Tag Archives: Olney Foods

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 Clara Mae Downey is a bit of a mystery, herself, and most historical references will lead a researcher back to her role as Olney Inn’s owner.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

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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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