September-October 2013 | WHO LIVES AT THE RACKLIFFE HOUSE?




Written By: Nick Brandi | Photographer: Grant L. Gursky

Whether you call it the Rackliffe House, Dirickson Farm, Sandy Point Farm, Manor Place or any of the other names by which it’s been known over the past 260-plus years, there can be no doubt that the tract located at 11700 Tom Patton Lane is the stuff of legend.

The impressive Flemish bond, two-story, double-pile brick dwelling with random glazed headers was built by Captain Charles Rackliffe on land that was in his family since approximately 1678. The best estimates place its construction in the 
mid-to-late 1740s, as the structure was clearly standing as of Capt. Rackliffe’s death in 1752. Its majestic perch is situated on an elevated ridge that overlooks Sinepuxent Bay, Assateague Island and the Atlantic Ocean. Rackliffe had developed the land into a large working plantation, raising market supplies of tobacco, corn and wheat. Additionally, he merchandized local timber products and held significant quantities of livestock, some which he had processed into marketable leather.

For all his success, however, legend has it that there was a dark side to Capt. Rackliffe and  the plantation he’d created. He was, allegedly, a cruel and intolerant slave owner — one who’d struck such fear and loathing in his slaves that they eventually rose up and murdered him along the half-mile lane that leads to the main house, burying him in an unmarked grave under what is now the restored dairy house. Suffice it to say that any property this old, so squarely positioned at the crossroads of history, is bound to have seen its share of dramatic events. On more than one occasion, however, the Rackliffe House seems to have been the setting for them.

When 18-year-old Denise Milko moved into the house in 1968 with her parents, William and Marion Farmer, paranormal phenomena was not something that had reached her consciousness. Like her parents — a chief executive of the Eastern Shore Phone Company and a prominent real estate broker — Denise was very grounded and only acknowledged what dwelled in the physical world of three dimensions. What’s more, Denise was something of a daredevil for her time, surfing before school — even in the winter — and aggressively riding her horses in the afternoons after school. She wasn’t one to scare easily — or at all. But that was before she moved into the house on 11700 Tom Patton Lane.

Sure, she had heard the rumors, many of them from her longtime family friend, Hollis Purnell, who had also worked for the Farmers, either on the grounds or at the family’s two stores, The Outpost and Nightingale Antiques. The Farmers loved Hollis, and he loved them; in fact, he would do just about anything for the family — except go in their house after sunset. Consequently, Denise was aware of the slave revolt and murder of Capt. Rackliffe, as well as the one about the woman who had fallen down the stairs to her death. Denise also knew the story of the grief-stricken mother who hanged herself after the British Army came and took away her son during the War of 1812, but to levelheaded Denise, none of that necessarily meant the house was haunted. It wasn’t long, however, before Denise would have cause to reconsider her position.

“The very first night we were in the house,” said Denise, who had shared the house at the time with her Aunt Alma and her daughter, Elizabeth, “we heard the distinct sound of a child crying. Not an infant but more like a toddler; we all heard it. Some tried to dismiss it as the barking of puppy frogs, but we knew what they sounded like, and it wasn’t that. It was sobbing, and that was something that occurred all year long.”

Strange, unexplained  sounds were a fixture of the Rackliffe House during Denise’s time there. It was common, for example, for a disembodied voice to clearly and loudly call Denise’s name from downstairs when Denise was alone in the house upstairs. “It was my name clear as day; it sounded like the voice of an older woman, but we never figured out who it may have been. That also happened on a regular basis.”

At the time, Denise and her family didn’t quite know what to make of the eerie phenomena, though there were many nonbelievers at the time who had dismissed the claims — until, that is, they spent some time in the house themselves.

“My cousin Jeff would spend every summer with us,” recalled Denise, who owns Holiday Real Estate, Inc. with her husband, Jerry Milko. “Jeff was an avid golfer and eventually turned semipro. Well, Jeff had been in the house alone one day, and everything was quiet. Jeff says that all of a sudden, there was this tremendous crash that sounded like the piano had been pushed down the staircase. When he went to see what had happened, there was no trace whatsoever of anything out of place. Well, big, manly Cousin Jeff fled the house and refused to ever stay there alone again.”

