Museum houses town's history

April 10, 2003|by ANDREA ROWLAND

HANCOCK - A tour through the Hancock Museum on High Street is a trip through Hancock's dynamic history - from its start as a frontier outpost to its roles in the transportation and fruit-growing industries and its place as a destination for outdoor enthusiasts.

The town this year celebrates the 150th anniversary of its incorporation in 1843, said Donald F. Corbett, president of the Hancock Historical Society.

Hancock historian Ralph Donnelly's research - much of which is housed in the museum's many filing cabinets - uncovered early maps that show European settlers in the settlement once located on Maryland's frontier edge as early as the 1730s.


Known as the "Indian Trader of the Potomac," fur trader Charles Polke - great-grand-uncle of U.S. President James Knox Polk - was one of the earliest settlers in the Hancock area. Polke traded his wares in an area that is now a part of the Chesapeake and Ohio National Historic Park south of West Main Street. His trading post became the site of Fort Tonoloway, which Maryland Gov. Horatio Sharp had built for protection from marauding Indians.

Sometime before 1789, landowner William Russell laid out a town on the road between Fort Frederick and Fort Cumberland, calling it William's Town. And a young man named Joseph Hancock Jr. - for whom the town was eventually renamed - operated a ferry boat in William's Town before he enlisted to fight in the Revolutionary War, according to historical documents.

Hancock and his regiment opposed British Gen. Charles Cornwallis at Boundbrook, N.J., took part in the battles of Paoli, Ash Swamp, Brandywine and Germantown, and survived the treacherous winter of 1777 at Valley Forge, according to information from the Hancock Historical Society.

Hancock was shot in the right shoulder during a battle near New Brunswick, N.J., but he recovered and continued to fight for his country's independence. Hancock and his regiment also fought Native Americans near Pittsburgh, according to historical documents.

A display in the Hancock Museum pays tribute to the bravery of many other soldiers from the town, including former Mayors Bruce Clipp, Roy Pittman and Dan Fleming. Corbett said he spent years putting together the collection, starting with a military photo of his father, a World War II veteran.

The large room is now filled with the photos of Hancock residents who served in World War I, World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War. The display also includes a Nazi flag captured by Donnelly and his fellow soldiers during World War II, combat helmets, uniforms, weapons, medals and patches.

The military memorabilia and most of the other artifacts in the museum were donated by town residents and others with ties to Hancock, Corbett said.

The museum houses the late Lem Kirk's collection of political buttons, Donnelly's antique tools and typewriters, the late Octavia Boxwell's hand-painted dishes, a Hancock-made rocking chair donated by Leo and Naomi Shives, and a telegraph key donated by the late Tom Donegan.

One room pays homage to transportation history in Hancock, which, at different times, served as a popular stopping point along the old National Pike and a hub for shipments on the C&O Canal and Western Maryland and B&O Railroad trains, Corbett said.

A Western Maryland Railroad crossing sign long stationed off Pennsylvania Avenue is now wired to blink and ring in the museum next to an 1859 coal stove that warmed rail passengers and a cast-iron sign that announced the Hancock stop in one mile.

A Hancock-made horse buggy sits in one corner of the room. The town's first traffic light rests nearby. A display case holds wooden tools once used by canal boat repairman Harry "Pop" Powers.

The museum also boasts an extensive vintage Hancock postcard collection, including cards that depict train wrecks and famous people - including Amos ' n Andy - hunting at the Woodmont Rod & Gun Club.

Some unusual exhibits include a crystal rock formation from the old Hancock High School, real stuffed pony rocking horse that belonged to Adele Donnelly, and the original tombstone of Hancock doctor James Breathed - a Confederate officer during The Civil War.

Union troops were stationed in Hancock during the war when Confederate Gen. Stonewall Jackson's troops shelled the town from across the Potomac River, Corbett said.

The museum is open the second and fourth Sundays of the month from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m.

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