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 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”.
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