The Original Builder – John Anthony LeCompte Radcliffe

John Anthony LeCompte Radcliffe

John Anthony LeCompte Radcliffe

John Anthony LeCompte Radcliffe

6 Feb 1818 – 8 Jun 1901


John Anthony LeCompte Radcliffe was the oldest of a family of 12 children born to James Sewell Radcliffe and Margaret Harris. His 3rd great grandfather was Richard Radcliffe who emigrated from England in 1682 at the age of 21. He settled in Talbot County, Maryland, and it was Richard’s great grandson John who moved south to Talbot County to marry Frances LeCompte. These were John Anthony LeCompte Radcliffe’s grandparents. John is also descended from his namesake Anthony LeCompte, one of Dorchester County’s earliest settlers (1659) and Stephen Gary, who in 1662 got the original patent for Spocott, which was to become John’s home for most of his lifetime. John is also descended from Charles Powell, probably Dorchester County’s first lawyer, and Dr. Robert Winsmore, Dorchester’s first physician. The one thing that most of his ancestors had in common was a connection to land and water. John is descended from a whole line of farmers and shipbuilders, individuals who not only reaped the produce from land and sea but could market it also.

Early Life:

John was born in 1818, the eldest of what was to be a large family. His father James owned property in Cornersville, several miles west of Spocott in Dorchester County. James worked the land and built ships. As the eldest John started learning his father’s trade at an early age. As a young man he was of impressive stature and very strong. Shipbuilding and farming suited him well. Opportunities for schooling were extremely limited, but John was an avid reader. He soon became well versed in History, Theology, and Philosophy. Even at an early age, he showed the intelligence, leadership, and determination which were to be his trademark throughout life.

As the family grew in size John was called upon more and more to take a leadership role in the family. He was grown and married before his youngest sibling Cornelia was born. It was to be a family of 13 with 6 boys and 7 girls. One brother Jeremiah died at a young age in 1833, but the rest were healthy and strong. He quickly learned the shipbuilding trade, working with his father, who had been an only child. In 1843 he married Rebecca Beckwith, also from the same area. Rebecca was a distant cousin because John also was descended from Henry Beckwith, another early Dorchester County settler. They were to have 10 children, but tragically lost many at an early age. Their first child Rebecca died soon after birth, and of their 5 sons and 5 daughters, only 3 would outlive their father. John was an incredibly strong person with deeply religious convictions, and he always remained the patriarch of the family.

John’s military stint was during the Mexican War, becoming a Captain in the Cambridge Blues. After the War, he returned to help his father with his shipbuilding at the family shipyard in Cornersville. In January of 1847, however, he formed a partnership with two of his brothers, William and Nehemiah to begin their own shipbuilding venture. They soon were building ships at a nearby shipyard owned by a distant cousin, Peter Wheeler, and 2 years later, he was to purchase the shipyard and accompanying 149 acres. This was Spocott, the property settled by his ancestor Stephen Gary almost 200 years earlier. John, in the next 50 years was to build Spocott into as well known a property as there was in Dorchester County.

Shipbuilding Period (1847 – 1860):

This was one of the periods in Spocott history where the property was the hub of activity. The three brothers all began their shipbuilding operation while in their 20’s and very quickly became extremely busy.  John and William took charge of the shipbuilding operation while Nehemiah frequently took over as master of one of the ships, traveling up and down the Atlantic Coast. The shipyard built primarily two-masted schooners, and we have the record of many of the shipbuilding related transactions recorded in John’s Cash Book. The Spocott Shipyards were located south of the main house on Gary’s Creek, at the head of the Little Choptank River. John told his son, George L. Radcliffe, that one of the ships built at Spocott actually traveled completely around the globe. Unfortunately the name of this ship was not passed on to George.

As quickly as the Radcliffe Shipyards rose in fame, so they quickly came to an end in 1860. Several factors may have been at play. First and foremost, William Harris Radcliffe purchased a property, Unity Hill, on Lee’s Creek on the other side of the property, He began and continued shipbuilding there for a number of years. Nehemiah joined the Confederate Navy almost as soon as the Civil War commenced and was wounded in action in 1864 and died on the way home. John, from 1860 on, put all his energies into farming and construction around the property.

The Construction Period (1860 – 1870):

After the Spocott Shipyards ceased operation, John put his significant carpentry skills to work around the property. He had done some construction prior to this period. His Cash Book indicated that he had done some renovation to the Spocott House in 1851 and had built the windmill at the head of Gary’s Creek in 1852. But the projects increased dramatically from 1860 on. At the site of the shipbuilding in 1860 he built the large granary, which still exists today. During this period, he built the dwelling at the store complex near the windmill, added a major renovation to the Boston Farm House on Lee’s Creek, and built many of the outbuildings on the Spocott Property including dairy, blacksmith shop, outdoor kitchen, and stables.

In 1870 John built the Castle Haven Schoolhouse which his children would attend and which his son George would later have moved to the property, He also apparently did major construction on several building in the community including his church, Spedden United Methodist Church.

His Personal Life:

John was an extremely intense person. His son George said that John arose every morning at 4 AM and spent the next two hours just in reflection. He was extremely intelligent and a very spiritual man. He also found time to read a considerable amount each day. But at 6 AM he was ready to start his long day of work.

