A Place in Time spotlights a significant cultural resource - a district, site, building, structure or object - entered in the National Register of Historic Places.
Rock Ford Plantation

The historic house at Rock Ford Plantation.  Courtesy of Rock Ford Plantation

Nestled in the rolling terrain of Lancaster’s Central Park, near the banks of the Conestoga River, sits historic Rock Ford Plantation, the stately Georgian-style manor of Revolutionary War general Edward Hand (1744-1802). Built in 1793 the nearly 200-acre farm offered respite from the bustle of nearby Lancaster for the Hand family. The property also included two barns, a tenant house, a springhouse, gardens and several other outbuildings. It truly was a model rural estate; however, its prosperity was short-lived, and through the many decades that followed, its future existence was far from secure.

Hand rose from a colonel in the Pennsylvania Line in 1775 to George Washington’s adjutant general by 1781, but he was only able to enjoy his picturesque home for a brief period. In 1802 he suffered a fatal stroke and died at Rock Ford. Hand was deeply in debt at the time, leading his children to ultimately sell the family estate in 1810.

Throughout the 19th century and into the early 20th century, Rock Ford was mostly inhabited by tenant farmers who managed the property for absentee landowners. Since they did not own the property, the tenants made few alterations to the house over the years, such as minimal repairs when needed. While the historic integrity of the house remained largely intact, the overall condition of the property began to decline over time.

By the early 1950s Rock Ford’s last occupants had vacated the house and it was under the ownership of a local utility. Land near the farmstead was being used as a dump. The windows and doors of the house were boarded up to prevent vandals from taking advantage of the property’s remote location. Slowly but surely, Rock Ford Plantation slipped into a deplorable condition.

Despite the declining appearance of the house, locals still regarded it as an important part of Lancaster history. Although historical markers were dedicated nearby, including a Pennsylvania Historical Marker, the property still continued to slip further into disrepair.

Rock Ford’s fate appeared to be sealed in 1954, when the Lancaster Area Refuse Authority purchased the house with plans to demolish it and build a trash incinerator on the site. Initially, little opposition was raised in the booming postwar period; however, letters and newspaper articles were soon written by concerned residents and historians in an effort to save it. Still the question remained: Who would step forward to take on such a daunting task?

In the 1930s the Junior League of Lancaster had taken the lead to preserve and restore Wheatland, the historic home of President James Buchanan. By the late 1950s Wheatland had been transformed into a local and national landmark. Now another historic treasure was at risk.

Restored room at the Rock Ford Plantation: the Dining Room. Courtesy of the Rock Ford Plantation

The restored Gold Parlor at Rock Ford Plantation. Courtesy of Rock Ford Plantation

In 1957 the Junior League purchased Rock Ford Plantation and the surrounding 33 acres and established the Rock Ford Foundation the following year. As a project of the Junior League, the organization went to work right away, enlisting the help and resources of some of the country’s top preservationists located in Williamsburg, Virginia. League members rallied the community and raised the needed funds. They also took an active hands-on role in the preservation of Rock Ford by learning to do carpentry and masonry and assisting in archaeological digs on the property.

Using Hand’s will and estate inventory, the foundation was able to establish the contents of the interior of the house from his residency. A list was published and spread throughout the region, and soon donations of similar period items came pouring into the house, including several original Hand items. Paint analysis helped to further restore the home to its original splendor. Preservation work continued for many years, but in 1960 the Rock Ford Plantation officially opened to the public as an irreplaceable 18th-century house museum and an early historic preservation victory.

Restored room at the Rock Ford Plantation: the Dining Room. Courtesy of the Rock Ford Plantation

The restored Dining Room at Rock Ford Plantation. Courtesy of the Rock Ford Plantation

In 1976 the mansion was officially listed in the National Register of Historic Places for its significant pastoral Georgian architecture and its association with General Edward Hand. Today, the nonprofit Rock Ford Foundation continues to own and maintain the farmstead, now surrounded by Lancaster Central Park, established in 1966. Through special events and meticulous restoration efforts, the organization’s staff and volunteers assure that Rock Ford Plantation’s history will continue on.


Recent listings in the National Register of Historic Places include Caernarvon Presbyterian Church, Caernarvon Township, Lancaster County; Dutch Corner Historic Agricultural District, Bedford Township, Bedford County; and Pennsylvania Chautauqua Historic District, Mount Gretna, Lebanon County.


Dave Maher is a historic preservation specialist who coordinates the National Register Program for the central part of  the state at PHMC’s State Historic Preservation Office.