Historic towns to see near Washington

BY VICTOR BLOCK Modified: December 3, 2012 at 3:11 pm •  Published: December 3, 2012
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In 1733, a Quaker named Amos Janney moved from Pennsylvania to an isolated corner of northern Virginia, where he built gristmills and sawmills along the banks of a narrow creek.

About a decade later a group of German immigrants established a frontier community in Maryland that became a place of rest and provisioning for pioneers driving wagon trains to the West. In 1761, English colonist Robert Harper launched a ferry service across the Potomac River and a settlement evolved at the site that still carries his name.

Today these historic towns within a short drive of Washington, D.C., relate chapters of American history as interesting as those explored in the nation's capital. Anyone coming to Washington for the inauguration — or any reason — might wish to check one or more of these close-by communities.

Waterford, the hamlet that grew around Janney's Mill, is now a bucolic settlement of about 300 residents. The community has changed so little in size and shape since its founding that were Amos Janney to miraculously return, he would feel right at home.

By several decades after its founding, Waterford had grown into a bustling commercial center. Because its largely Quaker population remained loyal to the Union, the town suffered harassment from Confederate troops during the Civil War, as well as from Union forces seeking to destroy anything that could be of value to the Southern army.

Wandering along the handful of streets, visitors encounter traces of life as it used to be. Miniscule smokehouses and icehouses still stand in some backyards. A small stone structure that was built in the 1700s now serves as the kitchen of a large 19th-century brick home. The Bank House, Doctor's House and Williams Storehouse are among homes whose names indicate their past function.

The Waterford Market fills several roles. Antiquated soft-drink machines in front, which dispense beverages for 50 cents, set the stage. Shelves are stocked with a sparse supply of canned goods and other basics. Linda Landreth, the jovial proprietor, often is on hand spinning wool provided by sheep she raises and knitting socks, ear warmers and other items that are for sale.

The laid-back lifestyle of the tiny town greets visitors in other ways, as well. During my recent outing, only occasionally was the constant sound of birds chirping drowned out by a passing car.

The sign identifying the little post office, which has been in operation since 1897, lacks a ZIP code because it was installed before they came into use. Among hand-written notices on the bulletin board just outside it are ads for services like horse-boarding and hoof-trimming.

When a resident pointed me in the direction of what she called "New Town," I expected to find an enclave of recently built contemporary houses. I was relieved to learn that the term applies to a mini-neighborhood that was given the name when it was originally developed — beginning in 1815.

Many Americans believe that the Boston Tea Party was the first act of rebellion against Great Britain that eventually led to the Revolution. Many Americans are wrong.

Eight years before that event in December 1773, colonists in Frederick, Md., repudiated the Stamp Act, which imposed taxes on legal transactions and printed material. Frederick County judges declared the law to be null and void, and angry residents hung the tax collector in effigy.

That historical, often-overlooked fact is one of many that come to life during a visit to Frederick. Originally laid out in 1745, the community was settled by German and Pennsylvania Dutch immigrants. To exert control during the American Revolution, the British stationed a Hessian regiment in town, and two stone barracks where they were garrisoned still stand as reminders of their presence.

During the Civil War, both Union and Confederate troops marched through. As battles raged in the area, the churches in downtown Frederick became temporary hospitals where innovations in handling the wounded were implemented for the first time.

That tale is told at the National Museum of Civil War Medicine.

Stories of real people at the museum put a human face on the medicine of the time. Other exhibits portray Civil War camps, African-American life and the role of women and children during the war.

The best-known anecdote relating to the Civil War in Frederick most likely is fictional. Many people are familiar with the poem by John Greenleaf Whittier that lauds the bravery of Barbara Fritchie, a frail 95-year-old Unionist, as Confederate Gen. "Stonewall" Jackson marched his troops through the town in 1862.

Most historians doubt that, as Whittier wrote, she waved the American flag from an upstairs window and uttered the memorable challenge to "Shoot if you must this old gray head, but spare your country's flag." Nevertheless, a replica of the house where this incident did, or did not, occur continues to be a favorite site among visitors.

Whittier's poem also notes that the "clustered spires of Frederick stand green-walled in the hills of Maryland," and those words remain true to this day. The skyline of church steeples that watches over the town continues to attest to the religious diversity for which it became known. Many of the 2,500-plus other historic properties have been meticulously restored, and visitors encounter a streetscape relatively little changed from its early days.

While most closely associated with the quixotic story of the abolitionist John Brown, Harper's Ferry, W.Va., played a starring role in other chapters of the nation's history and development. The town was the site of several Civil War skirmishes, it is a treasure-trove of stories relating to African-American history, and it is associated with little-known but important advances in American manufacturing.

Of course, it's the story of John Brown that most people know. In October 1859, he led 21 men in a raid on the Harper's Ferry arsenal, hoping to use captured weapons to launch a slave uprising throughout the South. Most of the raiders were killed or wounded, and Brown was convicted of treason and hung. But while his short-lived plan failed, it helped to focus attention on the issue of slavery and became a catalyst for the Civil War.

Brown's raid and the Civil War are part of the story of African-Americans in Harper's Ferry history, which began before the Revolution. At one time the town had 150 slaves and an equal number of free blacks, and during the Civil War it provided refuge to runaway slaves from the South.

Equally intriguing is the story of John Hall. He figured out how to manufacture rifles with interchangeable parts, employing machinery to replace workers using hand-held tools. That invention set the stage for transforming the United States from an economy of workshop craftsmen to one of industrialized mass production.

Harper's Ferry also delivers light touches for the entertainment of visitors. For example, a plaque identifying a mid-19th-century tavern near the armory notes that workmen would "raise a glass or two - or three" during breaks. Their supervisors complained that the practice "ruined morals, work ethic, and even threatens Armory production."

A very different aspect of life awaits at Cool Confectionaries, where shopkeeper Susan Benjamin turns out recipes for candy as close as possible to those made some 150 years ago. She enjoys telling visitors which confections on her shelves were included in Civil War military rations. A stop at her shop provides a sweet ending to an interesting day.

WHEN YOU GO

Waterford is about an hour's drive from Washington. For information, visit www.waterfordfoundation.org or call (540) 882-3018.

Frederick also is an hour from Washington. For information visit www.fredericktourism.org or call (800) 999-3613.

Harper's Ferry is about a 75-minute drive from Washington. For information visit www.nps.gov/hafe or call (304) 535-6298.

Victor Block is a freelance writer. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

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