Old Olney

When I was born, my family home was in the Glenmont section of one of the largest suburban mailing districts in the U.S., Silver Spring, Maryland; and it was in that bustling community, with its sidewalks and strip-type shopping centers, that my earliest memories are located. However, the year I turned seven, my parents chose to move to what seemed a distant location, “out in the country” and ahead of, however temporarily, the rapidly expanding circle of suburbia radiating from the sprawling national capital, Washington D.C.


Welcome to Olney

When my parents moved our family to Olney, Maryland, in the last months of 1969, Olney was still, as much as anything, the quiet, rural, country crossroad village it had been for the better part of the previous two centuries. Over the intersection of state routes 97 (Georgia Avenue) and 108 (Olney-Laytonsville or Olney-Sandy Spring Rd.) hung a single traffic light, and, from there, the next nearest traffic light was over three miles away at Norbeck.

We moved into a new neighborhood called Cherrywood, which was the second residential subdivision in the area, and really just an addition to the first, Williamsburg Village. When we arrived, we felt like we’d become part of a lifestyle that, now that we were there, should evolve no further. That I’d been part of the first trickle, which would become a flood and eventually destroy the old village, was something that wouldn’t occur to me until much later in life.

In the early 70s, growing up in Olney, even though our home life was entirely suburban, was still a semi-rural experience. Our subdivision, small by comparison to those that would follow in the coming decades, was surrounded, mostly, by the fields, barns, sheds and poultry operations of local farms. Within a few hundred yards of my parent’s house was a creek and the boundary woods of a farm, Headwaters, which U.S. Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes had called home for much of the previous half-century, and beyond those woods were hundreds of acres of rolling cornfield and a lovely pond.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but, for a few years, our life included the best of two worlds, suburban and rural. Our streets were wide, well-paved and smooth, our homes were new, with all the modern conveniences middle-class existence had to offer, and our friends and neighbors lived close at hand, while less than a mile away were bucolic scenes of rural American life: young boys’ tree-forts in the woods, cattle grazing in generous pastures, farmers toiling in the fields and families ice skating on a pond frozen by winter’s chill.

At the center of “town”, crowded tightly around the Olney intersection, the last of Olney’s rural businesses operated from old, sometimes rambling buildings, reconfigured many times over the years to suit evolving purposes or new owners. The roads that crossed at the Olney intersection were two-laned, one in each direction, and the buildings around the intersection stood so close to the road corners that the rear bumper of a car, parked, nose-in, at the front of the small grocery on the southeast corner, was less than than about four or five feet from passing traffic. By the time I became aware of it, Olney Foods had been on that corner for more than forty years; ever since it had been renovated from the old, post-and-beam Grange Hall to be the new business of the only owner it would ever have, Mr. Francis Hawkins.

At the beginning of the 1970s, Olney’s intersection was still dominated by several old-timey businesses, their reason for being, serving a rural, farming community, rapidly fading from the industry and economy that would come with the suburban wave. There was, as I’ve already mentioned, Mr. Hawkins’ grocery store on the southeast corner. Across Georgia Avenue from that, on the southwest corner of the intersection, was the old home and shop of Mr. Murphy, the local tinsmith. At one point in the village’s history, the resident of that home was also responsible for collecting tolls from traffic, such as it was, on the north-to-south turnpike.
For me, as a kid, what was most memorable about Murphy’s Tinsmith Shop was a small wooden sidewalk between the “tollbooth” porch and Georgia Avenue. From my suburban-kid perspective, that sidewalk was a wonder, which, when walked upon, would transport me, however momentarily, into every television cowboy/western I’d ever seen.

