The House of Chambers

by John J. Miller on January 8, 2010

in Articles,Politics

  • Sumo

August 27, 2007

…and the assault of the local bureaucrats


On the night he tried to kill himself, Whittaker Chambers wrote a letter to his two children. It did not include a detailed account of the Alger Hiss spy case, which had driven Chambers to what he called “spiritual exhaustion.” Instead, the letter contained simple fatherly advice: “I urged them,” he said, “never to leave the land.”

Chambers was thinking of Pipe Creek Farm, in Westminster, Md. — the family home since the 1930s and the site of the famous Pumpkin Papers incident. He lived to see it again: He botched the suicide and decided to continue testifying against Hiss. Eventually he would die on the farm, of natural causes. So would his wife. Their ashes were spread on the land — a land that their son, John Chambers, never has left.

“My family will live here for generations,” says Chambers, who is about to turn 71. “But only if we’re able to hold off the county commission.”

That’s because the government of Carroll County wants to build a dam that would create a 325-acre reservoir. The purpose of the serpentine reservoir is to accommodate future growth. “We need the water,” says Julia Gouge, president of the county’s board of commissioners.

What was once a sleepy rural region whose remoteness had attracted Whittaker Chambers now finds itself on the outer fringes of the massive combined metropolis of Baltimore and Washington, D.C. If John Chambers doesn’t willingly hand over at least 15 acres of the land his father left behind, the county is ready to seize it as a matter of public necessity under its powers of eminent domain.

The proposed Union Mills Reservoir would not submerge any of the three houses on the Chambers property, which is nearly 400 acres in size, nor would it come near the spot where Whittaker Chambers stashed microfilm in a hollowed-out pumpkin at a climactic moment during the Hiss ordeal. To the son, however, the damage would go far beyond the loss of 15 acres, or an additional parcel of the farm that the reservoir would cut off from the rest of his land. “This place is about more than the pumpkin patch,” he says. “You can’t tell me that one part of it matters less than another part of it. This is our home.”

It was Alger Hiss who first learned of the property in the 1930s, when he and Chambers were in regular contact — Hiss was a Soviet agent inside the federal government and Chambers was his handler. “In conversation with the Hisses, my wife or I had said something about the effect of the Baltimore heat on our daughter, and had spoken of renting a small place outside the city,” he writes in his autobiography, Witness. “One Sunday Alger appeared with a newspaper advertisement of two small properties at Westminster.”

They paid a visit. Hiss was so charmed by a modest house on one of the lots that he put down a deposit. Later, he backed out. Later still, Chambers returned to the site and put down his own deposit: “I had scarcely any good reason or right to buy it. I did not know how I was going to pay for it. But it was one of those occasions when a man feels: this I am meant to do.”

Witness is widely considered one of the great autobiographies of the 20th century, valuable as both historical document and literary achievement. In it, Chambers offers an account of his life in the Communist underground, his rejection of its murderous ideology, and his reasons for testifying against Hiss before the House Un-American Activities Committee. The Hiss-Chambers case — which ultimately led to the conviction of Hiss as a perjurer — remains an object of left-wing obsession. Just about everybody accepts that Hiss was guilty of espionage, but a dwindling band of radicals still clings to the fantasy of his innocence. Earlier this year, Kai Bird and Svetlana Chervonnaya argued at a New York University conference that Hiss was not a spy — they identified another figure, who previously had escaped suspicion, as the real traitor. Their claims, accepted only by die-hard Hiss partisans, also appear in the summer issue of The American Scholar.

Witness begins with a reference to the farm: “I am sitting in the kitchen of the little house at Medfield, our second farm which is cut off by the ridge and a quarter-mile across the fields from our home place.” The book goes on for some 800 pages and contains a few of the best-known lines in the literature of conservatism. One of these — “I see in Communism the focus of the concentrated evil of our time” — became the inspiration for one of the most famous utterances of Ronald Reagan, who was a great admirer of Chambers. (A copy of Witness may be seen on the shelves of the Reagan Ranch in California.) Elsewhere in the book, Chambers predicts that, in abandoning Communism, “we are leaving the winning world for the losing world.” He also declares that “the crisis of the Western world exists to the degree in which it is indifferent to God.”

