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.
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.
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.