Olney - mid-1970s

On the northwest corner of the Olney intersection was the business I remember most fondly from that era, Olney Drugs. For whatever that big, old building had been during its long existence, including, at one time, a boarding house, by the time I knew it, this building housed the local drug store, owned and operated by Dr. Alvin “Doc” Berlin. At the time we moved to Olney, Olney Drugs was still a hub of day-to-day life for the local community. Of course, there was the pharmaceutical operation, but there was also a lunch counter, an ice cream freezer, racks of comic books, and a whole rack of candy, on which no item cost more than a nickel. Lacking the expanse of glass found on more contemporary storefront-type businesses, both Olney Drugs and Olney Foods were a little dark and close inside, but the old, slightly irregular, wooden floors, the big, old cash registers, and a sense that everyone there knew almost everyone else, made these old rural businesses special, rare and tragically endangered.

The old Olney I knew in my youth was also home to Finneyfrock’s blacksmith shop, where the forge, across a history of many owners, had been operating for the better part of a century, and Olney Inn, the old Farquhar home, Mt. Olney, purchased and converted to a country restaurant that was well known and highly regarded in places far from the little crossroad village. The “old” Olney post office was in the northeast quadrant of the intersection area, and, by the time I knew it, was the sole occupant of a building it used to share with Armstrong’s, a grain and seed store. Across the street from the old post office was a home called Little Olney.

The first name given to this little crossroad village was Mechanicsville, but, with another post office, elsewhere in Maryland, already named Mechanicsville, the name of this village would have to change. At that time, the local postal operation was located in Little Olney, a home just east of the intersection on the Sandy Spring Road. At the core of Little Olney was a log cabin, built in 1800, by the owner of a local pottery factory, Whitson Canby. The Canby home was later purchased and expanded by the prominent, local Farquhar family, who gave it the name Little Olney, after a town, Olney, in England. Because the post office was located in Little Olney, when the resolution of Maryland’s multiple Mechanicsvilles took place, our post office and eventually the village, came to be known as Olney. Even today, with so much of the old village gone, Little Olney, over two centuries old and known as Olney House, still stands close to Olney’s heart.

 Little Olney

All these years later, with an interest matured by age, and some dedicated study time, I’ve also become aware of locations like Fair Hill, the home of Richard Brooke, the Revolutionary War officer who sacrificed his standing with his own, local, Quaker community, in order to serve the movement for American independence, which stood just a few hundred yards northeast of the intersection; or Rockland, a farm east of the crossroads, where, in the middle 19th century, the main house had been a Quaker girl’s school. It turns out that what went on in Olney before it was swallowed and thoroughly digested by suburbia might have been more interesting than what’s occurred there since, but here I just wanted to introduce you to the Olney I knew in my youth, before I tell the story of how, less than a decade later, most of it, suddenly and unceremoniously, ceased to exist.

Continue to… Old Olney: The Fires.



Filed under General, History, Olney

21 responses to “Old Olney

  1. Tom Roszkowski

    Great story Andy. It definately lit the sparks of my imagination, triggering memories of the ghosts of my youth in silver Spring.

  2. laura

    I enjoyed reading that Andy. I also grew up in an old town, Concord, Massachusetts.. and your story made me think of some of my old haunts, old friends, the country store with penny candy.. and all my other shenanigans around town!! Thanks. Laura

  3. Clarke Newton

    Nice read! A lot of the same memories for me. I can still hear the shopping cart wheels click clacking across the floor at Olney foods. What a great place to grow up!

  4. Great read, Andy! I need to go through it again, more slowly, and trigger my own memories. I grew up on Batchellors Forest Road in the 50’s and 60’s and, as such, knew an even older Olney, one with no traffic light at all, just a four way stop sign.

    Georgia was still 2 lanes all the way to the Glenmont fire station and still had an actual “hill” at Aspen Hill which could not be negotiated int he snow.

    Most of us had meat lockers at the DGS (District Grocery Store, Mr Hawkins’) and charge accounts where, when we rode our horses the 3 miles into town we could get milk and eggs for our folks and popcicles on hot summer days. Our mother’s would go collect the weeks supper meats from their freezers from Mr Hawkins and then trot across the street to Doc Berlins for anything else you could want, candy, prescriptions, sundries, magazines and a milk shake and burger at the counter.