For all the passion that Chambers summons against Communism, some of the book’s most heartfelt passages involve the farm. “Our farm is our home. It is our altar. To it each day we bring our faith, our love for one another as a family, our working hands, our prayers,” he writes. “The farm is our witness. It is a witness against the world. By deliberately choosing this life of hardship and immense satisfaction, we say in effect: The modern world has nothing better than this to give us.”

The controversy surrounding the Hiss case had forced Chambers to quit a well-paying job as an editor at Time. Although Witness was a commercial smash hit, Chambers suffered financial problems and had to sell a portion of the farm — a part known as the “home place” or the “front place.” The family moved into a brick house known as the “back place” because it’s at the rear of the property, away from the main road. Chambers spent the rest of his life in it, working as a senior editor of National Review in the late 1950s and dying in 1961. Esther Chambers lived there until her death in 1986.

John Chambers has spent much of his life there as well. For many years, he worked as a journalist and congressional aide. Like his father, he farmed on the weekends, bailing hay and raising sheep. He married, remarried, and brought up a family. In 1988, during the final year of the Reagan administration, the Department of the Interior designated the farm a National Historic Landmark.

“My lifelong ambition has been to reunite all the pieces of the farm, to make it a complete reality once again,” says the son. Several years ago, he purchased a piece of property inherited by his sister, who lives in San Francisco. And last October he bought back the home place. This was the site of the pumpkin patch, though today no pumpkins grow there — it’s just a plot of grass on a front lawn.

There are no signs pointing to the farm, but intrepid conservatives occasionally have sought it out. “It happens every week or two,” says Chambers. Some just snap a photograph and move on. Others knock on the door and try to strike up a conversation.

Chambers has made a few lasting friends this way. One of them is Mauricio Tamargo, a Cuban-born official in the Bush administration. “I was rereading Witness a few years ago and realized that the farm wasn’t far away,” Tamargo says. He figured out its location, got to know Chambers, and currently is trying to establish a non-profit group to help preserve the property. “It would be terrible if the county flooded part of it.”

Tamargo would like to help Chambers build a small library on the site of an old calving shed, so that the farm’s occasional pilgrims have a place to learn about the property. It would contain everything from Chambers family mementos to books and papers that nobody up to now has seen, including Chambers biographer Sam Tanenhaus. “I would like people to understand my father’s work,” says John Chambers. “They should see the house and the crops. It will help them understand why he did what he did.”

The Union Mills Reservoir isn’t a new concept. “It goes back to the 1960s,” says Steve Horn, the county’s director of planning. Last fall, shortly after Chambers re-acquired the home place, Tamargo requested a map of the county’s reservoir plans. He was surprised to see that, although the proposed flooding would cover only those 15 acres, about one-third of the entire property fell within a “minimal acquisition line” marked in red. A part of the line runs close to the back place — “easily within shouting distance of the house,” says Chambers.

Did the county intend to grab such a large chunk of the farm? Worried about that possibility, Chambers began to meet with neighboring landowners who shared similar concerns. Tamargo contacted members of Congress. In January, a dozen of them signed a letter to the county commission urging it “to modify the plan so as to cause no harm to any portion of this historic farm.” Around this time, the county altered its map: The area within the “minimal acquisition line” was relabeled a “water-resource protection zone” — “whatever that means,” says Chambers, who possesses a native distrust of government. He also fears that heavy rainfall would cause the reservoir to overflow its planned boundaries and threaten the back place.

Even so, the county appears determined to press forward. “We hope to appraise the impact of the reservoir, enter a good-faith negotiation, and reach a financial settlement,” says Horn. If Chambers refuses to engage in these discussions, the county will try to acquire the property through eminent domain. “So far, there’s just no talking to him about it,” complains Gouge. Opposition from Chambers isn’t the only challenge the reservoir faces: A complicated permit process requires the involvement of several state and federal agencies. If all goes smoothly for the county, it could be ten years before the reservoir fills up.

In Witness, Chambers writes: “Land belongs to the man who has worked it until he knows it so well that he can cross it in the blackest night.” John Chambers also has come to know the land well. What a shame it would be if, on some dark night, he found himself not walking through its fields but splashing through them.

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