On Ben Bradlee

One of the great pleasures of being an employee at Washington National Cathedral is the opportunity to be a fly on the wall, at some incredible moments in history. Such was the case today, when I was allowed to attend the funeral of Benjamin C. Bradlee, former Executive Editor of the Washington Post. Just covering a position in the front hall, as the public filed past fairly intense security measures, seeing Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein arriving together, as I said in my Facebook status, was enough to drive my History-O-Meter right off the scale.

I was a ten year old boy, when Watergate happened. It was a hard thing to follow, for a ten year old, and, honestly, what I actually remember most was the green, felt tablecloth in the Senate Committee meeting room, which was so like the one my parents and grandparents used, when they played cards. Of course, in the following years, I’d learn the Watergate story from the movie, All The President’s Menand then read the book itself. Of particular fascination, was the fact that it was also, for me, a hometown story, and many of the key figures were still around. Just being a Washingtonian, I met Katherine Graham a few times, back in the 80s, might see Woodward or Bernstein around the city from time to time, and even became good friends with Paul Leeper, the “Old Clothes Unit” Metropolitan Police sergeant, who responded to the break-in call at the Watergate, but, for the longest time, I never met Ben Bradlee, the gruff, forceful character, who had so vigorously striven for the story… the TRUE story.

Years later, I read Mr. Bradlee’s memoirs, and my admiration for the man grew exponentially. From his service on naval destroyers during World War II, to the his insistence on giving honest press to the situation of public facility integration, the issue of segregated public pools mostly. to the Watergate story that would forever sear his name into the annals of American political history, it seemed the underlying thread to this man’s existence was a deep commitment to seeing the United States of America constantly moving forward in the realization of its promises.

Benjamin C. Bradlee August 26, 1921 - October 21, 2014

Benjamin C. Bradlee  August 26, 1921 – October 21, 2014

A few years ago, I saw Ben Bradlee walking up Wisconsin Avenue, in front of Washington National Cathedral. Realizing it might be the only opportunity I might ever have to address myself to this man, I stepped up and extended my hand. “Mr. Bradlee,” I said. “I just wanted to tell you I’ve read your memoir, and I think you’re a hero. Thank you.”

Then I got my Ben Bradlee moment. He chuckled at my seriousness, and in that raspy, but intensely forceful voice, he said something I’d bet anyone who has ever met him could imagine. It began with a sharp, “Ha!” Then he went on… “You’ll get over it,” and his eyes twinkled. What does one even say to that? He moved on up the sidewalk, and I returned to my work.

As the world said good-bye to Benjamin Crowninshield Bradlee today, a reply came to my mind. “No, Mr. Bradlee, I don’t think I will.”

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To The Man In The White Tesla (or How Getting Cut-off In Traffic Became a Gift From God)

Dear Sir,

I don’t know you personally, but I want to thank you, publicly, for what you did for me today. It was far more important than you know.

As you’ll recall, it all started at the intersection of Goldsboro and River Roads, on the afternoon of Saturday, October 25, as we were making the two-lanes-left, left turn from Goldsboro onto northbound River. You drifted from the inner lane to the outer, as you made the turn, resulting in cutting me off in the outer lane of the turn. Let me tell you a little about who you cut off. I’m a man, who is having significant difficulty moving through this life. I suffer from fairly constant depression and have had a particularly hard couple of weeks. In fact, just yesterday, I was rear-ended on Wisconsin Avenue, by a woman, who was too busy talking on the phone to press on the brake petal of her mobile telephone booth. Out of the car, in that case, and asking whether she was talking on the phone, she muted her Bluetooth earpiece, looked me right in the eye, and said, “No.” I probably should have been flabbergasted, but I’ve come to expect such behaviors from the rich and privileged, who are driving on the streets of Bethesda, Maryland; their hurry more important than the hurries of anyone else around them. Work is hard, home is hard, and everything in between. You cut off an already very unhappy man.

You know what happened next. I, having suffered yet another of life’s constant indignities, the egregious offense of being dangerously cut-off in traffic, began to fly into a rage. I don’t often think of myself as an angry or rage-ful person, but, like I said, the past few weeks have been particularly hard. By the time I’d caught up with and was beside you, what had been a moment of rage had already subsided to an energetic urge to have you understand, if you weren’t aware, you had made a dangerous mistake. By the time I was beside you, your window was down, and only God knows, in a world full of road rage, where things might’ve gone next. I yelled, “TWO LANES LEFT!” and put up two (not one) fingers. When your hand came up to your ear, indicating you hadn’t heard me, it could, in any road rage situation, have meant something entirely different, further stoking an angry situation. It also occurred to me that maybe, just maybe, you were actually giving me an opportunity to be heard. I said it again, as we were slowing down to a traffic light… “TWO LANES LEFT!” Your response floored me.

“I know,” you replied. “I realized it after I’d done it, but I want you to know…” By now we’re sitting side-by-side at the traffic light and you looked right into my eyes… “I am really, very sorry I cut you off.” BAM! Life-changer. Faith restorer. Gift from God.

I don’t know if you’re religious at all. Spiritual, Ethical Atheist, or none of those things, but your apology was so sincere, so honest, so earnest, so direct and so audible, my rage ceased and my reaction was a visual “namaste” and a sheepish comment about your very cool car. You even went on to explain that, as cool as they are, Teslas have significant vision and sight-line restrictions. “Still cool,” I said, “and I want you to know just how much I appreciate your apology.”

