As If Time Stopped Here


September 20, 1992|By WAYNE HARDIN

As Main Street becomes Gapland Road, shadows darken South Mountain, the long ridge of the Blue Ridge chain that rises just west of Burkittsville. All roads to Gathland State Park at the top are shaded.

Except for paving, they are the same roads on which Northern and Southern troops fought the Battle of Crampton's Gap, which started Sept. 14, 1862, in downtown Burkittsville after five days of Confederate occupation, as part of a three-pronged South Mountain Union offensive. Two Burkittsville churches were field hospitals. That battle preceded the big one at nearby Antietam Creek.

Burkittsville, in the Middletown Valley of southwestern Frederick County, seems almost idyllic, as if time stopped here.

"No more than four buildings have gone up since right after the Civil War," says the Rev. H. Austin Cooper, 81, retired pastor of Pleasant View Church of the Brethren north of town. A local historian, he now lives in Frederick.

Since 1975, the whole town has been on the National Register of Historic Places. It is named for Henry Burkitt, on whose farm the town was developed. The original 1807 Burkitt house, big and white, is still there, as is much of the farm, now owned by the Guyton family. From the front on Main Street, the house appears to be in a regular town setting. However, up the driveway and over the hill you suddenly walk into the middle of a dairy farm.

Only 50 acres of Burkittsville's 300 acres are non-agricultural in town boundaries configured like a lopsided Nevada. In summer, thick forests of cornstalks crowd up to back yards.

Martin Paule, 45, gave up a white-collar job in Los Angeles as a paralegal in 1979 and came east seeking a "more rural, more tranquil existence." In 1980, he found it in Burkittsville.

Mr. Paule owns Deva (pronounced Day-vah and meaning "shining one" or "angel" in Sanskrit), a "cottage industry" on East Main Street that makes free-flowing colorful "natural fiberwear for women and men." Mr. Paule says the business has a mailing list with 100,000 names and projected 1992 sales of $2 million. He has 15 full-time employees and 15 to 18 "stitchers" who work under independent contracts at home. His wife, Rose Gerstner, a former stitcher, is "captain" of the cutting room.

The only way to tell Deva from the other 100-year-old plus houses is a small sign. And perhaps those noontime employee volleyball games on the sand court behind the seconds building, a daily half-hour Mr. Paule schedules in the workday.

Seven years ago, William Becker, 66, a retired Navy civilian employee, and his wife, Helen, moved into one of three houses on Weiner Drive, "the second newest house in town," built in 1979. His house is one of only six not on Main Street.

"We wanted to get out of Montgomery County, but still be reasonably close to our children," says Mr. Becker, a town council member.

From uptown, the St. Paul's Lutheran Church bells ring a song across the valley. Mr. Becker, an "I love Burkittsville" button on his shirt, listens.

"I'd never heard of Burkittsville," he says, "but when the agent showed us this house, my wife fell in love with it."

Nearby, at the Burkittsville Community Center, Janice Crone is cooking string beans for the annual picnic of the Ruritan Club service organization, which owns the center, once the school for grades one to six.

Mrs. Crone, 64, likes the way Burkittsville has not changed. "Maybe a sidewalk or two difference from when I was growing up," she says.

Burkittsville 1992 is 194 people; 90 voters; 56 single-family homes; five two-family homes; two multifamily dwellings; a few businesses, but no grocery store and no gas station.

It is not without its problems. One concern is speeding cars, on Main Street and state Route 17, which intersects Main at the "square corner." A bigger one is a water and sewer system.

"We're well and septic here," Mr. Becker says. "These houses weren't built with modern appliances and such heavy water and waste water use in mind. Some people with shallow wells are getting polluted water."

Still, residents have made it clear they prefer drinking bottled water and making other changes over the alternative -- a public water and sewer system that would mean development, the dirtiest word of all.

Some worry about the future of the farms, although there are no indications of development plans. The two farms closest to Main Street are not in the Maryland Agricultural Land Preservation Program, says Tim Blaser, county program administrator.

"This is a very fragile valley," says Margaret Kennedy, a town council member who runs Brushmark Gallery in the old Lutheran Female Seminary.

Still, there seems optimism everything will be all right.

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