Arguably, one of the biggest converts is something of a local icon and a pillar of the community.

“We had a dinner party one night, and Gene Parker [owner of Frontiertown in Berlin] was one of the guests,” said Denise, the slightest hint of a smile crossing her face. “Well, we were all sitting around this huge, beautiful Queen Anne dining table, about 10 of us, discussing some of the things that were happening at the house, when Gene declared that he didn’t believe in ghosts and that there were no such thing. At that very moment, all the lights in the entire house went out, just like that, and the candles that were burning erupted into flames at least six to eight inches high, all at the same time. When the lights came back on, Gene was stabbing at the air with a letter opener. I think he may have changed his mind after that night.”

But for Denise, one of the most harrowing nights occurred when she and her two dogs had the house to themselves.

“I remember it was pretty late,” Denise recalled, “and my parents were at The Outpost, which they had kept open late during peak season, and I suddenly heard dogs barking outside the window, which, of course, made my dogs start barking, too. Then I heard several gunshots and the smashing of the dining room windows downstairs. I was totally terrified. I locked my bedroom door and called my father, who arrived soon after with the sheriff. They checked the entire house, and there was no physical evidence of any broken glass, gunshots or any other damage. This incident was during the same time that our horses started becoming agitated more frequently, especially at night. And as I think about it, every time the horses were restless or agitated in their stalls, something would happen at the house. It was getting pretty creepy by that point.”

Eventually, after enough unexplained activity and a family consensus that her room was the one most affected, Denise 
abandoned her bedroom and, for the following year, slept in the upstairs sitting room.

The strange happenings at the Rackliffe House continued long after Denise and her family moved out in 1973. The home’s next occupants, the Whitlocks, reported that just a couple of days after they had moved into the house, they’d returned to it one night to find that their otherwise docile hunting dogs had smashed through the thick antique glass of the first-floor windows in a desperate attempt to get out of the house. In 1992, when Realtor Bud Church was preparing to have an open house on the estate, Denise had gone to check out the premises. When she got to her old bedroom, she noticed there were neatly piled stacks of archived National Geographic magazines in the corner. The day of the open house, however, Bud checked the room again; this time, the magazines were strewn all over the floor but had been arranged into a pattern. They spelled the words “Go away.”

In July 2011, the Peninsula Ghost Hunters Society, a Salisbury-based team of professional paranormal investigators, was brought in to examine the Rackliffe House. They had been to the house before, but this time they wanted Denise to participate in an attempt to make contact with one of the home’s previous owners, James Dirickson.

“In all, there was a team of about 20 investigators,” Denise remembers. “They were all very professional and had all of the high-tech equipment you see on the ghost-hunting TV shows. Well, nine of us sat in a dark room with the intention of contacting Mr. Dirickson. The only light was from a flashlight that sat on its base, pointing toward the ceiling. They wanted me to ask him a series of questions in order to establish his identity. The first question I’d asked was about his religious beliefs.

“I asked him if he were Presbyterian, Catholic, Methodist, along with some other denominations, and nothing happened,” she continued. “But when I asked if he was Episcopalian, which is actually what he was, the flashlight immediately turned off and on three times. The investigators were kind of shocked, so they had me try it again. I asked him if he were a member of the Union Army, and there was no response whatsoever. When I asked if he was a member of the Confederacy, however, the flashlight once again blinked off and on three times. The team at Peninsula Ghost Hunters said that in all their experience investigating the paranormal, they had never seen that phenomenon before.”

There are many more stories like these from Denise Milko and others who have had experiences with the Rackliffe House. The good news is, you may tour this unique and evocative homestead for yourself. The Rackliffe Plantation House is open to the public every Tuesday, Thursday and every second Saturday of the month, between the hours of 1 p.m. and 4 p.m., through the end of October.

For more information, contact Rackliffe House director Jim Rapp through the information below.


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