Cumberland Times-News

July 17, 2008

Ward and his mansion stand proud in 'Burg

Betty VanNewKirk, Columnist

I've had questions recently - not for the first time! - about William Ward and the house he built at 73 W. Main St. here in Frostburg.

The house has been vacant for a number of years and looked for a while as though it had been abandoned. But it has now been painted white, and work has been carried on inside, reminding us that it was once one of the town's showplaces, the Ward Mansion.

William Ward, who built it, was born near Frostburg in 1812, the son of another William who came to Allegany County ca. 1790 as overseer of the extensive properties of Normand Bruce.

As sheriff of Frederick County, Bruce was in charge of what are now Washington and Allegany and Garrett counties. He was also heir to Walnut Level, the 300-plus acre tract now known as Prichard Farm and first cousin to Francis Scott Key. William Ward Sr. occupied a position of considerable responsibility and important connections.

He also qualified for 15 minutes of fame by building one of the first railroads, a quarter-mile of wooden rails, with four-footed motive power, to carry coal out of a small mine on his property.

Young William was involved with hauling coal to Cumberland by the time he was 15. He was in his early 20s when, along with his brother, he bought the Swan Mill Tract that we know as Borden Shaft.

In addition to a mine, the brothers acquired a grist mill, to which they added a sawmill and perhaps a brick-making operation. Supposedly the Frost Mansion, a few years later, was built of Ward bricks.

The various enterprises prospered. William Ward called himself a farmer. He sold the mineral rights on his property to the Borden Mining Company, although he collected dividends on the stock he continued to hold. By the standards of the day, he was a very wealthy man when he built his 14-room mansion on Frostburg's Main Street.

He also had a reputation for generosity. He was an active member of the Lutheran Church here in Frostburg, but he also supported St. Paul's in Cumberland, when they needed funds for their new church on Baltimore Street.

Then, when the Methodist Church South, of which his wife was a member, organized and built a new sanctuary on the corner of Beall Street and Stoyer, it was William Ward who provided most of the money, and was named a trustee although he never held membership there.

William Ward used slave labor in his mills and his household. When Maryland freed its slaves at the end of the Civil War, Ward is on record as manumitting 29 of them, each of whom he provided with a new set of clothes and a farewell dinner. I wonder how many of them decided to stay in the neighborhood, working for wages at the same jobs they had worked under duress.

I'm not sure where the Ward family lived in Frostburg in 1858, but the mansion on Main Street seems to have been relatively new in 1876, when it was the scene of a lavish party for the 40 men who had worked on the restoration of the Lutheran Church, burned in 1874. By that time several of the seven Ward children had already left home, but the youngest, Annie, was reported as having supplied musical entertainment for the guests.

After William Ward's death in 1877 the big house had a series of owners, beginning with Carrie Morrison, a Ward daughter, and including some of the town's prominent citizens.

In 1912 it became the residence of Mr. Shea, the druggist (who also served as mayor of the town for one term) and for at least one generation of Frostburgers the house was identified with that family.

Restoring a house that is more than 150 years old is a formidable - and expensive! undertaking. If Washington had slept there, or Frank Lloyd Wright had sketched the plan for a fireplace, historic preservation funding would be available, and tourists would pay for the privilege of walking through it. But a house with only local associations and antiquated plumbing is at risk, in spite of its stained glass windows and leaded glass doors.

Still, the house at 73 W. Main St. continues to attract attention. The recent repainting is applauded, and any signs of further restoration are appreciated. William Ward and his mansion stand proud in Frostburg history.

Betty VanNewkirk is the historian for the Frostburg Museum.