The light changed and we moved apart. Perhaps that was the end of it for you, but as I drove away, I heard a quote in my head from the movie “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory”… “So shines a good deed in a weary world” (which I’ve just learned originated with Shakespeare). So shines a good deed in a weary world. Sir, your choice to not react angrily was a good deed. Your apology was an even greater goodness. Still driving away from it, I felt my whole spirit lift. You are a good man. That’s what I strive to be. You might’ve even been an angel, driving a very clean, white Tesla. Your upstanding behavior was outstanding, and I felt the weight of weeks of darkness lift. You put me back in mind of the things that are truly important, and modeled a wonderful example of honesty, humility and calm restraint. Thank you.

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Surprise!

Surprise! I’m back. There are not many of you subscribed to this blog, but to those who are, surprise! I wonder whether you ever expected to hear from me again. Well, I am back and happily so.

Let me tell you what happened. Of course, it’s been several years now, since I wrote the epic Old Olney: Icke’s. As I was getting very close to finished, I hit a wrong button and *poof*, it was gone. It was probably the longest post I’ve ever written, and I’m not the fastest typist in the world. Furthermore, compounding the blow, I had the distinct feeling it was the best thing I’d ever written. I was crushed. Two years crushed, apparently. Now I have a speak-and-type software. I’m not endorsing anyone in particular, but you can probably figure out which one I’m using. It’s the only one most people have ever heard of, and the one everybody says is the best. I’m excited.

I’ve also recently given myself a crash course in what blogging really is. I recognize that everything doesn’t have to be an epic. I taught myself the basics of HTML, as well. Of course, there is an epic in the works. I’m going to attempt to reproduce Old Olney: Icke’s. In the last two years, I’ve found my way into a Facebook group, called “You know you are from Olney, MD when”. It has been absolutely fascinating. There are lots of old Olney old-timers and a lot of working out the histories.

Another thing I’ve done recently is associate myself with a website called HipHost.com. I believe they call it a social touring site. The point is to have locals offer tours of locales, and make them available to outsiders for pay. Of course, I can choose, at any time, to give the same tours to my friends, for free. Suffice it to say, if you are already subscribed to this blog, you are one of my friends. I’m currently offering two tours -my first two- in the Sandy Spring area. The first is an auto tour of the old houses in the area. It’s mostly a stay in the car kind of tour, just seeing the houses from the road. However, there are a few places where one can get closer to some pretty significant historic old homes.

I recently mentioned my second tour to a member of the Sandy Spring Meeting of Friends, and doing so caused the same reaction that I’d hoped it would. The tour is a walk out Meeting House Road that I call, “The Quaker Cathedral,”.

“What?! That’s an oxymoron!” She’s right, but as someone who is also a docent at Washington National Cathedral, I have found a very similar spiritual experience on the walk from the old Sandy Spring firehouse out to the spring itself. Maybe I’ll go into that here, sometime in the future.

Anyway, there it is. I’m back. I hope you can forgive me the technological crutch I’ve been using, and still consider me a writer. Expect to hear from me again soon.

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An Argument For Winter Golf

This week, as temperatures in the Washington D.C. area repeatedly top the century mark, I’d like to make an argument for winter golf. Of course, I’m a descendant of pasty, white, northern Europeans, like those who invented the game of golf, which means, among other things, I’m really not inclined to enjoy outdoor activities in equatorial temperature and humidity levels. For me, more than anything, golf is about fun and entertainment, and, as I work on the first tee of a local golf course, starting players in a summer round of golf that could be described as a “death march”, I’m noting none of them seem to be anticipating fun. Why play then?

Summer is not my golf season, and particularly in the summer weather considered normal for the region I call home. Of course, spring and fall can be glorious seasons for golf in the mid-Atlantic, but, unfortunately, that truth is so obvious, the golf courses can become jammed. Winter is my golf season, and I’ve been known to be playing (with others) in conditions where the wind-chill factor was about 14 degrees below zero… fahrenheit.

There are some obvious truths about winter golf that “fair weather” golfers don’t seem to appreciate. For one, and on the crucial matter of personal comfort, it is far easier to regulate one’s body temperature and comfort level in the winter. Simply by stacking thin layers of clothing -particularly over the upper body- and by wearing a warm hat, one can achieve an ideal level of body heat retention, and can regulate it be wearing or removing the hat. To the contrary, in hot weather summer golf, regulating one’s body temperature and comfort level becomes a hopeless and desperate endeavor, using marginal methods (moisture-wicking clothing, ice on the neck, temporarily-cool, wet towel on the head, etc.), and, even if golf courses would allow you to play nude (nude golf… an ugly thought, I know), on a day like today, the players would be nude, and still miserably hot.

There seems to be, at least for me, another advantage to the wearing of multiple thin layers of upper-body wear in winter golf… a tighter, more controllable, and more powerful golf swing. Some golfers may find that hard to believe, but, if one understands the power of a golf swing derives from an act that is similar to the loading and releasing of a spring-like coil, then it stands to reason a spring with increased resistance to loading will release its energy with increased force. Despite having it explained to me, by several golf pros, there’s no way I fly the ball further in winter, I’m certain I do, and I’m fairly certain it is the increased tension in my body/coil, created by layered clothing, that makes this true.

