Brookeville is town time forgot--and would like to stay that way Traffic, development viewed as threats

October 15, 1990|By Robert A. Erlandson | Robert A. Erlandson,Sun Staff Correspondent

BROOKEVILLE -- If President James Madison could come back to life and ride again the 25 miles from Washington to this tiny Montgomery County hamlet, he'd recognize it, much of it anyway.

But not for too much longer, according to residents, who say that unless state and county governments take decisive action soon, the ever-increasing traffic and development pressure will ruin an essentially intact, early-19th-century village.

It was in Brookeville, a peaceful, thriving Quaker farming and mill town, that President Madison joined other refugees seeking shelter as the invading British army ravaged Washington in 1814, burning the White House and the Capitol in the War of 1812.

His overnight stay on Aug. 26 at the home of Caleb Bentley, an acquaintance who had been the town's postmaster since 1802, gave Brookeville its claim to fame as an historical footnote: "Capital of the U.S. For One Day."

Sylvia Nash, a researcher at the nearby Sandy Spring Museum and an authority on Brookeville's history, said three-quarters of the houses in the romantic, tree-shaded town are at least a century old, and perhaps one-third of them were standing at the time of President Madison's visit.

Founded in 1794 and incorporated 100 years later, Brookeville displays architecture that ranges from the late 18th century through Federal to Victorian and on to a 1930s Sears prefabricated house. There are also a few more modern dwellings, but nothing recent.

The town now has 118 inhabitant and 45 houses, said Postmaster Wayne Harding, whose great-great-grandfather was a post-Civil War superintendent of Brookeville Academy, an early-19th-century boys school that now houses an American Legion hall.

The man credited with leading Brookeville's preservation movement is Richard S. Allan, president of the Town Commission, who has lived since 1980 in the elegant, white-painted Federal-style brick home where President Madison spent the night.

"We're stewards for the house and the town," said Mr. Allan, whose daughter Elisabeth, 4, has the front bedroom where the president is believed to have slept. "We have built a consensus for preservation, but we're struggling."

Mr. Allan said that the priorities are a bypass that would steer traffic away and keeping out new development.

One example of the latter, he said, is the battle the town is waging against Brookeville's largest landowner, who is trying to develop a tract behind his and Mr. Allan's houses in the heart of the town.

Residents have fought the plans before the Town Commission, which enacted a subdivision ordinance, and before the Montgomery County Planning Board. So far, the landowner has scaled down his original six-home proposal to three houses and has agreed to sell 11 of his 16 acres to the county for a park along Ready Branch, the stream that forms Brookeville's northern boundary.

The issue must still go before the Montgomery County Historic Preservation Commission, which must approve any changes in the town.

"We're pretty confident we can win there," Mr. Allan said "We have a lot of people on our side because people are now very comfortable with preservation."

Because of development around the town, which it cannot control, Brookeville is very protective of preserving the existing community unchanged.

Its other problem is traffic. Brookeville lies on Route 97 -- Georgia Avenue -- the main road between the District of Columbia and Westminster. The highway narrows on the outskirts of town and comes to a "T" at Market and High streets, making a sharp turn.

Karen Montgomery, who lives a few houses away, says the turn is the cause of many accidents, and the traffic is causing long-term damage to the surrounding dwellings.

"Thousands of cars and trucks come through every day," she said. "They shake the old brick houses, and it damages them."

Two years ago the town installed 13 cast-iron replicas of period street lamps. The first one was hit within a week, and two others have also been damaged by vehicles, Mr. Allan said.

Until the turn of the 20th century, said Mrs. Nash, Brookeville was the thriving service hub for northeastern Montgomery County. It had two stores, two mills, a wagon-builder, a wheelwright, a blacksmith, a sawmill, a tanyard, a boys school and two physicians. Today it is strictly residential.

"Brookeville deserves preservation. It is one of the few intact towns left," Ms. Montgomery said, citing the condition and quality of the historic buildings.

Brookeville also was home to a number of families influential in the country's early years, including the Quaker Brookes -- for whom it is named -- and the Bentleys and Moores, who played a role in the creation of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Much of the preservation battle is focused on a bypass to carry traffic round the town. But unless the county's General Assembly delegation takes action, it will not happen, said Steve McHenry, who was until recently the State Highway Administration planner for the area.

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