Tag Archives: Olney Inn

Old Olney: The Ring Road

In his poem, “To A Mouse”, Scottish poet Robert Burns suggested, “The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men/Gang aft agley” (translated: The best laid plans of mice and men/go often askew), and such was the case with the most concerted of attempts made to save the old buildings at the Olney crossroads.

The issue of rapidly increasing suburban automobile traffic through the Olney intersection, versus the locally historic buildings of the old crossroad village, which so constricted the flow of that traffic, had been looming for years. Montgomery County’s “Master Plan” never seemed to be finalized, and Transferrable Development Rights (TDRs) allowed Olney-area farmer/landholders to buy the dense development rights of farms in more rural areas of the county. This exchange of development rights bound the more distant farms to not sub-develop, and allowed far more residential sub-development in the Olney area than the existing road system could ever hope to handle.

As the farm fields around Olney steadily converted from agriculture to dense suburban housing, one can imagine that Olney became, from a population and transportation perspective, a giant cul-de-sac of humanity. The Olney area, with a major road to a large, urban population center due south, is firmly constrained, to the north, by historically protected Brookeville, on the west by incorporated Laytonsville, and on the east by historic Sandy Spring. For years, there had been talk of creating a bypass road around the old village center, but there was really nowhere to bypass to. In the case of Olney, Maryland, an old village crossroads was at the epicenter of the larger area, to which all the traffic was headed.

In the earlier half of the 1970s, one suggestion for somehow bypassing Olney’s old crossroad village was discussed and projected widely enough to have developed a name, the “ring road”, and I was just alert enough, a teen in a Olney home, to be aware of the term. I was also aware enough to understand that it was neighbors from our own sub-development, on the next street over from ours, that were going to be the undoing of the plan.

The first residential sub-development in Olney was one of the many farms, throughout the area, owned by the Barnsley family. In the mid-1950s, that property, about a half-mile south of the intersection and on the west side of Georgia Avenue became Williamsburg Village. King William and Queen Mary Drives ended at Lafayette Drive, and those three roads defined the outer boundaries of the sub-division, with the fourth side of the rectangle being Georgia Avenue. Olney Elementary School was built in the same time period, and created something of a buffer between the density of the new residential area and the old crossroad area.

By the early 1960s, grading had begun for the second residential sub-development in the Olney area, Cherrywood, which would be located “behind” Williamsburg Village, by extending Queen Mary, King William and Lafayette Drives, to which were linked a whole new network of residential side streets. Cherrywood was complete and mostly occupied by the end of the decade, and, while not necessarily palpable to the children of Williamsburg Village and Cherrywood, the acrimony between the homeowners of the two neighborhoods set up a pattern that continued into the early 21st century; wherein the homeowners of each subsequent, new neighborhood would feel inconvenienced by, have their investments threatened by and were, thus, resistant to the next new neighborhood.

Evidence of a planned ring-shaped road network around Olney first appears, implemented, in the late-1960s, when a road through the new Olney Mill and Perspective Woods neighborhoods, crossing Route 108, is given the name Queen Elizabeth Drive, and built on such an alignment that it could be connected to a pre-existing Queen Elizabeth Drive in Cherrywood. However, as is so often the case in a land where time further complicates already complicated problems and solutions, by the process known as “political compromise”, one interest’s “approved”, but controversial, solution is simply defeated my another interest’s mis-implementation of the plan.

From the moment it was laid down, aligned, but not connected with, the old, two-block long, dead-end Hines Road, Queen Elizabeth Drive, in Cherrywood, could have connected directly to Georgia Avenue. Later, the newer section of Queen Elizabeth Drive, laid down in Perspective Woods and Olney Mill, could have connected Cherrywood’s Queen Elizabeth Drive to Route 108, establishing a potential by-pass in Olney’s southwest quadrant. In spite of all that forethought and planning, the Cherrywood section of Queen Elizabeth Drive had already been developed -housing, drainage and infrastructure- in a way, to a scale and at a density, which immediately defeated its capacity to serve as a conduit for any significant amount of traffic.

Even now, 35-40 years later, as an adult looking back on a situation I was too young to comprehend at the time, and wishing, remorsefully, there’d been a way to save old Olney… I can still see why, when being asked to accept what the “ring road” would bring down their quiet, suburban side street, the homeowners on Cherrywood’s Queen Elizabeth Drive resisted vigorously and would, eventually, succeed in blocking the connections to Hines Road and the other, newer Queen Elizabeth Drive.

The ring road concept, as an Olney bypass, was abandoned, with hardly a whimper, in 1977. The arc of the ring passing through Cherrywood would never be completed, and, even if it were, wouldn’t have solved as much as might have been hoped. Nonetheless, the rest of the ring road network was eventually completed, with the latter sections, the newer sections of Prince Phillip Drive that complete an arc around the east side of the Olney intersection, being laid down and developed around in a manner much more conducive to its role as a traffic conduit, relieving some of the traffic load on the center of Olney. Today, this road named Prince Phillip Drive meets Georgia Avenue south of Olney across from the new Hines Road, which could have, just as easily, been Cherrywood’s Queen Elizabeth extended. From that intersection at Georgia Avenue, Prince Phillip Drive proceeds east and north to where it connects with Route 108, east of Olney, near Montgomery General Hospital. From the Route 108 crossing, Prince Phillip then continues north and west, to where it reconnects with Georgia Avenue, north of Olney. Crossing Georgia Avenue at that point, the road becomes Olney Mill’s Queen Elizabeth Drive, which, running west then south, crosses Route 108, west of Olney, into Perspective Woods, where it ends, rather than connecting, through what is now the Headwaters community, to Cherrywood.

The final abandonment of the ring road concept sealed the fate of the old buildings in Olney’s crossroad village. In order to accomodate the rapidly increasing traffic volume through the Olney intersection, both Georgia Avenue and Route 108 would be widened, at the intersection, to two lanes each way, plus a dividing island and turn lanes. In order for that to happen, Mr. Murphy’s home and tinsmith shop, Dr. Alvin Berlin’s Olney Drugs, formerly a Barnsley home and then Hoyle’s General Store and Boarding House (1864), Dudley Finneyfrock’s blacksmith shop (1885)  and Francis Hawkins’ Olney Foods, formerly Grange Hall #7 (1873) would all have to be destroyed. Olney residents knew this would be a terrible loss, but the Olney Inn, which had become the standard-bearer for Olney’s older history, still stood and, in some way, the fact that Olney Inn would still be there, sitting on Olney’s highest point, made losing the buildings around the main intersection less painful.

The old businesses around the intersection began to remove themselves from their old buildings in 1977. Dudley Finneyfrock built a new building for his blacksmithing operation, set appropriately back from Georgia Avenue, and “Doc” Berlin moved his Olney Drugs business to a new shopping center in the southwest quadrant of the intersection, behind Murphy’s Tinsmith Shop. An event I recall well, the auction of the old Olney Drugs fixtures and furnishings, was scheduled for mid-April of 1978 and affirmed the painfully inevitable change that was coming. Then, just a few weeks before that auction, to the dismay of Olney’s residents, but not entirely to the surprise of some, a suspicious fire consumed Olney Inn.

Continue to… Old Olney: The Bulldozers

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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

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