Furnace and Forge. His vast grounds contained the natural resources for the production of pig iron, including wood, limestone and iron ore deposits.
His son, Captain Charles Ridgely (1733-1790), the builder of Hampton mansion, had no shortage of workers, many of whom were indentured servants eager to live in the American colonies. The Ridgelys contracted with more than 300 indentured servants between 1750 and 1800 at the Hampton plantation and the Northampton iron works. Some were voluntarily indentured, while others were convict servants. During their indenture, servants were forbidden to marry, although many managed to choose mates, conduct illicit marriage ceremonies, and have children. Childbearing and other infractions, such as fighting or disobedience, could result in a longer term. If punishments were deemed too harsh, or if masters did not honor the contract, servants could sue in court.
Thriving Colonial businesses needed a still-larger work force. The slave trade provided industrious families, like the Ridgelys, with another source of labor: enslaved people. Most Colonial slaves were African or descendants of Africans. The Ridgelys’ Northampton slaves dug the ore and limestone necessary to make pig iron. They cut acres of timber and hauled fuel, ore, and finished products to and from the site. When furnace activity was slow, many farmed the land.
More enslaved women then men labored in the mansion house. While fieldwork had a natural beginning and ending each day, in the “big house,” slaves were always at the beck and call of a watchful and demanding master.
Although indentured servants tended to receive better treatment and conditions than slaves, many attempted escape. White indentured servants found it easier to flee because they could blend into the free white population in ways that African-American slaves could not.
More men than women ran away. Men with marketable skills frequently made trips off the plantation and, thus, were more acclimated to the surrounding environs. Women were also more hesitant to run because of their children.
Accounts of the Ridgelys’ Northampton businesses contain numerous entries on runaways. Bounties and expenses were itemized in broadside announcements and newspaper notices. Most slaves did not see the Revolutionary War as a fight for their freedom, but, rather, as an opportunity for escape.
During the 18th century, mid-Atlantic planters like Colonel Charles Ridgely (1702-1772) and his son Captain Charles Ridgely (1733-1790) enjoyed a lucrative trading relationship with Europe. At the start of the Revolutionary War, the Ridgelys replaced their European clients with American ones, including the newly-formed Continental Army. Because Baltimore County experienced little direct combat, its fields, forges, and furnaces remained intact and, thus, could continually supply the Continental Army with much-needed flour, cornmeal and iron goods. Meeting this supply required a large labor force and well-organized businesses.
Although the Ridgelys owned numerous slaves and had contracts with many indentured servants, they hired other paid workers, laborers, artisans and administrators. The task of monitoring these workers rested with clerks, stewards, “overlookers” and overseers. These contractual positions required a level of literacy and skill.
All workers ultimately answered to the overseer, who spoke directly with the Ridgelys. The Ridgelys gave Hampton’s overseer better housing than most of their other paid workers, which emphasized his superiority over other employees.
The Ridgelys also employed paid artisans. In their iron business, artisans called moulders were paid per the amount of goods they cast. Other artisans worked in the blacksmith and wheelwright shops, as well as in the flour and cornmeal mills. Still others made clothing, tanned horse hides and repaired iron products. Paid skilled workers, such as masons, millwrights, blacksmiths and bricklayers built Hampton’s gristmill, furnace and forge.
The orangery was a greenhouse that was used to grow plants and citrus trees in large pots. Hampton’s orangery has large glass windows and a hypocaust furnace, which provided heat through flues that ran under the floor. At Hampton, the potted trees were taken out in the summer to decorate the terraces. There were other greenhouses on the property. The original orangery was constructed around 1824. The current structure is a reconstruction built in the 1970s to replace the original, which burned in 1926.
The Ridgely family mausoleum (vault) is believed to have been built in 1825-1826. It was common practice in Baltimore during the 1700s for the family patriarch to occupy rear-center of a burial ground, with his heirs grouped around him. When the vault was constructed, family members who were buried in other sections of the cemetery were exhumed and placed in it. The tomb was built in accord with the will of Charles Ridgely, the builder of Hampton mansion, and houses the remains of over 30 family members. Many other graves surround the tomb.
Ice, which was cut from ponds in the winter and then used during the hot summer months, was stored in the ice house. With its subterranean, circular, stone-lined shaft, Hampton's ice house is unique because it is larger and deeper than average. The Hampton ice house was probably constructed at the time as the mansion in 1790. Menus at Hampton show that different flavors of ice cream, presumably made from Hampton ice, were served for dessert at formal dinners.
The formal gardens on the south side of the mansion were in place by 1802. Created in an Italian style, the sculpted shrubbery and flowers were an expression of the Ridgelys’ wealth and style. This type of garden, which was terraced on different levels, known as parterres, was seen on estates throughout the mid-Atlantic region. At one time, there were at least eight parterres and five terrace levels. Among the workers who tended the gardens were those skilled in ornamental gardening and landscape design. Indentured servants and slaves also tended the gardens and grounds.
The dairy was built around 1790; most of the structure seen today is original. Inside the dairy is an original brick “island.” Water, from an underground spring, flows into the building through a trough, which surrounds the island. The water is 45-50 degrees in temperature year-round, and acts as a refrigerant. It never freezes and flows continuously.
Shelves once lined the interior walls of the dairy, and held shallow pans of fresh cow's milk. As the milk cooled, the cream in it would rise to the top. Dairy maids skimmed the cream, which was refrigerated in cream pots in the deepest part of the trough until it was churned into butter.
The dairy operated year-round and produced butter for market into the twentieth century. The milk that the Ridgelys produced was mostly mixed into the slops for the pigs instead of being sold.
The stables were built over a 50-year period, dating from about time of the mansion’s construction in the late-eighteenth century. The stables at one time housed thoroughbred horses and trotters used for racing. Charles Carnan Ridgely, 1760-1829, also laid out a race course on the estate. The Ridgely family’s interest in racing, breeding horses and fox hunting lasted into the twentieth century. The family was important in the prominence of Maryland in the horse-racing industry.