A Village Braced For Growing Pains

POSTMARK: URBANA

March 28, 1993|By GREG TASKER

In Urbana, they say passers-by still can hear the moans of the wounded.

Seeking refuge from nearby skirmishes during the Civil War, Confederates turned an Urbana mansion into a hospital to tend the injured. Area residents say more than ghostly moans remind citizens of the rebel visit. Slurs against President Abraham Lincoln were scrawled on the hospital's walls.

The town apparently was a pleasant haven for the Confederates. Gen. Jeb Stuart once was host of a ball at the mansion, which had been moved up the Rappahannock River by boat and then horse-drawn wagon from Virginia before the War Between the States.

The house still stands as a private residence surrounded by rolling and well-kept grounds, at the intersection of Route 355 and Route 80, about seven miles south of Frederick. And Urbana, population 95, remains a pleasant Frederick County village of frame and brick homes, a few businesses, steepled churches, restaurants and a school -- despite its proximity to the sprawl surrounding Interstate 70 in Frederick and the burgeoning Washington suburbs.

R. H. "Hoodie" Geisbert III can still look out the plate-glass windows that front his farm equipment and truck business on Route 355 and see pastures that once held grazing cows from a pair of dairy farms that are no longer in operation.

"It almost looks like nothing has ever changed," he says.

But some things have changed. The dirt road that brought the rebels to Urbana for an interlude between clashes with Union forces is paved and now used by armies of commuters hurrying to and from jobs in Montgomery County and Washington. Interstate 270 lies just west of the village.

These commuters are the new invaders.

Their Victorian and Colonial-style houses, set back from narrow and winding roads, afford panoramic views of rolling cornfields, horse pastures and Sugarloaf Mountain to the west. Their numbers are expected to grow.

"I can see it coming," says Mr. Geisbert, whose family has run the farm equipment business since the early 1900s. "They'll have eight houses to an acre. There'll be congestion. They'll think my place is noisy, smelly and dirty. We've been here the longest but that's just what they're going to say."

Frederick County is updating its plans to manage growth in the area bounded by Interstates 270 and 70 and Montgomery County. Sue Waterman, who moved to a development outside of Urbana 18 years ago to escape the hustle-bustle of Washington, D.C., collected hundreds of signatures on petitions opposed to the plan, which calls for as many as 2,000 housing units, just northeast of the town.

"It was reassuring for me and exciting how much people care about this area," says Mrs. Waterman, president of the Urbana Civic Association. "Usually pocketbook issues bring these kind of reactions. I was surprised. We don't want to be another Germantown or Gaithersburg."

Urbana, only three miles south of the Monocacy National Battlefield, is anything but.

"It's very nice, very peaceful here," Mrs. Waterman says. "It has gotten to be a bit of a challenge -- mostly because of the traffic. Roads have not kept up with the amount of traffic."

The tiny town is not opposed to newcomers in smaller numbers. Eurath Selckmann moved to Urbana from Catonsville as a young bride 45 years ago.

"I was a city girl moving to the country," she recalls. "I expected to find a bunch of mountaineers. I found out the people were delightful. They were mostly farmers and most of the families had been here for generations and generations."

As smaller developments of look-alike houses and brick ranches sprang up, replacing cornfields, new residents also found themselves welcome, she says. Newcomers have contributed to the community, becoming active in the school's Parent-Teachers Association, the Urbana Civic Association and the fire company, she says. Several residents just recently formed a historical society; she is vice president.

"It's always been a welcoming community," say Mrs. Selckmann. "What terrifies people about the county's plan is that there will be so many people all at once. People think a developer is going to make all kinds of money and we'll have all these strangers on top of it."

For now, Urbana's peacefulness is broken only by commuters and tourists.

"We're the first stop on 270 where you can take a breather," says Charlie Seymour, who, with his wife, Suzanne, runs the Turning Point Inn, a stately bed-and-breakfast inn and restaurant. "There's lots of nature here. People that come here really appreciate the fact that they can drive such a short distance and be in the country."

Here in Urbana:

(1) SIGHT TO BEHOLD: Remnants remain of the Peter Pan Inn, which looked "like it was decorated by Tinker Bell," according to one reviewer. Fountains, ornate furniture and cherubic statues still adorn an outdoor patio at the touristy restaurant, now called the Cracked Claw. Peacocks no longer stroll the grounds and the chickens are no longer on the roof.

(2) FORGOTTEN HISTORY: Villagers don't recall why the mansion on Route 355 was moved to Urbana from a site in Virginia before the Civil War.

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