Captain Ridgely’s father, Colonel Charles Ridgely, made his fortune from the Northampton Furnace and Forge. His vast grounds contained the natural resources necessary for pig iron production including wood, limestone, and iron ore deposits. The lumber heated the furnace and the heated limestone removed the iron ore’s impurities. After the furnace melted the ore into pig iron, the forge molded the pig iron into bars which the company exported to England. Like other Maryland planters the family also cultivated and exported their tobacco crop, although their chief product was overwhelmingly pig iron. Colonel Ridgely’s son, Captain Charles Ridgely, commanded the ship, Baltimore Town, which sent these goods to London.1
The Revolutionary War brought a change in the Ridgely’s clientele. “The Revolutionary War created an expanding market for iron products and the Northampton operations provided camp kettles, round shot varying in size from two pounds to eighteen pounds, and cannon, also in various sizes.” Prices also rose sharply. In 1766, the Ridgelys collected five dollars per ton while in 1782 they earned seven pounds per ton. With the extra revenue, Captain Ridgely purchased lands confiscated from the British.2
After the end of the American Revolution in 1783, Captain Charles Ridgely started to build a new mansion on the grounds of his “Northampton” property in northern Baltimore County. Taking seven years to complete, Hampton House reflected Ridgely’s conservative architectural taste and reaffirmed his family’s position in Maryland high society. After its completion in 1790, Hampton House stood as the largest private home in America. Unlike other homes being constructed at the time, Ridgely chose a Georgian style so as to better accommodate public events, including large dinner parties. Unfortunately, he could not enjoy the home for very long as he died the same year its construction finished.3
As Captain Ridgely’s operation grew, so did his work force. Iron making was a labor-intensive industry. Slaves preformed the lowest-skilled, dirtiest jobs such as hauling materials. Indentured servants often worked as tradesmen; these higher-skilled jobs included molding the pig iron into bars and maintaining the correct mixture of iron ore, limestone, and lumber in the furnace. Free blacks also held both skilled and unskilled jobs. While white and black, free and enslaved, families worked together, working conditions were awful for all; food rations were poor, and child labor was common.4 Many slaves and indentured servants ran away while paid workers often looked for another employer.
Upon Captain Charles Ridgely’s death in 1790, his will left ownership of Hampton to his nephew, Charles Carnan, provided that the young man took the Ridgely name. This owner proved successful in the family business and in politics. He served as Maryland Governor from 1815 to 1818. Under Charles Carnan Ridgely’s ownership, coal and marble were discovered on his lands. These materials proved more efficient than lumber and limestone in refining iron ore. The exhausted soil could no longer support tobacco, but new crops such as corn and wheat could be grown instead. These crops could be turned into flour in Hampton’s mill or sold locally. Until the Civil War, slaves, free men, and tenant farmers worked together growing these crops. After Charles Carnan Ridgely’s death in 1829, ownership passed to his son, John Carnan Ridgely.5
After Maryland abolished slavery in 1864, John Carnan Ridgely was forced to hire servants to replace his workforce. Many of these former slaves moved to nearby East Towson but still returned to Hampton for work.6 In addition to former slaves, the Ridgleys recruited tenant farmers and share croppers from the pool of arriving immigrants. While tenant farmers rented the land and sold their crop, sharecroppers did not rent the land and were paid a share of the crop produced on their specific plot. Tenant farmers needed to buy their own equipment and seed while the Ridgely’s “loaned” sharecroppers these items only to deduct their cost from the sharecroppers’ harvest payoff. Often recently arriving European immigrants with some start-up capital worked as tenant farmers while former slaves often became sharecroppers.7
This system of farming lasted until the mid-20th century under the ownership of John Ridgely, and lastly John Ridgely, Jr. In addition to farming these owners carried on the family business of horse breeding and dairy production. In 1929, John Ridgely Jr. created the Hampton Development Company which subdivided Hampton’s farmland and built suburban housing. Worried that one day Hampton and its formal grounds would be destroyed for development, he sold the house and outbuildings to the Avalon Foundation which in turn gave the remaining property to the National Park Service. Today the once 24,000 acre plus estate is a 60 acre historic site that showcases 18th century architecture as well as 18th, 19th and 20th century social history.8