Eastern Shore Land Conservancy


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Conserve, steward, and advocate for the unique rural landscape of the Eastern Shore.

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Spotlight: Ben Tilghman


We recently caught up with Maryland Environmental Trust easement owner and former President of the Eastern Shore Land Conservancy Board of Directors, Ben Tilghman to talk about his passion for conservation and his reasons behind giving monthly to ESLC. Ben has spent the last twenty years living at the Hermitage, a tricentennial farm that’s been in his family since 1658, and a place where Tilghman has spent his summers since the age of five. The property has been the site of multiple ESLC fundraisers, and is a living record of layers upon layers of Eastern Shore history. “When you live on a property this old,” Tilghman shared, “you’re constantly running into your ancestors and all their various projects. I suppose generations to come will be doing the same.” Luckily, the biggest project most generations will run into on the Hermitage Farm is the extensive and worthwhile conservation that the family has invested in for centuries. Two hundred years from now, the Hermitage will still swirl with the fragrance of lilacs, fresh straw, and muddy creek banks along the Chester River shoreline. These are the very intangibles that ESLC works so hard to tend and the elements of place that monthly donations essentially protect. Meditating on ESLC’s conservation work, Tilghman mused that he’s glad the conservancy is “on watch… that the guardians are still at the gate.” We at ESLC are so grateful that Ben Tilghman continues to be one of those guardians.


Ben in the field.


Where were you born and where did you grow up? 

I was born in Massachusetts. My father worked for a publisher there and I grew up in the Boston area. For part of my business career, I wound up working in Massachusetts, but I grew up coming here [to the Eastern Shore]. Since about age 5, I’ve been here every summer of my life except for four years in the Navy when I couldn’t make it. My summers were idyllic. I had three brothers and we’d come down for the summer. We’d just kind of cut loose around here, living in this strange old house that at the time had no electricity. And our kitchen was sort of shoehorned into one corner of it that had electricity. We were just given the run of the farm. At that point we were dairy.

I said to my now wife at one point—she was going to go down to Ocean City for a visit with MACO—and I said, “Gee, that’d be great. I’ve never been to Ocean City.” And she looked at me and said, “You’ve spent all this time down here and you’ve never been to Ocean City?” I got as far as the farm and I had all the corn cobs I needed to throw for the hogs, a .22, and a small boat. Why would I ever leave? I worked on the farm as a child. Picked up hay and drove tractors and stuff like that and in many respects it was a life I could have lived very happily but I wound up in the printing business, which is another story.



How did you first hear about Eastern Shore Land Conservancy? 

My father had been very interested in conservation—putting the house in easement and stuff like that. The first ESLC event I remember was Party to Preserve. My brother convinced my stepmother to let ESLC come here and put up a tent and have the party on the lawn. The hurricane came through about a week before, and actually made our job a lot easier because we didn’t have to apologize for all the sticks in the lawn, grass, and everything. Just said we didn’t have time to mow. Truth was we were a little behind in the project. We parked on the lawn, which was our only option. And people got stuck. I have a 50-year-old bulldozer I keep as sort of a toy and that was the only thing that could pull anybody out. What was the best and what was the worst thing about the party? Everybody said, “the rain.” It was sort of the camaraderie you get from going through one of these events together. All of us huddled under the tent while there was pouring rain. And yeah, nobody had a lot of fun getting stuck, but you know, in the end, everybody got home okay. It worked out.



I feel like that really embodies some of my favorite memories of thunderstorms here on the Eastern Shore. Growing up you, you just kind of get stuck where you are and there’s something nice about that. 

There is!



Party to Preserve tents at the Hermitage in 2021.


You happen to be ESLC’s first ever monthly giver. Thank you so much for that donation. What motivated you to give regularly to ESLC?

I guess, like a lot of people, I’m just not good at saving up big chunks of money. You know, $100 a month to me seems a lot less painful than writing a check for $1200 once a year. It’s just budgeting. It’s sort of like the budget funds you pay for your heating oil. I just decided I’d start sending a check every month. For a while you all were dutifully sending me a letter back every month. I finally called up and said, “Just send me a letter at the end of the year.”