    My mother finally sold the house on BFR to a young couple raising their two children their now. They have become great friends and I am watching them restore the home and gardens and create a new world for their family on a road that, surprisingly, remains little changed. I can still see the remnants of the tree house my father built for me in 1960 or so in the woods.

    The trails we used to ride are, in large part gone, Leisure World, Mega Schools and mega subdivisions have sprouted instead. Fields are now forests. Change happens.

    Thanks for chronicling a bit of my own personal history.

  5. And one more thing, my very first job was washing dishes at Olney Inn!

  6. Andy, I don’t know if you know the book “Old Homes and History of Montgomery County” by Roger Brooke Farqhuar. Long out of print I still have my cherished copy, signed by him for me at Lil Brooke’s home on Batchellors Forest in 1960. I often stroll through it and identify all the family homes of old friends that we frequented as kids.

    Interestingly and we feel unique to the “old” Olney, there are still a large group of us “kids” and parents that remain close friends and “family” to this day. We often gather and tell the same tired stories to our endless amusement. Arghhh that sounds so old!

    One of our neighborhood families did a wonderful thing back in the 60’s. They drove from one end of BFR to the other in a convertible, filming on Super 8 both sides of the road in each of the four seasons. We love to look at this and see ourselves and our homes back then and remarkably, much of it looks substantially the same!

    • Robby, I’m so glad you enjoyed the stories. Clearly, when the Bittners moved to Olney, the conversion to suburbia was in progress. I only wish I’d been old enough to realize and appreciate the value of some of the places that are now gone, when they were still around. You’re so right about BFR, it hasn’t changed nearly as much as everything else. In ‘83, I spent the summer working on Polinger’s farm. I think my sister’s first job was waitressing at Olney Inn. I also worked, for awhile, for a bicycle shop in the basement of the Olney Inn barn.

      I’m quite aware of Farquhar’s book, although I haven’t been able to give it the time I’d like. Most copies are reference copies in their respective libraries, and are not to be removed from the premises. The old homes around the area are one of the “what’s left” issues, perhaps for the next post. However, there’s so much to be addressed on the subject, it may become a separate post.

      I am currently compiling a Google Earth file of the old homes, most 150 years old or older, that still exist. It’s a sensitive subject though, as many of the old homes remain private homes, and some of the people are not happy with attention drawn to their house. This seems like it might be particularly so over in the actual Sandy Spring area, where many of the historic old houses may still be home to the same family that built them.

      The Super8 films of old BFR sound very interesting. Have they been converted to video or, better yet, digital video? It is also interesting that your old group of friends hangs together and feels unique to Olney, but I don’t think it’s entirely unusual. Not being from anywhere else, I don’t know if other places generate such feelings or not, but I find a lot of people who were raised in the Olney area remain close to the experience, and close to those with whom the experience was shared. With Olney’s population explosion, it only stands to reason that the older the groups are, the smaller and tighter knit they would be. Question… Is “Lil Brooke”, “Li’l Brooke”, i.e. Little Brooke, or “Lil Brooke”, i.e. Lillian or Lily Brooke? Are you talking about Brooke Farquhar? One of the things I find fascinating about the old Sandy Spring community is the merry-go-round of family names!

      Anyway, thank you for reading, and, if it interests you, you’ll find several more Olney posts coming.

      • I grew up in and about several of the old homes in MontCo, most particularly Woodburn on BFR next door to the Polingers. The Hatzes are my adoptive family, we just celebrated 50 years of togetherness this summer.

        When my mom passed away a few years ago, the Cronins, who have lived at Woodburn since 1970, hosted a recepetion after the interment and all we “kids” got to go “home” and spend the afternoon roaming the halls and rooms where we grew up. Truly an amazing opportunity.

