WINDY BROW – ORLANDO HARRISON ESTATE
The old home-place of Orlando Harrison, built in 1899 sits near the railroad tracks in Berlin, Maryland. It’s not haunted, but if ever there was a house that held the spirit and charisma of a family it would be Windy Brow. It’s a stop on the Berlin Ghost Walk where we stand near the old railroad depot across from the house and tell the story about how a family made Berlin famous.
It’s the story of Orlando Harrison and peaches and rail cars and the people who worked for the Harrison Brothers Nurseries . Hundreds of Worcester County residents and thousands of their descendants have been impacted, and futures shaped by what Orlando Harrison began right from this location. Because it’s so significant to the the character of the Town of Berlin, and because many of the the ghosts that are still hanging around the town engaged with the Harrisons…it’s worth a stop and reflection.
It is also a wonderful “tale of the dead.”
Orlando was born in Roxana, Delaware in 1867 to a farmer who moved the family to Worcester County. Orlando began studying new techniques for grafting and growing fruit trees at a young age. He was apparently brilliant. It was that intellect and savvy business sense of his that helped him propel the Harrison farms and nurseries into becoming one of the most successful farming families in Worcester County history.
Orlando was also a community leader serving as a representative in the Maryland House of Delegates, several terms as Mayor of Berlin and as a Maryland State Senator. Eventually, under his guidance, Harrison Brothers Nurseries became the largest grower and distributor of fruit trees and ornamental shrubbery in the world. They are best known however, for their peaches.
Author, Joe Moore (Murder on the Eastern Shore) who is also a native of Berlin and avid historian told me that when he was little, the road from Berlin to Snow Hill (Route 113) was nothing but peach orchards owned by the Harrisons as far as you could see for miles and miles – or at least it seemed that way. The Harrisons owned thousands of acres of peach orchards, and those peaches brought the family and the town significant wealth.
Harrison Bros. Nurseries dominated the U.S. peach market and generated between 250 and 500 jobs in and around Berlin depending on the season. In today’s world, that a huge employer for an Eastern Shore small town. For over forty years Orlando Harrison paid out the highest amount of wages than any other man in Worcester County.
The railroad cars would stop in front of Windy Brow, and hundreds of bushels of peaches would be loaded on to train cars. People in markets all over the Mid-Atlantic region would be buying and eating peaches grown by the Harrison Brothers Nurseries.
In the 1960s a devastating peach blight wiped out the Harrison orchards. Most of their Harrison Brothers assets were lost, but Windy Brow stayed soundly within the family. At that time, the Harrison patriarch was Orlando’s son, G. Hale Harrison who had already started to diversify by investing in the hospitality industry in Ocean City.
G Hale Harrison built the Harrison Hall Hotel in the 1950s as a gift to his wife Lois. Once the orchards were lost, G. Hale and Lois focused on building their hotel business. And they were remarkably successful partly because Ocean City was growing and spreading northward due to the increase of travelers coming by automobile using the new Chesapeake Bay Bridge.
When G. Hale died he left his wife, Lois with three young children. Lois took over the hotel business and guided her sons in learning the principles of succeeding in the hospitality industry. When they were barely in their twenties, Lois’ two sons – Hale and John – purchased the Plim Plaza Hotel, which today serves as the headquarters of The Harrison Group that operates ten ocean front resort hotels and twelve restaurants. It’s quite a legacy that the grandsons of Orlando Harrison have built.
Windy Brow is still owned by the Harrison family. And it serves as reminder to the entire Berlin community of the contributions made by Orlando Harrison and his descendants. The town that was built on peaches and today rests on the shoulders of the tourism industry got much of its start from these special people who were able to reinvent themselves and rise to the top of another industry sector when a peach blight wiped them out.
The spirits of all those Harrisons culminate at Windy Brow. If ever there was a house that held the spirit of a family, it would be this white Queen Anne Victorian near the site of the old Berlin Railroad Station.
Windy Brow is a stop on the Berlin Ghost Walk which is held every Thursday night. Join us and hear more about this house and nine other sites in downtown Berlin.