I found it to be very satisfactory and actually it’s not hard. Now you can just tell the bank to send a check every month and they do it electronically. So it’s pretty painless. Lauren assured me my donation is going to the stewardship endowment because I’ve always felt that that was the single most important thing that ESLC could be involved in. It’s a fund to assist in the management of the easements. To me, that’s what ESLC is all about. It’s fine to create these conservation easements, but I learned during my time on the board that also you have to be fairly diligent about making sure that they’re adhered to properly. When I was President of the Board, I knew the endowment amount was somewhat less than the guidelines. I don’t think that my modest donation every month is going to get us there… but it was the principle, as far as I was concerned.



You’ve created a great model. And I think if other people were inspired to give monthly, then it could actually get us to the right endowment amount.

Eventually if you get 100 people giving $100 a month you’ve really started something. So let’s hope! One of the things it also does for me is that once a month I think about ESLC. Not that I don’t in my daily comings and goings, but it’s a nice little explicit reminder as you sign the check or put it in the mail or put the keystroke into the computer. Whatever it is. You do something. And I think that’s important—to stay active.


Ben, tree planting in November.


What do you love most about ESLC’s current work?

That you’re keeping track of stuff that I am really no longer directly involved in. You know, I had a talk with Owen Bailey this morning and it was kind of interesting to hear what he’s what he’s up to. I like the idea that the guardians are still at the gate. I’m retired and I feel strongly about enjoying my retirement, not that I didn’t enjoy my time at ESLC, but, it’s time for other leadership. I think it’s that you’re on watch. I always love the concept of: Let’s get this land and let’s get it protected and let’s get it under cover and make sure that no mischief can occur even after you’ve set the land aside. ESLC, I think, had a mixed relationship with the agricultural community. But I never understood that. As far as I was concerned ESLC’s goals were the same as agriculture’s—which is the preservation of the land.



Tell us more about your family farm, the Hermitage.

The Hermitage has been in the family since 1658. We’re one of actually four farms on the Eastern Shore that are called tricentennial farms. It’s been in the family for 300 years and always been a farm. I say we were a farm since 1658 and I expect I’m probably right. My father had fond memories of it as a child. I have wonderful memories of it as a child. It’s a special, almost mystical place. And I think he wanted to be sure that we could afford to keep it. And he wanted to preserve it as he remembered it. It’s important to preserve the place historically.



What is something that that not many people know about the Hermitage?

I’ve learned from studying the history of the Hermitage, and from what my brother’s written about the place, that the women had far more to do with the success of the Hermitage than the men did. I think that’s even true today. It’s the women who bore the brunt. I look at my mother and I’m remarried, but I look at the mother of my children, who would bring them down here during the summers. She was the one that did all the work. I was up in Boston selling books.

Wispy Victorian women would never survive here. If you had come here and spent the summer before the place was overhauled and renovated… you had to be prepared for the occasional snake that got into the living room. You had to have no problem whatsoever with insects crawling all over the place. You had to be perfectly happy without air conditioning. Even today most of the house isn’t air conditioned. And the fact that the water would quit sometimes and when the east wind came the whole thing smelled like a cow pie. It was rural living at its best. We had indoor plumbing, but even that sometimes didn’t work all that well.



What inspired your wife to still take your children down in the summer when there were all those obstacles in the way? 

I think she loved it. Grew to love it as much as I did. It was a wonderful way to spend the summer with the children. She simply left Boston in late June and came back at the end of August. They didn’t have to worry about me. Their idea of a great supper was Cheerios. You know, I kind of like meat and potatoes. A couple of days they even just stopped the clocks and said, “We don’t care what time it is.” Their biggest decision was whether to go to the river shore and play on the beach or go down to the pool that our neighbors had. It’s not a bad way to spend the summer. And the children loved it too.



Do you have a memory you can share of your own mother at the Hermitage? 

Yeah, I have a vision of her sitting in the kitchen (which was the only place that had electricity) in the heat as the flies buzzed around, unphased by it all, making chicken salad. She raised four sons and no daughters, and she said, “Boys are easy. You just give them a little money and you don’t have to worry about them. That was it. We’d get an allowance and go out and play.” She was very formidable. Fiercely devoted to her children. Like a tigress in that regard. Wanted to make sure that we were exposed to all kinds of stuff and she was very spartan. She didn’t listen too much if we had a cut or something like that. “Well go wash it and put a Band-Aid on it.” We were brought up not worrying too much about such things or worrying about whether a biscuit bounced off the floor or not. Pick it up and eat it. That sort of thing. I think these are traits that have served me well.


