There’s a new state nature area coming to Annapolis, an unspoiled former horse farm named Holly Beach Farm. It wouldn’t be happening but for construction of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge.

“My grandfather, there was nothing he could do to stop the bridge,” Bill Labrot Crossman said. “It was the logical place for it. But it ruined the horse business.”

On Wednesday, Gov. Wes Moore agreed to make Maryland the next owner of Holly Beach Farm, almost 300 acres of marshes and coves, coastal woodlands and wide bay views — for a buck.

Moore and his colleagues on the Board of Public Works voted to approve the deal, taking another step toward opening a spot guarded by Crossman’s family and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation for more than 100 years. It will eventually be opened as a natural resources management area.

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“Last month, I had the opportunity, actually, to spend some time” on Holly Beach Farm, Moore said. “And we are so excited about this continued partnership with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation to protect this absolute national treasure for future generations.”

Maybe what excited Moore was what others have described after walking the farm, a place overlooked by the consuming pace of modern Maryland all around it.

New Orleans industrialist Sylvester Labrot Sr. spotted the land while summering in Annapolis in the early 20th century, according to family lore. He eventually bought it in pieces, starting with 300 acres and adding parts of a forgotten colonial plantation named Whitehall.

It was at the tip of a rural peninsula across the Severn River, interwoven with a historic network of Black families living outside of what was then a Jim Crow city. The family opened the area’s first medical clinic and named it after the historic Episcopal church nearby.

“My great-grandmother was just appalled by the lack of health care for African Americans, many of who were employed on the farm,” Crossman said. “She founded the St. Margaret’s health center.”

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The Labrots were fabulously wealthy, with ties to Kentucky bourbon, Southern sugar cane and the manufacture of creosote-treated wood used to build railroads and waterfront bulkheads all over America.

William Labrot was 7 when his family moved to a Georgian revival home on the 3,000 acres that his father assembled. It was the kind of place that got mentioned in the society pages of newspapers in Baltimore, New York and Washington, D.C. Amelia Earhart flew in for lunch one day.

After his father’s death in 1935, Labrot expanded the thoroughbred breeding program. Now-forgotten racing champions such as Frizette, Irish Lad, and Durbar II were foaled there during the Great Depression, the days when racing was a cornerstone of American sports.

Plans for construction of Route 50 and the Bay Bridge ended all of that.

The politically connected Labrot began selling off thousands of acres after the plan was approved, some of it to the state for what is now Sandy Point State Park. He died at age 48 in 1949, during a stop in Georgia while heading home from a trip to the Bahamas. The bridge opened three years later, in 1952.

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Labrot’s only daughter, Leonie Labrot Gately, was with him when he died, according to his obituary in The Baltimore Sun. She was the last family member to live at the farm.

“My mother really kind of clamped onto that legacy,” said Crossman, who now lives in South Carolina.

Although Gately had approval to subdivide the land, she decided to sell it for preservation at less than its over $13 million value in 2001. A consortium led by The Conservation Fund and fueled by state and federal grants put together a deal for about $8 million.

After the sale was finalized, the 293 acres were turned over for preservation to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

That was fine with retired foundation president Will Baker, who in the 1980s lived in a cottage at the tip of the farm property with his then-wife Mayer. Gately was an original supporter of the conservation nonprofit, and Baker said that might have explained her desire to see it gain control of the land.

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“It was probably unlikely the transaction would have happened without my mother’s gift,” Crossman said.

Public money in the deal brought public scrutiny. Over the years, critics wondered why only a few dozen teachers and students were allowed beyond the gated entrance for a handful of field trips every year.

That unease peaked in 2020, when then-Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford asked during a Board of Public Works meeting if the foundation’s use of the land met the public access terms tied to state and federal funding years earlier.

The Department of Natural Resources under Gov. Larry Hogan reversed itself after years of audits and sent a letter to Rutherford saying the foundation was falling short of its commitment.

“Horseshit,” Baker said Thursday.

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The foundation promised to conserve the land, restore nontidal wetlands that the Labrots had turned into farm fields and use the farm for outdoor environmental education, he said. The foundation has steadfastly defended its stewardship.

“It’s classic Hogan,” said Baker, who retired at the end of 2021. “He took about half a million a year that we [the foundation] got in the state budget for outdoor education programs, irony of all ironies.”

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation has posted a call for letters of interest in taking over Holly Beach Farm, a 300 acre nature preserve just outside Annapolis.
The Chesapeake Bay Foundation controlled Holly Beach Farm, a nature preserve just outside Annapolis, for two decades. Few got to see what was beyond the gated entrance. (Rick Hutzell)

Caught between competing pressures — those calling for more public access, and neighbors who felt trapped by traffic to the bridge and Sandy Point — new President and CEO Hilary Falk announced in December that the foundation would turn over the land to the state.

“I should put out there, if there’s any other Marylanders that own coastal land that would like to sell it to the state for a dollar, let us know,” state Comptroller Brooke Lierman said Wednesday. “I was looking back at the history of this and came upon one of my predecessors. Comptroller William Donald Schaefer remarked when this first happened that he hoped the state would follow the directive of public visitation.”

Natural Resources Secretary Josh Kurtz told the board that once the sale is completed later this year, his agency will launch a series of public meetings to create a management plan.

“I think the key focus of this is finding that balance right now,” he said. “There’s significant resources on that property, a six-acre freshwater pond within the critical area — one of the only ones of those in the state.

“What we’re going to do is we’ll increase access with more controlled access through the roadway,” he said. “And we’ll also do much more access from the water.”

Immediate work will involve demolishing some decaying buildings before opening the farm for a series of outreach events.

“It will be dependent on ensuring that we’ve got those buildings taken down and it’s safe,” Kurtz said. “But we’re hoping to do that rather quickly in the next year.”

Gov. Wes Moore, second from right, listens to Maryland Natural Resources Secretary talk about Holly Beach Farm during a tour on Feb. 6, 2024. On Wednesday, March 13, Moore and the Board of Public Works approved taking ownership of the 300-acre site near Annapolis.
Gov. Wes Moore, second from right, listens to Maryland natural resources secretary talk about Holly Beach Farm during a tour on Feb. 6. On Wednesday, Moore and the Board of Public Works approved taking ownership of the site near Annapolis. (Patrick Seibert, Governor's Office)

After the board’s vote, Moore and other dignitaries gathered for an official photo. Falk was there, as was Wendy O’Sullivan, head of the National Park Service programs on the Chesapeake Bay.

But there was no one from the Labrot family. There’s no historical marker at the farm noting their role in all this, and after 20 years, maybe that’s not a surprise.

Crossman said he’d like to see something, maybe about his mother’s decision to save the last few hundred acres and the family’s history. She’s still alive, by the way, and turning 91 later this month.

“I talked to her about it,” he said. “It would be nice to have some sort of recognition of the importance of that farm and of that family, keeping it going during the Depression and employing hundreds of people.”

As for opening it to the public, Crossman said his mother was focused on preservation when she sold it at a discount. Gately left the details of how it would be used to her former tenant, Baker, and his colleagues at the Bay Foundation.

“She knew the public would come,” Crossman said, “and that was fine.”

This column has been updated to reflect that Holly Beach Farm will become a natural resources management area, not a state park.

Rick Hutzell is the Annapolis columnist for The Baltimore Banner. He writes about what's happening today, how we got here and where we're going next. The former editor of Capital Gazette, he led the newspaper to a Pulitzer Prize for coverage of the 2018 mass shooting in its newsroom.

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