COOKSVILLE – Doris Bell is almost certain her house has no ghosts.
But sometimes she wishes it did. After living in the Joshua Roberts Inn for 22 of its 200 years, Bell has some questions for them.
“What was it like in that time of leisure, when women sat in parlors and did fine stitching?” she wonders, sitting back on a Victorian sofa in her own parlor.
And, more importantly, “What was it like the day Lafayette was here? Where exactly did he sit? What did he do? What did he say?”
The legend of the aging French general’s 1824 visit to the Roberts Inn, in what would later become Howard County, is widely circulated — but historical societies in the area seem to know little else about the place.
“I visited the Howard County Historical Society the other day, just to see what they have. I was curious,” said Bell, 62. “They barely had anything.”
Of the dozens of historical inns and taverns sprinkled over the 170-mile stretch of the National Road in Maryland, the Roberts Inn fits awkwardly between those that evolved into public attractions and those that disappeared into obscurity as personal residences.
Bell is determined not to let the history of her home slip away.
“I’m on a mission to get this house to the way it is supposed to be,” she said. “My goal is to restore it the way it was.”
She has been researching her home since the day she moved in, amassing stacks of yellowing letters, photographs and newspaper articles dating from 1896. Those articles paint a picture of a stone and plaster house constructed in the late 1760s for a man named Noah Hobbs on property nicknamed “Noah’s Ark” and, later, “Repentance.”
In 1773, Thomas Cook Jr. added it to his growing list of properties at Westminster Road and the Frederick Turnpike — the beginnings of today’s Cooksville. He leased the home to Joshua Roberts after the turnpike was built in 1812.
“That was its heyday, its glory, when it was new and being used as it was intended to be used,” said Cindy Bell, one of the family’s three grown daughters. She has lived at the inn for more than 20 years.
In the old days, there was an inn every two miles on the National Pike, but the Roberts Inn is one of only three known to have survived in Howard County. It remains a throwback to those earlier times.
The lofty gray building rises from a stone porch and a rusty, wrought-iron fence that encircles a yard overgrown with dandelions and wildflowers. Three doors, each with inch-long keyholes carved in the wood, greet travelers from the front of the house.
A weathered wooden sign at the end of the driveway announces the inn. While it looks old, the sign is one of the newer touches — it was a housewarming gift for the Bells.
“Sometimes in the summer, people just pull in thinking it’s a bed and breakfast or something,” said Joe Taylor-Bell, Cindy’s 16-year-old son. “They go in and see the animals, turn around and go out.”
The Bells have made limited changes since 1977. They built a log cabin kitchen around the wide, old-fashioned fireplace and poured concrete over the dirt floor in the cellar.
Restoration efforts stalled after Joe was born in 1982, but the little things continued to demand constant attention.
Uneven shutters needed leveling, for example, and curtains needed to be sewed for non-standard windows. The cellar was musty and sometimes the roof leaked. In places, the stucco would wear away from the walls. Dealing with such small crises became a way of life.
“A lot of people wouldn’t have the patience to live in an old house. It’s harder,” Cindy said. “You have to research for the right (repair) person to do the job. It’s not as simple as running to Home Depot.”
But the occasional discovery overshadowed the constant hassles.
In a certain light, the old room numbers appear through the layers of paint on the doors. In one room, a family recorded children’s heights with scratches on a window ledge. And once, when Doris was redoing stucco, she found pieces of Civil War shot lodged in the wall. “Apparently shots fired from the hill bounced off into the house,” she said.
While ownership records have survived the years, there are surprisingly few stories about the comings and goings of inn patrons or of the families who lived there.
One owner was Walter Dorsey who, according to legend, paid for the inn in 1878 with $10,000 in gold pieces in an old hair trunk. His great-great granddaughter reportedly still had the trunk as late as 1959.
More recently, some of Dorsey’s descendants came knocking.
“Three out of my grandfather’s five children were born in that house at the turn of the century,” said Howard Beall, a retired professor from Broomsfield, Colo., who visited the inn last summer.
“When you go in a lot of these older places and you know your direct relatives were there, it’s not like you see a ghost, but you get the sense that you’ve been there, too,” he said.
Beall said his grandmother used to tell him stories about Lafayette’s famous breakfast visit.
“Lafayette said he was really happy to be back (in America) to take the trip along the road,” Beall said. “Someone in the crowd said, ‘Let’s give Lafayette three cheers.’ Someone walked in the house and gave him three chairs.”
While there are no diaries or photographs left in the house, Doris said she has been able to piece together some of the inn’s history through people, like Beall, who show up with stories or artifacts to share.
But she looks for clues wherever she can find them.
After uncovering a hollow space behind the living room fireplace, she came to believe the inn had a third wing. Round holes in the ceiling are evidence of stovepipes, while the “tap room” shows little proof of ever having been a bar.
For gaps not explained by the inn itself, Doris fills in the blanks with her imagination. “When you look out the front bedroom window, you can just imagine people arriving by carriage,” she said.
She keeps the east wing of the house closed off from the clutter and bustle of her family’s day-to-day life, opening that “formal half” of the house only during Christmas week.
But she sometimes sneaks into the quiet of the so-called “wedding and funeral” rooms, where the furniture is Victorian and candles line the window sills, to picture that other world.
“They had a very simple lifestyle, and that’s how I try to keep it,” she said. “They didn’t have what we have. It wasn’t available in those days.”
Doris tries to keep abreast of the styles from “those days,” pointing to things she still wants to fix — windowpanes that are too big and wood floors done in the wrong style. She expects it will take 10 years to remodel the inn so “it feels right.”
But because she does not want the government involved in her efforts, she said she will not apply for listing on the National Register of Historic Places. She has not ruled out opening the inn to tourists on a limited basis at some point, however.
“This is my legacy,” she said. “I’m not sure who it’s to at this point — family, community or history — but I feel obligated in a way.
“It’s not only mine, but it’s part of the heritage of this county,” Doris said. “I can’t forget that.”