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



Filed under General, History, Olney

15 responses to “Old Olney: The Fires

  1. Clarke Newton

    I don’t remember Fair Hill, I do however remember the Olney Inn. Our softball team was sponsored by them for the three years leading up to the fire. We were the currently sponsored team when it burned down. I have a picture on Facebook of the last team. Another good read Andy. I look forward to every article.

  2. Carla

    Andy, I remember the fires all too well. How sad (and ironic) it is that the Sandy Spring Bank building is the now only remaining example of Georgian architecture at the crossroads.

    • I couldn’t agree more, Carla. Of course, for everything that went before, it’s not surprising that it was the Sandy Spring Bank who tried so hard to build something with an appropriate look. The more I study, the more I appreciate my Quaker neighbors.

  3. Laura

    Good story Andy, very interesting.

  4. Jim Kimball

    The Kimball family of Ashton(Kimball’s Service Center & Kimball’s Farm Market that opened back in the “30’s) has been in this area for a long time and I remember all these landmarks and the people mentioned in your article. I was born in the old hospital that also was a landmark until the new one opened. So much has changed over the years, but I still am proud to call the Ashton / Olney area home.

    • Thanks for reading these stories, Jim. It’s a pleasure to know that longtime locals, with names like Kimball, are enjoying these posts. I want to take your comment as a moment to note that Ashton, centered on another old, rural crossroad village in the greater Sandy Spring-area, has a whole story of its own, and the Kimballs are very much a part of that story. What longtime local hasn’t filled their tank at Kimballs, at some time or another. I was surprised, recently, to learn that the building, so long associated with the Kimballs, was actually built as a car dealership, in the late 1920s, by the Derrick family. For more local history, I want to recommend the Sandy Spring Museum and their wonderful publications, to anyone who is interested by the local history of Olney, Ashton, Brookeville, Spencerville, Sunshine and other nearby communities that began as simple rural villages.

  5. I remember the day in March, 1973 that the Olney Inn burned down as well. My father owned that Inn and was devastated into a stroke after that tragic day. He was never the same and he died just a few years later in 1980 at the tender age of 55. The Inn burned down just an hour before settlement was to take place as my father had sold the Inn. He wanted to make sure that the Inn would be preserved and had it placed on the Historical Society’s preservation list. The people who wanted to buy the Inn wanted to tear it down and my father flatly refused. The day it burned down, 2 men in suits walked briskly into the Inn, my brother, Mike asked if he could help them and they didn’t respond. Instead, they walked into the Fireside room and looked around some more, saying nothing, they left as quickly as they had come into the Inn. My brother thought that was odd. An hour or so later, an employee at the Olney Barn Shop next to the Inn ran into the front door and exclaimed “The Inn is on fire! Come quickly! Call 911!” My brother grabbed the fire extinguisher and ran outside only to see the entire side of the Inn in flames. He quickly ran inside and called 911 and escorted the guests outside. People helped gather antiques and all that could be saved and threw it onto the front lawn – all before the fire overtook the entire Inn. My father stood on the front lawn in tears and grasping his chest. His insurance had lapsed an hour prior. The insurance, instead, had been transferred to the people who were scheduled to purchase the Inn. My father got nothing, but the people who were going to purchase the Inn walked away with over 700,000 dollars and decided not to buy the Inn – leaving my father, and our family in ruins. It changed us forever. Still, thank you for your story. I appreciate the good stories I hear.

    – Susan Vaughn

    • Susan, Thanks for sharing your knowledge of the Olney Inn fire. Was your father Harry Simms? I must correct one thing about your comment, and it may just be a typo, but the fire was in March of ’78, not ’73. The fire was obviously very hard on your family, and the excruciating timing of the closing and the insurance was what made the whole thing seem so fishy. There’s no question though, the loss of the Inn was a body-blow to the whole community.

      • Oops. Yes, Andy, the day it burned was in March, 1978. Sorry for the typo. My father was Harry Simms. The loss of the Inn destroyed him, leading to a stroke and ultimately a heart attack that killed him in 1980. The stress was too much I think. Even today, I think of the Inn and wish it were still a part of the Olney community and our lives. I loved that place. It was my second home.

  6. Carol Beaver

    I’m really enjoying your postings about Olney. I remember the day both of these beautiful buildings were destroyed by fire. Our family moved to Olney in 1973 so we got to enjoy a few years of the old Olney.
    It breaks my heart to hear Susan Vaughn’s story about the Inn. I had heard rumors to that effect.

  7. Steve

    I never actually lived in Olney, however I remember passing thru there many weekends, as Soper’s Store recieved a fresh coat of paint in or about 71 or 72, Olney Drugs had a clock over the door, next door to the North was an old house, I recall a light on the porch passing thru, as it had an antique store sign on it, Murphy’s had a uniqueness about, though the colors were a bit dark, seeing Mr Murphy on his porch, or encountering him at the “new” Olney Drugs, as according to archives held at St Peter’s in a book, that house was where the late Father Rosensteel celebrated Mass as well as Cardinal Gibbons, and Olney Foods had its wood floors.

  8. Andy, another famous fire, at least by our standards on Batchellors Forest Rd, was the burning of Stanmore, the home of the Hyde family until it’s untimely demise sometime in the late 60’s I believe. It was originally part of the Hallowell tract and built in 1858. For many years it was a boy’s school called “Brimstone Academy”. By the time we were all kids roaming the roads, it was abandoned, Mary Hyde having died and left the property to their son, Henry, who lived across the road. It sat in a dense thicket of overgrown forest tempting small children (us) to skulk around the exterior exploring and fantasizing about the “horrors” that had taken place within its walls. Rumors were as powerful as fact to kids of our age. We heard our parent talk….and we listened . It’s ultimate denouement came at the hands of Henry himself, or so rumor has it. A family kerfuffle of sorts over the estate eventually led Henry to torching his family home with all of his mothers antique furnishings still inside, which if I recall my mothers editorial on the subject, was the real tragedy! Today, another school occupies the land, Our Lady of Good Counsel High School!


    • You are absolutely right. The burning of Stanmore would definitely rate as another historical loss to fire in our community. Stanmore looms large in local histories, and the story of its sad demise exemplifies an era when much of the old, historic neighborhood had succumbed to age and fallen into disrepair. Stanmore, however, burned when I was very young, and before my family had moved to Olney. So, your recollections help to fill in more gaps in our area’s history. I would have to imagine the burning of Oakley, the main house on the Oakley plantation (now Olney Mill) was similarly suspicious. I believe that home burned in the mid-1960s, as well.

  9. Victoria Buffington

    I grew up in Olney Mill and now live in South Florida. I miss everything about the Olney/Sandy Spring area, especially the historical significance of the old buildings and houses. I remember the old intersection as it was before all the changes. The grey house on the corner where the first olney shopping center was built and the building on the opposite corner with the barber shop pole. I guess that’s how I found your page.
    Lately I find myself with an obsession for the place I still call home.
    I too remember that day the Olney inn burned down. I watched the smoke from inside the school bus on the way home from Farquhar Middle School.
    I really enjoyed reading your page….

  10. Joe Peet

    Your ability to picture Old Olney is INCREDIBLE. I have placed myself in many of those same scenes. The way you tell it and the photos you provide are exactly the way I remember it as a child. I didnt grow up in Olney but we did do some occasional business there. And I also fight back the emotions of the memories, because it was so serene and bucolic then, vastly unlike the bedroom community its become now where everyone is a transplant with zero understanding of Olney (or Four Corners, in my case)’s history. Well done!

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