Old 'Summer City' Is Getting Back On The Map


September 27, 1992|By CINDY STACY

Deep Creek Lake may be Garrett County's foremost resort destination today, but at the turn of the century the honor most certainly was Mountain Lake Park's.

Located at "the summit of the Alleganies," Mountain Lake Park early on billed itself as a "summer city protected from grave moral perils; a summer home in the most salubrious of climates; a summer lyceum with able lecturers and a summer resort amid superb scenery."

Founded in 1881 by clergymen from Wheeling, W.Va., the resort attracted the Chautauqua movement, a popular summer adult-education program combining recreation, formal and informal classes and discussions at sites around the country. More than just a stop on the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, the 800-acre town flourished in its early days on mountain air, Chautauqua intellectualism and a moral code that restricted dancing, card-playing, drinking and gambling.

How long the bans actually lasted is not clear.

"But they certainly weren't in existence when my mother arrivein the 1930s," recalled Kathy Smith, a full-time resident since 1974. Her great-grandfather, Elijah Stone, was among the first of many wealthy people from Wheeling to build a large summer home in "The Park," as the town was called by those who enjoyed its heyday.

"It was strictly a summer resort then," said Mrs. Smith. "People came by train or horse or buggy." They stayed in some 200 summer cottages or in large resort hotels owned and operated by the railroad. And for the summer lectures and performances by Chautauqua groups, residents and visitors jammed not only the Assembly Hall but a 5,000-seat amphitheater.

With the demise of the railroad, the ravages of the Great Depression and the onset of war, many summer people abandoned their properties and the town, which had incorporated in 1931. The amphitheater was razed in 1946 but its eight-sided ticket house stands today.

Adjacent to the county seat of Oakland and divided by state Route 135, Mountain Lake Park today still struggles with finances, but residents work to keep their community alive. More and more homes are being restored to their Victorian elegance; many are on the National Register of Historic Places.

Instead of the old Chautauqua circuit, residents now support the annual Garrett Lakes Arts Festival, with some donating room and board to musicians and artists who come each summer to perform at nearby Garrett Community College.

A few months ago, residents voted in favor of acquiring the Assembly Hall for a performing arts center if sufficient funding can be found. "It was an informal survey," says part-time Mayor David Turney, a banker who is paid to conduct town meetings. "Basically, the price tag [of the hall] was just too high for any serious action."

Meanwhile residents are gearing up for the 25th annual Autumn Glory Festival and Grand Parade, to be held next month in Oakland. Mountain Lake Park's elementary and middle schools use Oakland post office addresses, and residents rely on Oakland and the Midtowns Plaza strip shopping center for groceries, cinemas and banks.

With no main street business district, Mountain Lake Parkers tend to congregate on the Assembly Hall grounds or at the town hall for special events. One recent event, covered by television crews, was the town's "Saturday in the Park" tribute to a relative newcomer, illustrator Mark Stutzman.

This past summer, his Elvis Presley illustration won the first-ever national contest for designing a U.S. postage stamp. He has also created designs for a series of "Batman" plastic cups for McDonald's restaurants. With his wife, Laura, Mr. Stutzman moved here from Montgomery County three years ago. They bought Stone Cottage (built by Kathy Smith's great-grandfather around 1884) and remodeled its third-floor attic into an art studio.

Some residents credit Mr. Stutzman with putting the town back on the map. But Garrett County's largest town is not lacking in claims to fame: Begun in 1921 but still flourishing today is the annual Western Maryland Tennis Tournament, the nation's second oldest recognized tournament. The tournament still uses the original courts and a 1906 building, which doubles as clubhouse and town hall.

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