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


For me, much of this blogging initiative is about acknowledging that there are people in the world who claim to really enjoy my writing style, and others who want me to get busy writing because they believe I have something important to share. Frankly, all of that is very flattering, but I still find myself stymied at the keyboard.

It seems I suffer, according to some others, from a problem common among new, aspiring, American writers. In fact, I’m struggling with it even now. Apparently, the people who want me to write, particularly those who want me to write because they admire my writing style (such as it is), want me to do so, because they can hear my voice in my writing. Now… that’s all well and good, but the problem arises when, as I put my voice down in writing, I find myself suddenly and tightly bound by the fine grammar education I received at the hands of the Montgomery County public school system. Apparently, despite my best efforts to the contrary, my natural speech patterns are not very grammatically correct.

The answer, according to certain friends and family, is to “blurt”, at least as an exercise, without deliberate regard for correct grammar. Even now, I’m finding that easier said than done, and acknowledge that I’m correcting the hell out of myself, thinking and re-thinking each sentence until it’s correct, grammatically-speaking, but no longer accurately reflects what would have rolled out of my mouth, were I speaking all of this.

(I just actually tried sitting on my hands, literally, while re-reading the last paragraph. I think it helped.)

The other problem is that I’m a Bittner. (To those of you who know we Bittners… you can stop laughing now.) What I mean by emphasizing my Bittner-ness is that I am overly-competitive, inappropriately self-righteous, and not really comfortable with some inferior being editing my work. So, I tenaciously attempt to create perfection before I submit my work. As a result of that inclination, but just making things worse, the first two published pieces I ever wrote passed through the editors’ hands basically untouched. Let me tell you how unhappy I was when my third published piece, an article in what I consider to be an important magazine, was thoroughly roughed up by an over-zealous editor who changed the spirit of the piece significantly.

(Sat on my hands again!)

The bottom line? Who knows what will become of this writing-thing? For me, that is. I have several compelling book ideas in my head, and I have a significant number of people who claim to be eager for the one I’ve said will be first. However, doing nothing, or spending two hours crafting two sentences, three hours attempting to perfect them and then quitting in frustration, is getting me absolutely nowhere. So, I sit and type, and then sit on my hands for the re-read. I hope, despite the fact that writing about the fact that I’m writing is, somehow, the ultimate in self-indulgent behavior, I have created something readable, and maybe even slightly entertaining. Your commentary is welcome.

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Filed under General

Cathedral Day

On September 29, 1907, President Theodore Roosevelt visited Mount Saint Alban, the highest point overlooking downtown Washington D.C., to attend the setting of a foundation stone for a great church we know today as Washington National Cathedral. The attendance at that service was estimated as being nearly 10,000 people, and, while there would’ve been religious leaders from a number of denominations and faiths, present that day, and of particular note was The Right Reverend Henry Yates Satterlee, first Bishop of the new Protestant Episcopal Diocese of Washington D.C., who had, by that time, been tirelessly spearheading this effort for more than a decade and members of the Protestant Episcopal Cathedral Foundation, upon whose impetus this magnificent effort was beginning. I wonder today, whether any of those present that day could fully comprehend what they’d begun, as President Roosevelt declared, “God speed the work begun this noon.”

On September 29, 1990, President George H. W. Bush visited Mount Saint Alban, the highest point overlooking downtown Washington D.C., to attend the setting of the final stone on a great church we know today as Washington National Cathedral. Present that day were over 10,000 people including religious leaders of many faiths and creeds, government officials, prominent citizenry, curious onlookers, and even a few precious souls who’d been present at the placing of the foundation stone 83 years earlier.

Washington National Cathedral

Over an elapsed period of 83 years, humankind built, on a hill overlooking the capital city of a great and powerful nation, the last full-blooded sibling in the family of churches we’ve come to call “Gothic”. In doing so, the builders of Washington National Cathedral assembled over 150,000 tons of either milled or hand-carved Indiana limestone into the largest, completed masonry structure on the North American continent, one of the largest Cathedral-style churches in the world, and, what I believe will eventually be considered one of the Seven Architectural Wonders of the World.

That modern man built such an incredible edifice seems freakish to me, and I honestly believe the building of Washington National Cathedral during the 20th-century was far less probable than the building of Notre Dame in Paris during the 13th. Certainly, from an engineering perspective, it is amazing that humankind built such incredible structures 800 years ago, but, back then, from one major town to the next, the building of one of these magnificent structures wasn’t unusual at all.

On September 29, 2000, I visited Mount Saint Alban, the highest point overlooking downtown Washington D.C., to take a test that would verify my advanced knowledge of the art and architecture of Washington National Cathedral, and qualify me for the title Cathedral Docent. I passed. It is the proudest day of my life, thus far. Sharing the wonders of Washington National Cathedral with others is the greatest joy of my life. Please allow me to show you around sometime. In the meanwhile… Happy Cathedral Day!

Cathedral Day sunshine!


Filed under General, The Big Church

Blogging… here I come!

After an abortive effort at blogging on MySpace, when I initiated my MySpace page over two years ago, I am ready to try again. Who reads those MySpace blogs anyway? Are they available for non-MySpace readership on the rest of the Internet? Are they found by the most popular blog searching and indexing engines? See… I had so many questions. I probably could’ve asked them before now. Nonetheless, these hosted blog sites seem to be the way to go for someone like me; seeking a wider readership, but without commercial interest or backing.

So, here I go again. I could try to explain to you here, something about what my blog topics might be, but, for the meanwhile, watching my categories will give you a running account of the topics I’ve addressed.

Thanks for visiting my blog. I hope, with time, you, whoever you are, will find something included here of particular interest and feel free to comment.


Filed under General