There are other distinct advantages to playing golf in the winter. Among those is the fact that, in winter, the ground is hardened, and additional shot length is available in the fact that a struck golf ball will bounce and run further on frozen ground than it would otherwise. Admittedly, with the additional length of a hard-bouncing ball, comes an increased emphasis on controlling the swing and the ball, but there’s no question that my golf swing can always benefit from an increased attention to control. Should, however, one’s swing still carry one’s ball into the rough… what rough? Even the thickest summer golf grasses tend to become thin and wispy in the winter. On top of all that, in proper winter golf conditions, the ball even bounces off water hazards.

Another distinct advantage to winter golf, particularly for those of us who like to play fast and alone, is the lack of crowds. The golf market is a little off right now, from where it was a decade ago, so golf course crowding is not the issue it can and has been in the past. Nonetheless, for someone who likes to go out and run a quick, two-hour round of golf, a day with air temperatures in the single-digits and a wind chill factor below zero will almost guarantee solitude on the links.

For all of that, it was on a very cold winter day that I was taught one of the greatest golf lessons of my life. If I have the dates anywhere close to correct, it was on a late December day, sometime between Christmas and New Years, when I decided to get in a quick 18 holes at a local public facility, Poolesville Golf Course in Poolesville, Maryland. Although I’d occasionally played golf since childhood, it was only in the mid-1980s that I was severely bitten by the golf bug. At that point in my life, there wasn’t a day that went by, when I wasn’t trying to get out and play. So, even with air temperatures at 7 degrees F., but almost no wind, I was happy to hope I’d have the big public course all to myself.

In the mid-1980s, the golf market was even weaker than it is today, and nowhere near what it would become in the Tiger Woods-era. Jack Nicklaus won his last major championship in 1986 and golf wanted for players of luminous star quality. My point is, mid-winter, one could occasionally still show up at a local course, on particularly cold days, to find the shop closed, and the course unattended. Such was not the case when I arrived at Poolesville that morning, but the place seemed entirely deserted except for the startled golf shop employee, who clearly wasn’t expecting to see anyone that early, that day.

I paid my greens fee and headed out onto the front-nine, where I played the first half of the round in just under an hour. I was playing well, had a wonderful rhythm and pace going and was enjoying myself immensely as I tee’d off on the ninth hole, but noticed, as I came closer to “the turn” and the clubhouse, there was a player beginning his round on the tenth hole. My disappointment mounted as I considered that this other player may not play as fast as I do, might break my wonderful rhythm and pace or, worse yet, might decide to ask to play with me, if I catch up to him. I guess what was going to be was going to be, but I tried to postpone the situation, giving myself a few more holes alone to enjoy my game, by taking a brief rest break and stopping to get a cup of hot chocolate in the clubhouse.

When I returned to the course, to make my tee shot on the tenth hole, the other player seemed to be finishing up on the tenth green. Perhaps, it seemed, he would play faster than I’d hoped, and the two of us could move around the back-nine, each enjoying our own sense of isolation. My tee shot at ten, a short, straight par-four, was hit neatly into the fairway, and my second shot to the tenth green -raised like a plateau at the end of the fairway- rolled up just short of the front of the green. As I walked up to the front of the green, to consider my next shot, I realized that, at first hidden from my view, the other player now seemed to be waiting for me behind the tenth green.

As I tell this story, the next moment is not one of which I am particularly proud. After three-putting and walking off the back of the tenth green, I must have been telegraphing my disappointment with this person’s presence to such a visible degree, the first thing the poor old guy said to me was, “Don’t worry. I don’t want to play with you. I just want to show you this.”

Now, this guy must’ve been, at least, 85 years old, and while I was slightly embarrassed at having been caught in a grumpy, anti-social faux pas, the old man’s approach, under these conditions, seemed gracious, considerate and harmless. “Okay…,” I said, at my cheerful best, “show me what?”

“This is the only time of year I can get on the next green ‘in regulation’.” The eleventh hole at Poolesville Golf Course is a mid-length par five, where the tee shot cuts from a bank high on the end of a rectangular lake, over the corner of the lake and then the hole stretches down one of the long sides of the lake. To reach a par five hole “in regulation”, is to reach it in three (or less) shots, leaving two putts for a total hole score of 5, par. The suggestion that this diminutive, wizened old man could not reach the hole in regulation normally, but could today, seemed unlikely and was, thus, immediately intriguing.

The old man invited me to tee off first, and, as is so often the case when I’m being watched by a stranger, I hit my best drive of the day. It sailed cleanly over the lake, and was hit so well, it actually ran through the hard fairway and into the rough. (What rough?) Then as I stepped back, the old conjurer commenced his magic. Setting his ball on a low tee, he drew from his bag a pitching wedge. Then he addressed the ball, aimed not across the corner of, but straight down the center of the long lake. Using a short stroke, which could best be described as a chipping stroke, he proceeded to bump the ball down the front slope of the tee, at least 30 feet lower than the tee, to where it hung up in the tall grass on the lake’s edge. Clearly this guy didn’t have the strength, flexibility and length of a much younger golfer, but the little stroke was precisely what he intended, and exercised with a skill clearly confirming this was not the first time he’d played it.

As we walked off the tee, I started to chuckle to myself, as I realized he was going to use the frozen lake as an advantageous condition of play. However, realizing that, I still hadn’t accurately imagined just how he would play the next shot. With deliberate aplomb, he then pulled his putter from the golf bag, grinned at me, stood over the ball, and whacked it several hundred yards down the frozen lake, to where it ran up on a bank, not too far from the green. Brilliant!

