Hiking through Western Md. history Colorful scenery has a colorful past

October 12, 1993|By Greg Tasker | Greg Tasker,Staff Writer

Paula Strain has hiked the Appalachian Trail in Western Maryland for decades, sweating the steep climb from the Potomac River northward, marveling at forests thick with hardwoods and the sweeping views afforded from vistas along South Mountain.

But Ms. Strain has found more than beautiful scenery during her many jaunts along the 40-mile trail. She has discovered a swath rich in history and folklore as it stretches from the Potomac River near Harpers Ferry, W.Va., to the Mason-Dixon Line.

Ms. Strain has captured the history of the Maryland trail and the colorful and sometimes violent past of the area in a recently published book, "The Blue Hills of Maryland: History Along the Appalachian Trail on South Mountain and the Catoctins."

"There's really probably more [national] history in those 40 miles in Maryland than in the rest of the 2,100-mile trail," which stretches from Maine to Georgia, Ms. Strain said. "The Maryland section is crammed with history: four distinct [Civil War] battles, the National Road and the Mason-Dixon Line."

Her 307-page book describes Western Maryland burgs and ghost towns; contains brief histories of landmarks such as the War Correspondents' Memorial at Gathland State Park and vignettes of the four battles of South Mountain; and mentions future presidents and Civil War generals.

There are references to brothels that some believe existed long ago in bars and hotels such as the South Mountain Inn.

"There may have been a brothel there," Ms. Strain said. "A Baltimore Sun reporter back in the 1960s hinted very strongly that [the building] had been a brothel in the 1950s. But the owner told a friend of mine quite indignantly that there was no truth to the story."

Ms. Strain, a retired information manager for a Washington think tank and former Navy lieutenant, provides readers with more than stories of South Mountain battles and landmarks in her book.

She also offers anecdotes about colorful people who lived near the trail in Washington and Frederick counties. They range from the "Axman Bard," George W. Kettoman, "a rather bad poet" from Pen Mar at the trail's northern end, to "Aunt Polly" Yarrow, a freed slave woman who eked out a living selling chestnuts and blackberries from her cabin near the trail's southern end in Washington County.

"Aunt Polly couldn't read or write, but she could count to 15," Ms. Strain said. "She sold berries for 15 cents a quart. People had to pay her 15 pennies stacked in a pile."

Some of poet Kettoman's works survive in used-book stores, but the Pen Mar of that era doesn't. Around the turn of the century, the once-popular resort town boasted seven hotels, more than 100 private cottages, an amusement park and golf courses that attracted families escaping the summer heat in Baltimore and Washington.

"It was quite a place," Ms. Strain said.

The Rockville resident began researching the book about three years ago for "something to do in retirement." She initially planned a book on the histories of Frederick and Washington counties, but that project proved too expansive, she said.

A history of the Maryland trail seemed a natural choice. The West Virginia native researched the book primarily in the Frederick and Washington county public libraries, delving through newspaper clippings and old books.

Ms. Strain thought the book -- her first -- would be a natural for hikers and outdoor enthusiasts. The Potomac Appalachian Trail Club, the book's publisher and one of the clubs that maintains Maryland's trail, receives all proceeds from sales. The first edition consists of 2,000 copies.

Although the book is a departure from the usual trail guides published by the club, hiker Shirley Strong welcomed Ms. Strain's effort.

"It will help people interested in hiking the trail to understand the area in which they are hiking," said Ms. Strong, who lives in Glen Echo in Montgomery County. "It's a wonderful place to walk, and it's nice to know the history of the area you're hiking in."

Ms. Strain included Harpers Ferry in her book because everything interesting that happened there, such as John Brown's raid on a federal arsenal on the eve of the Civil War, "either began or ended" on Maryland's side of the Potomac.

Ms. Strain hikes almost every week in Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland or Pennsylvania -- trails within a two-hour drive of her high-rise apartment.

She also helps maintain a section of the Appalachian Trail south of Gathland State Park, something she has been doing for about 20 years as a member of the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club.

"I've taken on a young man as co-overseer," Ms. Strain said. "I see no reason to keep digging ditches when someone else can do it for me."

Ms. Strain has hiked the length of the Maryland trail. She's hiked about half of the entire Appalachian Trail but has no plans to walk it all.

Although her book has barely hit bookstore shelves, Ms. Strain already is contemplating a second volume on ghosts, wizards and folk tales from Washington and Frederick counties.

"There's a whole series of ghosts in that area," she said. "There's suppose to be an old wagoner that appears occasionally at the South Mountain Inn. Nobody knows anything about him. He just appears and scares people."

Then there are stories of "dwayo," a great bearlike animal that was last reported seen near Frederick in 1974. It appears in people's back yards, Ms. Strain said, "when they've had too many beers."

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