Little Town Delivers Big Frights

POSTMARK: LEITERSBURG

October 24, 1993|By WAYNE HARDIN

The old red brick schoolhouse sits on a low rise in the park shadowed by tall oak trees. Boards cover the windows. A black (( and white mural hangs over the front door. It depicts ghostly figures in a cemetery, one carrying a large scythe on his shoulder. On the mural are these words: "The Terror Within."

The scene today is quiet -- quite unlike the nights when screams of terrified children rend the air in Leitersburg. Terrifying kids of all ages is the way they raise money in this little town six miles northeast of Hagerstown. That's where the abandoned schoolhouse comes in: For three weekends a year it becomes a chilling, thrilling haunted house. Everybody loves it, especially those doing the screaming.

"Last year, 7,000 people came through," says Kenneth Mongan, of the sponsoring Leitersburg Ruritan Club. "We have it the three weekends before Halloween, 12 nights in all."

The last night this year is Oct. 31, Halloween.

The haunted house, begun by the community teen center 18 years ago, was taken over by the Ruritan Club seven years ago and moved to the former Leitersburg Elementary School, built in 1914 and owned by the club.

"We cleared $22,000 profit in 1992," says Kelly Eakle, 44, who was involved in starting the teen center 20 years ago and the haunted house. "Proceeds are split between Ruritan and the teen center but all money goes back into the community."

The haunted house is Leitersburg's biggest fund-raiser, says Mr. Mongan, 49. He is one of 20 members of the Ruritan Club, a local chapter of the national community-service organization. The club takes a major role in this town of 500.

Another major project of the members is the 14-year-old peach festival, which attracts about 10,000 people in August.

With money from the two events, the Ruritans pay for the town's 20 street lights, plant trees, support a teen-center tutoring program, donate to the volunteer fire company, and take care of the community park.

All this requires enormous volunteer effort and community pride, and the town has plenty of both. Founded in 1815 by the Leiter family, it still looks much like a 19th-century Western Maryland village. Many homes and buildings are more than 100 years old.

When Maryland Route 60 opened in the 1950s, it clipped the edge of Leitersburg, taking non-local traffic away from the town square. New building has tended toward Hagerstown, leaving the core of Leitersburg essentially preserved.

Old buildings in the town get recycled instead of torn down. The Leitersburg Hotel (built in 1830) has been a tavern for years; an 1897 church is now the teen center; and a general store is the Village Mini-Deli.

Some of the town's homes are striking, such as the one Jeannine and Pete Humphrey bought and renovated after moving here 19 years ago. The brick house sits just south of the square. Constructed by Joseph "The Builder" Leiter before 1850, it features a spectacular winding staircase that floats three floors from the entrance hall to the attic.

"It's called a flying winder," says Mrs. Humphrey. "My husband says I bought the staircase and the house came with it."

Her neighbor, Dorothy Smith, 68, came to live in the town at age 4. Mrs. Smith, the unofficial town historian, and her husband, John, live in an 1841 brick house built as a church.

Whether members of the Ruritan Club or not, residents care a lot for the community, she says.

"In 1945, the women decided we wanted street lights," Mrs. Smith says. "We had a meeting, went out and collected money. We got them, too."

When there's a need, this community steps forward. Adult members of the town serve as chaperons at the Ruritans' haunted house. Forty to 45 teens from the center portray the characters. The Ruritans build the sets and run the operation. Visitors come from Maryland, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Virginia to take the 45-minute house tour.

"Each year we have a theme based on a story or real life," Mr. Eakle says. "One year we did Lizzie Borden. I don't like to reveal what we're doing. The surprise makes it special."

What he will tell visitors to this year's house is that they will enter under that spine-tingling mural and first see a tone-setting audience-participation play. Twenty minutes later, they will begin the trip through the house's eerie maze. Expect screams. At the end, visitors will leave the building unexpectedly -- downhill all the way.

The Leitersburg haunted house opens at 7 each night. Tickets, which are $4 each, must be purchased by 10 p.m. For more information, call (301) 797-7727 during the day.

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