Paige Tilghman and Bean at the Hermitage.


Do you have a favorite outdoor spot on the property? 

No, I kind of roam the whole property. My favorite spot on the property is a certain chair on the porch. Really, three seasons out of four I’ll go out there and spend an hour. Occasionally might even take a little nap sitting on the porch after lunch. It’s an interesting time to sit there and contemplate. I’m a Quaker so I I understand meditation. I like the idea of moments to reflect. And that’s where I do it. I guess my other favorite place is sitting in a small boat down in Tilghman Creek, just poking around.



ESLC’s mission is to conserve, steward, and advocate for our unique rural landscape here on the Eastern Shore. One upcoming way to experience that unique rural landscape is the Maryland House and Garden Pilgrimage Tour. Can you tell us a little bit more about your family’s involvement with the tour? 

The Hermitage has been on the tour a couple of times. The first time it was was the first time it was opened in 20 years. About four or five years after we retired, my then wife put it on the tour. It turned out to be a blistering hot April day. I was very apprehensive. I wasn’t sure what to expect. We cleaned up as much as we could and our rationalization was that the Hermitage is a working farm, so it’s not gonna be manicured like all those other guys. 800 people came through the house, which just was astounding. What amazed and fascinated me—and it’s proven true as we’ve had an open house a couple of times since—is that without exception people have been courteous, polite and expressed a considerable amount of gratitude at being able to just see the place. It made it a very rewarding experience. I went into it apprehensive and emerged having had a very good time of it. Paige got involved in the management of it and it turns out it’s easy to put one house on the tour, but it’s a little bit different to put several houses on tour across five different counties. It’s pretty extensive. I think they’re going to be down in the southern part of the western shore at some point, and I’ve never been down around there. So it would be a nice opportunity to see it.



What was your experience like serving on the ESLC board? 

Well, it was an interesting time. When I got on the board, I had a general idea of what the mission of ESLC was. But I simply didn’t realize all the moving parts and what was involved in setting up these easements. A lot more complicated than I thought. I finally learned that every easement is a little different. In fact, you can put them together many ways. It just depends on what the tax implications are and how you want to set up your property. Being on the board and actually the President of the Board during the McCord was exciting. It was a lot of work and it wasn’t all easy. Rob had a vision and it turned out he was absolutely correct, but there were some who weren’t quite sure about it. Some questioned whether or not it was consistent with the board’s mission. There was a lot more thought that went into it than just, “Let’s go in and overhaul this rundown building.” I think anybody that saw the McCord building when we bought it would easily have thought we’d taken leave of our senses. I don’t think I ever thought that, but I can see why. For one thing, I’m used to looking at old funny buildings that are falling apart. I said, “Nothing new here.” But there were plenty of people who weren’t. The result was just spectacular. It turned out to be, I think one of the great success stories in Easton, if not the Eastern Shore, of taking an old building that’s rundown in a part of town that really needed a boost and putting together a state-of-the-art, LEED certified center for conservation.



If you could look at the Eastern Shore 100 years from now, what would you most hope to see? 

Nothing changed. And you know, I know that’s not realistic. But I would hope that those lands like ours that have been put into conservation have been able to survive in conservation as productively as I have know them now. That people will have an opportunity to understand what the Eastern Shore looked like in the 1900s and 1800s and even 1700s. There are parts of this property that look exactly the same as the day Richard Tilghman set foot here. The more of that we can preserve the better off we’re going to be. If you want to see what unrestrained growth can do for something… take a drive up to Middletown, Delaware. That’s what we don’t need here. Anything of that nature. And we’re dangerously close to having it happen. Now it’s slowed down, but… I think of Darran Tilghman talking about the Village Learning Place, which was an abandoned library in Baltimore. They put together a place for kids to go where they could have some experiences they might not have otherwise. One of the things they did was throw a little garden in the back. Here are some of these inner city kids who when you pulled a carrot out of the ground and you told them they could eat it—they simply didn’t understand. I think it’s making sure that people remember where their food comes from, how agriculture works, how entwined it was in our history. It’s a very important part of it. The Eastern Shore… I love it. I adore it. It’s got its particular beauties. In many respects it’s not as picturesque as say the Sierra Nevadas or Pacific sunsets or things like that, but it’s an extraordinary place. To remember it for what it really is is important.


Located on the Chester River, the Hermitage Farm has been in the Tilghman family since 1658.

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