Perhaps engaged in some light social discourse, we walked around the corner of the lake to my ball, and though I continued to play the hole, I have no recollection of how that went. By then, I was just too busy being fascinated by the skill, joy and creativity being displayed by this little old man; and besides, he had another shot to make before he was on the green in regulation. This would be the shot, of the three, requiring something more like a full golf swing, and was the most prone to missing its intended target.

I probably should’ve known he’d execute his third shot with the same studied calm with which he’d executed the past two, and I’ll admit to no surprise when he used his pitching wedge again to successfully pitch the ball over the final 70-80 yards to the green surface. After watching the ball to the green, I looked back at the man and there he stood, like Nicklaus, Faldo or some other great champion winning on the 18th at Augusta, club in hand, arms stretched upward, enjoying his moment of triumph. I applauded briefly and, as he came up on the green, he put his hands up again and said, “Regulation. Pitching Wedge-Putter-Pitching Wedge.” He made his par and I probably didn’t. Then he said, “Okay, you can go,” and dropped a ball to practice putting for a moment, as I jogged off toward the 12th tee.

I may have looked back once before I tee’d off at 12, but I never saw the old guy again after that. For all I know, once I was out-of-sight, my little zen guru of the links might’ve simply wafted away into the mist of a cold, calm, darkly overcast winter day, but the lesson he left me about enjoying the game of golf has remained with me to this day. Golf is a game. Golf is creativity. Golf is about overcoming or, better yet, capitalizing on the conditions of the moment; and, most of all, golf is, for all ages and skill levels, about fun. I’ll see you on the first tee in January.

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Old Olney: The Bulldozers

In 1923, Mrs. Clara Mae Downey purchased the Mt. Olney farm in Olney, Maryland, intent on converting the old Granville Farquhar home into a country restaurant, to be called Olney Inn. Clara Mae Downey is a bit of a mystery, herself, and most historical references will lead a researcher back to her role as Olney Inn’s owner. One apocryphal story refers to a fateful day when, out for a drive in the country, Mrs. Downey, a businesswoman and socialite, suffered a flat tire near the Mt. Olney farmhouse. The story goes on to suggest that, while waiting for some local young men to fix her tire, she enjoyed the view of the old farmhouse, and the feel of the crossroad village, and envisioned the Olney Inn.

Following on the success of her new restaurant, Mrs. Downey became something of a guardian angel to Olney’s rural community. She purchased Little Olney, the old Canby/Farquhar home, from which the village had eventually taken its name, and when the local Grange organization decided to sell their hall, next door to Little Olney and on the southeast corner of the crossroad intersection, she purchased that building as well.

Francis Hawkins was a son of the old village. His father had been the village wheelwright, before motorized trucks with rubber wheels replaced horse-drawn, wooden farm wagons, and a local homebuilder after. As a young man, Francis imagined he might like to make his living in the retail grocery business. Made aware of Francis’ aspirations, Clara Mae Downey offered to help him into the grocery business in the former Grange Hall. Mrs. Downey even afforded the young Hawkins some time to work at another local grocery first, to be certain this was the career he wanted. Francis Hawkins accepted Mrs. Downey’s offer, happened to meet his future wife while working at the other store, and chose the grocery business for his future. Francis’ father renovated the old Grange Hall #7 to serve its new purpose and, in 1937, Francis, and his brother Oland, opened Olney Foods.

Olney FoodsOlney Foods
Drawing by Barbara Hails ◦ ©1981
courtesy of Hails Art Gallery ◦ www.hailsartgallery.com

(unauthorized use or reproduction will be prosecuted)

 

By the spring of 1978, any attempts to save the old buildings clustered tightly around the old Olney crossroad had been exhausted. Four buildings that had housed a succession of Olney’s old, rural businesses were condemned by Maryland’s State Highway Administration. Three of those buildings were scheduled for demolition in early May.

The forge at Finneyfrock’s blacksmith shop was first lit in 1885. At that time, the blacksmith was Reuben Hines. Passed from Hines to his son-in-law, Joseph Finneyfrock, and then from Joseph Finneyfrock to his son, Dudley, the old forge burned, almost constantly, for about 92 years. By late May of 1978, Finneyfrock’s forge was cold, and the smithy would be the first of the old village’s core businesses to be bulldozed. It was then, after the rapidly expanding Olney community had fought to preserve its quaint, crossroad village and lost, that the buildings themselves put up the final struggle.

Finneyfrock's Blacksmith Shop Finneyfrock’s Blacksmith Shop
Drawing by Barbara Hails ◦ © 1981
courtesy of Hails Art Gallery ◦ www.hailsartgallery.com
(unauthorized use or reproduction will be prosecuted)