        Ed Cronin told me a story that day that speaks to “Old Olney” at its best. He was at the hardware store not too many years ago and placed an order to be delivered. He gave the address and as we on BFR were wont to do gave the directions: “1/2 mile in, on the left, white house on the hill..etc” to which the clerk replied; “Oh you mean the Hatzes house!”….They had lived there 25 years and it still “belonged” to the oldsters from another era. Amazingly good laugh and touchingly telling about the community.

        BTW, my mother, Miriam Sherwin, founded St John’s Parish School in 1960. I remember the day when the old frame house that was next door to Finneyfrock’s was moved through downtown Olney on a truck in 1961 to the St John’s property to provide housing for the resident janitor and his family. Some where I might actually have a picture of that.

        Lillian Brooke was born on a Farqhaur, I believe, on a farm at the end of BFR where the cemetery is today, referred to as the Bready Farm when I was little. She married Roger Brooke, also a local. naturally with a name like Brooke. Most of the original families on BFR were related through marriages and grant deeds for children and cousins to build homesteads and most were kept in original families until the middle of the last century when they all seemed to change hands into a new (our) generation.

  7. Terry Hatzes Anderson

    Hi Andy,

    Loved your memories, I was born in the old MGH and foxhunted through out the area as a child. The Goshen Kennels were located on Bowie Mill Road and our territory ran from Olney to New Market! I am still a resident of Brookeville, Maryland enjoying the northern side of Olney (Use to live on BFR). Still foxhunting along the Agricultural Preserve behing Waradaca & Tusculum Farm. Thank you for taking the time to say what so many of us see and feel everyday.

    • Sylvia Hetzel (Cipparrone)

      Hello Andy,

      Kudos to you for creating this blog and for re-creating the Olney that was. Your descriptions bring back warm and cheerful thoughts of the places I remember with enormous affection–the DGS, Olney Drugs, Finneyfrocks, the Olney Inn, etc. Then there was the Silo Inn (going out for dinner there was a very big deal for a young rural girl), Hines Hatchery, and of course the people and places Robby and Terry recall. Like Robby and Terry, I grew up on Batchellors Forest Road. Terry’s younger sister was my inseparable best friend, Helene, and the Hatzes soon became my second family. My own family moved to Olney from Aspen Hill in 1963 when I was 4. One of my brothers and I still own the house (in fact my brother has been living there for several years since our parents died). It was built in the 1950s, so doesn’t fit into the historic home category you’re interested in. But my father made the Four Seasons movie Robby mentioned and I have it on DVD.
      I also remember Williamsburg Village and Cherrywood well. One of my best friends in the early 70s lived in Williamsburg, so I spent a lot of time there in those years. I was envious of the wealthier, cooler kids who lived in that very modern, upscale development. Whoever would have imagined the kinds of houses that were to come!
      One last thing, although I’ve been living in Florence, Italy for the last 28 years, I’m still an “active” member of Sandy Spring Friends Meeting (I come from a very long line of Quakers). No question lots of history there too, but probably the topic for another blog.
      Anyway, I was fascinated by your blog and look forward to reading more posts in the future. (And, many thanks to you, Robby, for sharing this with me!)

  8. Kathleen Geist

    great memories. I remember my mom taking me to Olney Drug to eat lunch, we’d sit at the counter and get t-bone steak sandwiches – delightful, juicy, and an item I’ve never seen anywhere else. All I remember of Olney Foods is buying “Ice Cubes”, which were gold-foil wrapped chocolate/hazelnut cubes.

    My first job was as a waitress at the Olney Deli/Restaurant. Mr. Dobbs was the proprietor, and I remember that the rice pudding was so good it sold out every day.

  9. Howard Campbell

    I found your post through Sylvia’s FB page, I think. My family were her neighbors. My brother still lives in the house I grew up in, a shocking number of years after our parents bought it. I worked at the Hatchery when I was in 9th and 10th grade at Sherwood, for the Umsteads, who owned it then.

