Looking To The Past For Future Bash

POSTMARK: BROOKEVILLE

May 16, 1993|By Katherine Drew DeBoalt

In the records piled high on Mary Gardner's dining-room table live farmers, mill hands, housewives and freed slaves.

They are past residents of the Montgomery County town of Brookeville, the people whose stories are told in these census reports and land records.

To Ms. Gardner these records also represent the makings of an (( enormous guest list. This year, with the help of volunteers, she has set about the ambitious task of identifying everyone who has lived, worked or owned property in Brookeville.

They are planning a reunion, a big bash to be held next year to honor the bicentennial of this crossroads village. Descendants of the early families will join current residents in the festivities.

"I love this town. I've been here 17 years," said Ms. Gardner, editor of the Brookeville Times newspaper and resident of a 1788 stone house, one of three buildings that existed when the town was founded in 1794.

"One day I was out walking and I was kind of playing in my imagination, thinking about who had lived here before me. It was kind of a poetic experience, imagining the people and what they did, and I started to think how nice it would be to include them in the reunion."

Using land records, oral histories, gravestones and any other available information, the researchers are attempting to identify not only the owners of property and businesses in the mill town, who most likely were white men, but also the women, slaves and free blacks who populated Brookeville over the years.

"It's really the history of the people that makes up the history of a town, rather than just the events, and this is a way to incorporate them," said Ms. Gardner.

For years, Brookeville's identity has been dominated by the story of only one of its past inhabitants: President James Madison. During the War of 1812, he fled the British army that was burning Washington, and briefly set up government operations in Brookeville. A metal marker near the town post office tells the tale: Brookeville, United States Capital for a day.

Ms. Gardner's research takes her beyond that familiar story into territory that is less well-documented. She has come to realize the enormity of her task. Before 1850, official records offered little information about residents who did not own land. The records ignored children and some of the poorest members of the community, she said.

Because Brookeville was predominantly Quaker in the years after its founding, the community had few slaves. But they did exist, Ms. Gardner said, and often records show only the slaves' first names.

Another gap in Brookeville's story is the role of women, said Ms. Gardner. She has found information about several widows who took over their husbands' businesses, and about the recruitment of female teachers to Miss Porter's School for Girls, one of two private academies in the town.

So far, Ms. Gardner and her volunteers have identified about 1,000 residents and land and property owners from the past. Some of the descendants of Brookeville's early families have moved on to other regions and states, but others continue to live in the Brookeville area. (Do you have a tie to Brookeville? Ms. Gardner welcomes calls at [301] 924-5507.)

Those who have stayed on note that Brookeville's commercial economy has disappeared. At the time Madison arrived, Brookeville was beginning a boom, spurred partly by its location near two swiftly flowing streams that enabled the running of two mills, Ms. Gardner said. Later, about the time of Brookeville's incorporation in 1894, 100 years after its founding, the town had shoe shops, a tin shop, two stagecoaches, two doctors, a dentist and an undertaker, records show.

Today, the mills are closed, but the village has retained its historic appearance. Insulated by a historic district designation and an incorporated status that allows the town of 145 people some governmental autonomy, Brookeville has been immune to much of the development that is converting northern Montgomery County from farms into bedrooms for Baltimore and Washington commuters.

Around the village, particularly to the south and east, cows graze alongside expensive new developments of five-bedroom homes with bucolic-sounding names like Sunnymeade. And tractors share the roads with the Jeeps and BMWs of the area's newest residents.

"It's its own little world, a little oasis, except during commuting hours. Then it turns into a roaring raceway," said Clyde Unglesbee, who moved to town more than 45 years ago.

There seems hardly enough roadway for more than an occasional fender-bender in this village, where century-old houses sit close to the road's shoulder. However, last year there were 21 accidents in the town, Ms. Gardner said.

Route 97 has become a major north-south route between Washington and Westminster (it's called Georgia Avenue as you HTC leave Washington, Market Street in Brookeville). "This town wasn't built for that," said Ms. Gardner. At the corner where Route 97 becomes Market Street, a sign keeps a day-to-day tally of the number of traffic accidents.

For 25 years, there has been discussion of a bypass that would route traffic around the town. This year the project looks closer to fruition than before, Ms. Gardner said.

If the bypass is built, the traffic change may count among the biggest things to happen in Brookeville since Madison's days.

CAPITAL FOR A DAY

In August of 1814 President James Madison, his escort of soldiers and other Washingtonians fled the British army and took refuge in Brookeville during the War of 1812.

According to legend, the entire United States treasury was stored in burlap bags in several Brookeville buildings.

Madison's host was Caleb Bentley, the town's postmaster.

Baltimore Sun Articles
|
|
|
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.