 The day front-end loaders and bulldozers destroyed Finneyfrock’s blacksmith shop was windless and warm. The actual demolition was scheduled for the early afternoon, and I, in school until 2:30, was not present. When I did arrive, promptly after the end of the school day, Finneyfrock’s was a pile of splinters being loaded into the back of a dump truck, but there was something strange about the situation. On approaching the scene, I noticed the sun seemed to dim a little, as if there was some barely detectable gloom hanging over the old crossroad.As it was explained to me later; the first demolitions on Finneyfrock’s old building were accomplished by a front-end loader. The driver of that piece of equipment began his work by lifting the pan of the loader high, and attempting to push the structure down from a high point. He placed the wide bucket against the front gable of the building, wound up the big diesel engine and slowly began pushing. Suddenly, the bucket punched through the wooden siding of the gable. The driver hesitated and, as he did, a black cloud of forge soot, almost a century’s worth, began rolling out of the hole in Finneyfrock’s gable, quickly becoming thick enough to both stop work and temporarily darken the sun. None of this stopped the inevitable. As I’ve already noted, when I approached the scene Finneyfrock’s was splinters, and the gloom I detected was the ghost of Finneyfrock’s old forge, dissipating, slowly, on a windless spring day.Later the same week, came the day when both Albert Murphy’s tinsmithing shop and home were demolished in the morning, and Dr. Alvin Berlin’s Olney Drugs was demolished later in the afternoon. It was another school day, but this time, if I hustled, I could be there in time to see the destruction of the old drug store. I hustled, and, as I arrived, I immediately spotted someone familiar in the backyard of the vacant lot, where Murphy’s had been just the day before.

Both Murphy’s and the old Olney Drugs building were first built as homes, during the 19th century. The building on the southeast corner of the Olney intersection, Murphy’s, had been built in 1892 by Michael Murphy, a tinsmith. To that home was added a “tollbooth”, from which Michael Murphy would also be responsible for collecting tolls on the old Washington-Brookeville Turnpike, today’s Georgia Avenue, and a shop, from which he, and then his son Albert, would ply their tinsmithing trade for the better part of a century. For how rural the old crossroads was, Murphy’s was a large, sprawling presence, on the southeast corner, for a very long time.

Murphy's Tin Smith Murphy’s Tin Smith
Drawing by Barbara Hails ◦ © 1981
courtesy of Hails Art Gallery ◦ www.hailsartgallery.com
(unauthorized use or reproduction will be prosecuted)

By the time I arrived on the scene, Murphy’s was completely gone, but the stories were already going around of how another of the old buildings had “fought back”. According to witnesses, it was well after the actual demolition that Murphy’s made its final gesture of defiance. The building had been shoved to the ground, again by a front-end loader, and then crushed to splinters for loading onto dump trucks. However, as the first truck backed in to be loaded, it dropped one of its rear wheels into Mr. Murphy’s septic tank and became stuck. The incident didn’t interrupt work for long, but it was enough… another act of defiance, and as each mishap befell the minions of the State Highway Authority, Olney residents could hardly disguise their amusement.

The building that had, by 1978, been Olney Drugs for a quarter-century, was built during the Civil War. Since that time, it had been used for a number of purposes. First a residence for the Barnsley family, who arrived in the area in the early-1800s, the old building would serve many other purposes over the years. Before becoming Olney Drugs, the old home had been a dry goods store, a general store, and a boarding house. As Olney Drugs, the building included a small lunch counter and grill, which became something of a local hang-out for Olney’s old-timers. In anticipation of the condemnation of his old building, Dr. Berlin moved Olney Drugs, the business, across the street from his old location, into a space in Olney’s first shopping center. When he made that move, “Doc” included a small luncheonette, with some table seating, at the back of his new store. Despite Dr. Berlin’s best efforts at retaining the feel of his old business, Olney’s old-timers never made the new Olney Drugs, and its small luncheonette, their new hang-out.

Olney Drugs Olney Drugs
Drawing by Barbara Hails ◦ © 1981
courtesy of Hails Art Gallery ◦ www.hailsartgallery.com
(unauthorized use or reproduction will be prosecuted)

As I arrived in Olney that day, hustling over after school, I could see that the old drug store was still standing and there, across the street in “Murphy’s backyard”, were my mother and Dr. Berlin. They explained the earlier delay and, with some time left before the work began on Olney Drugs, they continued chatting, while I assessed the new look of the intersection, sans Mr. Murphy’s buildings.

When time came to begin the destruction of Olney Drugs, the demolition contractor took a different approach to the one he’d used on Finneyfrock’s and Murphy’s. I don’t know whether it was because of the third-storey on the building, or whether it was just that much more substantial of a building, but this destruction was attempted by having the front-end loader shove the whole building, from a window frame on the first floor.

My mom, “Doc” Berlin and I stood quietly watching, as the front-end loader was directed to a spot on the east side of the building, to the right of what had been Olney Drug’s front door. The loader operator placed the pan of the loader against the upper edge of a wide, metal-framed window that had been installed when Doc converted the building into his drug store, and at that point the big machine began pushing and lifting at the same time. The building resisted for a few moments, being still quite sturdy so low to the ground, but then, slowly, began to slump away from the front-end loader. As the building slowly tumbled away from the front-end loader, and the operator continued to shove, almost imperceptibly, the rear-end of the big piece of destruction equipment began to lift off the ground. That motion didn’t stop until the whole thing had toppled forward into the old building’s basement. Within moments, the loader operator climbed angrily out of his predicament, ranting about not knowing there was a basement. Dr. Berlin, possessed of a rare, dry wit, turned to my mother and I, and said, “If I had known he wanted to go to the basement, I would’ve shown him where the steps were.”

Olney Drugs demolitionOlney Drugs’ last moments. (Notice the rear-end of the
front-end loader rising, in the second and third frame.)