    Old Olney, and Old Sandy Spring, are long gone, and missed. Current Sandy Spring is closer to what it was than Olney is. But… they plowed Sherwood Elementary school under years ago — how many of us went to K-12 schools? Sherwood looks nothing like it did. Like Robby, our family was there before the stop light arrived. The joke at the time was that half the town spent all day on the corner after it was installed, betting on the color it would change next.

    Time papers over some of the more sordid memories of the past. Like the alcoholic who lived in the tinsmith’s building, and drove around town on his lawn mower since he had no license. Or the crushing poverty all around town, especially among the AA population in Sandy Spring. Parts of Sandy Spring had TB rates as high as anywhere in the US. Or, much later, allegations of under the table sales to keep the drug store afloat, or shady real estate deals to developers that helped Olney become what it is today. Olney was a real town, full of real, flawed, people, in other words. But old Olney was real, more real to me, than it is today.

    • Howard, Thanks for commenting. I’m so happy to hear from you, and so many others who remember Olney in the pre-traffic light days. Since publishing these posts, I’ve had the opportunity to discuss and resolve what had been vague memories from my youth, with people who were old enough at the time for their memories to clarify mine. Clearly, life in Olney, pre-suburbia, was not idyllic. I had a childhood memory of one of the dirt poor families living on Hines Road, and have now had the chance to discuss them with another reader of this blog who remembers the same family and provided additional insight into the depth of their poverty. One situation, suggested in my own family history, makes a certain distant relation of mine one of Olney’s town drunks. I don’t know how many “town drunks” Olney had, or whether my distant cousin ever lived at Murphy’s house, but he was, as I understand it, enough of a town drunk to be a topic of discussion, as such, over coffee at the Olney Drugs lunch counter.

      Nonetheless, the dynamic that fascinates me most is the period of change from rural to suburban, when each new homeowner seemed to think that, from the moment they purchased, Olney should cease to change or grow further. In my own family, home and heart, there was vigorous resistance to further change, particularly to the destruction of the old village center, and we fought for the place like someone was threatening to build a casino on our ancestral burial grounds. All the while, we, ourselves, were just part of the very change we were resisting.

  10. Wow Howard.

    You nailed a few things I had forgotten! I remember the tinsmith’s, I had forgotten him running the lawnmower up and down Georgia Ave.

    I also remember the smell of each of the four corner buildings in Olney. The DGS with its uneven wooded floors, penny candy in wrappers and the butcher, hacking up the weeks meat in the back by the food lockers where our mothers kept the “family beef” since in-home deep freezers were not yet the things to have.

    Across Sandy Spring Rd from the DGS, Armstrong Feed and Grain/Post Office. We’d pick up stamps, gossip and some duck or lamb food and a bale of straw all in one stop. I love the molasses smell of the barrels of horse feed.

    And Doc Berlin’s. Greasy burgers on the griddle at the counter, the green enamel milkshake machine spitting out chocolate wonders, and the distinct aroma of fresh printed paper and ink from the rack of magazines by the front door. This was where I saw the very first People Magazine! We’d try to sneak a read without buying it but the counter cook was charged not only with flipping burgers but running off us kids from “the rack”. And the back room was full of TOYS! A child’s heaven on earth, that store, and later on, an amateur druggies paradise but that’s another tale to be told.

  11. Kipp Inglis

    Andy – I discovered your blog while looking at one of the SHS FB pages. I really love reading this string. I was something of a late-comer to the area. My family moved back to the DC area from Texas in 1964 and we ended up in Ashton/Cloverly. I am still a Montgomery County resident, but no longer happy about it. There was something so very special about the Olney/Sandy Spring/Ashton area that deeply affected many of us as we grew up. It is difficult to find that type of environment now.

    Thank you so much for posting your memories and letting all of us tag along and post some of ours.

