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In 1838, Burkittsville talked of new county

June 01, 1998|By BRENDAN KIRBY

BURKITTSVILLE, Md. - This town of 195 residents, many living in homes built more than 100 years ago, has changed little in the last century.

But if several prominent residents had had their way in 1838, it would have been the seat of government of a new county.

A detailed proposal, discovered by a historical newspaper indexer at the Western Maryland Room of Washington County Free Library, was contained in a Hagerstown Mail of that year.

The plan called for gathering signatures for a petition to create a new county out of part of southern Washington County and western Frederick County.

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John Frye, director of the Western Maryland Room, said he has not found any other mention of the proposal in old newspapers or state records. No mention of it appears in either the state or county history, he said.

"I've never heard of it in 40 years of fooling around with history," he said. "The astounding thing here is it just didn't appear anywhere else."

Marsha Fuller, who discovered the article while reviewing an index of historical newspapers that has been prepared but not yet published, said she has asked state officials to research the matter.

In order to succeed, organizers would have had to present a petition to the state legislature, which would have debated the issue.

"My guess is they didn't get enough petition signatures," Fuller said.

Whatever became of the movement, the February edition of the weekly newspaper gave the impression that the proposal was a serious one.

The proposal called for forming committees to collect signatures, lobby the General Assembly, plan the construction of public buildings, raise money and do other county-building tasks.

The plan laid out the boundaries, which would have run from just south of Middletown in Frederick County to the Potomac River, and west to just before Sharpsburg and Boonsboro in Washington County.

The new county would have had a population of about 10,000, with 1,000 voters, and would "promote the convenience, social order and happiness" of its residents.

Frye said he was struck by the design of the county. It included no major towns other than Burkittsville. Brunswick, which would have been in the new county, was then the tiny village of Berlin.

"It would have all been rural and they deliberately left the populated areas out," he said.

Framers of the proposal even had a name for the new county - Lee County, in honor of Thomas Sim Lee, a former Maryland governor who lived in southern Frederick County. His estate, Old Needwood, is a few miles south of Burkittsville.

Burkittsville Mayor Paul Gilligan is among those who had never heard of a plan to create a new county.

"It surprises me, too," he said.

Gilligan contemplated for a moment how his tiny town would have been different had the plan been approved.

"It wouldn't be 200 (residents)," he said.

The newspaper account offers a hint about why the organizers felt dissatisfied with their own counties. They said the seat of justice, as well as offices like the register of wills and the sheriff's, were too remote.

They also cited transportation concerns: "The roads and public highways have not been duly regarded."

Frye said that back then, a 20- or 25-mile journey to Frederick or Hagerstown would have been taken much longer than it does today. He also speculated that politics played a role.

"Politically, they wanted a separate county," he said of residents of the two areas. "They've always felt disconnected from Hagerstown. They do today."

Gilligan pondered whether things are better today than they would have been had the proposal moved forward. On the one hand, he said it would be nice to be mayor of a large town. On the other hand, as one of the state's smallest towns, Burkittsville gets a lot of attention, he said.

"When you come to Burkittsville, it's a throwback it's unique," he said. "We come out ahead either way."

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