At last, the deed was done. In just a few long days, in May of 1978, progress ripped the core out of an old rural farm village, only to replace it, later, with asphalt. Francis Hawkins’ Olney Foods actually survived for most of the next year, while Mr. Hawkins mounted some successful legal challenges to the condemnation. In an unfortunate turn, he also found himself in a struggle with the Olney community itself, over what he could or could not do with the awkward, leftover portion of his land. Mr. Hawkins’ best opportunity was to sell the property to Exxon, for use as a “Gas and Go” gas station, but the flood of suburban newcomers, who had both ruined and tried to save old Olney, couldn’t possibly abide a Gas and Go station at the heart of their community. It didn’t really matter anyway. By that time, it was all about money, paper and principles. None of it was actually going to save old Grange Hall #7 or Mr. Hawkins’ forty year old business. Olney Foods succumbed to demolition in the spring of 1979.

In 1999, Francis Hawkins penned an essay for the Sandy Spring Museum. In it, he tells his own Olney story, in which, out of four pages of text and photos, only the final paragraph mentions the events and issues that led to old Olney’s demise. He concluded his memoir, “All this changed in 1978. That year, the bulldozers growled in to widen the intersection. They erased the heart of the village—Murphy’s tinshop, Doc Berlin’s drugstore, Soper’s, Armstrong’s, Finneyfrock’s old blacksmith shop, our DGS. Fortunately Olney House remains, with its beautiful springhouse marking the headwaters of James Creek. But I still hear the dozers, and when I look at pictures of the old buildings, it still hurts.”¹

Coming soon… Old Olney: Ickes

___________________________________________________________________

¹ Francis Hawkins, “Olney: What A Difference 80 Years Make!,” in Thomas Canby, ed. The Villages of Sandy Spring, (Sandy Spring,MD: The Sandy Spring Museum, 2009), 14.

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Old Olney: The Ring Road

In his poem, “To A Mouse”, Scottish poet Robert Burns suggested, “The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men/Gang aft agley” (translated: The best laid plans of mice and men/go often askew), and such was the case with the most concerted of attempts made to save the old buildings at the Olney crossroads.

The issue of rapidly increasing suburban automobile traffic through the Olney intersection, versus the locally historic buildings of the old crossroad village, which so constricted the flow of that traffic, had been looming for years. Montgomery County’s “Master Plan” never seemed to be finalized, and Transferrable Development Rights (TDRs) allowed Olney-area farmer/landholders to buy the dense development rights of farms in more rural areas of the county. This exchange of development rights bound the more distant farms to not sub-develop, and allowed far more residential sub-development in the Olney area than the existing road system could ever hope to handle.

As the farm fields around Olney steadily converted from agriculture to dense suburban housing, one can imagine that Olney became, from a population and transportation perspective, a giant cul-de-sac of humanity. The Olney area, with a major road to a large, urban population center due south, is firmly constrained, to the north, by historically protected Brookeville, on the west by incorporated Laytonsville, and on the east by historic Sandy Spring. For years, there had been talk of creating a bypass road around the old village center, but there was really nowhere to bypass to. In the case of Olney, Maryland, an old village crossroads was at the epicenter of the larger area, to which all the traffic was headed.

In the earlier half of the 1970s, one suggestion for somehow bypassing Olney’s old crossroad village was discussed and projected widely enough to have developed a name, the “ring road”, and I was just alert enough, a teen in a Olney home, to be aware of the term. I was also aware enough to understand that it was neighbors from our own sub-development, on the next street over from ours, that were going to be the undoing of the plan.

The first residential sub-development in Olney was one of the many farms, throughout the area, owned by the Barnsley family. In the mid-1950s, that property, about a half-mile south of the intersection and on the west side of Georgia Avenue became Williamsburg Village. King William and Queen Mary Drives ended at Lafayette Drive, and those three roads defined the outer boundaries of the sub-division, with the fourth side of the rectangle being Georgia Avenue. Olney Elementary School was built in the same time period, and created something of a buffer between the density of the new residential area and the old crossroad area.

By the early 1960s, grading had begun for the second residential sub-development in the Olney area, Cherrywood, which would be located “behind” Williamsburg Village, by extending Queen Mary, King William and Lafayette Drives, to which were linked a whole new network of residential side streets. Cherrywood was complete and mostly occupied by the end of the decade, and, while not necessarily palpable to the children of Williamsburg Village and Cherrywood, the acrimony between the homeowners of the two neighborhoods set up a pattern that continued into the early 21st century; wherein the homeowners of each subsequent, new neighborhood would feel inconvenienced by, have their investments threatened by and were, thus, resistant to the next new neighborhood.

Evidence of a planned ring-shaped road network around Olney first appears, implemented, in the late-1960s, when a road through the new Olney Mill and Perspective Woods neighborhoods, crossing Route 108, is given the name Queen Elizabeth Drive, and built on such an alignment that it could be connected to a pre-existing Queen Elizabeth Drive in Cherrywood. However, as is so often the case in a land where time further complicates already complicated problems and solutions, by the process known as “political compromise”, one interest’s “approved”, but controversial, solution is simply defeated my another interest’s mis-implementation of the plan.

From the moment it was laid down, aligned, but not connected with, the old, two-block long, dead-end Hines Road, Queen Elizabeth Drive, in Cherrywood, could have connected directly to Georgia Avenue. Later, the newer section of Queen Elizabeth Drive, laid down in Perspective Woods and Olney Mill, could have connected Cherrywood’s Queen Elizabeth Drive to Route 108, establishing a potential by-pass in Olney’s southwest quadrant. In spite of all that forethought and planning, the Cherrywood section of Queen Elizabeth Drive had already been developed -housing, drainage and infrastructure- in a way, to a scale and at a density, which immediately defeated its capacity to serve as a conduit for any significant amount of traffic.

