Tag Archives: Olney

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 Clara Mae Downey is a bit of a mystery, herself, and most historical references will lead a researcher back to her role as Olney Inn’s owner.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


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.



Filed under General, History, Olney

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


Filed under General, History, Olney

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

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