What’s so Special about the Hays House? It’s Still Here!

By Susan K. Wooden, for the Hays House Docent Training Manual

In 1788, John Bull bought lots #39 and #41 on the south side of Main Street in Bel Air, from Aquila Scott. He paid 54 pounds 8 shillings in gold and silver money. In the same year, he began building the one-and-one-half story gambrel roofed house that we now call the Hays House on those lots. The gambrel roof was uncommon in a county where most people were still living in log houses. He completed the original configuration of hallway, parlor, staircase, and two upstairs bedrooms, but he did not paint the interior at that time. A paint analysis performed on the house in 2000, prior to an extensive restoration project, shows soot underneath all the layers of paint, indicating that people lived in the house well before the interior was painted.

On September 23, 1789, he sold the house and land to Frederick Yeiser, a merchant from Baltimore Town. Yeiser also purchased an additional 24 acres from Aquila Scott (a part of Scott’s inherited tract called Burr) that adjoined lots #39 and #41 to the south and ran southeast along the Emmorton Road. After owning this property for five years, Yeiser sold it in 1794 to Thomas Gibson, who had become Sheriff of Harford County. Gibson died just two years later, in 1796. His wife, Betsy, inherited his property, though his goods and chattels (belongings) were sold at public auction to cover his debts. By 1798, Josias Smith was living in the house as a tenant, and in 1802, Thomas Gibson’s real estate was sold at public sale by order of the Chancellor of Maryland. Debt sales were common: county records are littered with mortgages and suits for debt between the end of one war and the beginning of the next. In Bel Air alone, at least nine houses and lots were sold by the sheriff for debt between 1796 and 1814.

The property was sold once more, in 1810, but that sale fell through because of a legal issue. On August 14, 1811, the property was cleared for sale and once again offered at a public debt sale. The highest bidder was Thomas Archer Hays, a prominent Harford County attorney, merchant, innkeeper, landowner, and farmer. Having an excellent entrepreneurial business sense, he was a man of wealth by the time he purchased the house that was to remain in his family for 146 years and still bears his name. He received a deed for the house and property, which by then amounted to about 4 acres, in April 1813.

Thomas (left: Painting of Thomas Hays) and Betsy Hays had seven children: six girls and one boy. Eventually, they acquired enough property and houses to bequeath farmland and a town house to each of their children. Although Hays most likely regarded the Bel Air house as his town home, his various businesses and his law practice would have required him to spend more time in town than at any of his country homes. To accommodate his growing family, he almost immediately began enlarging the town house. In approximately 1813-1814 he constructed an addition that included a dining room, a third bedroom above, and a 14’ x 16’ log kitchen. In the 1798 Federal Direct Tax records, no separate kitchen house is listed for this property, so it is likely that the parlor had also served as the kitchen and dining room. Hays built a log kitchen because there was no economic advantage to using more costly, though attractive, materials for a work room—an inferior room that guests would not have been invited into. The log kitchen Hays added to the house was razed in the 1830s when he added a two-story stone wing that included a sitting room, a new kitchen, a breakfast room, a milk house, and a wash house.

By 1850, Thomas Hays and his daughter Pamelia were the only persons living in the house. When Hays died in 1861, he willed the house and its contents to “Pamelia Hays and her heirs.” Pamelia died in 1875, without direct heirs. The property passed to Pamelia’s sister Elizabeth A. Jacobs, who held title until her death in1893. The house and property remained in the Jacobs family until 1957, when Joseph S. Jacobs and his wife deeded it to Anna Irene McCleary, who owned the Kenmore Inn on the adjoining property.

In April 1959, McCleary informed the Historical Society of Harford County that she planned to sell her properties for commercial use, and she offered to give the Hays-Jacobs house to the Society for preservation. However, there was just a 30-day window of opportunity for moving the house. Lacking the financial resources to move the house, the Historical Society had to decline McCleary’s offer. McCleary deeded the properties to the Safeway Grocery chain in 1960 and proceeded with an auction of the contents of the house, which attracted bidders from as far away as New York and Rhode Island. In contrast to the 18th and early 19th centuries, when travelers could choose from among several inns for overnight stays, there were no inns or hotels in Bel Air to accommodate the out-of-town travelers.

The Safeway Grocery chain wanted only the land and had no use for the house, so the house was once again offered to the Historical Society for relocation. At almost the 11th hour, Mrs. Sharpless Ewing, who along with other Society members had been working tirelessly to gather the resources required to obtain and move the house, found a mover and personally prevented the bulldozers from razing the house. The Hays House was then transported one block west to its present site on Kenmore Avenue, on property owned by the Harford County School Board. The imposing task of moving the stone wing was regarded as impractical, so it was demolished. The Historical Society managed to raise just enough money to pay the mover. Following negotiations with the School Board, the Historical Society purchased the lot at appraised value then deeded the lot to the Board of County Commissioners, which leases the lot back to the Society at $1 per year.

By 1962 the Hays House had been set on a new foundation, and restored “inside and out at a cost of $14,324.79.” For a time, the Hays House was the headquarters of the Historical Society, whose board, volunteers, and members continue to preserve its integrity as a museum and a house of history-in-action. In 1997, an extensive restoration project funded by the Maryland Historical Trust, the Historical Society of Harford County, and other generous benefactors, was begun. The first stage took the parlor and the two main bedrooms back to their original 1788-89 state. The second stage recreated the log kitchen that Hays had added in 1814. Wood for the walls from a recently razed structure that had been built in Pennsylvania in 1839, ceiling beams from another old building, and various reproduction materials, paint, and furnishings help create the look and the feel of the original kitchen. A more recent restoration phase took the hallway and dining room walls back to a close approximation of their 1814 appearance.

A costumed visitor helps a Hays House cook during Farm Day 2007, in the reconstructed kitchen

Return to the Historical Society of Harford County