Even now, 35-40 years later, as an adult looking back on a situation I was too young to comprehend at the time, and wishing, remorsefully, there’d been a way to save old Olney… I can still see why, when being asked to accept what the “ring road” would bring down their quiet, suburban side street, the homeowners on Cherrywood’s Queen Elizabeth Drive resisted vigorously and would, eventually, succeed in blocking the connections to Hines Road and the other, newer Queen Elizabeth Drive.

The ring road concept, as an Olney bypass, was abandoned, with hardly a whimper, in 1977. The arc of the ring passing through Cherrywood would never be completed, and, even if it were, wouldn’t have solved as much as might have been hoped. Nonetheless, the rest of the ring road network was eventually completed, with the latter sections, the newer sections of Prince Phillip Drive that complete an arc around the east side of the Olney intersection, being laid down and developed around in a manner much more conducive to its role as a traffic conduit, relieving some of the traffic load on the center of Olney. Today, this road named Prince Phillip Drive meets Georgia Avenue south of Olney across from the new Hines Road, which could have, just as easily, been Cherrywood’s Queen Elizabeth extended. From that intersection at Georgia Avenue, Prince Phillip Drive proceeds east and north to where it connects with Route 108, east of Olney, near Montgomery General Hospital. From the Route 108 crossing, Prince Phillip then continues north and west, to where it reconnects with Georgia Avenue, north of Olney. Crossing Georgia Avenue at that point, the road becomes Olney Mill’s Queen Elizabeth Drive, which, running west then south, crosses Route 108, west of Olney, into Perspective Woods, where it ends, rather than connecting, through what is now the Headwaters community, to Cherrywood.

The final abandonment of the ring road concept sealed the fate of the old buildings in Olney’s crossroad village. In order to accomodate the rapidly increasing traffic volume through the Olney intersection, both Georgia Avenue and Route 108 would be widened, at the intersection, to two lanes each way, plus a dividing island and turn lanes. In order for that to happen, Mr. Murphy’s home and tinsmith shop, Dr. Alvin Berlin’s Olney Drugs, formerly a Barnsley home and then Hoyle’s General Store and Boarding House (1864), Dudley Finneyfrock’s blacksmith shop (1885)  and Francis Hawkins’ Olney Foods, formerly Grange Hall #7 (1873) would all have to be destroyed. Olney residents knew this would be a terrible loss, but the Olney Inn, which had become the standard-bearer for Olney’s older history, still stood and, in some way, the fact that Olney Inn would still be there, sitting on Olney’s highest point, made losing the buildings around the main intersection less painful.

The old businesses around the intersection began to remove themselves from their old buildings in 1977. Dudley Finneyfrock built a new building for his blacksmithing operation, set appropriately back from Georgia Avenue, and “Doc” Berlin moved his Olney Drugs business to a new shopping center in the southwest quadrant of the intersection, behind Murphy’s Tinsmith Shop. An event I recall well, the auction of the old Olney Drugs fixtures and furnishings, was scheduled for mid-April of 1978 and affirmed the painfully inevitable change that was coming. Then, just a few weeks before that auction, to the dismay of Olney’s residents, but not entirely to the surprise of some, a suspicious fire consumed Olney Inn.

Continue to… Old Olney: The Bulldozers

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Old Olney: The Fires

I’ve always been a history buff, and, in particular, the type of history-minded person, for whom place is key to my sense of historical connected-ness. I’ll never forget the first time I, as a young boy, stood at the “Sniper’s Den”, part of Devil’s Den, on the battlefield in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. I could look at a picture, taken more than a century earlier, amidst the aftermath of a huge battle, and I could see, with my own eyes, the ground in front of me was the very same ground captured in the picture. Stepping forward into that actual space, I could swear, it was almost like the soles of my feet tingled. I was knowingly, consciously and deliberately sharing space with a historic event of long ago, and, despite the changes in everything else, it was almost as if, in sharing the place, I might actually feel the residual vibrations of the battle in the earth itself.

In the past year, I’ve found myself suddenly and passionately possessed by the history of the place where I was raised. The fascination began when I picked up and read a book, Olney: Echoes of the Past, as much as anything, because it was authored, in part, by a former co-worker of mine, Kristine Stevens. In reading the book, I truly began to appreciate just how dense and interesting was the history of my own “hometown”, and to learn the background of some of the old buildings I still recall, so fondly, from my youth. I’ve also come to realize that, almost every time I speak of the end of old Olney, I find myself fighting emotions and choking back tears. I’m not really certain where this intense sadness is rooted. Is it possible that, as a witness to much of the destruction of Olney’s historic buildings, I was actually traumatized? I don’t know. More likely… my sadness is probably a sense of guilt, realizing in my adulthood that, as a member of one of the early suburban families, living in one of the early Olney sub-developments, I am more fairly associated with the cause of old Olney’s demise than I am with the old village itself.

The end of old Olney and the destruction of the old crossroads buildings began slowly, and before I was old enough to appreciate the early losses. In 1973, the building that had once housed Soper’s General Store, among other businesses over the years, was destroyed by fire. The building, once known as “Purgatory”, was located, prominently, on the northeast corner of the Olney intersection. At the time, I was about ten or eleven years old, and I have no personal memories of the building. I recall the event as a local news story, and the community reacting sadly to the loss of a familiar, old building, but my earliest visual recollections of the northeast corner of the Olney intersection are of a vacant, post-fire, gravel lot, which was eventually filled by the particularly ugly, tasteless and un-historic looking Cuckoo’s Nest Restaurant.