By 1870, he personally had experienced considerable family tragedy. Half of his children were deceased and the Civil War period saw the death of 3 of his brothers. Then in 1870 his wife Rebecca passed away, leaving him the sole caregiver for 5 children, with the youngest William being just 4. The 1870’s would also see the death of 2 more of his children.

John had already proven himself to be a strong individual, and clearly his deep religious convictions were a major source of his strength. But as fate would have it, his life also took a major upturn during this decade. In 1871 he married Sophie Delila Travers from nearby Taylor’s Island. Sophie had just suffered the loss of her husband Andrew J Robinson. Sophie had been left with at least 4 children, all under the age of 8, including 1 born after Andrew’s death. Although 18 years younger than John, this marriage seemed to be built as much out of convenience as love. But whether out of convenience or not, their marriage was a close one. He clearly wore the pants in the family although Sophie was a magnificent mother and grandmother. John’s son George always heard his mother refer to his father as “Mr. Radcliffe”. With Sophie and her 4 young ones moving into Spocott, the house suddenly came alive again. John at this time extended Spocott to the north and added the “T”.

Their combined large family grew larger as John and Sophie had 3 children together in the next 6 years: Thomas Broome, James Sewell and George Lovic Pierce Radcliffe. With all three, education was paramount, with each getting the education not afforded to John. In addition to schooling at the nearby schoolhouse which John built, Sophie did a lot of schooling at home, and each was afforded access to an extensive family library. The youngest George was to not only attend Johns Hopkins but to go on to get his PhD and law degree.

The Glory Years at Spocott (1870 – 1890):

While the post-Civil War Period saw a significant economic decline throughout the local area, Spocott thrived. John created literally a self-sufficient community at Spocott. Everything that was needed was grown or made at Spocott. The farms provided the food for all. The surrounding waters contained plentiful seafood. Horses and mules assisted with the labor, and farming provided most of the materials. Cotton was grown for clothing, and sheep provided the necessary wool for winter clothing. Cows, pigs, and chickens provided the meat, milk, and eggs, and hides provided the leather from which shoes, satchels, and tack for the horses and mules were made. John built a smokehouse for preserving meats and tanning hides.

Vegetables were grown in the fields, and apples, crabapples, pears, and grapes grew around the property. Grains were ground into meal at the Spocott Windmill. The surrounding woodlots which John had purchased for shipbuilding now provided the lumber for buildings and furniture. Often a visitor would stay for a while, and their payment for room and board might be to make a piece of furniture or to help erect a barn.

But what most remembered about these days at Spocott was the unprecedented hospitality. John and Sophie’s children and grandchildren had warranted almost doubling the size of Spocott House, but there was always room for guests. Any particular night might have family visiting and often guests from around the Eastern Shore or even from across the Bay. John’s son George recounted stories of many nights where the house was overflowing with guests. Two or three might be piled into a small bed, and the overflow frequently ended up on the floor. George remembered one night where the Governor of Maryland slept on the floor because every bed was taken.

Behind much of this incredible hospitality was Adeline Wheatley, wife of Columbus Wheatley, the former slave. Aunt Adeline, as she was called, was not only the cook for these frequently large assemblages, but also the house manager. While John and Sophie were clearly patriarch and matriarch of the family, Adeline’s role was key, and her advice was highly sought after.

As described in an excerpt in a book about prominent Marylanders, “Possibly the predominating characteristic of his [John’s] life was the desire to be truly helpful to those around him. He was the last in his community to continue the old-fashioned hospitable but expensive method of keeping ‘open house’ throughout the year to which his relatives and friends were at all times welcome. It is undoubtedly true that there was no place in Dorchester County where hospitality was so freely, so cordially, and so generously extended as at Spocott.”

The Political Years:

John’s ongoing leadership role in the community soon took him into the political arena. He was so highly thought of that for each office he ran for, he won by a significant vote. He was appointed Trustee of the Poor in 1872 and was elected to the Maryland House of Delegates. He also elected as President of the Board of County Commissioners. His opinion was frequently sought after, both by local officials and by 2 Governors of Maryland. He clearly threw his energy into the causes of the underprivileged. Education was always at the top of his list, and he personally remained a voracious reader his entire life.

As important as politics and causes were, he always put family first, and his family grew larger and larger with the continued addition of grandchildren. He was the archtypal patriarch, a true gentle giant. He clearly was beloved and respected by his children, and his influence on his youngest son George was profound.

End of an Era (1890 – 1901):

John retired from farming in 1890 although he remained active in the community. The farming was handled by several tenant farmers in the area. Adeline continued to mange the house ably, and guests and family did continue to visit.

The farming was generating less income and things began to decline somewhat. A letter from Sophie to a relative in the early 1890’s sought to get George a badly needed winter coat. John had never been wealthy but the shipbuilding and farming had allowed him to significantly upgrade the property. John had worked hard every day of his life, but in his 70’s saw much less production.

On the 9th of June in 1901 he passed away. Sophie would live another quarter of a century, but by her death, the family had fallen on hard times. Shortly after her death the Depression hit, financially wiping out 2 of John and Sophie’s children. It would be up to the youngest George to save the day, nd under his “reign” Spocott would rise again.