    • Kipp, I’m very happy you enjoyed the stories. While the area has changed immensely in the past half-century, I’ve come to believe that much of what made the Olney-Ashton-Cloverly-Sandy Spring area such a special place to be raised, results from the historical presence of Sandy Spring’s Quaker community, around which all of our little crossroad villages evolved. I highly encourage anyone who, like myself, came to the area as part of the suburban wave, to find, look into and support the Sandy Spring Museum. http://www.sandyspringmuseum.org

      Thanks for reading and then sharing the blog. Andy

      • Liz Hancock Brooks

        Seems like I have stumbled on a mini-reunion for the BFR crowd! Sylvia, I well remember when you moved in next door. You were an absolutely darling tot. Your family holds a special place in my heart. (I’d LOVE to get a copy of that DVD.) It was wonderful having acres of woods and that creek to ramble as kids. As much as I hated seeing the golf course go in, I know now that it was probably what saved Bachellors Forest Road from the kind of development that attacked the rest of the area.

  12. Kipp Inglis

    Andy, Liz, Robby, Sylvia and all – I certainly do agree that the woods, fields and streams that were ours to romp freely made our lives so very different from what kids growing up in our old childhood areas are today. And YES, the community as it was affected by the Quaker standards of Sandy Spring Meeting permeated the area wether one was a member of the meeting or just a member of the community. There was a richness to life that seems to be missing today and a true sense of community that bound neighbors closely.

  13. I stumbled on this site while searching for Hines Hatchery. I lived out Rt. 108 near George’s Tavern from about 1972 until sometime in the late 1970’s. Two friends and I rented the little white house in a semicircle in the woods – which was owned by Tom Lansdale, who owned the mill in Sandy Spring. On Friday and Saturday nights, you could hear the cars drag racing nearby on Zion Road – the starting line was at the corner of Zion and Brookeville Roads.

    If you went to any huge Saturday night parties on 108 back in the mid 1970’s, you were at our house.

    I have many memories of those days in Olney, and your articles have brought back many more. One in particular:

    “Old man” Finneyfrock had an ancient car (’32 Chevy if I remember correctly) parked in front of the shop. I made the mistake of asking if it were for sale. I was told “my wife and I went on our honeymoon in that car, and NO, it’s not for sale”.


    • So, Dave…
      Is it possible that you know my older brother, Jeb Bittner? He lived in the little white house on the corner of 108 and Muncaster, at some point in the late 70s. Might we even be talking about the same house? I don’t remember much about the situation at that house, when he was living there, except that one of the housemates owned a very large Belgian Shepherd.

      Anyway, it’s nice to hear from you. Thanks for commenting.


      • Andy,
        I lived at 4901 Olney-Laytonsville Road (formerly Claysville Road). It’s on the right hand side, just before you get to Zion Road. From Google maps, it looks like something called Wickham Road now intersects across the street. Gordon Keys owned a bunch of land out that way – I guess he sold the farm across the street to developers. A story about him: One day Gordon pulled into my driveway, and said that my dog had chased one of his cows along a fenceline, and the cow broke his leg and had to be slaughtered. He wanted me to pay the difference between the weight of a full grown cow and the cow’s current (actually former) weight.

        I thought (a) this was a fishy story, and (b) his price was way too high. I did pay him, but far less than what he was asking.

        The house on the corner. Some of my friends rented it around 1973 – Rick Trundle(sp?), Danny Burns, John Pellick. My two roommates and I were always back and forth between houses – I guess it depended on who had the beer that day. They had killer New Years Eve parties, and I have some stories about them, but this is a “family” website…
        Later, Stanley & Cathy, and a couple of people whose names I can’t remember. Maybe Eddie Musgrove for a time? Perhaps Jeb might recognize some of those names. I moved to Gaithersburg around 1976 or 1977, but I think some permutation of the housemates stayed there for several more years.

        Claysville. About 1/2way from Muncaster to Laytonsville, there was an old barn on the left which you could still see some faded paint showing that it had been a farm store. Don’t know if it’s still there.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s