Olney was originally called Mechanicsville. However, Olney was eventually named Olney, because, at the time it was decided there were too many Mechanicsvilles in Maryland, 1851, the post office for ours, not the first of them, was located in a home known as “Little Olney”. Since that time, the Olney post offices continued to be located in local homes, or sharing space with local businesses, until the first Olney post office deliberately built for the purpose was constructed in the 1970s. In my childhood, what I recall as “the old Olney post office” was a building the postal operation had once shared with a grain and seed store, immediately east of where Soper’s had stood.

Fire was the final act for several of the buildings around the old Olney intersection, and the next of them, after Soper’s burned, was deliberately set by the Sandy Spring Volunteer Fire Department. When it finally became time to build the new Olney post office, it was decided to place that building on the south side of Rte. 108, about 1/4 of a mile west of the intersection. All that stood in the way was one small farmhouse. The house was very old and was not aging gracefully. So, it was not considered a tragic loss to the community, when it served its final purpose as a controlled-burn training exercise for the local firefighters. Nonetheless, without much fanfare, another old witness to Olney’s long history was consumed by fire. If only in a small way this time, some more of Olney’s past was sacrificed to the reality of Olney’s rapidly changing character.

The next big fire in Olney strikes me now as particularly tragic, not only because it destroyed a very important piece of Olney’s history, but, for me personally, because it destroyed that important piece of local history, before I even knew it was there or was old enough to appreciate its significance.

Fair Hill was settled in 1765, as the home of Richard Brooke, son of a prominent, Sandy Spring-area, Quaker family. However, within the next decade-and-a-half, Richard Brooke set himself at odds with his pacifist Quaker upbringing, choosing to support the American independence movement by joining the Maryland Militia and going to war for the cause. It seems to me that one’s soul and the peace of one’s eternal rest would be an awfully high price to pay for supporting such a noble cause as the American Revolution, and yet, it was just this risk Richard Brooke took among his own people. For his choice to support the Revolution by becoming an actual combatant, Richard Brooke was eventually denied a final resting place in the old Quaker burial ground in Sandy Spring, where he would’ve been buried among his family, friends and neighbors. Instead, Richard Brooke was laid to rest somewhere on the property of his home, Fair Hill.

Fair Hill

Fair Hill

Fair Hill burned, almost completely, in 1977, and I never even knew it was where it was until I visited the ruins, a few days after the fire. At first, this fire didn’t seem tragic to me, but even I noticed the growing concern and sense of loss in the community. There was talk of “suspicious circumstances” in the Soper’s fire, and then the Fair Hill fire was determined to be arson. That crime was never solved, but, not long thereafter, the property on which Fair Hill stood for more than two centuries, serving as a home, and sometimes as a school, through many generations of local history, became the Olney Village Center shopping center, and Richard Brooke, “The Quaker Patriot” and Revolutionary officer, now rests, presumably, somewhere beneath the Olney Village Center parking lot.

The next fire felt, in many ways, like a last straw, but little did we know. I’ll never forget the day Olney Inn burned. It was an early spring day in 1978, and I, a sophomore at Colonel Zadok Magruder High School, went to “hang-out”, after school, at a friend’s home in the Mill Creek Towne subdivision of Derwood. As was the rule in that friend’s home, we kicked off our shoes at the front door, before going inside. As we reached the kitchen, I became aware of a voice, coming from a radio, and the news that voice was broadcasting hit me like a sledgehammer.

“Olney Inn is blazing…”, the voice on the radio said. “Fire companies from across the region are struggling to contain…”, and then, “probably a hopeless situation.” I was out the door of my friend’s house, like a shot, and didn’t stop running until I reached the nearest major road, Muncaster Mill. Only then did I realize I wasn’t wearing any shoes, and my socks were soaked by the damp spring ground. I could’ve gone back to get my shoes, but,  in the moment, that just didn’t seem important. I took off my wet socks, wrung them out, put them in my pocket and hitch-hiked back to Olney, barefooted. By the time I arrived, the Olney Inn fire had been “controlled”, but only after a majority of the famous old structure was destroyed.

Ever since 1928, when businesswoman and socialite Clara Mae Downey purchased the 50-year-old Granville Farquhar home, Mt. Olney, and converted it to the Olney Inn, that restaurant came to epitomize good food and “country charm” for much of Washington’s high society. Mt. Olney, the former Farquhar home, had been most appropriately named, situated, as it was, on the second highest point in Montgomery County. Later, as Olney Inn, Downey’s operation was so successful, it enabled her to also open Olney Inns in south Florida and New York City, where no less than the famed newspaper columnist and radio personality Walter Winchell referred to Clara Mae as “the High Priestess of southern fried chicken”.

Olney Inn

Olney Inn

 

Thanks to Mrs. Downey, the name Olney came to represent the goodness and values of a small country crossroad village to people far removed from the actual place. Even if Olney Inn became musty, old and a little less charming in its later years, another fire, destroying yet another major aspect of the community’s historic legacy, and attributed, again, to suspicious circumstances, finally alerted the community to all that was being lost. However, it was entirely too late for that. The worst was yet to come.
Continue to… Old Olney: The Ring Road

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