250 years give Frederick cause for celebration

January 02, 1995|By Greg Tasker | Greg Tasker,Western Maryland Bureau of The Sun

FREDERICK -- George Washington slept here. General Lafayette dined and danced here. Francis Scott Key lived and practiced law in Frederick. Mamie Eisenhower and George and Barbara Bush shopped here.

Since its founding on the Maryland frontier 250 years ago, Frederick has been host to many famous visitors and the site of many colorful episodes in American history.

This rich and varied heritage will be promoted in a 12-month anniversary celebration that began New Year's Eve with the cheerful ringing of church bells in the city's landmark clustered spires.

"We have been a crossroads of American history," said Paul Gordon, former mayor and local historian. "We like to impress upon everybody that Frederick has played a part in just about every major event in American history. Most of the presidents have been here -- all the way back to Washington."

Indeed. The roll call of historic visitors includes Presidents Andrew Jackson, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Richard Nixon, Civil War generals and international figures, including former Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev.

And then there are Frederick's own renowned residents: Francis Scott Key, author of "The Star-Spangled Banner;" Roger Brooke Taney, Supreme Court justice and author of the 1857 Dred Scott decision that said blacks had no constitutional rights; and Civil War figure Barbara Fritchie, who reputedly defied passing Confederate troops by waving the Union flag.

Booming from expansion driven by business growth in the Interstate 270 corridor, Frederick, population 45,000, owes much its role in American history to its location at the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains and its proximity to Baltimore and Washington, D.C.

During the past two decades, Frederick has seen tremendous growth. Its population has doubled with an influx of residents from Washington and neighboring Montgomery County. The city has expanded in all directions with shopping centers, industrial parks and residential developments.

Even so, there's much in Frederick that remains unchanged. The 33-block historic district preserves 18th- and 19th-century churches, Greek Revival and Italian Renaissance buildings, brick townhouses, tree-lined streets and courtyards.

"Frederick is a big small town," Mayor Jim Grimes said. "On every street corner people wave to you, speak to you, smile. It's certainly known for all its heritage and historic charm, but it has a lot of new culture, too."

It's clear, though, that history lures many out-of-towners.

"History is our No. 1 area of interest for visitors," said Dennis Crolley of the Frederick Tourism Council. "The thing people like is that while Frederick has historical charm, it's also a functioning modern city with all the conveniences travelers tend to want."

About 35,000 visitors passed through the downtown Visitor Center last year, he said. Their numbers are expected to increase with the opening of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine next year.

This year's celebrations are expected to attract new visitors, too. Among the highlights is a Civil War era ball in September on the same date Confederate Gen. J. E. B. Stuart played host at a ball in nearby Urbana. The city also will have a parade and dedicate the carillon bells at Baker Park -- the largest carillon bell system in Maryland.

Anniversary events began yesterday with an open house at City Hall (built in 1862 and formerly a courthouse) and tours of historic homes.

Frederick is among the oldest cities in Maryland. Frederick Town was laid out in 1745 on a tract of land that was formerly part of Tasker's Chance. It attracted waves of German and English immigrants, and merchants and craftsmen made it a thriving crossroads of trade.

The town became the stage for historic events almost immediately. During the French and Indian War, for example, British Gen. Edward Braddock met here with Col. George Washington and Benjamin Franklin to plan the Fort Duquesne campaign.

Long before the Boston Tea Party and other acts of American protest against the British crown, Frederick judges defied the 1765 Stamp Act, a British law requiring Colonies to buy tax stamps for all legal and commercial documents, by approving use of unstamped documents.

"It's one of the first, if not the first, overt acts of rebellion in the Colonies," Mr. Gordon said. "Its anniversary is still celebrated every year in Frederick."

Frederick housed Hessian and British prisoners during the American Revolution and was a staging area for troops in later wars. Hundreds of thousands of Union and Confederate troops passed through during the Civil War en route to Antietam and South Mountain.

"We've had a lot of impact on American history," said Roy Oakan, a former elementary school principal who is a downtown tour guide. "Visitors are always amazed at the number of people who lived or visited here who had an impact not only on the region but the country."

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